Life-Like (China) 0-8-0 USRA Switcher

Introduced: 2007

Yet another fine looking and sweet running steamer from Life-Like. Paint and detailing are superb (with many railroad-specific details). However, as usual, there are caveats (more on that in a moment).

The chassis is all-metal and split-frame. The motor is an open-sided, skew-wound 3-poler. A small flywheel is mounted to the rear driveshaft. Six of the eight drivers provide pickup (the rearmost pair being equipped with traction tires). All eight tender wheels provide pickup as well. All eight drivers are geared. All gearing is plastic. A directional headlight is mounted to the front of the chassis. A backup light is mounted on top of the tender. Couplers are chassis-mounted Accumates. Wheels are blackened and low-profile (no problems on Code-55 rails). The tender drawbar is screwed into place on both ends.

This model is fully DCC-Ready (by way of an 8-pin NMRA-style socket in the tender). As pictured, things are pretty cramped inside the tender, so chances are you'll have to remove the extra "screwed on" weight in order to make room for a decoder -

Performance is almost breathtakingly perfect. Slow speed creep is superb, the top-end is very reasonabe, pickup is fine, throttle response is absolutely smooth, and the mechanism itself is whisper quiet. I swear, all of the various moving parts dance together like a friggin' Swiss watch.

Having said all that, the first run of this locomotive did have a couple of problems. The locomotive itself is quite small and very light. And despite the presence of traction tires on the rear set of drivers, it was not an impressive puller. After breaking mine in, I couldn't get it to pull more than 4-5 cars up a 2% grade (and perhaps twice that many on level track). Is that sufficient for a yard switcher? I guess that'd be up to the individual modeler to decide. The good news is that Walthers/Life-Like addressed this problem in the second run, and now these engines pull just as many cars as you're ever likely to need (my second run 0-8-0 has no problems hauling 25 freight cars on flat track).

Another first run problem was with the wiring harness. Current is ferried between the locomotive and tender via wires. The wires from the locomotive are soldered to a plug, which in turn connects to a socket on the tender. It seems like an OK system, although I did find the plug on my first run 0-8-0 to be a little loose fitting and occasionally had to nudge it back into place. The actual soldering of the wires to the plug was a bit suspect as well (I had one of mine pop loose and had to resolder it). One e-tailer told me that returns on the first run models (due to wiring harness problems) were rampant. Now, one would assume that this problem would have been addressed in the second run. And, I dunno, maybe it was? Put it this way, although I can't really see any obvious differences between my first and second run 0-8-0's, I haven't had any problems with the wiring harness on my second run unit. Maybe the wiring problems (along with the traction problems) were just QC issues and didn't require any out-and-out redesigning to fix. In any case, now that the bugs have been worked out, this locomotive easily ranks with the all-time greats of N scale steam.

One note - Life-Like has mistakenly advertised these models as having 5-pole motors. And, well... they don't.

The 2008 Walthers N scale catalog lists the following catalog numbers for the first and second runs -

First Run (September 2007) -

- 920-90000 CB&Q #545
- 920-90001 CB&Q #549
- 920-90002 Erie #124
- 920-90003 Erie #132
- 920-90004 NKP #206
- 920-90005 NKP #207
- 920-90006 NP #1171
- 920-90007 NP #1173
- 920-90008 NYC #7744
- 920-90009 NYC #7829
- 920-90010 SOU #1882
- 920-90011 SOU #1885
- 920-90012 Painted/Unlettered

Second Run (January 2008) -

- 920-90013 C&O #361
- 920-90014 C&O #362
- 920-90015 B&M #620
- 920-90016 B&M #624
- 920-90017 MP #9602
- 920-90018 MP #9605
- 920-90019 NH #3401
- 920-90020 NH #3404
- 920-90021 IHB #313
- 920-90022 IHB #317
- 920-90023 L&N #2118
- 920-90024 L&N #2123
- 920-90025 Painted/Unlettered

In 2018, Atlas purchased the tooling for the Life-Like/Walthers line of N scale models. Unfortunately, the tooling for this 0-8-0 was somehow "lost" in China, and thus was not part of the purchase. So, at this point in history it seems unlikely that there will ever be a third production run.

Prototype information -

By 1917, the arrival of larger and much heavier freight cars had pushed most 0-6-0 designs to their limits. Realizing that railroads needed bigger and more powerful switchers to handle these modern cars, the United States Railway Administration developed plans for an all-new 0-8-0. Up-to-date in all respects, these big switchers were the equals in power of many road freight locomotives from just a few years earlier! Unlike some USRA designs, the 0-8-0 was well liked by the railroads that received it; 175 were completed before government control ended in 1920. But the 0-8-0's ultimate success came in the years that followed as the USRA design was eventually copied by 35 different roads. In fact, the last new steam locos built in the US were a series of 0-8-0s, constructed by the N&W in 1951-53 that followed the general outline of the decades-old USRA design!

To remove the engine shell, you first have to remove three bits of plastic detailing - the crossmember at the back/bottom of the cab, and the two "ashpans" (clipped to the bottoms of the fireboxes - IE the silver graphite sections underneath and slightly forward of the cab). Next, spread the sides of the shell apart back by the cab and lift. Once the back end of the shell is free of the chassis, it should slide forward and off. Be careful that the forward step ladders don't get hung up and damaged as you slide the shell forward. Loosening the pilot screw a turn or two can help make this process a little easier. As for getting those ashpans back on, well... your guess is as good as mine. I wound up using a little bit of white glue to get them to stay in place.

Grades: B (for the first run) and A (for the second run)

Reviewed March 2008 Model Railroader: ("This Heritage Steam Collection by Walthers N scale United States Railway Administration (USRA) 0-8-0 switcher has a high level of detail comparable to its HO scale cousin. The N scale model performs reliably on a DC layout and is easy to convert to Digital Command Control (DCC). The model matches drawings for a USRA 0-8-0 in the Model Railroader Cyclopedia: vol.1, Steam Locomotives and the engine and tender match the dimensions of a New York Central class U-3A locomotive diagram in the Kalmbach Publishing Co. library's collection. The model's boiler and tender are made primarily of plastic. All the engine's piping, handrails, and other parts such as the bell are separately applied. The rear of the motor fills the cab, so there isn't any backhead detail. All the cab windows have clear glazing. Most of the model's details match prototype photos, including its rectangular Alco builder's plates (no lettering, though). Paint coverage on the engine and tender is smooth and the lettering is crisp and straight. "U-3A" under the road number on the sides of the cab and "8000 GALS" and "121/2 TONS" along the back of the tender tank are legible. The model even has test stencils along both air reservoirs under the running boards.

The eight-pin plug for a DCC decoder is located in the model's tender. You must remove a jumper before instaqlling the decoder. A three-pole skew-wound motor and flywheel are housed in the boiler. The motor turns a worm gear that transfers power to all four axles via a system of spur gears. The locomotive has a split die-cast metal frame that adds to its heft and tractive effort. The rear set of drivers is equipped with rubber traction tires, which help the 0-8-0 achieve a drawbar pull equivalent to 28 N scale freight cars on straight and level track. A set of drivers without traction tires for user installation is included. The model picks up power from all eight tender wheels and six drivers (eight if the non-traction- tire-equipped rear drivers are installed). A six-wire plug connects the locomotive to the printed-circuit (PC) board in the tender. The tender shell is press-fit for easy access to the electronics inside. The PC board is attached to a die-cast metal weight that runs along the tender's frame. The 0-8-0 includes a socket on its PC board for easy conversion to DCC. You must first remove the eight-pin jumper from the socket before installing a decoder.

Both the model's headlight and backup light are light-emitting diodes (LEDs), but unfortunately the headlight doesn't come on at the model's slowest speed. The headlight lit dimly at 3 volts and didn't reach full brightness until 4 volts. Above 4 volts the light's intensity remained constant. The model features directional lighting, although prototype steamers didn't have automatically operating lights. Yard switchers often kept both the headlight and backup light on, set on dim, during normal operations. The 0-8-0 has a minimum sustained speed of 5 scale mph at 2.5 volts. The model accelerated to a top speed of 64 scale mph. This is higher than the prototype, which would have done most of its switching work under 20 mph. Throughout its speed range the Walthers 0-8-0 is extremely quiet and didn't have any difficulties pushing and pulling N scale freight cars through the 9 3/4" curves and no. 4 turnouts of our Carolina Central project railroad. With its smooth performance and high level of detail, this new yard goat is a must-have for an N scale steam roster.")

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