An Exercise in Patience

Photo depicts a Kato E-8 light board with a burned, blistered area.

Last Sunday, I touched the power leads to the wheels of a Kato E-8, but nothing moved. All that happened was an ominous dimming of the power pack’s pilot lamp. Uh-oh.

I found a pair of E-8s in Pennsy 5-stripe Tuscan at the Springfield show last January. Their boxes were rubber-banded together, with a tag for $51 on the top one. I asked the vendor if the tag was the price for both engines (suspiciously low), or each (unacceptably high). He agreed that the price was incorrect, and offered the pair to me for $80, which was still a good deal. I took them home and set them aside, without taking them out of their boxes.

Some more Kato passenger cars came my way a few weeks ago, and with them the need for more DCC-equipped PRR passenger power. I ordered decoders to fit the E-8s. The first installation went smoothly: I gave the engine a quick test on DC to make sure it ran, removed the shell, pulled out the light board, wrapped Kapton tape around the bus bars as needed, slotted in the decoder, soldered the motor contacts, and tested it on DCC. It was a textbook-perfect installation. I put the shell and the front coupler back on, and moved to the second engine.

The initial DC test did not go well. That dimming pilot lamp could only mean a short circuit.

The list of things that can cause a short circuit in a DC-powered N scale locomotive is not long. (You might say it’s a short list.) The possibility of a burned-out motor instantly occurred to me. I’d installed decoders on a set of Kato F-units seven months ago, and one of them turned out to have a bad motor. I searched everywhere for a replacement motor, even to the point of a face-to-face conversation with a Kato rep at Springfield, with no luck. In the end, I bought the cheapest used F-unit I could find to cannibalize. Naturally, I tested it there at the show to make sure that it didn’t also have a bad motor. It never occurred to me to test the E-units, though.

So, it was with some anxiety that I took the shell off the second E-8. I spotted trouble immediately: the rear of the light board was blackened and blistered. Perhaps it caught heat from the motor burning out…or perhaps, just perhaps, the light board itself was the problem. I removed the retaining clip and pulled it out. On the underside, directly under the black spot, was a small passive component that didn’t look too healthy. Everything on the chassis itself looked fine.

I reached for the power leads again, daring to hope, and touched them directly to the motor contacts. The wheels spun with a healthy, reassuring whining noise. So it was just the light board after all. I proceeded with the installation, and the second engine tested as perfectly as the first.

Was that bad light board the reason the engines were tagged so cheap in the first place? Possibly, but I’m more inclined to believe that the engines weren’t test-run at all, and hastily priced during a large acquisition.

The drama wasn’t over quite yet, however. When I put the pair onto the rails of the Covid Emergency Railroad, consisted them, and sent them on a test lap, one of them started squealing halfway around. The squeal of dry bearings in an N scale locomotive is distinctive. Of course I should have lubricated them during the installations—who knows how long they’ve been sitting around?—but I skipped that step. Yank the coupler, pop the shell, unsolder the decoder, squeeze a drop of oil into every every important point on the geartrain, and reassemble.

It’s supposedly unnecessary to solder a decoder into a Kato chassis. The little gray retainer clip is supposed to ensure reliable contact to the motor. I’ve abandoned that particular fantasy.

Yeah, that’s better. Finally, I can run my Broadway Limited west of Harrisburg.