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O gauge U.S. Air Force SW8 switcher by MTH Electric Trains


Price: $329.95 (no. 30-20408-1) Min Curve: O-27 Cmd Low: 2.9 smph Cnv Low: 3.1 smph High: 73.6 smph Drawbar pull: 1 lb., 2 oz. Features: Two can-style motors, ProtoSound 3.0 command and sound system, coil couplers Current-production road names: Chicago & North Western, GM Diesel Division (Canada), Nickel Plate Road, Southern Pacific, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force.  For more information: Go to
A large part of my childhood was spent about a mile south of the property line for Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and within easy view of launches from Cape Kennedy. That being said, my family took many visiting friends and relatives on the Sunday drive-through tour of the space center.

Now I can’t imagine that being done today, but employees gave you a map and security vehicles were parked at intersections to prevent any unauthorized detours. Otherwise, you were on your own. One point on the tour was a drive past the facility where Titan missiles (of Gemini fame) were assembled. As cool as that was, the main reason I always tagged along was to view two U.S. Air Force blue diesel switchers used to facilitate movement of the rockets to the launch pad.

Other than seeing a string of U.S. Navy helium cars that always seemed to be parked in the same place each visit, I had no idea how elaborate the center’s railway network was until I came to work at Kalmbach Publishing Co. NASA had its own railway, and at one time as many as three Air Force SW8s were assigned to Cape Canaveral operations. Between 1965 and 2005, they supported 82 Titan launches. At one point the space center’s rail line operated 38 miles of track, but it was paired down to 17 and has been dormant since 2015.

The ultimate fate of that rail line may still be determined in the future, since Florida officials have been kicking around an idea to use it as a transit point for container operations at Port Canaveral.

This is a model of an 800-horsepower SW8 switcher. The Electro-Motive Division of General Motors built 374 of them for North American railroads and industries between 1950 and ’54. Thirteen of the locomotives have been preserved. Air Force unit no. 2021 is on display at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Appropriately, it is displayed on track it once used to move Titan rockets for launch.

Opening the box

The SW8 from MTH Electric Trains is the type of diesel you could build a model railroad around. The fact that it can negotiate O-27 curves means you can use it in nearly any role. The model possesses the familiar EMD outline that dominated the yard switcher market for 40 years. This makes it a prime candidate for a line modeling anything from the 1940s to the 1980s and beyond.

The pilot has front brakeman’s steps, and the pilot steps have yellow safety stripes. The model has coil couplers on both ends.

Handrails on the pilot will help your crew climb aboard. There is a cast-in grab iron as well as cast-in louvers on the battery boxes. Two steps and add-on handrails lead up to the cab door. The deck has cast-in safety tread.

The sides have cast-in door, hinge, handle, and louver detailing. The add-on rail that runs along the engine compartment is painted blue to match the locomotive. The top of the engine compartment has cast-in seam and bolt detailing and a cast-in air intake.

There is a single exhaust stack and a bell by the intake. At some point later in their lives, the Titan locomotive stacks had spark arrestors installed (missing from the MTH model). The horn was also moved from the traditional spot just below the long-hood cab roof to top of the cab. The new add-on horn is a five-chime version and not the old single horn, one-chime style. The five-chime horn is on the no. 2021 displayed at Cape Canaveral.

Although the livery is uncomplicated, painting and decoration were excellent. The yellow and blue safety stripes were clear and crisply applied.

On the test track

The sound system is good, replicating the EMD diesel sounds, horn, and bell. The chatter kicks in periodically. I was only slightly surprised that there was nothing like, “Quick, call the dispatcher; the general wants his coffee!” or “Is this one going to the Moon, Mars, or Moscow?” Seriously, it delivers a nice sound package in an affordable model.

Drawbar pull for the switcher was 1 pound, 3 ounces.

Operation was very smooth in all speed ranges. Our command-mode low-speed average was 2.9 scale miles per hour, and the conventional speed was 3.1 scale miles per hour. Our high-speed average was 73.6 scale miles per hour, but it can go much higher. I wasn’t watching precisely where my finger was going on the iPhone phone and hit the “120 MPH” speed mark. Uff da! The SW8 made it around the layout nearly twice before I got it to slow down.

There are no classification/marker lights on the model, an omission that matches the prototype. The cab is illuminated, and the headlight changes based on direction of travel.

I particularly like this model for the unusual road name as much as because I remember seeing the real thing on Sundays many years ago. But you don’t buy a model just for the memories. The SW8 from MTH is a terrific little diesel switcher that can work at low or high speeds with a range of loads in tow. Regardless of the livery, the SW8 will deliver solid performance.


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