Micro-Trains FT Diesels: Product Review
©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.
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Released beginning in October, 2002, the EMD FT Diesel is the first N Scale standard gauge locomotive offered by Micro-Trains Line. UMTRR HQ received one of the first of the production runs of this pair of A and B units, the New York Central set to be exact (MTL catalog number 992 00 021, road numbers 1600 and 2400. Following is my take on them. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

This is not intended to be as "scientific" as some review and testing procedures are-- not to take anything away from those types of evaluations, but I don't have that kind of equipment! Instead, I'm focusing on kind of a "real world" review, not the least of which is, of course, "How does it run?" ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

For background on the prototype FT's and when and where they operated, please check the appropriate UMTRR "edition" by railroad as these units are actually released. Might I also recommend the book The Revolutionary Diesel: EMC's FT as a reference guide. There's a copy here at UMTRR HQ. And there is of course the Internet at large as a resource. That having been said, let's get started... ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

As shipped from the factory, these units come packed in a red, black and silver heavy cardboard box, sealed on both ends and labeled on one end with the catalog number and description of the roadname and roadnumbers. (Pop-up photo here.) Inside the box, the units are cradled in a two piece interlocking rigid plastic container, similar to the cradles into which MTL cars are placed inside the jewel boxes in which they are issued. There had been "criticism in advance" on this packaging choice, given that practically everything else in N Scale came in hard plastic boxes, but I don't see anything particularly wrong or unsafe about this approach, now that I have the box in my hand. Assuming that you're not going to fling it across the room, you should be fine. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Opening the box, you'll note that the halves of the plastic cradle come apart relatively easily, but not easily enough to send the locomotives on their maiden voyage to the floor of your layout room. (Pop-up photo here.) The units are spaced apart in this cradle such that you will need to decouple them before replacing them in the package. This is nothing if they couple together, but will be a bit of a nuisance if the A and B are connected via the drawbar. It also looks as if they may be an issue of fit if the optional diaphragms are installed on each unit, although I had not tried that at this writing. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Enclosed with the units is a detailed instruction sheet which covers a number of topics. There are exploded drawings of the A and B units, parts list number keyed to the drawing, but lacking a word description of each part. Of interest in terms of the future: there are eight different A unit body shells, five variants for the nose headlight assembly, three roof detail part versions, and two different B unit body shells called out. In addition, the B unit in the drawing is the five porthole variation on the FT-B; the fifth porthole was added to a number of B's for better visibility during hostler moves of the power. There are instructions for coupler install and removal for both the A and B units, coupler testing, shell removal, drawbar removal and installation, decals (I'll get to that), and diaphragm assembly and installation. Finally there is a limited warranty statement good for 90 days after purchase, you need to return the sales receipt as well as the unit for warranty service. Of particular note here is that "Items that have been disassembled by the modeler or anyone other than an authorized Micro-Trains repair person are not covered by the warranty." I interpret that to mean, in a general sense, "if you try to put in DCC and you mess it up, you're not getting a free one." Which would seem fair. (I guess that also means I voided the warranty when I took the shell off to scan the chassis for this discussion, but that's another story.) ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Also included, in a small plastic bag, are two details: first, the diaphragms that are attached to the back of the A unit and the front of the B unit, simulating the prototype ones that formed a passageway between the two motors. These diaphragms are two parts, spring and frame, and it looks like there are enough pieces to do the one for the A and the two required for the B (front and back, for you ABBA set assemblers) and have a spare left over. The second detail is a set of decals for the A unit's numberboards, and that might raise some eyebrows. Why not just directly print on the numberboards, as other manufacturers have taken to doing? Well, I could think of one reason: easier renumbering. Some folks might take issue with that, however, and prefer that the numbers be on the unit without any incremental work. This has remained a largely a ready-to-run scale despite some efforts to move it elsewhere. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Let's go to the A unit. (Pop-up photo here.) It's the typical plastic shell, with details that are separate and can be varied by the prototype being modeled, for example, the roof detail and the grilles. Two air horns are mounted on roof of the A unit slightly back of the cab. All places where glass would or could be on the prototype are filled with clear plastic on the model, that includes the headlight and all cab windows, of course, but also the rear window and the four portholes. I'm so used to seeing cheapo versions of F-units, especially in HO (the "F2" by a manufacturer I'd rather not name being a prime example), that have open portholes, that I validated that they are supposed to have windows using my copy of the Morning Sun book New York Central Lightning Stripes by David Sweetland. Yes, the real things did have glass. Just making sure, folks. The grabirons for the front and rear doors into the carbody are separately applied "slippery engineering plastic" detail parts, while the grabs next to the door in the nose of the unit are molded into the body. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Ah, yes, the nose. This is the place where so many manufacturers of F units have failed before, sometimes miserably. There's a reason for this: they're tough to model! It's my understanding that MTL spent a lot of time on this and went through their share of pre-production samples. I suppose I could have dug out a micrometer and checked the model against drawings of the real thing, and I did attempt to locate such drawings on the net with limited results. (And I don't own a micrometer.) So I'll need to emphasize the overall effect, and I focused on comparing the model with prototype photos from the Lightning Stripes book and other sources. And overall, the nose looks good. One could argue from a set of drawings that there needs to be a little more curvature to the windows, and that they need more tapering at the ends opposite the center of the nose, but as compared to pictures, they look fine. The slope of the end of the nose from top to bottom seems right to me. And the very difficult front top of the nose, which covers the space between the cab windows and the headlight, is a nightmare of a complex curve which has a peak at the center, rounded edges toward the headlight and rounded edges again to the sides of the carbody. Yikes! What I've noticed in trying to compare these nuances with the prototype as objectively as possible is that they appear to look different based on the angle of the photo and even the scheme in which the F is painted. For example, the nose looks less curved to me on a Santa Fe FT taken at a three-quarter angle than it does on a Reading FT taken at more of a head-on angle. So what I can tell you is that I did not see anything wrong with the way the model looks. There is a quibble, though: There are supposed to be small vent openings near the bottom of the front of the nose, either side of the nose door and near the bottom. On the NYC model these would be buried under the nose striping. They don't appear to be there upon close inspection. This may turn out to be more noticable with other decorations. You'll also observe that many FTs had grab irons just above the cab windows; however, as delivered, the prototype NYC units appear to have not, at least from the photos I have. The model doesn't have these grabs either. MTL will need to take care on this detail in runs of "as modified" roadnames; for example, on or before the time when the Lightning Stripe scheme was applied to these Central units, they got grabs above the nose as well. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

I did take a few key measurements of the model. First, the distance between pulling faces of the couplers on the A was listed at 48 feet 7 inches for a Santa Fe FT which had couplers at both ends. I get precisely that after accounting for the drawbar replacing the coupler on the NYC version. The distance between truck centers is listed as 27 feet 9 inches and the model is right there as well. Depending on exactly how you measure it, there may be a slight difference on the distance between the end of the nose and the center of the front truck, which is tagged at 11 feet 9 inches, but the distance between the center of the rear truck and the back end of the carbody looks dead on at 7 feet 6 inches. Actually, if you do the math, the three prototype components add to 49 feet, allowing nine inches for the front coupler. Would this be nitpicking or what? The width of the carbody scales out to 9 feet 10 inches, as on the prototype. Wheel to wheel spacing on the trucks should be nine feet, giving four foot six inches between the center and the axles, and that's exactly what you have on the model. Ditto for the height from rail to the top of the roof at 14 feet, and to the "extreme height" counting the air horns at 15 feet. One area that seems to be a little bit of a compromise is the lower part of the fuel tank, specifically the shiny plastic part that covers the frame below the carbody. It's close enough to, but not exactly the same as the shape in the photos of NYC 1600 that I could reference. There seems to be a little more of a curve toward the bottom of the prototype. But, to use the technical term, "big deal." The grilles are spot on with the model in terms of size, shape and crossbars "visible" through the "open" screen wire effect. Same too for the four radiator fans, the four smokestacks and the details around them that all appear on the roof. Nicely done! Using my somewhat accurate postal scale, I read approximately three and one-half ounces for the A unit and about four for the B. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Now, for the B unit. (Pop-up photo here.) One of its key attributes is its funky spacing of the trucks with respect to the front and back of the unit. It's 7 feet 6 inches from the center of the front truck to the front end of the carbody (add 16 more inches to the pulling face of the coupler) but it's 11 feet 8 inches from the center of the rear truck to the back end of the carbody (add 18 inches to the back coupler's pulling face). MTL has these dimensions down perfectly, as well as the 26 feet 6 inch center to center truck spacing. The 48 feet 7 inch overall length is captured too. There's an important note to make here: because the truck arrangement is different between the A and the B, to do it right, one cannot just slap a B shell on an A unit. There have to be two different chassis manufactured. Sure, MTL would have been ridden out of town on a rail (pun not intended) in these days of precision expectations, so there's no way they could have skimped on this. But it's nice to know that N Scale has reached the point where the consumer can be that exacting should he or she so choose. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

In terms of the trucks themselves, comparison with photos shows that the essential detail has been captured on the model. The frames, journals, springs, and cylinders all look quite good. The wheels should be 40 inch diameter but apart from complete dissection I had no way to validate this. I can tell you that all wheels on both units checked in spec with my handy-dandy NMRA Mark IV standards gauge. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Let's have a look inside the A unit. (Pop-up photo here.) You need to remove the coupler from the front of the unit only to get at the shell. You don't need to touch the back coupler or drawbar holder (depending on roadname), nor do you need to remove the "coupler cradle"; just unscrew it enough to slide the factory-assembled coupler (a "1050" if I read the parts sheet correctly) out of its location. If you can avoid pulling the coupler cradle out while doing this, so much the better. I had a non-trivial time trying to get it back where it belonged as it sort of snaps into place. Once you're through removing the coupler, the shell is easy and typical. Just spread the sides of it enough to enable the chassis to slide out. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

What you'll find is the tried and true metal split-frame mechanism, with copper contacts serving as the conduit for power between wheels and motor. There is a printed circuit board sitting atop this. The motor is set inside the frame and looks a little smaller than what I am used to seeing inside a 1:160 diesel, but then, I have not had to take one apart lately. All eight wheels are gear driven, as you would expect. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Warning on the following statement: I am not a DCC user, nor have I ever attempted to be. It looks as though there is plenty of room for a decoder in the recessed area of the split frame. The PC board contacts the frame using copper strips as well, not wires. Seems to me that a decoder board is an easy swap-out. You will need to figure out how to ensure that the white LED that serves as the headlight continues to receive power. I'll leave that exercise to the reader who needs to do so. [Note that Digitrax has already announced a replacement decoder board which they say will be available as of October 1,2002. Please check their website for details. This is not an endorsement.] I did not attempt to look into the B unit, but I imagine I'd see about the same thing, without a headlight of course. MTL advises that to get at that chassis you will need to remove both the T-shanks that hold either couplers or drawbars, again depending on road. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

A quick note about that drawbar, while I'm thinking about it. It is a small "slippery engineering plastic" piece that has hooks at either end. It snaps into place onto pins that extend upward from the top of the T-shank, almost like fitting into a slot except that you also have to catch the pin. Sound a little complicated? It can be a bit trying, at least it was for me. I have not yet determined the easiest, most efficient method of attaching the drawbar to these units. But once on properly, I don't see any way it will ever come loose in normal operation. It's worth a little practice for that outcome. Un-drawbaring will take a little getting used to as well; you definitely don't want to break either of the hooks. I predict a bit of spare parts business for the folks in Talent on this item; meanwhile, I suggest that it's easier to leave the drawbar attached to the B unit and detached from the A unit if you need to store these locos seperately... like, in the box and cradle they came in. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Now, for the moment of truth... the running of the FTs. As a background, let me state that I have about a 53 foot (1.6 scale mile) mainline run on my layout, which incorporates some slight grades (say 1% or so) and plenty of curves along the way, so I can do a reasonable simulation of "real life" N Scale Railroading. Sorry, no scientifically constructed test tracks here! (But as I said at the top of this review, there are others who do that, and that's a good thing.) I use Atlas Code 80 track and turnouts exclusively, have mostly a 19 inch minimum radius on the visible portion of the line and an 11 inch minimum radius in hidden trackage, staging and one place on the visible section where I have to cheat. My wiring is cab control and I use an MRC Tech II Railmaster 2400 for power, which has a choice of with or without pulse injection. In other words, it's what I think a typical non-DCC model rail might have to run the pike. In all cases, I ran the A and B pair together, since that is what the New York Central did with the real ones. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

I started off by doing a lap with the locos only at the 40 setting on the Tech II without pulse power, which is about the setting at which I like to run my trains. Not too slow and not too fast. (I think the 40 setting translates to 40% power out of the rheostat, but that's just my interpretation. It works for me.) The elapsed time to complete the circuit was three minutes and 17 seconds, which translates to a scale speed of about 29 miles per hour. It looks a good bit slower than that when watching it! Interestingly, at the same setting with pulse turned on, it's faster; 2 minutes 20 seconds to loop or about 41 miles per hour. There was absolutely no problem negotiating any of the trackage, turnouts or the "street running" portion of my pike, and I would hardly call my track flawless. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Still with the engines only, I next went for the extreme. I set the timer, cranked the throttle to "full" and switched on the power. Without pulse engaged, the FTs tore around the 53 foot run in 44 seconds, or 131 mph; with pulse they screamed around in 41 seconds, or 140.5 mph. That's more than double the prototype maximum speed of 65 miles per hour with the available 62:15 gear ratio. On the other hand, who but disobedient children, troublemaking visitors, and the Addams Family run their trains at full tilt? MTL itself notes that the maximum voltage that should be applied is 10 volts DC. The typical power pack puts out more than that when it is at full throttle. And a quick check of a summary of N Scale loco tests performed by the magazine Rail Model Journal showed that nearly every engine they tested broke triple digits at the high end, and a few broke 200 mph. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

At the other extreme, the locos consistently moved at about the 15 setting without pulse, so I timed that. It took two minutes and 45 seconds at that setting to move three feet on straight track. That would be just over two miles an hour. So I don't think slow speed will be an issue. DCC users will probably be able to take that even lower since they can have finer control over the situation. I think. Meanwhile, the white LED shone brightly throughout all of these tests. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

In terms of smoothness of running I'd put the FTs on par with any other high-end diesel on the market (translation: Atlas, Kato, later Life-Likes). Anything that can do two scale miles per hour is not going to have any issues there, and these locos don't; they moved well with no jerking or hesitation throughout their expected speed range. And again, this is on my "real world" layout which has its share of dust and imperfect trackwork. With respect to noise, I think this is the most subjective of all attributes. But I had no complaints there. You might take the possible exception of a bit of loudness on the very high speed end, which I and most runners won't use anyway. Also keep in mind that this testing was right out of the box and you'd expect some break-in running to further improve these characteristics. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

All well and good, so time to add a train. I pulled out a bunch of my Micro-Trains 40 foot boxcars, of various vintages from the "Class of '72" original runs complete with rib wheels to some releases of the past year. The amount that these cars had been run also varied, from "not yet" to "worn out and looking it," and therefore the amount of wheel wear and grime collected also varied. In other words, a typical cross section of what one might find behind these locos. My typical train won't exceed 15 cars so that's where I started, with fourteen 40 foot cars and a Micro-Trains NYC wood caboose. The pair of FTs pulled that without breaking a sweat, doing the lap in 3 minutes 41 seconds at the 40 speed setting, or about 26 miles per hour. So I doubled the length of the train to 30 cars by adding another fifteen 40 foot boxcars. Still not an issue. On went 15 more, to bring the total train length to 45 cars. That's coming up on three pounds worth of train, and with the exception of a breakaway while starting up, no worries. At 45 cars, you're starting to defy the laws of physics on my layout with respect to the train being on too many curves at a time, so that's where I stopped after doing three complete laps (the last two with the kids watching). I have no doubt that train behind the FTs could be quite longer still, but it would take a larger layout than mine to illustrate that. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Here's a real pleasant surprise, though. I have what I call the "starter" layout, which I built to illustrate how little room and budget is required to begin in N Scale. This pike is just big enough to hold a minimum size oval, 21 by 26 inches, and includes a circle of 9 3/4 inch Atlas track, a turnout and a rerailer. Total track distance, not even six feet. This starter loop is powered by a train set pack, the cheapest of the cheap. Just for giggles, I put the FT pair on this layout to see if it would negotiate the 9 3/4 inch circle, which it did, and then to see how slow I could run them even with a cheap train set pack. The answer: right around two and one half scale miles per hour. Now, I'm really impressed! ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

You might have noticed that I didn't comment up to this point on the paint job. Micro-Trains is well known as the head of the line in this area, and the NYC decoration including the nose stripes and herald doesn't disappoint. But other than that, frankly, the as-delivered NYC scheme, which is all black with minimal white lettering, is not that much of a challenge. The other announced schemes, including for example the Reading, will be much more of a test, and as these roadnames are released we'll cover them in the main UMTRR and offer our views then. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.

Overall, I'd say that my high expectations for these units were met, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from the folks in Talent. The marketplace is, to say the least, interesting, as there are two manufacturers offering the same engine, after no one had produced it in plastic in the history of N Scale. It's going to be a horse race, no doubt about that. But Micro-Trains has entered a thoroughbred. ©2002 George J. Irwin. All Rights Reserved. Reposting Prohibited.