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The Aster French 2-8-0

 

 

a review

 

by John van Riemsdijk

 

The last steam locomotives in normal revenue service on the S.N.C.F. were not, as is sometimes stated, American built Mikados, but British built 2-8-0s, from the North British Locomotive Co., built to an entirely French design.  The first 70 of this type were built in 1913 in France, but then another 200 were built in the U.K. in 1916 and 1917.  The class eventually totaled 340, as compared with over 1300 for the American 141R, which, with the 2-8-0s, on average 30 years older, makes their outlasting of the Mikados even more remarkable.  It was probably due to their being designed as heavy freight locos and in that role as capable as the141Rs, which were mixed traffic machines, compared with which the 2-8-0s were more flexible on the track, easier to maintain and more economical.

 

They were designed in the drawing office of the old OUEST railway, which had been merged with the ETAT in 1908 and which long had an excellent design team.  The Aster instruction book implies that the design was due to Henschel of Kassel, a suggestion found in two recent French publications, but entirely without foundation: Henschel has supplied the OUEST with a batch of 2-8-0s in 1906, but these were of the Italian 730 class, two cylinder compounds without superheaters and total different in design style to the ETAT 140C which was a superheated simple.

 

When I was asked to suggest prototypes for Aster to make for Twerenbold, the highly regarded Swiss firm which has succeeded Fulgurex in the European Aster market, I mentioned three possibilities at three cost levels, but strongly recommended the middle choice, the 140C, and sent some drawings and photographs of those locomotives.  I imagine others were consulted too.  My choice was based on commercial considerations with a look at the French market, but I must admit to a particular liking for, and slight association with, the class.

 

My first French footplate ride, in 1946, was on one of them, out of Dieppe on a long train of ex ETAT corridor four wheelers, all scarred by war damage; and I have in recent years ridden a few times with the crew of 140C 27 on the preserved Cevennes line near our home here.  Seven or eight of these engines have been preserved and those in working order run specials on main lines.  When the owners of C27 could not get original drawings of the class (a result of war losses in Rouen) I was able to give them my set of 1/10 scale prints – all metric of course – overstamped North British Loco Co.  I had them since 1944: thus they escaped by catastrophic flooding in 2002.

 

So to the model (and about time too!).  It is very beautiful – almost too beautiful – and rather expensive.  Two versions are on offered and they differ in more than their liveries, numbers, etc.  By the time the S.N.C.F. inherited all these engines many variations of detail had appeared.  The black version has the original ETAT smooth domes smokebox door, but also a Lemaitre chimney; the green one has a Nord-type Y hinge door (much adopted by the S.N.C.F.) but the original slim chimney – it also has a Dabeg feed heater and pump with drive off the valve gear, which was quiet a rare variant.  There are many such differences between the models, all duly signaled in the kit instructions.  I chose the green engine, ready to run as, at my age, I may not have the time, the nimble fingers or the eyesight to assemble this complicated machine.

 

After a minute inspection with a magnifying glass the engine had its first steaming.  We gave it caution load of seven bogie hoppers, loaded to my test standard of 1 pound per axle, opened the cylinder drain cocks (so elegantly contrived) and cracked open the regular, with a full admission at the valve gear.  Off she went with a nice cloud of steam at the front end (it was a rather cold day) and after a few yards I closed the cocks and she settled down to a sedate scale 60 or so.  I then doubled the load, added a heavy four wheeled brake, notched her up and closed the bypass.  The train was then nearly 60 pounds but she started without a slip (I think my old brass track is self-sanding) and wheeled this train, with never a ball bearing in sight, round my figure of eight track quite a bit faster than before notching up etc; while she produced a beautiful exhaust beat.  Performance was perfect and she was very easy to run.

 

I have not yet tried her on my train of blue and cream Pullmans, but I know that is far lighter than the long freight.  The real engines were sometimes used for express (not “rapide”) trains and in the happy days when autorails were apt to beak down they would be tied on three coach trains of heavy corridor stock and beat the autorail timing!  This was because of their vigorous acceleration from stops.  Mixed traffic locos after all!

 

The model is spirit fired, of course, and has two tube type C boiler with a rather small firebox right at the rear, I not sure why.  I had no hand in the design, but, thought I might have done something differently I cannot fault the design in any way.  The valve gear is excellent: more or less all square Walschaerts and modeled to an unbelievably high standard of realism at all points, such as rod ends, crossheads for pistons and valve rods.  The reversing lever has only four positions, well chosen with two between the full gear settings which give good economical steam distribution. 

 

The super detailing is exquisite, with all sorts of specially molded fittings, and the surfaces show tiny rivets and covers, umpteen slim pipes and discreet overlaps like the platework on the real machine.  Almost too beautiful, but like the real machines, basically simple, orthodox, robust and powerful – and able to run round 2 meter radius curves.

 

The standards set in the 232U1 and the BR 62 have been maintained in this seemingly more modest locomotive.  I cannot presume to read Aster’s mind, in spite of a close association with them during a quarter of century or more, in the past.  But my guess is that, faced with increasing competition, they have decided to go for unbeatable quality whatever the cost, and remain at the very top of the market, in splendid isolation perhaps, but never without customers.  If my guess is right, theirs is a wise decision.

 

Permission to post this article by John van Riemsdijk to the Southern Steam Train website has been graciously granted by the author and Richard Comber, Editor, Gauge 1 Model Railway Association’s Newsletter and Journal.  Originally published in the G1MRA Newsletter and Journal (Issue 215) Autumn 2007.

 

 

 

 

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