New on the Layout – Bachmann SC-44 Charger

I’ve mentioned before that I have historically not been a fan of Bachmann’s stuff. Like many who have been around the hobby for a long time, we’ve been burned by poor running Bachmann engines, we’ve seen the poor detail of their rolling stock… And don’t get me started on their EZTrack and EZCommand systems. Oh, and their Plasticville line – it was just fine for the ’70s and the ’80s, the problem is that the line hasn’t changed since at least the ’70s or the ’80s….

Of all the Bachmann stuff I had from the old layout, the only one that has a possibility of being upgraded for the current layout is a B&O Doodlebug from the old Spectrum line. It still amazes me that I bought it on clearance for $35 and now I see them sell at auction for 3 times the price…

Over the years, Bachmann’s slowly been making progress with their models. Last year I posted about the HHP-8 released back in 2005 which (with the exception of the featureless void of the cockpit) is extremely well detailed, but runs terribly. A few weeks ago I also posted about the GG-1 which to be honest the only flaw I could find was the pantographs.

Last year Bachmann announced that they were going to be producing the Siemens SC-44 Chargers in N scale, and I admit I wasn’t excited. It’s a Bachmann, I thought, ’nuff said… Then the HO version came out and folks were raving about it, and I started softening my stance. If the N scale version was as good as the HO Scale one was, this actually could be a really nice model.

I saw pre-release version at Train Fest over the fall and in person, they looked really good, but I didn’t see them running.

Last weekend I picked up Amtrak Midwest 4632, and now that I have my hands on one, I’m positively blown away by it.

From a detail perspective, it looks phenomenal. Much like the HHP-8 the fine details really make the difference. Although unlike the HHP-8, the SC-44 has a finished cockpit.

The photo above really captures how much detailing there is on this engine. From the MU cables and the painted MU receptacle covers to the destination sign that is readable under magnification and even the “dash cam” orb in the cockpit, the model looks great.

Don’t confuse these SC-44 Chargers with the ALC-44 Chargers that Kato has announced and should be hitting hobby shops in the next few weeks.

The SC-44 Chargers which Bachmann has produced are not considered long range engines (ALC in ALC-44 stands for “Amtrak Long Charger”). Amtrak’s SC-44s are running on their state funded services, which is why they run with Amtrak Midwest, Pacific Surfliner, or WSDOT Amtrak Cascades markings. While they look similar, Kato’s producing the ALC-44 and has not announced a run of the SC-44s.

It’s not just the looks where Bachmann’s exceeded expectations, Bachmann’s SC-44 comes standard with a TCS WowSound DCC and sound decoder. It is far and away the best sounding engine on the layout, and the most feature rich locomotive on the layout. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also the best sounding and most feature rich locomotive in N Scale today. Seriously, it is that good.

I’m not sure that there’s a light on this model that doesn’t work. There’s front and rear headlights, flashing ditch lights when appropriate, flashing roof strobes, the engine bay is lit, and yes it even has a working emergency strobe.

That emergency strobe – it’s activated by initiating an emergency stop… You can do that by pressing Function 5 quickly four times, regardless of the throttle position when the engine goes into emergency you hear the air dump, the brakes squeal and the strobe flashes to indicate emergency mode.

The other way you can initiate the emergency mode – if you’re looking for as realistic operations as possible you can turn on a “deadman’s switch” just like a real locomotive. If you don’t interact with the engine in some form every few minutes, it will assume you’re incapacitated and activate emergency mode, stopping the engine.

Emergency mode isn’t the only realistic function that Bachmann included, most model trains control speed and breaking strictly by using the throttle… However you can set the momentum on the SC-44 to reflect prototypical operations – lowering the throttle with cause the engine to drift along, and eventually it will stop. In this mode braking is done manually by pressing Function 5, each press engages the brakes a bit more along with the requisite brake squeal.

Bachmann also installed a keep alive in these engines. Got dirty track, or gaps in your power? The engine will run without stutter (including sound and lighting) for a good 4 seconds after it looses power.

As impressed as I am with this model, and I am very impressed with it. It has so much functionality crammed into it, that it can be a little confusing to configure and operate. Bachmann’s voice guide system helps, a lot, it’s probably the only way that it’s possible to use the engine with their feature limited EZCommand system. I struggled to configure it with my Digitrax Zephyr and JMRI though. It may have been because JMRI doesn’t have a profile for this decoder yet, but the paging of the functions was a challenge to work through.

The other issue – cost. This is an expensive engine. MSRP according to Bachmann is $449 USD, which to be frank – is completely ridiculous. Most retailers are selling them for just under $270 which is quite a bit more reasonable, but still puts them on the high side for DCC/Sound engines. The added functionality and better sound compared to say an engine from BLI probably makes these SC-44s a better value than something from BLI – but that’s for you to decide.

I do have to loop back to the upcoming Kato ALC-44s, because I think Bachmann’s really thrown down the gauntlet to Kato. Yes, these are somewhat different engines – but Bachmann is only offering the SC-44s with DCC and sound, no DC only version. Kato on the other hand is releasing the ALC-44s in DC and DCC, no sound at least initially and my guess is that when sound comes to the ALC-44s they’ll be “Kobo Customs.” Kato says that their SC-44s were designed to be easily upgradable to add sound with the fuel tank designed for a speaker installation and that accommodations were made for cable routing – which leads me to ask why Kato didn’t just offer a DCC/Sound version right from the start.

The other issue is lighting, in particular the engine bay lighting… Bachmann’s SC-44 has the engine bay lighting installed and working on all versions of their SC-44… Kato’s ALC-44, does not ship with the engine bay lighting, if you want it you need to buy and install a lighting kit… I’m absolutely staggered that Kato isn’t including full lighting. I’m hopeful that Kato’s version includes working ditch lights, including flashing like Bachmann’s SC-44, but since Kato’s not producing a sound equipped version I think that there’s a high likelihood that flashing ditch lights are going to require modifications.

Oh, and Bachmann’s already announced their own version of the ALC-44, and it’s going to use the exact same TCS WOWSound decoder as the SC-44. Looks like Kato’s going to have a challenge on their hands, and they might not come out the winner…