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This review appeared in O Gauge Railroading Magazine, February, 1999. Reproduced with permission of The Myron J. Biggar Group.


2 and 3 Rail Versions Are Visual/Operational Delights

Review and Photos by Fred M. Dole with assistance from Bill Culliton and Barry Lewis

EMD SW-8/9 switchers for 2 and 3 rail operation. Engines feature a die-cast chassis, body and truck side frames with separately applied plastic and metal trim pieces. Engines feature horizontal motors with flywheels. 2-rail versions feature directional lighting, Kadee compatible scale couplers, NMRA DCC socket, insulated wheels with 8 wheel power pickup. 3-rail versions include Lionel compatible operating couplers, directional lighting and an electronic reversing unit and sound system designed by Dallee Electronics, Inc. Sounds include horn, bell, prime mover sounds including air release sounds and compressor air pops. Available in a number of road names (the version [SW 8 or 9] selected for a particular road name is dependent on which model ran on that railroad with tow different road numbers available for each road name. Suggested retail price is $349 for the 3-rail version with sound and $249 for the 2-rail version. Manufactured in China for Atlas O LLC, 603 Sweetland Ave., Hillside, NJ 07205.

One of my favorite locomotives has always been the die-cast frame NW-2 switcher produced by Lionel back in the early ‘50s. It was a good looking close to scale engine that ran great and was perfect for my not-very-large childhood layout. Several of them, in various custom painted roadnames, continue to run on my layout today. So, when I heard that Atlas O’s first locomotive was to be the SW-8/9 switcher I was delighted. Now I could add more switchers to my motive power roster and have the latest in electronics and sound.

By the way, to prevent lots of mail, I know the NW-2 and the SW-8/9 are not the same engine. The NW-2s were produced from 1939 through 1949 and the SW8 and SW9 switchers were built roughly from 1950 to 1954. The SW8 was an 800-horsepower unit, and the SW9 had 1,200 horsepower. Units that replaced the SW8/9s were the SW600, SW800, SW900 AND SW1200. The only variation in the bodies seems to be in the number of louvers in the battery box behind the cab. The SW8 had a full-length front radiator grille and a single centered stack; the SW9 also had the full-length grille but two centered stacks. Predecessor switchers from EMD, the NW series, had a half-length front radiator grille.

From my 3-rail tinplate heritage, though, the two models are very similar in terms of appearance and size, and since I’m not a fanatic, it doesn’t matter if it is a NW-2 or an SW-8/9. I just like these switchers.

For most model locomotives (especially 3-rail), the design process is one of compromise. You start with two lists: the things you have to have, and, secondly, the things you’d like to have. For most 3-rail O gauge diesel locomotives, the "have-to-haves" seem to be a pair of vertical can motors and an existing sound system, and the "would-like-to-haves" (the areas where the compromises occur) are scale dimensions and prototype realism.

For its first locomotive, Atlas O turned this process on its head. The must-haves in the Atlas design process were absolute fidelity to scale dimensions and scale detailing. Initially, the designers planned on using a standard 3-rail drive train with twin vertical motors and an off-the-shelf sound system. However, the EMD SW-8/9 diesel switcher is a locomotive with very little space in which to hide a mechanism. Early on, it became clear that Atlas would have to do some "thinking outside the box" (as they say today in corporate America) to shoehorn a mechanism under the hood of this switcher. Because this engine has full cab interior detail, even down to lighted gauges and a brake hand wheel inside the cab, that space wasn’t available for motors or electronics.

What’s fascinating is how Atlas pulled it off. Rather than compromise prototype looks or dimensions, they elected to make their compromised in three other areas: motor/drive train, electronics, and speaker size.

For the motor/drive train, Atlas chose a single horizontal motor with two flywheels instead of the normal two vertical motors. This may result in some loss of pulling power, but if you keep in mind that this is a switcher and not a road engine, there is plenty of power available for switching chores.

For the electronics, tight space required a custom design incorporating the reverse unit and sound system on a single small board. There also wasn’t room for a 9-volt battery, which most other systems use to keep the sound/reversing components alive during direction changes when the track voltage goes to zero; instead the designers used the largest capacitors that would fit into this space. They aren’t, however, large enough to keep the system alive for very long (this is what accounts for the need to tap the direction button very quickly; more about that in a moment).

The third area of compromise was the speaker for the sound system. Most diesels have a 2" speaker in the belly of the fuel tank. However, a switcher has a smaller fuel tank to begin with, plus Atlas has made the air tanks and piping on either side of the fuel tank. However, a switcher has a smaller fuel tank to begin with, plus Atlas has made the air tanks and piping on either side of the fuel tank fully 3-dimensional, so the tank is too small for a speaker. Therefore they went with a tiny 1" oval speaker facing up through the grilles on top of the front of the hood. Although a 1.5 watt rated speaker was chosen to maximize the output from such a small space, there is only so much sound you can get out of the speaker. Again, more about that later.


First and most importantly, one has to say that this is a good looking little engine. As I said earlier, Lionel’s NW-2 has always been one of my favorite engines. If I were to give the Lionel engine a mark of 70 or 80 for looks, the Atlas engine gets a solid 100. The overall appearance and attention to detail makes this engine a visual winner. Atlas has also done their homework in designing the little details into this engine. For example, the switchers are equipped for multiple unit (MU) operation only if their prototype ran them that way. Thus, the Texas and Pacific engines are MU-equipped with MU cables as well as working drop steps and proper end railings to permit an engine crew to walk between engines. The non-MU Boston and Maine engines, on the other hand, have solid end railings and lack the MU cables and drop steps.

The end railings, with full bolt detail, are a flexible plastic, which will take more handling than metal without getting bent, and are molded in the correct color for each engine. These railings have to be installed by the purchaser (an easy job). Replacements will be stocked by Atlas just in case.

The detail is state of the art for the 1990s with see through grilles for the grids on the top of the hood (which provide an outlet for the sound on the 3-rail models) and the same feature on the steps and the footboards. The cab has windshield wipers both front and rear, so the two little enginemen who inhabit the cab can see on moist days.


Paint jobs have also been well researched for maximum realism. For example, for the background color of the "Minuteman" logo on the Boston and Maine switcher, Atlas found the original paint specs called for imitation aluminum which is what they used. This color tended to fade to white, which is what you often see in photos. Their attention to prototype paint schemes is also why you won’t find the NYC switcher in lightning stripe colors (even though many NYC fans have requested it). The NYC didn’t paint its SWs in that scheme. If you really want one that way, Atlas does offer an undecorated version that you can custom paint.

Overall, the paint jobs on the several different roadnames we’ve looked at are crisp with clean letters, numbers, and heralds; even the EMD builder’s plates are readable.

If there is any place where one could find fault with the paint job it is in the area of the radiator grilles. The grilles themselves are black plastic but the area behind them is painted whatever the body color of the particular locomotive is. And this color, of course, shows through the open mesh of the radiator grille. This background color is especially apparent on our sample Western Pacific engine. It is hardly noticeable on the dark green Pennsy and the maroon B&M engines. It would have been nice if the area behind the radiator grille could have been painted black.


Quality of construction is superb, and well thought-out for easy disassembly (witness the easy traction tire replacement mentioned elsewhere). One of our engines also had a drooping front coupler when delivered, and this was easily corrected by removing and tightening the coupler; a feat that Barry Lewis accomplished with a small Philips screwdriver without removing the body or front truck. A full exploded view of the engine is included in the instructions.


Both 2-and 3-rail versions of the engine have excellent pulling power due to all wheel drive, 4 traction tires (3-rail only) and hefty weight from the die-cast frame and hood.

The maximum load in the tests that Barry performed on Marty Fitzhenry’s layout was 13 lighted aluminum 70’ MTH passenger cars. That would equal at least 25 or more typical 3-rail freight cars. And it can really CREEP with a full load. When overloaded, the 3-rail engine threw a traction tire which, however, was very easy to replace because the truck side-frame comes off by removing two screws, giving easy access to the wheels without any other disassembly. The dual flywheels on the single motor make this engine operate very smoothly and coast beautifully.

Bill Culliton tested the 2-rail version on the Stamford, Conn. O Scale Club layout. A random 20 cars of various vintages from the freight yard was tied on the SW9. All of these had a minimum weight of 12 ounces. In running over most of the train drew 1 amp of current but stalled on a 2-percent grade. So five cars were cut off, and the train made it up all grades, provided it entered the grade with some speed. After 45 minutes the current draw dropped to amp.

One area that is of some concern is the way the reversing unit on the 3-rail engine works. We tested the engine using the MTH Z-4000 transformer, the Right-of-Way transformer, the Lionel Trainmaster system and a ZW transformer, and we had the same problem with all these power supplies.

That problem is this: the normal sequence of the reversing unit is forward-neutral-reverse. When you bring the engine to a stop using the throttle handle, the reversing unit should cycle into neutral. Then when you cycle the handle again, it should cycle into reverse. What we found was that many times the engine would skip the neutral-reverse cycle and start again in forward. At first we thought this was a defective unit but more experimentation led to a different conclusion.

Once we began using the direction button to control the engine instead of the throttle handle and once we learned to tap the direction button quickly and not hold it down the engine performed flawlessly.

What’s causing this is that lack of a battery that we mentioned earlier or the lack of space inside the engine for larger capacitors (which Dallee calls a "microcontroller system"). The capacitors which are installed don’t have enough current storage capacity to keep the electronics alive for more than a second or two and if you hold the direction button down too long the capacitor’s juice drains off and the engine reverts to the startup position, in this case, forward (you can also set the system to start in neutral but this doesn’t help solve the direction changing problem. The only difference would be that the system would recycle back to neutral instead of forward). The instructions that come with the engine suggest boosting the power in neutral for a moment before sequencing the direction. Doing this, Dallee says, gives the capacitor a charge that will get it through the direction change cycle.

Now this light touch requires some getting used to but once you get the feel of the engine and whatever throttle system you’re using, you’ll be delighted with the way this engine operates. It will provide you with hours of slow, realistic, back and forth switching.

Barry Lewis has these comments about the various power sources:

"MTH Z-4000: Meters made this an easy throttle to use with this engine. I was able to get pretty consistent reversing by taking care not to throttle down below 6.0 volts running (or 7.5 volts while in neutral – same handle position) and use ONLY the direction button for reversing. This allowed nice slow-speed switching. The one thing you can’t do is use the throttle handle to get a really slow move-out from neutral. You need the direction button. If I tried to use the handle up/down for reversing, it was difficult to find reverse.

"Right-of-Way transformer: This unit does not have a reverse button and it was nearly impossible to get engine into reverse by using throttle up/down movement.

"Lionel Trainmaster: With some experimentation, I was able to find a slow speed that would allow reliable/consistent reversing with the direction button, provided you tapped it very quickly; below that speed, operation of the reverse button was inconsistent; but the engine is capable of beautiful slow speeds with this throttle, which goes down smoothly to zero, unlike the MTH which drops from about 6 volts direct to zero. Another thing: Once you get the feel of this, you can intentionally use the direction button to go from forward to forward (or neutral-before-forward back to neutral-before-forward) by holding down the button rather than tapping it."

I got pretty much the same results with my own testing using the Z-4000 and the Trainmaster systems. The key to success is to hit that direction button quickly and momentarily. Do that, and the engine goes from forward to neutral to reverse every time. In addition, I tested the switcher with a ZW and found that it was almost impossible to get the forward-neutral-reverse sequence to work properly using the throttle handle. You just can’t move it quickly enough to keep the unit from cycling through to forward. But, using the direction button, I was able to get the engine to reverse most of the time. The ZW direction button was not as reliable as the direction button on the Z-4000 but this was more due to the age of my ZW and the way the direction button operates – sliding down, if you will, instead pushing down. I wasn’t unhappy with the engine’s performance on the ZW, however. The clue to success is operator ability and that comes with practice.

I guess the fix for this operating touchiness would be to somehow program a longer cycle time into the reversing unit or increase the size of the storage capacitors. We already know there probably isn’t room for larger capacitors and since programming is way out of my league, I don’t know if that answer is even possible. So I guess learning how to work with the engine is the best solution. And with some practice, that’s very doable. Hey, no one ever said being an engineer was easy! When you do get it down pat, this little engine will provide hours of fun doing switching chores.


The engine has directional constant-voltage headlights with lit number boards. For total realism there is no light spillover.

Unlike most 3-rail locomotives, there is no cab lighting. Again, this was done for realism. It’s like an automobile at night: the only interior light in a locomotive cab comes from the instruments and they ARE lit on this model.


The sound system in this switcher is quite different from what we have become used to in the 3-rail industry (i.e. LOUD sounds). One of the things I often experience when I go out to photograph layouts is that many operators have their sound systems set at the highest possible volume and after a few minutes of listening to several engines running around those pikes I have a splitting headache. The truth of the matter is that we don’t need to have such loud sounds. But because that, rightly or wrongly, LOUD has become the "norm", some operators are going to feel the Atlas O switcher’s sound is too low. It is definitely not a screamer like RailSounds, and indeed the engine (prime mover) sounds may be inaudible over the train sounds when the engine is moving with several cars, especially if your track is not insulated from the table top by roadbed.

I think Atlas has struck a nice compromise: the engine sounds are at a pleasant but not intrusive level at idle, and the horn and bell sounds are loud enough at running speeds. Using the Trainmaster throttle, Barry found that the sounds were especially nice in slow-speed switching: The motor revs up hard to get the engine moving, then settles down as the engine reaches switching speed.

The sound volume is adjustable (the screw is at the bottom of the exhaust stack) but even at its highest point, you are going to magnify the direction sequencing problem I’ve already talked about because the higher volume requires use of more of the capacitor’s stored current and will cause it to discharge even quicker. Dallee recommends setting the volume at about the one-half mark.

The horn is a typical single-chime yard diesel. It was not supposed to be melodious like a 5-chime road diesel but rather provide a very audible warning. One nice thing about this horn is that it will blow as long as the horn button is pushed. And when you let go of the button, it will stop. This means that you can operate this horn prototypically, using really short blasts to duplicate the way an engineer would signal his crew about train movements.

The bell is excellent, and always stops at the end of a ring, never in mid-ring, no matter how you operate the bell button. If you have an older transformer without a bell button, you can install the standard Lionel No. 6-5906 bell button.

Another sound included in this system are the air release sounds heard whenever a locomotive pulls out from a stop as the air brakes are released. Barry felt that this sound wasn’t as effective as it could be and attributed this mainly to the small speaker. It is that speaker size, without any doubt, that does limit the effectiveness of the sound system. Dallee has done a fine job with the sounds, but no matter how good they are, you just can’t expect a 1" speaker to perform as well as a larger one would.

Compressor air pops can also be heard at random during slow speed operation as moisture is released from the air storage system.

It would have been nice to have a larger speaker. But even with the 1" unit that designers had to settle for, the sounds produced by this little switcher are very realistic and, quite frankly, a lot more soothing to my ears than the cacophony of sound I so often hear on layouts where every engine’s sound system is set so high the lighting fixtures vibrate.


Bill Culliton feels strongly that his little piece and other 2-rail versions like those from MTH and Sunset Models (aka 3rd Rail) will be the salvation of the 2-rail scale genre. He says this:

"In the 1930s many of the men and I say men because there were almost no women in the hobby then – were machinists or people whose trades required they work with machine tools. They could take rough castings, which today we would only use for boat anchors, and machine them into running model engines. Today there are more people in the hobby, but more of us are involved in clerical or service jobs and don’t have the time or the skill to embark on building a locomotive."

"Now I know there are those O scale people who hate Lionel because it isn’t scale (according to their interpretation). By that extension they will not tolerate any piece of equipment that appears in 2- and 3-rail versions, since in their eyes this makes it tinplate in a pejorative sense. But as for the rest of us I think it’s great. If the importers make their money on the 3-rail market, good for them. I can live in 2-rail with the slight accommodations made for the 3-railers."

Actually, in the case of the Atlas switcher, those hard-nosed O scalers will find little accommodation made for the 3-railers. It is the 3-railers who will find that some things they’re used to are where compromises have been made. This is, first and foremost, a scale engine and it has been adapted for 3-rail use and not the other way around. And, by-in-large, Atlas has succeeded with that approach. Being a new company, Atlas O was not locked into pre-existing tooling and they could approach this project with total freedom. They have made the decision, rightly I think, to create the engine around scale dimensions and detailing as opposed to building it around a given powertrain and electronics. Had they done that, the end result probably would have been a duplicate of the original Lionel NW-2 in size and detail.

Bottom line: my treasured Lionel NW-2s are going to spend a lot of time sitting on yard tracks and this handsome little Atlas O switcher is going to get a lot of operational hours doing switching chores on the Westchester & Salmon River.

If this first locomotive from Atlas O is any indication of what’s coming in the future, both 2- and 3-rail O gauge operators are in for some great products.

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