BOILING ON A BUDGET
In 16mm scale
Live steam working does not have to be expensive, as the new Roundhouse Millie shows.
This article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Railway Modeller magazine and was written by Tag Gorton. Tag can be contacted by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org
Live steam motive power in the garden sized narrow gauge scales of l6mm and G-scale have been an accepted part of the model railway scene for very many years. I rarely nowadays meet railway modellers who have not at least heard of our activities in the great outdoors and find that, increasingly many people have both an indoor railway and a garden line.
Certainly real steam power is the usual primary spur for modelling in l6mm scale, but this is by no means the end of the story. Whether one uses live steam or not, a narrow gauge format provides satisfyingly large models while the comparatively tight curves and short trains employed by the narrow gauge means that a whole system will fit into a small garden. Many people for whom the steam option is perceived as perhaps too complicated, will decide to run a 45mm gauge LGB Continental or American type track-powered system for exactly these reasons. Others, with cash limited pocket books and more parochial tastes, will model British narrow gauge in l6mm scale, using battery motive power or live steam locomotives with home built stock.
A narrow gauge format is particularly suitable for scenic scale live steam operation because the boiler is relatively large when compared to that of a standard gauge model running an either 45 or 32mm gauge track. This sort of scale/gauge ratio also means that correctly sized cylinders will provide a wider power band than the equivalent standard gauge locomotive and there is the further advantage that there is room to spare for fitting radio control equipment. One superb fine scale l6mm locomotive built by Tolhurst Engineering, is coal fired and has radio control of reverser, regulator, steam blower and drain cocks. Modern 16mm live steam is reliable, easy to use and powerful.
Counting the pennies
There is always a 'however', however! It has to be said that the generality of live steam locomotives will cost a significant amount of money An 'average' narrow gauge l6mm/G scale four or six-coupled locomotive will cost around £800. Most people nowadays prefer to run with sophisticated radio control and this will bring the price up to a shade under a thousand sovs! There is no doubt that this is an initial disincentive to invest in live steam traction and I am certainly not going to try to say that this is an insignificant sum of money
In fact steam locomotives have, in real terms, become cheaper, as builders have found ways to cut man-hours on what is always going to be a highly labour intensive product. This, I appreciate, is no consolation whatever to someone who, perhaps drawn by the siren call of real steam, is poised on the brink of moving into the garden but discouraged by the perceived expense.
One of the first Mililes lined out by Lightline. As yet without nameplates, and with cylinders and buffers unpainted, this still looks an attractive little beast. Lightline works only with l6mm and G-scale locomotives and they can be contacted on 01484 316007.
Photograph: Geoff Munday.
Waiting for the road in the loop at Kelly Bray Millie will need steam to spare for tackling the reverse curves on the Latchley avoiding Line with a heavy mixed train.
Photographs by the author or as credited.
I do have to say however, that the financial aspects of steam locomotive purchase can appear more daunting than they actually are. A favourite mantra of mine is that a quality steam locomotive can be purchased for the cost of 'five pints a week and an evening newspaper', for this is almost exactly how I obtained my first locomotive! A further incentive is that model steam locomotives hold their worth far better than that motor vehicle parked outside and I should tell you that my Pearse Countess has a second-hand value well in excess of its original purchase price.
A cheap way in?
Be that as it may, it has been recognised for many years that, for instance, many modellers with young families/high mortgage repayments etc. etc. are not in a position to consider this type of purchase, despite a desire to do so. There has therefore, always been a market for a budget range of locomotives and in a bid to fill this sector there have been a couple of worthy contenders and not a few lemons.
The archetypical 'starter' locomotive was always the ubiquitous Mamod steam toy. Now I will be the first to admit that I have had a lot of fun with these little beasts but, frankly they are not really suitable for our purposes at all. Poorly engineered and with a fiendishly narrow power band, the common experience was that so much had to be spent on them to get them to run with any degree of reliability that any seen in action today have new pistons/cylinders, regulator, meth burner, high pressure boilers, lubricator, and steel wheel sets. In fact there is little left of the original apart from frame and bodyshell and one has probably spent around £300! A very much better buy is the properly engineered locomotive from I P Engineering at around £250. Similar in appearance to the Mamod and with oscillating cylinders, the tiny four coupled 'Jane' locomotive is meths fired, and with sight glass and boiler fill system, is able to remain in steam all day These well made little machines have spawned a sub-culture of Janeology and all sorts of accessories and parts are available to customise and improve one's purchase. Suitably sized to pull the sort of lightweight stock found on the Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway this locomotive is a popular purchase for the smaller line and a wide range of suitable passenger and goods stock is available, particularly from Imp Models of Lincoln.
The general run of l6mm live steam locomotives however, tends to be based on prototypes of the more ambitious two foot gauge enterprises. A Pearse Lynton & Barnstaple locomotive, or the generic Lady Anne from Roundhouse are able to pull rakes of heavy timber built bogie stock that Jane would just not be able to manage. Large locomotives utilising internally fired. boilers, properly reciprocating cylinders and Walschaerts valve gear, have powerful steam plants that can pull to the limits of adhesion.
It is at this point that I would like to turn to the latest, and most surprising arrival from the market leading Roundhouse stable in the form of the 'budget' locomotive Millie. Persistent trade rumours of a real Roundhouse locomotive for under £400 were met with more than a little scepticism from garden railfarers but here it is, and I was quick to obtain an example for evaluation on behalf of RAILWAY MODELLER.
Really to appreciate this solidly built model, it is worth a quick delve into the history of Roundhouse Engineering. Before the later generations of sophisticated, internally gas fired locomotives with Walschaerts valve gear, this Doncaster engineering firm built its reputation on the construction of simple externally meths-fired pot-boilered locomotives of quite legendary reliability.
The Longlands & Western Railway, with Its checkrailed dockyard curves and the Infamous Trematon bank Is something of a challenge for models without radio control. Here Millie brings a train of Brandbright four wheelers through the reverse curves out of Trehan cutting. As the train rounds the curve Into Longlands, we can flick the regulator almost closed and the ensemble will draw to a halt at the platform.
Millle's simple cab layout on the base model. The gas tank Is In the bunker and could be easily covered with a coal load. The gas control valve Is on the port side of the cab and a refinement is the availability of a brake handle fitting to replace the rather obtrusive knob. Regulator handle Is pointing to the starboard cab doorway and falls easily to the hand while the hydrostatic lubricator Is tucked behind the port sidesheet. Boiler top-up system and sight glass is designed to be easily added by the purchaser if required.
If the weather was good enough for the locomotive to actually stay on the track, then conditions were good enough to drive and fire one of these little locomotives. Simple to use and normally manually controlled, these engines would toil along with a heavy load without running away on downgrades. If the loco ran out of steam at any point, then a few seconds' pause for breath would see the train move away from rest easily and realistically They were a delight and their passing was mourned by many traditional garden railway modellers and second-hand examples command a good price. It would seem that Roundhouse has gone back to its roots in a quest to produce an affordable locomotive and Millie is certainly based on those early engines but has an updated specification and uses modern materials.
The problem for Roundhouse designers was to produce a locomotive at effectively half the price without sacrificing runnability, reliability or their reputation for quality This has been achieved by first of all moving from the de facto standard fit of internally gas fired boiler to external firing within a Wheldon/Roundhouse firebox. Instead of the ubiquitous Walschaerts reversing gear, Millie uses the more traditional slip eccentric gear, whereby the locomotive has to be moved half a turn of the wheel in the direction of travel to effect reversing. 'Nice to have' items such as pressure gauge, boiler fill system with sight glass, and a full cab add-on do not affect the running of the locomotive and may be added later as finance and inclination allow. Further savings have been effected by improving efficiency of build and leaving final 'running in' turns to the purchaser.
Millie therefore, is a four coupled, side tank locomotive, eleven inches over buffers, 5-1/2" high and 4" wide. Unusually for a garden scale narrow gauge model, the locomotive is inside framed. This is an externally gas fired locomotive with slide valve fitted cylinders, slip eccentric valve gear and, as supplied, is manually controlled with a backhead mounted needle valve regulator. The basic model has an open cab with spectacle plate and rear bunker. Available in Maroon or Dark Green, the model represents a utility working locomotive, and as such, does not have a plethora of fancy decoration. All the basics are there however. The tall brass capped chimney and curved spectacle plate carry a degree of Victorian elegance, while detail such as tank fillers, smokebox door with handles, cab steps and brass grab rails finish off a fine steam model.
Prepare for running
It should be understood that externally fired, slip eccentric locomotives are by no means a 'second-best' option. In fact for many people, this type of motive power provides the ultimate in pleasurable running - and who am I to say differently? One of the advantages of external firing is that running times are significantly longer than the equivalent sized internally fired boiler because there is no requirement for a central boiler tube with the consequent reduction of capacity. Slip eccentric valve gear is also noted for smooth, steady running and if a locomotive pauses for lack of steam, it will pull away happily without attention as the boiler pressure rises. Perhaps it is time for a virtual steam up!
My test Millie, as supplied, is the base model at a shade under £400. Supplied with boiler fill syringe, a pack of spare O rings/washers, container of steam oil and a set of illustrated instructions, one needs only to provide water, butane gas, a drop of light lubricating (motor) oil and a box of matches before running one's first train. Preparing the locomotive for service is similar to most other small scale steamers and we start by charging the lubricator. I am quite pleased with the version fitted to Millie because unlike most Roundhouse locomotives at a price point below £1000, this one is tucked behind the sidesheet in the cab and drains beneath the running plate. The next job is to fill the capacious boiler and this is done via the safety valve/filler cap with the syringe supplied, before charging the gas tank in the bunker.
After waiting a few seconds to allow any stray butane to disperse, it is time to crack open the gas regulator and apply a match to the gap between the boiler and side tank. A small 'plop' will signify that the burner has lit and conformation is afforded by placing the open palm of one's hand above the loco and feeling the heat. While Millie is brewing gently it is a good time to oil round the running gear using a drop of light motor oil. Note that steam oil is not suitable for this purpose and in any case, motor oil is cheaper. Please be aware also, that the above is by no means a full instruction for servicing this little engine. There is a comprehensive manual supplied and it is worth protecting one's investment by fully reading the information therein. This observation may well seem superfluous but, surprisingly, a significant proportion of new owners has never read the locomotive handbook!
As a wisp of steam rises from the safety valve our engine is almost ready for the road, and it is at this point that setting Millie to work diverges from the more common, and more expensive, internally fired locomotives. As one opens the regulator Millie will attempt to move. Initially however, there will be a certain amount of water in the cylinders and this will cause the engine to move jerkily This is perfectly normal and known as 'priming'. Internally-fired locomotives are not so prone to this as externally-fired ones, because the smokebox, and therefore the cylinders, get hotter well before steam is introduced into the cylinder3. Full instructions are supplied to enable the user to expel this water easily and I always open the regulator slightly and ease the. locomotive forward and then in reverse until the water clears from the cylinders and the engine moves away smoothly. You will be pleased to know that, as you complete your 'running in' turns, this initial priming will not be anywhere near so noticeable.
Watching the trains go by
With priming cleared and direction of travel established, we can now drive the locomotive out of the yard and reverse onto the train. It is very satisfying actually to control the locomotive in such a 'hands on' way and after setting the eccentrics and hooking up the train, we can open the regulator and feel the locomotive taking the strain of its load as it accelerates slowly away from the station. I have to say here that it is very difficult to convey properly the pleasure of running a tractable steam locomotive such as this without radio control. Certainly when I first moved into the garden it seemed to me that full R/C was very much a mandatory requirement while free running trains belonged, very properly, to a faraway clockwork past.
It is not howsoever, quite like that. The reality of running live steam with full radio control certainly lives up to the dream and was everything I'd hoped for, but the fact is that I enjoy watching the steam trains go by and very often turn off my R/C equipment once the train is proceeding at a scale speed. Millie is specifically designed for this sort of running. Tremendously powerful and with a very wide power band, she will pull a heavy train to the limits of adhesion. Moreover, because of the flexible steam plant, the locomotive will pull its train at a scale l6mm walking pace if required. One does not have to go chasing over the rockery to adjust the regulator to provide more steam to ascend the bank, or frantically pursue the train to ensure that it negotiates that swine of a reverse curve without derailing. One opens the regulator to move away from the station and that, with the proviso that you have set the regulator to run at a scale speed, is it. You see the wide power band ensures that the loco will not run away on downgrades, while the free steaming boiler keeps the locomotive moving, even at very slow revolutions, to tackle the more taxing sections of your route.
It is a pleasure to watch and listen to Millie tackling Trematon Bank with a heavy train, while if she is just a little short of breath at any time (perhaps if one has set the burner too low), a short pause to 'blow up' is all that is required. Certainly no input is needed from a twelve inches to the foot driver! As steam pressure rises, the piston rods start to move and the train makes a prototypical chuffing start before continuing placidly along her way. Stopping at station or termini is not the problem that might be imagined either, because for a start, this is a narrow gauge operation, where speeds should rarely be in excess of fifteen miles an hour. A flick of the finger and a partial closing of the regulator as the train rumbles by, will enable a gradual and prototypical station stop.
As time and money allow...
After a running in period of typically eight to ten hours, and the acquisition of a certain amount of driving experience, it should be possible to obtain around forty minutes' steaming with this engine. The addition of sight glass and boiler fill kit will enable the loco to remain in steam continuously but it is my suggestion that Millie be run on the single fill system until significant experience of steam running has been gained. It is also suggested that a boiler fill/sight glass kit would make a very acceptable and affordable birthday or Christmas gift, thereby selflessly saving one's better half the problem of making a suitable Xmas selection. Other accessories are also available and perhaps the pressure gauge fitting could be added. I would emphasise that this is not at all necessary for safe running of one's new locomotive, but they do look nice and give the open cab just the right ambience. A more cosmetic addition is the replacement of the gas control knob with an inexpensive brake standard handle from Roundhouse (perhaps a Christmas pressie from the children!). Again this improves appearance, but it also makes it easier to set the gas regulator to a low setting to save wasting steam. A brass steam dome for Millie is a purely cosmetic addition and just drops over the safety valve. If one really wishes to go the whole hog, then a closed cab is also available and the loco can be radio controlled. My own preference is for an open cab and manual control of this particular class of locomotive but we are all different and the options are there if required. The point is, that if the base model is purchased, one has a satisfying working locomotive from day one. The various standard improvements and additions may be acquired as the hobby budget allows. These fittings are all 'bolt on' and with full instructions supplied.
Now I am very keen on personalising locomotives. Of course most people will fit name and number plates to their new steed, while some will send it off to Lightline for a professional lining job. There are however a couple of cheap and simple things that the new owner can do to improve the look of a new Millie whether one has it lined or not.
A short train impatient for the 'right away' at Longlands. This review engine !s In 'ex-works' condition and is looking just a bit plain without lining or nameplates. Perhaps later in the year I will be able to provide a photograph of Millie after receiving LWR livery and name.
Not fully run In and with regulator just open, Millie copes easily with a timber built Vale of Rheidol bogie coach, five planked wagons full of granite chippings, three Welshpool and Llanfair closed vans and a W&L brake.
First of all one can paint the plain brass cylinders and this is easy to do just with a brush. After degreasing I use black etch brass primer which goes on with a lovely flat finish and sticks nicely despite the heat. Other suitable paints are available from various sources and exhaust or stove heat resistant coverings spring to mind. Another easy little job is to paint buffers and headstocks. Turn the locomotive upside down and you will see that the buffer fittings are held on with one screw and can be very easily removed for painting. I paint mine all over black and then overpaint the headstocks with red acrylic Humbrol paint to match the buffer beams. These two little jobs, taking about ten minutes each, will certainly improve the appearance of your new locomotive.
Companies such as Brandbright can also supply all sorts of little extras for cosmetically improving one's locomotive, but it is possible to over egg the pudding and therefore a good idea is to rein back one's enthusiasm until experience has determined the level of detail required. Vacuum pipe stands would look good though and I would also say that one of my pet hates is a locomotive running without a suitable l6mm driver!
Value for money
This is a very good engine indeed and excellent value for money. The locomotive, as supplied, is enjoyable to run while improvements and additions may be taken up as the modelling budget allows. One of the hidden plus points is that Millie, while eminently suitable for the job, is not a 'starter' engine! Quite a few of these locomotives will find their way into the roster of many mature garden railways around the country because, put quite simply, it is very good at its job and will pull whatever train is on offer. It is at this point that I should tell you that I have a confession to make. I am no longer entirely unbiased, because since borrowing this locomotive for review I have been so taken with it that I have ordered one of my own.
Millie has impressed every single garden ' railwayman to whom I have shown her. What's more, Roundhouse has the stated aim of supplying the loco 'off the shelf' or at very short headway. If you want a British narrow gauge live steam locomotive for under £400, to run on either 32mm or 45mm gauge track, then I can do no more than suggest you buy this.
Millie is available from Roundhouse (tel. 01302 328035), Brandbright, Garden Railway Specialists and other suppliers.
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