Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Review: SDS AustrainsNEO NR Class

The layout overhaul continues on Philden, with the latest arrival bringing about a return of some big, modern horsepower in the form of the new NR Class loco released this month by SDS Models under their AustrainsNEO brand. The 4,000 horsepower National Rail units built in 1996 have long been a popular model produced by Austrains since the year 2000. They are a big locomotive which at first glance looks longer than it actually is, probably on account of the number 2 end protruding flush with the coupler box. Measuring 22 metres long in real life, the HO scale version stands 25.5 cm long over the couplers which is the same length as On Track Models 82 Class or Auscision C44aci locos, but still a suitable choice for operating on my 9' foot long shunting layout. So how much better are the new AustrainsNEO models?

The new look AustrainsNEO packaging, but wait... the model even comes with spare horns!

The decision to keep the branding of the SDS Models and the former tooling inventory the company bought off Austrains separate could either appear as a strange one, or a nice tribute to one of Australia's model railway pioneers, John Eassie. It's no secret that Austrains filled a huge hole in the Australian market back in 1997 with their 80 Class locomotive at a time that LIMA had disappeared. Their NR Class loco followed soon after in 2000. Easily the highest selling Australian model railway locomotive of all time, (thanks to 7 re-runs that might be construed as over-supplying the market), SDS Models simply HAD to do something different with the NR when effectively making this the 9th run of the model if they wished to sell any at all.

Using the original Austrains body shell and chassis, the model has been given a huge do-over with heaps of detail.

But by NOT trying to re-invent the wheel, I think they did. Sure this is the same body shell moulding, bogie and chassis arrangement they purchased from Austrains, but they finally gave this model a finish expected from a leading supplier. Sure if you look closely you'll see the shallow side pilot steps and moulded cab side hand rail that are carry-overs from a past where highly detailed plastic tooling was well short of today's standards, (we're talking close to 20 years here). Plus the side ladder remains mounted to the bogie instead of being body mounted as a necessity for the loco to negotiate our tight model rail curves. But then look at everything else on this model, by today's standards its pretty darn good! From the better paintwork, to the finely placed graphics. Everything about this model is just better. Way better! Well, apart from any interior cab detail which I'll get to later.

The fuel tanks and chassis now look as good as any other model, though the side steps remain bogie mounted.

If you own, or have seen an original or earlier version of the Austrains NR Class locomotives, then this side shot will make you want one of the newer models! I purchased this Pacific National NR29 loco for the sole reason that this was the very first loco painted in Pacific National colours back in March 2003, the other being NR103 which was released the following month in an all-blue trial livery. It fits my 2005 era perfectly as the liveries with the now common 5 stars added was not adopted until 2011.

Compared to earlier models, the couplers are now pilot mounted with more details around the air hoses.

Earlier models of the Austrains NR Class had a gaping hole in the pilot where the couplers were mounted to the end of the bogies. The last Austrains re-run made them pilot-mounted. As with any re-release, you expect improvement. The SDS AustrainsNEO version has finished this model with a pleasing amount of detail, including choice of 29 different liveries in either standard analogue DC, DCC or DCC with sound. Each model has operating LED headlights, marker lights and ditch lights as standard, along with Kadee equipped knuckle couplers.

Speaker enclosures and directional head and marker light override switches as standard.

Underneath the model is the provision for a speaker and two headlight/marker light manual override switches for those wanting to run these in pairs. To be clear, my purchased model was a standard DC model only, meaning I cannot vouch for the sound or DCC qualities of the loco. But the manual override light switches work in DC mode, and are there if I need them.

The head lights and ditch lights on this model are exceptional...

The model also has the same factory sourced motor and drive gear as the original NR's, making them speed compatible with the earlier Austrains releases and ensuring spare parts won't be impossible to track down if ever needed. Talk to any regular who has run the earlier NR's, and you'll likely be told how many shows they've done without the models missing a beat. So we're talking a motor and drive gear that is tried and trusted here. And these locos are known to be able to operate on a radius as tight as 18" inches.

Straight out of the box the loco started nicely. It was smooth, quiet and most importantly made it through a pair of medium Code 100 points and a PECO double-slip point without any problems, something which you'd expect from a model that says its NMRA standard. First impressions are that this model has a slightly different feel to the Auscision, Southern Rail and On Track models that I've become accustomed to. There seems to be less throttle play at slow speed before it moves of the mark. I don't really know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. It just feels a little different. The LED headlights however are brilliant, and are just as bright at either end of the loco making them easily the best that I've come across on any model so far.

The red marker lights are there too, just a little more subdued, but there's noticeably no interior cab detail.

The red marker tail lights are a little more subdued, yet equally as effective. I need to pay attention to NR's running light engine a little more to compare their brightness with the real life prototypes. Which brings me to one last area. The interior cab. There is none. While there is a slight glow to the inside of the cab, there is noticeably no driver visible through the window and only the slight resemblance of a bare room beyond the windscreen. I thought this may have been one area that a re-do of this model would have benefited from, either some form of interior cab, console outline or whatever, with or without the little guys sitting inside. A little interior detail might have been all that was needed for this model to stand comfortably alongside the best five star Australian diesel models.

Up top, the model finally gets the top-class finish it deserves. This is a HUGE improvement over the original.

In a world where costs are continually spiralling up, (especially when it comes to Australian model railways), it was a welcome relief to see this model re-released with all its improvements at the same price of $275 Australian that the prior Austrains version was priced at. Given that the tooling already existed, and taking into account the enhanced paintwork and graphics applied to this model, the model seems very well priced. Non-powered models at the same enhanced level of detail are also available for $165 Australian.

The NR locomotive in 1996 changed the face of modern Australian railroading. Its model counterpart in 2000 changed the face of Australian model railroading. Now the widespread popularity of this locomotive is sure to live on, thanks to the work SDS have made to make this model relevant again. By today's model standards, the AustrainsNEO version is so much better than the original Austrains version in so many ways, yet is essentially the same model. It just shows that sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel to make a considerable improvement.

Review Card: SDS Models' Austrains NEO NR Class locomotive

My Rating:


Final Thoughts: The team at SDS have worked wonders to bring essentially an 18 year old model up to today's standards. I'm very eager to see their next locomotive project, the NSW 81 Class.

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Thanks for taking the time to visit Philden. I hope you'll book a return ticket soon. Cheers, Phil