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S-Helper Service S gauge diesel starter set

S-HELPER SERVICE is one of the leaders in producing modern trains that improve upon postwar standards of detail and performance while retaining the ability to operate with vintage S gauge trains. Gone are the cast-in details that may have been pleasing back in a time when guys were building freight cars from cardboard or wood blocks.

Today's product mainstays showcase see-through roofwalk grates, brake wheels with shafts, wire grab irons, and fingerprint-quality wood texture.

Not only do S-Helper's locomotives look more realistic than the best of postwar American Flyer, they also run more smoothly, quietly, and seemingly "forever." Gone is the sometime-balky operation derived from aging mechanical reversing units.

Detail and operation are essential to the S-Helper line, including its line of starter sets. Simply put, the company doesn't offer a "cheap" set; the sets meet the quality of S-Helper's other products.

Opening the box

The no. 00536 four-car custom diesel freight set isn't a set for a toddler or a rambunctious 8-year-old. But if the intended recipient is a mature, interested 10- or 12-year-old who won't confuse his locomotive with a football, this set will rock their world.

You won't find a better across-the-board spread of rolling stock: a Frisco stockcar with operating doors, a boxcar with Great Northern's cool Rocky Mountain goat herald with operating doors, a Burlington Northern PS-2 hopper (the large BN logo is a sad reminder of the fate awaiting GN's goat), and one of S-Helper's outstandingly detailed extended-vision cabooses.

Where appropriate, the cars have add-on wire grab irons and handrails, walkways, and undercarriage detailing. The cars all have die-cast trucks and smooth-rolling wheels.

Both the boxcar and stockcar will provide plenty of play value for physically loading and unloading cargo.

As an aside, the only time I ever saw stockcars was in North Dakota. Their cattle-hauling days over, they had been lined with plywood and were hauling grain during the harvest rush. So if you don't want to haul old Bessie off to the packinghouse, with a little work you can haul grain to the ethanol plant!

The PS-2 hopper is a staple of the Showcase line. It's a well-crafted car and possesses a timeless look - or at least a window of 30 years or so in which you can set your railroad's operation.

Unlike the door-opening of the boxcar and stock car, the hopper's fun might be to position it around some Ertl 1:64 scale grain elevators (obviously not included) for loading and unloading.

The caboose is of special note. It features superb detail (both cast-in and add-on) as well as extras like grab irons on each corner of the cupola roof and a crew figure. Especially cool are the handrails for the ladder on both ends. They arch up above the roof, so crew members can get a good grip as they climb onto the top of the car.

The locomotive is S-Helper's very capable SW1 diesel. The real SW1 was a successful seller for Electro-Motive during the formative years of diesel manufacture. Between 1939 and 1953, more than 600 of the relatively low horsepower locomotives were constructed. Many remained in service on large railroads into the 1980s. More than 20 have been preserved, and some of those see regular operation.

The model we examined has lots of cast-in rivet, hinge, and latch detail. The handrails and grab irons on both pilots are great, and the handles on the access hatches are separately applied.

The Great Northern paint scheme is an all-time favorite of many enthusiasts, due to the attractive contrast between the green and orange. The lines between colors on our sample were sharp, with no fuzziness anything to distract from the look of the locomotive.

Track and power

I use the S-Helper S-Trax track system at home and recommend it highly. The S-Trax plastic roadbed is lightweight and durable. It offers texture that you can feel with your fingertips and has a gray/brown/black look that mirrors colors you may find on your local main line.

The brown ties are recessed into the roadway, but this is a genuine "wow" point for me because it enhances the realistic look of the roadbed.

As fine as the O gauge world's RealTrax and FasTrack systems are, with their interlocking roadbed and textured design, I still think that this S gauge product outdistances them in the realism department.

Connecting the track is easy: You mate the track sections by connecting the male locking tabs with the female slots while sliding the rails into waiting rail joiners. The rails are scale sized, and my postwar locomotives and rolling stock run well on them. The sections fit together precisely, and electrical connectivity is great.

Since S gauge gear isn't as widely distributed as O gauge gear, you may want to buy track and switches in bulk so you're prepared for the big day!

S-Helper includes a no. 5400 power supply made by Aristo-Craft. The rig provides 22VA maximum output DC for operation and 15VAC for accessories). As is common with DC power supplies, there is a three-position stop-forward-reverse control and a speed knob. The power output slots for both DC (colored red) and AC (colored black) have a simple tab.

Connecting wires are included with the set. Just depress the appropriate tab, slip the wire in, release, and you have a tight fit on the transformer. For mating the transformer to the track, the lockon wires simply slide over flat tabs on the underside of the track, so no cutting or special sections are needed.

This power supply will be more than adequate for Christmas tree running or starting out that new S gauge short line.

On the test track

Locomotive performance was excellent. Readers will note that we rarely review anything using DC power supplies, but fear not, I ran the SW1 with both the DC power supply from the set and an AC MTH Z-4000. The SW1 performed well using either transformer.

Our low-speed average was 3.0 scale mph, and our high-speed average was 60 scale mph. Our drawbar pull for the locomotive was 7 ounces.

Motor operation was smooth throughout, and occasionally I found myself admiring the simplicity of the DC forward/reverse. And I'll say this about the locomotive's motor: Whether with a DC or AC power supply, at low speeds the locomotive is nothing less than graceful in operation.

The train set did many a lap around the loop, and the cars remained coupled throughout, except for one "crack the whip" incident I'd rather not discuss! The SW1 and rolling stock were quiet - and the rumble of the plastic roadbed on a hardwood surface wasn't enough to detract from operation.

Our set came without sound, but sets are also available with LocoMatic sound (but no transformer) and DC-powered with DCC sound.

S-Helper's sets are a great introduction to our hobby. The level of fine detail and sophistication of the product assure that the target audience - 12 years or older - will be quite satisfied. It will be difficult to find a more realistic outfit in any scale.
Price: $299.95 (set no. 00536)

Features: Locomotive, four cars, track, 22VA DC power supply

Pros: Beautiful, well-made models possessing excellent detailing; SW-1 locomotive and set rolling stock in the top tier of operability

Cons: Fragile detail parts may fall victim to careless fingers

Made in the People's Republic of China for S-Helper Service


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