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D&RGW Long Caboose On3/On30 by San Juan Car Co.

San Juan Car Co.
D&RGW Long Caboose On3/On30

Reviewed by Chris Lane

This is the RTR version of San Juan Car Co.’s popular round-roof long caboose kit. Available in both On30 and On3, the model features crisp assembly, beautiful graphics and excellent prototypical fidelity.

The prototype for this model is a group of cabooses built by the Denver, Rio Grande & Western between 1920 and 1923. Railroad historian Robert Sloan has designated this as the “Class 5” caboose and it represents the ultimate in narrow gauge caboose development. Built from parts taken from rip track Class 1 and Class 2 caboose numbers 0503, 0505, 0517, 0540 and 0574 at a cost of $2100, they had 25’ bodies, 2’ end platforms and round roofs. These were basically brand new cabooses with some recycled parts and while they retained the old caboose numbers, they benefited from all the lessons learned on the previous caboose classes.

The Class 1 caboose, from which all the Rio Grande, Florence & Cripple Creek and Rio Grande Southern’s narrow gauge cabooses are derived, started as a Billmeyer and Small design. General Palmer, the founder of the Denver & Rio Grande, had been previously employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad and he borrowed the design of the Class NA and NB for his new, narrow gauge railroad. Like the Pennsy version, these were four-wheel “bobber” types with three side windows. Over time, they were rebuilt into the eight-wheel, two side window short caboose D&RGW fans are familiar with. Copies of this style were also built for the RGS and F&CC. In addition, some of these cars donated hardware to become the Class 3 peaked roof, long cabooses numbers 0584-0589. This new 30’ car sat on the underframe of Class 7 boxcar and had a 26’ body. This made the end platforms only 18” wide, making these hacks quite unpopular with chubby trainmen. San Juan has announced a kit for this caboose for release this spring.

The Class 5 represents a great prototype to model for several reasons. First, due to their late build date, they were the caboose of choice in the late 1940’s to late 1950’s period so popular with modelers. Because the other cabooses had been retired or moved to branch and MoW service, photos of freight trains taken in this era almost always show one of these five cabooses trailing it. For that same reason, all of the class have been preserved and still exist in Colorado. (0503 - Chama, 0505 - Durango, 0517 – Fairplay, 0540 – Durango and 0574 – Golden.) Also, because of all the rebuildings and the different times cars were shopped, the Rio Grande caboose fleet is filled with individual cars with distinctive details. The Class 5 is by far the most homogenous, with dimensions of the cars varying by no more than 1 or 2 inches. Sure, you can pick out some minor detail differences over time in the ladder extensions and sun shades, but picking these cabooses allows the manufacturer to letter the cabooses with any of the five numbers and be virtually 100% prototypically accurate.

I reviewed the On30 version of the San Juan Car Co. model. The model arrived in a colorful green and gold, window-type box that displays the product and features color renderings of other San Juan products on the sides. One end clearly identifies the model as either the On3 or On30 version, which car number and if it is the pre-1942 “herald” scheme or the later “Flying Grande” paint. An unlettered version of the car in each gauge is also available. The caboose is nestled securely in a plastic clamshell package inside the box. The truck is secured with two wire ties, to keep the wheelsets in place and the trucks from rotating and becoming damaged in transit. My sample came lettered #0517 in the “herald” paint scheme. The car is painted oxide red with a black roof, the lettering is white and ladders, brake wheels, railings and cut levers are painted silver, which is correct for this period. All the paint and lettering are neatly and accurately applied.

The assembly and detail placement are top-notch. I can find no glue marks or loose parts. Key dimensions of the model match published drawings and the detail parts are finely rendered. The details include full brake rigging and underbody detail including the center sill slices and San Juan’s nifty air hoses, which are molded in a very flexible black plastic. The plastic turnbuckles are glued in between the two wire truss rods. I handled the model quite a bit on the course of writing the review and managed to knock the outer two turnbuckles loose. I suggest getting two scale pieces of stripwood or styrene 1” x 4” x 26” and running them through the turnbuckles. The prototype did this to keep the turnbuckles from working loose. It will add extra detail, and give the truss rods a bit more ability to stand up to rough handling.

Both the On3 and On30 models are exactly identical, except the On30 model is equipped with the On30 version of San Juan’s caboose truck. Both come with Kadee® #803 On3 couplers installed at On3 height. Be advised, if you are planning on using this car with stock Bachmann cars and locomotives, you’ll find the coupler heights won’t match. You’ll need to shim the coupler down .17”, or replace it with a Kadee® or compatible at the On30 (HO) standard height of .391”. If you elect to move the coupler down, it will mate with a Kadee #5 or equivalent, but you will have to remove or bend the trip pin to clear the rail.

The trucks are equipped with needlepoint, metal wheels. These are a different version than San Juan used with earlier RTR cars and it now features a full On3 profile and flange. Set at On30 width, they meet all the NMRA standards and performed well on a variety of HO track. I found them to be not quite as free rolling as some needlepoint On30 trucks, but that isn’t a bad thing on a caboose, as trains usually benefit from a little “holdback” on the rear. It is possible that the wheels are rubbing ever-so-slightly on the brake shoes. When I assembly trucks with outside hung brakes like these, I always chamfer the inside of the shoes at a sharp angle to the outside edge of the shoe. Doing so give a tight-to-the-wheel appearance from normal viewing angles, but the clearances rapidly increase back where you might rub the flange. This allows the wheelset to move in the journals a bit more without interference. This not to imply these trucks roll poorly, far from it, I just wanted to let the modeler know that there may be ways to improve the rolling qualities. There were a few reports of the wheelsets dropping out of the sideframes on earlier San Juan RTR. After extensive running and handling I can report zero issues with this car in that regard. The trucks both rotate and equalize freely and the body rides squarely and without wobble.

Turning radius is always an issue with On30 cars as we like to run tighter radius than you might find on the average On3 layout. The On30 version easily rolled through 28” radius curves. That might seem large, but that corresponds with the radius needed by the MMI K class locomotives whose prototypes pulled this cabooses’ prototype. For comparison, 32” is considered dead minimum radius for reliable operation in On3 and for using K class locomotives the radius jumps to 40”. Testing indicates the model will not go through a 22” radius without some modifications to the brake rigging and piping and that the couplers are at the limit of their coupler swing. This stands to reason, as this is a long car with the truck centers set even wider than the Bachmann passenger car.

San Juan Car Co.
P.O. Box 1028
Durango, CO 81302

Kit #131 Single Window Coupola,
MSRP $79.95

Kit #141 Double Window Coupola,
MSRP $79.95

The new San Juan round roof caboose is an exceedingly accurate model of the prototype available in a ready to run form that narrow gauge modelers could only dream of a few years ago. The On3 modeler can simply take it out of the box and tack it to the back of the nearest freight train. With the growing trend towards larger radiuses and On3 couplers and heights among On30 modelers following Colorado prototypes, it may be equally ready to use for them. For other On30 modelers this model is a beautiful car that can be used on the average On30 layout with a few simple modifications that can be accomplished in a fraction of the time it would take to assemble a much simpler kit version. It is the best San Juan ready-to-run car so far and a fine value.

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