Sunday, January 6, 2013

A review of some Bowser, Con-Cor, and Bachmann HO-scale streetcars

With the layout board upstairs in the living room during December I had a lot of opportunity to run my rolling stock. Over the course of the month I probably ran my small fleet of streetcars and diesels far more than at any other time.  Everything ran well, but they all had their own operational characteristics, so I thought I’d write a few notes about what I observed.

First, some ground rules and my biases.

I’m not going to analyze the fidelity of the models to their respective prototypes. Visually, they all look fine, and do a good job of evoking their full-size counterparts without seeming overly toy-like. Some have one or two visual quirks that could use some tuning up – I’ll point those out in due course – but generally, they all look good.

I don’t model a particular prototype, although I’m biased to models and colour schemes based on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcar fleet.  If anything, my Lost Ocean Line takes the San Francisco's Market Street Railway as its spiritual muse with its mixed fleet of streetcars. 

My DCC system on the LOL is very simple: an MRC Prodigy Express system with two wired hand-controllers. I chose this system for ease of setup and its relatively low price. The LOL is a very simple layout, and the Prodigy Express system handles it just fine. Although, if I were to do things over, I’d probably go with a system with wireless hand-controllers because it’s easy for two operators to get tangled up as they run the layout. The LOL is a free-standing layout that allows operators to walk completely around the setup; hence, the tangling problem.

Over the Christmas holidays I looked into running JMRI on my laptop as a better way to program and control my fleet. It turns out that according to the JMRI website, JMRI doesn’t support MRC DCC systems since MRC won’t release certain proprietary information to make support possible. Apparently MRC does have its own DCC software for laptops; however, it only runs only on PCs, so isn’t of much use to this Mac user. According to the JMRI website, JMRI runs on both PCs and Macs. I can understand the business rationale behind the MRC position on this issue, although I’d encourage them to consider future support for JMRI.

My layout doesn’t have overhead streetcar wiring. All models draw power from the rails. Hopefully I’ll add overhead wires in the near future to make things look more realistic, but I doubt I’ll electrify them as I think that is currently outside my skill level.

Bowser’s TTC Postwar PCC streetcar with Tsunami Sound
This one is my favourite. I didn’t think sound effects such as motor noise, doors opening, passenger stop request bells and so on would make much difference, but I was wrong. They’re definitely fun, and add a lot to the overall ambiance, especially when guests are perusing the layout. On the operational side, it’s smooth running, very responsive to commands, and runs well at low speeds. The only odd thing I encountered was that, try as I might, I couldn’t change its loco ID from the factory preset of 3. No doubt I’m likely doing something wrong on my end, but I haven’t experienced this issue with my other DCC equipped rolling stock – I’ll look into this further once the layout is back up and running in the basement.

Bowser’s non-sound TTC Postwar PCC streetcar
One can’t run a transit company with only one streetcar :-) , and even though I very much like Bowser’s Tsunami sound PCC streetcar, it’s too pricey for me to have more than one and still be able to build out the fleet a little. Although they don’t come with DCC decoders, they do come from Bowser DCC-ready. All I had to do was open them up and install a DCC decoder. For that I chose to outfit them with TCS's M4T. These two silent partners run just as well as their sound equipped cousin. 

Con-Cor’s TTC Air Electric PCC streetcar
This is the model that started me down the highly enjoyable path of streetcar-oriented modeling*. One day a couple of years ago Debra and I were visiting George’s Trains and she saw that they were taking pre-orders for these Con-Cor streetcar models. I was intrigued as I hadn’t come across these sorts of models before, and was glad to see these old TTC icons in miniature form. After a little humming-and-hawing, I put down a deposit and placed an order for one.

This was the first model I installed a DCC decoder into. When I ordered the model I didn’t realize that it didn’t come with a decoder pre-installed. I was not savvy to DCC and thought all DCC locos and streetcars and such had decoders pre-installed since up until then all I had purchased were Bachmann Spectrum line items where pre-installed decoders is the norm.  So, after receiving my new streetcar, I had to plunk down some more cash for a decoder. A TCS M4T was recommended, and not knowing anything better, that’s what I bought. I could have had the store install it, but I wanted to save some money and decided to forge ahead and install it myself. It wasn’t hard to do – it took maybe only 20 or 30 minutes – but it was a little nerve-wracking. It worked alright, but the interior lighting stayed on all the time the streetcar was sitting on powered track. It couldn’t be switched off or dimmed. I figured I had done something wrong. After some internet searching it turns out that is one of the ‘features’ of that decoder when installed in this particular streetcar. It is possible to modify the car’s electronics a little to allow the interior lights to be switched on and off, but the procedure is currently beyond my skill level. The model runs just fine – just as well as the Bowsers – so I’m just going to live with the ‘lights on all the time’ feature.

One thing I rather like about this model is that when it’s in motion it seems like it’s gliding down the track not just carried on its wheels. No doubt it’s an optical illusion caused by its smooth stop and start performance combined with its body shape and stance on the track.

As for overall looks, the only odd thing is the disk at the end of the trolley pole. Doesn’t seem like a scale-item, although it’s not horrible to look at. For a while I thought it might be the basis of some overhead visual effects.

Bachmann Spectrum Peter Witt streetcar
I’ve been looking for one of these in TTC colours – and I’m still looking – for a while. Yeap, this one is in Chicago Surface Lines colours. Turns out it was on a sale table at a price I couldn’t walk away from. Model streetcars aren’t popular items – especially those in US colours for sale in Ontario – so bargains can be found from time-to-time when sellers want to be rid of them. I liked the colour-scheme of this unit, and with the good price, it became a new addition to the fleet in the summer.

I had been spoiled with the smooth running of the Bowser and Con-Cor models. Even after some initial lubrication and breaking-in, the motor growls and is a little hesitant to get rolling at times. Sometimes a finger or two must reach down from the sky to give it a little nudge to get it in motion. But, even with these caveats in mind, it seems to run ok. But only ok. The Bowser and Con-Cor units are definitely a cut-above. I’m pretty sure this was a new, ‘never been opened item’ when I bought it, so I felt it should have ran a little smoother than it did. Bachmann diesels I had bought a few years ago ran very well – and still do – right from the box without issues.

On the looks end of things, the thread used on the power pole needs to be replaced with something that hangs in a more realistic manner.

Bachmann Spectrum Birney Safety Streetcar 
I wrote about some issues with this model last year. Suffice it to say, after a little work, it runs fairly well now, although I should point out that its lightweight and short wheel-base make it fairly sensitive to imperfections in my track work. I also found that it’s important to be a little extra scrupulous and make sure the wheels and pickups on this model are clean and free of dirt and oil. This car is a sentimental favourite – I like its size, shape and colours - even though it can be a little cantankerous if operating conditions are not perfect.
*I don’t know if ‘Streetcar-Oriented Modeling’ is the best phrase for what I have in mind, but I’m using it as a placeholder until I can figure out the correct term. Recently I’ve been thinking that SOM can be – maybe is - fundamentally different from Classic Model Railroading even though aspects of SOM are usually cast as sub-fields since they share some superficial similarities. I need to get my story together on this.


  1. Just found this post now and love the pictures. I have the Bachman version, along with my older style Go Train and single level passenger cars, plan on building a small Toronto layout. Do you have more pictures of a layout?

    1. Thanks! My layout photos are tagged with the label: Layout, and they can be accessed by selecting the Layout label over in the left-hand column of post labels.