Atlas O has entered onto three-rail scene in a big way. The company
inaugurated its O gauge product line by releaseing an exceptionally prototypical track
system, a structure kit, a 33,000-gallon tank car, and detailed scale-length center-flow
For its first locomotive, the company set its sights on an engine
that would look at home on traditional or modern-era layouts, a model that would permit
the firm to make variations with minimal changes in the tooling, and an engine with
scale-like detailing that also offers top notch prototypical performance. That locomotive
is the General Motors SW8/9.
Selection of the singl-stacked SW8 or the double-stacked SW9 is a
smart one. This locomotive is a meat and potatoes switcher that would look right at home
on a layout that models railroading anytime from the 1940s to 1990s.
The engine has scale dimensions and measures 11 inches long (44
scale feet, matching the prototype). Checking diagrams and prototype photos, the engine
captures the major (and plenty of minor) detail items on the 1,200-hp prototype. Atlas
Os commitment to scale detail is apparent within a few seconds of opening the box.
The locomotive has a die-cast metal chassis, truck side frames, and
engine hood. A die-cast metal hood on a diesel, you ask? Why not! The tooling is superb
andy you can feel the quality in your hands. With smooth tooling and the construction,
this engine feels as solid as a rock! Shake the locomotive and you wont hear any
rattling or loose parts. What a concept.
The plastic cab is very nice. It features two crew figures, but no
cab light. Instead, it goes one step better it has illuminated gauges. Yes, little
circles of light shine from the control panel. Now that is something you have to see to
The front and rear platforms have a terrific see-through grating,
and some versions have a drop step for multiple-unit operations. The engine has delicate
add-on handrails that youll need to apply, but this is easy and only takes a few
minutes. The engine also features illuminated number boards, which enhance the
The switcher has two directional controls on the belly of the fuel
tank (which houses part of the motor). One switch, when on, sequences the engine
forwar-neutral-reverse; when in the off position, it sequences in
The other switch is a reverse unit lockout. Be advised that these
recessed switches are very tiny and you may need the tip of a paper clip or a similar
instrument to change their position.
The horizontal can motor is located in the center of the engine and
drive shafts connect it to each truck, which gives the locomotive eight-wheel drive. The
weight of the die-cast shell, combined with traction tires, make this one sure-footed
Drawbar pull was an impressive 2.1 lbs., which is more than 50
modern, free-rolling pieces of rolling stock, so you can throw this engine at your largest
marshaling yard trouble spot. The switcher also has terrific coastability, so you can
gently ease to a stop.
Engine performance was commendable. You can actually switch with
this switcher. Work in the yard is more like the real thing rather than a session of
bumper cars! The engine went through switches as slick as as a whistle, and numerous
switching moves at low speeds made for pretty realistic railroading.
In consistent, steady running, we averaged 14.5 scale mph for a
low-end speed. You can go through the back-and-forth motions of switching at lower speed,
however, and performance was slowest when using a Lionel TrainMaster in the conventional
Our high speed testing averaged 82.3 scale mph, which would be fast
enough for you to slap a passenger consist behing and keep your layouts commuter
We tested the locomotive on O-27, O-31, and O-42 track. The engine
operated on all three diameters, though it looked best on O-42, and coupler swing was
limited when running on tighter curves. Atlas O suggests running on O-36 or wider radius
On curves O-42 or narrower the switchers couplers occasionally
popped open. We traced the problem to the coupler button. On tighter curves the edge of
the coupler button rides just below the inside edge of the locomotives pilot steps.
If a slight rise or dip in the track is encountered, the coupler
moves upward and the button catches on the step, opening the coupler just as if it were
above an energized uncoupling section of track. The only remedies are to either cut
clearance notches in either the button or the step or re-lay the offending track.
The trucks mount a total of four pickup rollers, so there was always
an adequate power supply to the engine, and lights were flicker-free.
CTT had heard some complaint voiced by model owners and hobby shop
staffers prior to testing this model, and we thought it proper to address them. First was
a concern that the unit would not properly reverse.
We tested an SW8 and two SW9s and had mixed results reversing with
the Lionel ZW and TrainMaster, the MTH Z-4000, and the MRC DualPower O27. Though
internally the same engine, the SW9s reacted better that the SW8 for some reason. The SW8
liked the MRC and Lionel transformers better that the MTH reverse button, while the SW9s
reversed nearly 100 percent of the time with the Z-4000.
We asked Atlas Os Jim Weaver about this. He suggests that
owners just briefly touch their direction control instead of holding down the lever (or
pushing the direction button). He said that some operators hold the control too long and
the reverse unit cycles back to the original direction.
Another criticism involved that low volume of the sound system.
Frankly, the CTT staff does not view this as a major liability since louder is not always
better, and we also believe that there is a finite amount of diesel engine roar that most
folks care to hear.
At mid-level, we could hear the engine on the other side of our
workshop. When switching the volume was adequate, but for constant running, even when set
at maximum volume, the sound system was easily overtaken by the noise of a train rattling
along tubular track, even on a "sound proofed" layout using carpet padding as
A more serious issue is the quality of the sound reproduction. It
could have been better. The bell is terrific and the horn is good (but there was a
noticeable cutoff at the end of the tone), however the diesel engine sounds were mediocre.
The sounds were so static-filled that it was hard to determine if the locomotive sounds
were an actual diesel recording or an electronic simulation of a diesel. This was the case
with all three of the models was examine.
In defense, Jim Weaver conceded that the company knew this might be
a source of trouble because of the inherent limitations of the space for the sound gear.
Atlas O was attempting to cram as much value into as small a package as possible, but
there just isnt a great deal of room inside the hood, as the photograph illustrates.