AMS On3/On30 D&RGW Short Caboose

Once the mainstay office and living quarters for train crews throughout the Rio Grande’s narrow gauge operations, 16 prototype cars still exist. Decoration and minor detail miscues aside, this a very good O scale model of a numerous, well-known and well-preserved class of narrow gauge cars.

AMS On3/On30 D&RGW Short Caboose

Review by Chris Lane/photos by the author

Wood cabooses go hand in hand with steam era railroading, and the narrow gauge divisions of the Denver & Rio Grande Western were steam-powered until the end. Some portions of the line continue today as the Durango & Silverton and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway. This new model from American Model Supply represents the most numerous caboose used by the Rio Grande up the 1950s. AMS has produced a solid model of the prototype, of which sixteen examples still exist.

The Prototype

The first four Rio Grande cabooses were built by Jackson & Sharp in 1871. It is believed that they were built from 4-wheel smoking cars and baggage-mail cars also built by Jackson & Sharp in 1871. These cars first appear on the roster listed as “calaboose” in 1872 numbered 1 through 4. The Rio Grande took over building cabooses at that point and from 1876 to 1886, built 84 cars numbered 5-88. These were built to the Billmeyer & Small 4-wheel design familiar to Pennsylvania fans as the Class NA and NB. Along with the four original cars, this became the Rio Grande’s Class 1 “bobber” style caboose fleet with 16′ bodies, 7′ width and a 9′ wheelbase. They also had three evenly spaced windows on the sides and sloped cupola sides. Two examples of these cars still exist: No. 49 at the Colorado Railroad Museum and Silverton Railway (ex D&RG No. 17/0516) in Silverton, Colo.

The single window side. Having a window behind a stove proved rather impractical, so all the short cabooses ended up with the single window on the caboose stove wall.

Between 1885 and 1890, the D&RG added fifteen Class 2 cars. These 8-wheel cabooses were built with 17’ bodies, with a 6’-6” width and straight cupola sides along with rounded body corners like a passenger car. These also were built with three side windows, but the center window was sheathed over starting in the 1890s and the window behind the stove starting disappearing sometime after 1905. They were numbered 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 (replacing worn out or wrecked Class 1 cabooses) and 89-95. No. 96 joined the roster in 1887. 1887 as marked the year of first system-wide renumbering. 1-150 had been assigned to new refrigerator cars, so all the cabooses were renumbered starting with 0500, with No. 1 becoming 0500, No. 2 becoming 0501 and so on. The cars were numbered sequentially in this way, including gaps where old cabooses had left the roster. Thus the 8-wheel Class 2 cabooses were 0500, 0501, 0503, 0504, 0505 and 0573-0580. 1890 builds added Nos. 0581-0583 to this class and the Rio Grande built four more for the Rio Grande Southern in 1891. The RGS numbered them W400-W403 (later 0400-0403).

ams-caboose-side-view-3The two window side of the caboose. The original third window would have been right where the herald is located. The window opening is still present in the prototype cars; the D&RGW merely sheathed over them as they rebuilt the cars.

While the Rio Grande built six new cabooses in 1900 (the 8-wheel, peaked roof, 26’ car body Nos. 0584-0589, Class 3), the ICC regulations of 1903 caused a caboose crisis. Among other rules, it mandated that cabooses must have air brakes, rendering all the remaining Class 1 cabooses illegal. In a bind, the railroad converted some of the best Class 1 cabooses into the Class 4, 8-wheel, air brake equipped cabooses. These cars retained the 16’ body while the cupola was made vertical as with the Class 2. These cars did not receive needle beams or queen posts (thus the truss rods are hidden within the frame), with the exception of car No. 0524, which we’ll revisit in a moment. Cars known to be in this class are: 0518 (preserved in Silverton), 0526, 0527, 0528, 0548, 0549 (nee 49 at the Colorado Railroad Museum, 0556, 0559 and the 0524, also at the Colorado Railroad Museum. In a class of unusual cars, the 0524 stands out. It was the longest surviving car of the original class 1s, lasting in service until 1953. Caught in an avalanche in 1920, the car was rebuilt with an eight-member underframe (as opposed to the usual six) and the timbers were stouter than normal. It also received the needlebeam/queen post/visible truss rod configuration seen on the Class 2 cabooses, but the airbrake piping and reservoir location is unlike that of any other short caboose. The 0524 is a one-of-a-kind caboose. (see the plans in Slim Gauge Cars-Second Edition).

ams-caboose-endThe Class 1 and Class 2 cars continued to serve the railroad but began to leave the roster right at the turn of the century due to sales to other roads, wrecks/fires or general wear. Five of the cars were rebuilt into 25’ bodied long cabooses, all retaining their original number: 0503 in 1912, 0505 in 1923, 0517 in 1920 and both 0540 and 0574 in 1923. These cars all survive today. The remaining short cabooses toiled in work train and branch line service until all were sold or donated to various towns between 1950 and 1953. While a few of the preserved cars have been lost to fire in the years since, remarkable number of them are preserved and still contain some of the wood and ironwork from their building over a century ago. For more details, consult Robert Sloan’s A Century +10 of D&RGW Narrow Gauge Freight Cars, from which much of the above information was gleaned.

The Model

American Model Supply announced this car a number of years ago, so it is good that it has finally become available. It is a very good model of the later versions of the square corner Class 2 caboose and should be a welcome addition to the rosters of both On3 and On30 modelers.

Dimensionally, this model agrees with published drawings and the D&RGW engineering and folio drawings. The model features all the details found on these cabooses and they are nicely rendered. The body, windows, smokejack, end ladders, marker lights and most other details are crisp and well molded, with the exception of the brakewheel. On AMS’ original offering, the D&RGW 3000-series boxcar, the brakewheel was a bit crude and quite oversize at over 21 scale inches; the prototype is 16”. Later offerings were better, (in fact a bit undersized), so the return of the oversize casting on this fine model is puzzling. On the plus side, the brakewheel sits a bit too high, so a quick clip of the staff and replacement with a Grandt Line or San Juan Car co. part quickly and cheaply solves the issue.

All the grabs are wire and both in scale and correctly formed, and the same with the distinctive D&RGW strap iron caboose steps. Both are painted in white and while the coupler lift lever, brake staff and wheel are boxcar red on this model, they were usually painted white on the prototype as well. Moving down, the trucks are very nice renditions of the standard D&RGW caboose truck and have the outside-hung brake beams and shoes as part of the assembly. The underframe sports all the piping and brake components of the prototype, albeit a bit simplified for operation on layouts. The intermediate sills are scalloped to provide as much swing for the trucks as possible.

ams-caboose-underframeThe split air cylinder/reservoir seen on the short cabooses is visible in this underframe view as are the brake rigging, queenposts and truss rods.

My sample was decorated with the “Moffat Road” herald, which was used before the 1940s. Other schemes include the post 1940 “Flying Grande” herald on Nos. 0500 and 0501, the green paint job 0579 wore briefly for her appearance in the 1952 movie Denver & Rio Grande, Rio Grande Southern 0401with the “Sunrise” herald and a painted, unlettered model. The body color is a good match of the boxcar red/brown the D&RGW used on these cars and the lettering is crisp and opaque without being too heavy. The lettering also reads correctly and is applied in the right locations. So far, so good, but I must point out some decoration misadventures. The paint on the 0579 was a short-lived movie scheme but is accurate, as is the decoration on 0500 and 0501. The paint on 0528 is era-correct, but this car left the roster in 1936, so before the era most modelers replicate. More problematic, this car was actually a Class 1, so the model body is a full foot too long for this number and had no queen posts, needle beams or truss rods. Lastly, this car (along with 0526) featured a cast caboose step totally unlike the strap iron steps the model has and most prototype cabooses had.

Likewise, the decoration as 0524 is inaccurate because it is also a Class 1. True, this caboose does have the truss rods seen on the model, but 0524 has caboose ladder extensions unlike other short cabooses (save RGS 0401) and more importantly, has rounded corners on the car body, not seen on the model.


The model comes in an attractive box and the now ubiquitous clamshell plastic inner box, keeping the model clean and safe during shipping. The trucks also have bits of foam stuck under them to prevent damage in shipping. When I first set the model on the track, it didn’t roll worth a darn, but I realized there is actually foam under both wheelsets on each truck. Once removed, the car rolled freely on the D&RGW archbar caboose trucks. The rigid trucks are excellent, accurate models that feature posts that hold the outside-hung brake shoes in the proper location. The car rolled through the advertised 18” radius curve with no issues, and I have no doubt the On3 version will do the 24” The wheels are the correct profile, width and diameter for an O scale model of the prototype’s 26” wheels.


The couplers are Kadee-style and compatible, but unfortunately do not operate very well. This problem plagued the boxcar release, but subsequent releases featured a coupler that operated very well. The return to the original coupler is disappointing. On the positive side, the boxes are almost exactly the same as the Kaddee boxes, so coupler replacement is a snap. Better, the AMS model comes with a spacer box that drops the couplers down to the On30 (HO) standard. Many On30 modelers use the On3 coupler height standard for Colorado prototypes, so removing the spacer puts the couplers at that height. Obviously, the On3 models come stock without the spacer, but the spacer was a very strong solution for maximizing the number of modelers who could use the car stock, and it is welcome feature from AMS.


Decoration and minor detail miscues aside, this a very good model of a numerous, well-known and well-preserved class of narrow gauge cars. These short cabooses were long-lived on the prototype and therefore beloved by the modelers, and they make a worthy addition to D&RGW, RGS and freelance narrow gauge railroads. List price for this model is $109.

Denver, Rio Grande & Western Short Caboose
MSRP:  $109.00

AM53-0103 – Short Caboose – On3 – Unlettered Caboose Red
AM53-0113 – Short Caboose – On3 – D&RGW #0528, Moffat Logo
AM53-0123 – Short Caboose – On3- D&RGW #0524, Flying Rio Grande
AM53-0133 – Short Caboose – On3 – D&RGW #0501, Flying Rio Grande
AM53-0143 – Short Caboose – On3- D&RGW #0500, Flying Rio Grande
AM53-0153 – Short Caboose – On3- RGS #0401
AM53-0163 – Short Caboose – On3- D&RGW #0579, Green

AM53-010 – Short Caboose – On30 – Unlettered Caboose Red
AM53-011 – Short Caboose – On30 – D&RGW #0528, Moffat Logo
AM53-012 – Short Caboose – On30 – D&RGW #0524, Flying Rio Grande
AM53-013 – Short Caboose – On30 – D&RGW #0501, Flying Rio Grande
AM53-014 – Short Caboose – On30 – D&RGW #0500, Flying Rio Grande
AM53-015 – Short Caboose – On30 – RGS #0401
AM53-016 – Short Caboose – On30 – D&RGW #0579, Green

American Model Supply (AMS)
33268 Central Ave
Union City, CA 94587
(510) 324-3399

This article was posted on: November 18, 2016