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Review by David Otte

FM Erie Built A or B unit
MSRP: 3-rail $429.95; 2-4ail $399.95; 2-rail with TMCC $429.95;
3-rail and 2-rail Unpowered $199.95
Limited Edition 3-rail $649.90; 2-rail $619.95; 2-rail with TMCC $649.90

Atlas O, LLC
378 Florence Avenue
Hillside, NJ 07205

The covered wagons, as the first freight-passenger diesel road locomotives were affectionately referred to, helped to usher in the streamline styling prevalent in the years following the end of World War Two. Industrial designers such as Raymond Lowey used the new locomotive and passenger train designs like a canvas on which they promoted their vision of the future for America encompassing power, luxury, and sleek speed. While Electro Motive’s cab units, the F and E units, are perhaps the most famous of the covered wagons, competing locomotive manufacturers also introduced road units with enclosed carbodies. O scale modelers are already familiar with some of these, such as American Locomotive Company’s FA and PA units and the Baldwin’s Sharks. Various models of these types have been produced over the years along with the endless supply of F3 and F7s. However, Fairbanks Morse’ representation in the early cab unit market has been absent from this 1/48 scale line up until just recently. Atlas O surprised O gaugers in 2004 with models of FM’s covered wagon known simply as Erie-builts.

The Story of the Erie-Builts
Although they got their start fabricating weight scales back in the 1830, Fairbanks-Morse was also one of the Pre-World War I US diesel pioneers. The first commercial success for the company came from a request by the US Navy for a diesel engine that could power submarines. In turn, FM introduced their Opposed-Piston (OP) design. This design entailed two pistons per cylinder moving inward and outward from a common combustion chamber in a two-stroke cycle. The Navy was delighted with the novel design of the OP engine and it became the most widely applied submarine power plant in the US fleet. However, the idea of using the OP in a railroad application was always at the back of the minds of the FM company planners.

War time needs during the 1904s did not hamper FM’s desire to develop a locomotive utilizing the OP as its power plant and with the blessings of the War Production Board, they delivered their first yard switcher No. L-1001 to the Milwaukee Road in August 1944. Designated as H10-44, the model went into regular production soon after, and Fairbanks-Morse was in the locomotive building business. With a dozen or so switchers under their belt, the FM management knew that to stay competitive in the diesel marketplace they would have to produce a cab unit for road service. EMD already had a good head start in this category with their release of the FT and early E unit before the war. Persistent in their effort to make a name in the railroad industry, FM introduced their dual service cab unit in 1945. Carrying specification numbers Alt.100.3 for passenger units and Alt.200.3 for freight units, the locomotives were better known to railfans as Erie-builts. The nickname refers to the fact that FM did not have capacity in their Beloit, Wisconsin plant and contracted with General Electric, already subcontractor for electrical components, to assemble the cab units at their Erie, Pennsylvania factory.

The Erie-builts were powered by a 10-cylinder in-line 2-cycle OP prime mover that produced 2,000 horsepower. Riding on A-1-A three axle trucks, the FM units could produce a starting tractive effort of 61,430 pounds and a continuous effort of 41,000 pounds at 15.5 miles per hour when geared for freight service. At 64 feet 10 inches in length over the couplers, the Erie-builts were shorter than Alco’s PA and EMD’s E7, but it was about 40,000 pounds heaver than there models due to the engine design. Cabless booster units or B units were also produced following the practice of using multi-unit locomotive sets. Freight models received gear ratios allowing for a maximum speed of 69 miles per hour and passenger units could be ordered with steam generators and 100 mile per hour gearing.

Between December 1945 and the Spring of 1949, FM built a total of 82 A units and 29 B units. Original owners included: Union Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Kansas City Southern, Santa Fe, Chicago & North Western, New York Central, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Sadly, as far as I know, no examples of the Erie-builts survived the scrappers torch.

Erie-Builts in O Scale
Therefore, we will have to settle on models of this locomotive to keep its history alive. In particular, Atlas O has done a great justice to this FM covered wagon with their new scale rendering. Our review sample arrived decorated for the PRR. It is interesting to note that the Pennsy, hungry for diesels from anyone in the late 1940s, purchased the largest quantity of Erie-builts – 48 units total including 12 boosters and 12 passenger variants. The units were intended to be operated as A-B-A 6,000 horsepower sets, but were mixed and matched with other locomotive types by the end of their careers, which for some lasted to the early 1960s.

Wearing a smooth coat of Dark Locomotive Green Enamel paint, a black underbody, and buff colored stripes, the O gauge model looks quite authentic for a Pennsy Erie-built. Numbered 9461, it represents one of 16 A units delivered between November 1947 and April 1948 geared for freight service. Classed by the PRR as FF-3 and after 1951 as FF-20 units, 9461 began its career on east-west freight trains out of Enola. Later it would be reassigned to service out of Columbus and finally secondary freights on most of the non-electrified PRR systems. The Atlas O model gets an A+ for the accuracy and quality of this paint job. The laser-sharp buff colored graphics and Pennsy Keystone emblems are exceptionally well executed. I really liked the addition of the readable FM builder’s plate and trust plates located on the sides of the fuel tank.

Complementing the great decoration is the tooling of the carbody. While there are usually not many details that standout on a cab unit body, Atlas O has made the best of what the Erie-builts had to offer. First of all, the plastic body shell represents a Phase IV and V unit. Like most other diesel locomotives, the Erie-builts went through several changes in appearance during their years of manufacturing. This O gauge model displays the FM unit in its final appearance, which toned down some of the styling Raymond Loewy had put into his original body design for Fairbanks Morse. The other factor, in determining the Phase of these covered wagons, is the trucks. On a few of the units including the Phase IV, FM used an odd looking truck with leaf springs and equalizers that rode above the journals. More commonly, a truck similar in appearance to those used by Alco and Baldwin was utilized as is present on this model and is the determining factor between the Phase IV and Phase V production specification. Morse Erie-builts arrived in the Phase V appearance – a logical choice for Atlas O.

Atlas O seemed to capture all the proper dimensions of the later Phase Erie-built cab units not to mention the shape. The model measures 17 inches (68 scale feet) long over the couplers, which when one takes into account the oversized operating knuckle couplers, the three extra scale feet disappear. Other than this common discrepancy, the measurements of the locomotive were all within an acceptable tolerance level of a few scale inches. Regarding the profile, I especially thought they did a good job on the nose and how it rounded in from the cab and then suddenly came to a point, a very unique Erie-built shape along with its tall split windshield. The relief work is good, too, on the nine-panel grille on the carbody sides and radiator shutters, which breaks up the otherwise flowing lines of the Erie-builts. Molded-on rivet detail is also good, as are the rooftop lift rings whose appearance first fooled me into thinking they were add-on parts. One final detail on the shell that I will make mention of are the rooftop vent openings on the right side of the model. These indicate the presence of dynamic brakes, which is correct for this Pennsy unit. Both single and double headlight orientations are being produced as well, dependent on the prototype.

Atlas O has separately applied the balance of the details to this model. There include the single note air horn, metal handrails at all access door locations, windshield wiper, full cab window glazing, painted crew figures in the cab, rear diaphragm – one of the most realistic I have seen to date on an O scale model – and actual opening personal doors with sprung hinges. On the rooftop, Atlas O has molded the see-through radiator cooling fan screens from photo-etched metal with silver colored double bladed fans visible beneath. Metal stirrup steps and plastic airline hoses running alongside the couplers are also present. One detail that is exclusive to the PRR locomotives is the addition of the Trainphone antenna running along the rooftop. It is formed from metal wire and is supported by sturdy metal brackets that are tough enough to withstand normal handling of the model.

The carbody sits on top of a heavy die-cast metal frame, which is also the medium that is used in the construction of the fuel tank, pilot, gearboxes, and truck sideframes. The A-1-A style trucks look fantastic with real coil springs, added brake cylinders, and speed recorder cable on the front truck. The see-through side fames even display brake shoes. In addition, the truck-mounted pilot on the 3-rail models can be removed and a scale-sized pilot with streamlined coupler housing, included with the model, can be mounted to the frame. Atlas O states in the owner’s manual that this detail change will not affect the minimum-operating radius of the Erie-built. To further enhance the model to a prototypical state, the manufacturer has also provided a pair of frame mounted front stirrup steps that can be installed in place of the truck mounted steps (which will affect the minimum operating radius) and MU hoses that can be applied by the modeler to the rear of the locomotive.

From a mechanical viewpoint, the Atlas O Erie-built is equipped with twin can motors and flywheels that are vertically mounted to each truck. All metal gearing is used in the drive train of each truck, powering all three axles. Both the inside and middle set of wheels have traction tires with the center wheel sets made without flanges to aid the locomotive in maintaining its O54 minimum radius specification. As has become the standard for most of the O gauge industry, Atlas O has equipped their locomotive with RailSounds and Train Master Command Control. These two features are available on both the 3-rail and 2-rail versions with conventional transformer operation still possible for those O gaugers not using TMCC. For modeler operating under NMRA Digital Command Control standards, a 2-rail DC powered version is offered that comes DCC ready. Directional lighting and a fan driven exhaust smoke unit round off the standard operational features of the Erie-built.

However, never wanting to become complacent with their product line, Atlas O has improved upon this “standard” package of what 1950s era tinplaters would call luxury items, and is now offering a cruise control system. Introduced for the first time in the Erie-built, the Engineer on Board (EOB) speed control system uses a technology that the maufacturer calls Torquemaster. According to the owner’s manual, “Torquemaster allows the EOR speed control circuitry to vary each speed step by plus or minus fiver percent from its nominal value, whenever such variation is needed to give the smoothest possible performance.” There are three different EOB modes: a 32- speed step mode, 128-speed step mode, and speed step mode off. What is really nice about this new system is that it is available for both conventional and command control. When using a standard AC transformer, the speed control can be turned on or off by way of a switch beneath the locomotive. Under TMCC power, EOB can be controlled easily from the CAB-1 remote. Several pages in the owner’s manual are dedicated to the programming and fine-tuning of the EOB in a TMCC environment.

So how does this new technology make a difference in the world of the average O gauger? It changes the whole dimension of practical model railroad operation. Have a couple of bad electrical conduction spots on your track, is your track dirty, how about grades? None of this matters anymore. With EOB, the locomotive is able to maintain a consistent speed, automatically increasing or decreasing voltage to the motors as it compensates for a dirty spot on the rail, or a track elevation change. This system is very similar to Lionel’s Odyssey speed control system, which we have reported on in past reviews. If you like Odyssey, then you will be happy with this system too. When operation dictates a quicker response to changes in speed, as with switching duties, the operator can easily turn off the EOB in either control mode.

During our testing session, I thought EOB worked great right out of the box. The factory setting for the speed control is 32-step mode and this worked out just fine on our TMCC based O54 test layout. At the lowest speed step, our sample maintained a 3-scale mile per hour speed all around the layout including on curves. I made a point not to clean the track for this test to see just how well the EOB system worked, and I never experienced the locomotive to hesitate even once. I added a 2 percent grade to the test track also and the Erie-built continued to crawl up and down the track as if it were perfectly level. It was really impressive to see this lone A unit pull a 38-car mixed freight around the layout at a slow speed without ever having to touch the CAB-1 for compensation.

Of course, the other features onboard the Erie-built worked well too. I have no first hand knowledge of how a Fairbanks Morse OP engine sounded, but the RailSounds coming from this model were distinctly different from the usual generic EMD sounds of past samples. I guess I would have to say the sounds were convincing enough for me. The horn, with its deep blast, changed in duration and tone with each press of the controller button and could be manipulated for realistic style signaling. The bell sounded like a typical mechanical type and the balance of audio goodies such as brake squeal, and CrewTalk only added to the play value of the locomotive If you like simulated working exhaust, then you will be very pleased with this model too. After adding the recommended 15 to 20 drops of Lionel brand smoke fluid, I pressed 9 on the CAB-1 keypad turning on the smoke generator. Once the unit was sufficiently heated up, voluminous amounts of smoke blew out of the dual exhaust stacks. If for any reason the operator wishes to turn any of these features off, Atlas O has provide on/off switches located under the locomotive for convenience.

One last feature I would like to make mention of are the ElectroCouplers. This is another one of those little inventions that I don’t know how modelers ever did without. Having the ability to remotely uncouple the train from the CAB-1 is great. What is special about this model though, is that Atlas O has provided operating couplers on both ends of their A units. This is a departure from past practice where it was assumed by manufacturers that AA or ABA configurations solely would be operated and working couplers were only necessary on the front of the cab unit. This was certainly not the case in the real world of railroading and the inclusion of front and rear ElectroCouplers are appreciated by this modeler.

The Atlas O FM Erie-Built has a lot of good things going for it: quality, accuracy, TMCC, RailSOunds, EOB, and ElectroCouplers. Better yet, the manufacturer is offering unpowered A and B units too so the operator does not have to purchase all powered units. Currently Atlas O is producing the FM models decorated for the New York Central, Pennsy, Union Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Santa Fe, Chicago & North Western, and undecorated. A limited edition AA set in the color of the Milwaukee’s Olympian Hiawatha is also available. Booster units are only obtainable for the appropriate railroads that rostered them. Since all the units are sold separately except for the aforementioned special set, O gaugers can create their own locomotive sets that best fit their needs. One thing is for sure though, if you get to experience this model first hand as I have, you will be asking the same question I did, “just how far can Atlas O raise the bar for O gauge locomotives?”




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