Locomotives for model railroads come in a wide variety and have never been more plentiful than today. Many years ago, when O scale was the prominent gauge of most scale modelers, one had to be either wealthy or a master craftsman capable of scratchbuilding to own a stable of motive power. Now ready-to-run engines of any scale, steam, diesel and electric, are available at a reasonable price. Over the years the quality and detail of model engines have been improved to a degree that is unbelievable. The development of precision can motors and advancements in plastic molding have resulted in miniature locomotives that are highly efficient and prototypical in appearance. Those who model real railroads such as the Santa Fe and New York Central will find almost every type of engine readily available. For the freelance modeler an abundance of high quality detail parts in both plastic and brass make it easy to personalize their equipment. For the budget minded folks like me, it is possible to collect an impressive loco roster over time since new and improved models appear on the market every month. Advancements in train control systems such as DCC and sound with decoder equipped engines have made operation more and more realistic.
The era and purpose of any model railroad are the major factors in deciding what, and how much, motive power to have on hand. For the class 1, or all purpose, railroad the power would consist of freight engines, passenger engines, commuter equipment, and possibly power for special situations. The most popular era selected by most modelers is the transition period from 1940 to 1950 because this time frame means both steam and diesel power can be used. Some railroads such as the New York Central used steam, diesel, and electric power. Large rail systems such as the Pennsylvania RR built or modified their power for special conditions. Both the Pennsylvania and Great Northern used Belpaire fireboxes on their steam engines and they were easily recognizable by the distinct square shape of their boilers. Some railroads specialized and built their reputation on passenger trains which were known for their on-time, fast schedules to the major cities. Probably the best known of these was the Super Chief- the flagship train of the Santa Fe Railroad known for its luxurious accommodations and fine cuisine. On the opposite end of the spectrum was the short line or class 3 railroad. These branch lines were usually short distance lines and handled the routing of freight to an interchange location with a major railroad. The trains were short and usually consisted of a few freight cars and older, small engines which were usually bought second-hand from the larger roads. Passenger service was often provided by an old wooden car, likely a combine which was tacked on the end of the freight train and also served as a caboose for the train crew. Some short line railroads were designed specifically for the logging and mining industries. The camps and mines were often located in rugged backwoods locations which were difficult to reach. Tracks to these areas were uneven and often required tight radius curves and steep grades which led to the development of special engines like Shays and Climaxes to handle the conditions.
Selection of motive power therefore, is going to be dictated by the theme of any model railroad. If the main emphasis is freight operation then engines should be selected which lend themselves to this effort. Smaller layouts which operate short freight trains and have smaller radius curves may require double-heading steam engines or multiple lash-ups of special purpose diesels either of which makes for more interesting operation. For these pikes passenger service may be provided by mixed train consists or single rail diesel cars. Larger layouts capable of handling longer trains will have the full range of power available from smaller steam engines and diesel units up to monstrous articulated or mallet locos and huge multi-diesel or electric combinations. Those who prefer passenger train operation will find a large selection of power to haul both short and long consists of passenger cars in comfort and specially designed for higher speeds. It should be noted however that there is no restrictions placed on the use of a particular type of loco for a given service. Freight engines were, and still are, often used for passenger service as well as switching duties in yard service. This is especially true for diesels many of which are classified as “general purpose” locomotives.
Diesel and Electrics