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The Aster USRA Light Mikado 

a review by Nick Wantiez


On December 28, 1917 , President Woodrow Wilson announced that, starting January 1, 1918 , American railroads would be placed under the direct control of the United States Railroad Administration, (USRA).   America ’s entry into WWI prompted this decision which would remain in effect until February 29, 1920 , when the USRA was formally dissolved.   During the war, American railroads operated under onerous conditions - skilled labor was in short supply, traffic was very heavy, critical maintenance had to be deferred and the procurement of new equipment was closely controlled.


Using 20/20 hindsight, some historians have faulted the USRA for its short term mentality in addressing these problems.  However when one considers the responsibilities with which it was assigned and the limitations within which it was forced to operate,  the administration  made many positive contributions to railroading  during its brief lifetime perhaps its most valuable being the bringing together many of America’s finest locomotive designers.


Through their combined efforts, a series of standard USRA locomotive designs came into being and were successfully operated during and long after the war.  Some of these designs remain classics to this day among which is the USRA Light Mikado soon to be released by Aster Hobby Corporation in Gauge 1. 


Aster began the design and construction of their prototype Light Mikado in 1998 after completing an intensive market survey.  Several other locomotives had been considered but the popularity of the Light Mike made it the front runner by a wide margin – its specifications are as follows:


Wheel Arrangement:          2-8-2

Scale/Gauge:                      1/32 Scale No.1 Gauge (45mm)

Dimensions:                        Locomotive and Tender – 770 mm (approx. 30 inches)

Wheel Dimensions:            Drivers - 50 mm Diameter (approx. 2 inches),

                                              one axle is fitted with a water pump eccentric

                                              Pilot and Tender Wheels – 26 mm Diameter (approx. 1 inch)

Weight:                                7.1 kg (approx. 15.7 lb.)

Boiler:                                  Smoke Tube Type with 5 tubes

                                             Water Capacity – 400 cc (70% full)

                                             Working Pressure 3 – 4 kg cm sq. (45 – 60 PSI)

                                             Fittings – Throttle, Blower Valve , Check Valve, Water Glass, Pressure Gauge

Cylinders:                           13 mm Bore x 20 mm  Stroke with D Slide Valves

Valve Gear:                        Walschaert –  Valve Travel 6 mm, Cutoff @ 75%

Burner/Fue:                        Alcohol Wick Tube Burner

Tender Alcohol Capacity: 200 cc

Minimum Curve Radius    2 meters (approx. 6.5 ft)


During 1998, Aster was busy with the introduction of the 2-4-0 Jumbo but by November of that year; all major components for two pilot models of the Mike were nearing completion.  The pilot models are always hand built so that development problems will not necessitate major tooling changes.   As can be imagined, hand building is a slow process and in the case of the Mike, it was necessary to work a great deal of overtime, so that it could be demonstrated at the Diamondhead meet in January of 1999.  Finally the pilot models were completed and steamed for the first time over the Christmas holidays. Only a few minor problems were uncovered during road trials;  these were quickly remedied.


Preliminary trials showed that the Mike was extremely powerful – it could easily handle 30 to 40 freight cars.  Slow speed control with a light load was good but in order to really hear the stack talk, a heavy load is required.  As is typical in Aster kits,  parts are supplied finished and painted but rather than limiting the choice of liveries for the Mike,  the basic kit is not lettered so that the builder can select the road which he/she wishes to model from about 50 different decal sets which must be purchased separately from a Canadian source.


A water pump eccentric is fitted to a driving wheel axle in the basic kit however both the axle driven water pump and the tender water tank/hand pump are optional kits and must be purchased separately.   Without either pump installed, the Mike will operate about 15 minutes non stop on one filling.  I personally prefer not having an axle driven pump since it decreases the locomotive’s hauling power but this is me and perhaps not the rest of the world.


As for the hand pump, I prefer a trackside unit rather than one mounted in the tender.   My BR-86, Glaskasten, and Pannier can only accept a trackside pump and I have never found this to be a disadvantage.  Long duration runs are nice but after 15 minutes or so, it is always a good idea to halt operations, lubricate, add water/oil, refuel and check for leaks (especially fuel) and loose fasteners.  Do this and your small scale locomotives will run for decades without needing repairs. 


Assembly of the Mike is relatively simple and should not present a problem to the builder however it may not be the best choice as a first project for a beginner to the live steam hobby.  Aster provides excellent after-market assistance to builders if assembly problems are encountered and factory assembled and tested units are also available. 


During February 1999, I was assigned to Japan for a few weeks and was able to visit the Aster factory in Yokohama.   At that time, I saw some of the production hardware and watched the pilot model in action.   I found it beautiful in appearance, easy to steam and flawless in performance and I recommend it without qualification.  The Light Mikado is a credit to the brilliant USRA designers who first brought it to life during WWI  and the equally talented Aster designers and craftsmen who  brought  it back to life in miniature over 80 years later giving us once again the opportunity to witness steam engineering at its finest.


This article by Nick Wantiez for his feature column, “The Smaller Gauges – Past and Present,” originally appeared in Live Steam. Appreciation for permission to reproduce it on SouthernSteamTrains.com is expressed to Nick Wantiez, author, and to Clover McKinley, Editor of Live Steam.


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