Handcrafting a Jack Panel for the Pandemic Atlantic

In the first chapter of the Pandemic Atlantic saga, I addressed the loose drivers and bent side rod that I hadn’t noticed when purchasing the engine. The next thing I wanted to deal with was the jack panel at the rear of the cab, which was cracked. This is a common problem with these engines. Sure, repro panels are available if you know where to look, but there’s a pandemic going on, and I had time on my hands.

Every American Flyer steam locomotive manufactured before around 1959 has one of these panels screwed to the back of the cab, to serve as a connection point for the tender wires. Two thin layers of phenolic board capture a set of female contacts (in the case of this 302, there are four of them). The phenolic is brittle, and the panel is in a vulnerable spot. On this one, both layers of phenolic were cracked on one end, and it was just a matter of time before the thing would crumble into uselessness.

It so happens that I’ve got a sheet of printed circuit board material from Radio Shack. (Ahh, Radio Shack…remember them?) It’s clad with copper on both sides, made with a relatively strong fiberglass core, and the same thickness as both layers of the old panel. Why not give it a try? I taped pieces of the old panel in place, and used it as a guide to drill the holes. Twice, actually. The first time, I held the PCB down loosely on some scrap material, and the drill bit blew out the copper on the underside. The second time, I secured the PCB to a smooth scrap of MDF with double-stick tape, and the holes came out nice and crisp.

The PCB can be cut with a fine bandsaw blade, so I roughed it out there after drilling, then filed it to final shape. The belt sander at work would’ve been much quicker, but alas, there’s a pandemic going on, and I hadn’t seen the shop in weeks. Once I got it to profile, I carved some isolating grooves in the back-side copper, and soldered on the contacts from the old panel. It took a few tries to get it to work. I’d test-fit with the male connector, and the force would tend to tear the solder joints apart. I was afraid of tearing copper right off the board. After I spread the contacts ever-so-slightly to permit connection with less force, they stayed put on the panel. I re-soldered all the motor wires, assembled the engine, and gently connected the tender cable.

The back side is not particularly attractive, but so far, it’s working.

While I had everything apart, I gave the reverse relay a generous shot of contact cleaner, and cycled it a number of times. When you have an American Flyer engine that doesn’t run, the relay is always the prime suspect. Always. It’s the very first thing I learned about model-railroad electronics, when I was about 7 years old. The contact cleaner I used has proven to be excellent stuff, and I held out hope that it would spare me the hassle of disassembling the thing, or replacing the contacts. For good measure, I held a very fine brass brush against the contact drum as I cycled it, to help bust up all that oxidation.

When I put power to the tender trucks, it ran. The relay cycled with nice, loud, satisfying clicks, and the motor turned immediately. Some old stiffness in the mechanism loosened up with a moment’s running, and a few drops of 3-in-1 oil also helped.

The Pandemic Atlantic hasn’t been run on actual tracks yet, and there’s still more work to do, but it’s alive.