Bachmann (China) 4-8-4 Norfolk & Western Class J

Introduced: 1988 (Trainset version), 2006 (DCC-Ready version) and 2020 (DCC-Sound version)

There have been several completely different versions of this model, with the earliest releases being light years apart from the most recent version (both in looks and performance). Bachmann also offered a 4-8-4 "Northern" during this same era (and in fact, still do), however those models have nothing in common with any of these 4-8-4 J's.

The early "trainset-style" versions (one of which is pictured above) are nice looking locomotives (at least as compared to Bachmann's previous steam locomotive releases). They are nicely painted and come equipped with a lot of fine detailing not generally found in 1980s-era steam (separately applied handrails, etc).

Bachmann also used to sell a separate auxiliary water tender for these early models (not sure if they still do) -

The very first version had a white plastic chassis with separate metal weights (or at least so I've been told - I've never actually seen one myself).

The second version is completely redesigned, featuring a split-frame metal chassis attached to a plastic superstructure that houses the gears. The third version is very similar to the second, although as you can see there are some differences in the contours of the chassis. I'm not sure about the various release dates for these early J's, but the first and second versions came in Bachmann's venerable "big white box", whereas the third version came in a fancy yellow "Limited Collector's Edition" box.

The split-frame chassis is all-metal and quite hefty. The motor is an open-sided 3-poler with skew-winding. All eight drivers provide pickup on the second version, whereas the third version has traction tires on the rearmost drivers. The four trailing truck wheels also provide pickup (with wires running from the truck to the motor). The tender and pilot truck wheels are electrically neutral. All four driver axles are geared, and all the gearing is white plastic. The tender coupler is a truck-mounted Rapido. There is no provision for a coupler on the pilot. The tender drawbar is plastic and screws to the back of the locomotive chassis. A non-directional headlight is mounted inside the front of the chassis. Wheel flanges are reasonably sized, so no problems running these on Code-55 track.

These early versions are just so-so in the performance department. Yes, they're decent pullers, they can handle the narrowest curves without difficulty, all the wheels stay on the rails reliably, the running gear scissors around quite smoothly, and overall, they run fairly quietly (especially for 1980's era Bachmanns). However, I've found the pickup scheme to be a bit lacking. Consequently, the ones I've tested tend to be a bit finicky when it comes to keeping current flowing to the motor - particularly in reverse, where stalls are quite common. They're also excessively tall, so getting them through tunnels tends to be a bit of a problem. Another problem is with the headlight - it shows through the smokestack? What's up with that?

Pickup problems aside, the real dealbreaker with these early J's is the gearing. Notoriously unreliable, the white plastic that Bachmann used for gears back in the 80s and 90s is seriously prone to shrinking and cracking over time. And as such, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find one of these older 4-8-4's with its gears intact. To make matters worse, said gears are extremely difficult to replace. These models lack a traditional gear box "bottom plate", so you pretty much have to completely dismantle the whole shlebotnik in order to get at the gears.

Bachmann released another completely redesigned version of this locomotive in 2006. And as mentioned previously, it has (thankfully) very little in common with any of the earlier versions -

Features include:

- DCC ready (sort of)
- Die-cast boiler, underframe, and tender frame
- Precision motor
- Separately applied detail parts and laser-cut exterior detailing
- Die-cast finescale driver spokes
- Dummy knuckle couplers, front and rear

The split-frame chassis is all-metal and very heavy. The locomotive shell is also metal, making this one of the heaviest (non-brass) steamers ever made. The motor is a 3-pole "can". Left-rail pickup is provided by three of the four left-side drivers (the third-from-the-front set of drivers being equipped with traction tires). Additionally, all twelve tender wheels collect current (both left and right rail). The right-side drivers are all electrically neutral, as are the pilot and trailing trucks. A PC board mounted to the back of the locomotive chassis provides directional lighting control (with long wires running up to the actual bulb mounted in the front of the chassis). Wires run between the locomotive and tender, which are connected to a harness that plugs into a PC board inside the tender (IE, to completely disconnect the locomotive from the tender, you have to first remove the tender shell and unplug the wiring harness). A back-up light is provided in the tender. The center drivers are geared (with the outer drivers being turned solely by the cranks). All gearing is plastic. A dummy (non-operating) coupler is mounted to the tender chassis. A similar coupler can be mounted in the pilot, or simply left off (with a part designed to cover up the hole in its place). Wheel flanges are low-profile, so no problems on Code-55 track.

As for performance... Well, I never thought I'd find myself saying this, but with this version Bachmann (yes, Bachmann) might just have released one of the greatest steam locomotive ever to grace N scale. The looks are stellar, the detailing is superb, and the performance is excellent. Pickup is perfect. The locomotive is smooth, quiet, and responsive at all throttle levels, and it pulls like nobody's business. Mine can easily haul 15 freight cars up a 2% grade without slipping. I had no problems with wheels derailing, and it navigated narrow (9.75") radius turns without any difficulty.

The only nit I can find to pick is with the slow speed creep. The starting speed is just a tad higher than we're used to nowadays, so definitely not as creepy as, say, Kato's 2-8-2. This is probably due to the fact that this locomotive employs a three-pole (rather than a five-pole) motor. Anyway, I don't suppose you'd be spending a lot of time trying to perform delicate yard switching with it, so it's a minor quibble at best. All in all, this is certainly the best locomotive release from Bachmann since their 2001 2-8-0 Consolidation.

Bachmann calls this model "DCC Ready", and although it kinda, sorta is, it doesn't quite meet my definition of DCC Readiness. What Bachmann has done is supplied seven contacts on the PC board in the tender where you can solder on decoder wires (2 for track, 2 for motor and 3 for lights). However, what they didn't do is just go ahead and put an NMRA DCC plug in there to make a simple plug'n'play install possible. So, yes, it is a relatively painless install, but definitely not a simple drop-in job (and hence, not considered DCC Ready by this encyclopedia). The good news is that they provided space for a speaker in the tender, so I went ahead and installed a steam sound decoder in mine. Very cool indeed!

As noted above, DCC-Sound versions of these models were released in 2020. Everything is pretty much the same as it was in 2006, with the noteworthy change being a new PC board in the tender and accompanying Econami SoundTraxx decoder and speaker -

Performance on these new DCC-Sound models is the same as it was in 2006 (IE great). The DCC-Sound feature is decent enough, although way too loud as delivered (and please don't take that as criticism - I'm just not really excited about DCC-Sound anymore and tend to either turn it way down or turn it off entirely).

2020 Features -

- DCC sound-equipped with Econami Sound Value package
- Precision motor
- Die-cast boiler, underframe, and tender frame
- Separately applied detail parts and laser-cut exterior detailing
- Die-cast finescale driver spokes
- E-Z Mate Mark II coupler, rear
- Performs best on 11.25” radius curves or greater

Measurements - driver axle spacing: 0.469", driver diameter at flange: 0.413", driver diameter with flange: 0.453"

Shell removal -

To remove the locomotive shell on the early versions, remove the screw holding the drawbar to the back of the locomotive. Next, remove the screw up on the front of the chassis. The shell should lift up and off at that point.

To remove the locomotive shell on the second version, first remove the two screws at the back end of the chassis. Then pry the cab sides apart and bit and the whole thing should lift up and off. Be sure to slide the wires that run between the tender and the locomotive through the little gap in the back of the shell. To remove the tender shell, remove the screw back by the coupler and screw in the center of the chassis. Then spread the sides of the shell apart a little bit and it should lift right off (be careful with the wiring harness).

Grades: C (for the early versions - and only if the gears are still good), and A (for the 2006 version)

Third version reviewed: 4/89 Model Railroader: ("Bachmann's N scale model of the N&W J is made in Hong Kong. It looks nice right out of the box, with freestanding wire handrails and gold-painted bell, whistle, pop-off valves, and other details. The backhead is detailed, and there's a full-size cab with room for a crew. The painting and lettering are nicely done. The locomotive's dimensions come off well when compared with (drawings), except that the engine stands about a scale foot too high and the boiler looks a bit small... The drivers are about 4 scale inches too small but that makes the spacing between them work out right, allowing for the larger-than-prototype flanges typical of models. The model comes with an exploded drawing and parts list. The plastic boiler is attached to the frame by (screws). Under the hood are two metal boiler weight halves that give the engine heft and hold the plastic frame in alignment. The halves are insulated from one another by plastic washers and are joined by screws. The motor is a 3-pole skewed-armature open-frame type...

"It runs smoothly and quietly... It's equipped with a brass worm that drives a series of plastic gears... All drivers are driven by the gear train... The rear driver set is equipped with rubber traction tires... The front two driver pairs checked out tight with my NMRA gauge, as did several other wheelsets. The flanges are a little deeper than we'd like to see nowadays... Electrical pickup is from all drivers... a very nice system... The trailing truck also picks up via a set of wires (not so nice)... The tender does not pick up electricity... Among the features of this model I especially liked were very light springs to hold down the leading and trailing trucks... and a headlight that operates via wires contacting the frame halves... I rate the out-of-box performance fair. My engine had a slight hitch running forward, yet ran perfectly in reverse... Lightly lubricating the valve gear immediately improved the running about 100%... engine is neither a speed demon nor a jackrabbit... it starts out and keeps moving steadily at the minimum-speed throttle setting... This is a great looking model that runs decently... Price: $64.00")

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