Model Railroad News Product Reviews

Rapido MLW PA-4 in HO

This image, taken at Spadina engine terminal in Toronto, circa 1980, shows No. 6768 in the original VIA-CN livery as painted by CN with the slanted demarcation between yellow and blue. Nearby FPA-4 No. 6786 has VIA’s version of this livery; both paint schemes are offered by Rapido. If only we could go there today! The Toronto Blue Jays play ball here now at the Rogers Centre.

Rapido MLW PA-4 in HO

MRN January 2016Review by Steve Lucas

Montreal Locomotive Works’ (MLW) FPA-4 units were built for Canadian National (CN) in 1958 and 1959. These were a continuation of Alco’s FA design first introduced in 1946, with General Electric Appearance Design Division’s Ray Patten being credited for the locomotive’s carbody design. More than a thousand FA/FB -1 (1,500 hp) and FA/ FB-2 (1,600 hp) diesels were built by Alco and MLW from 1946 to 1955. All had the Alco-designed 244 engine — a prime mover that developed reliability problems as time went on. The air-cooled turbocharger was especially prone to disintegration on the road.

Canadian National owned a handful of Alco FA-1s. CN also purchased FA/FB-2s and FPA/FPB 2s fitted with steam generators and high-speed gearing for passenger service from Montreal Locomotive Works in the early 1950s. The passenger units ran across Canada, including serving on the road’s Continental Limited from Montreal, Que., to Vancouver, B.C. —the longest run of a diesel locomotive in the world at that time.

CN’s dieselization program in the late 1950s called for complete diesel haulage of its passenger trains across its system. A number of FP9As and F9Bs were purchased from General Motors Diesel Division in London, Ont. Political considerations brought on by CN being a Crown corporation owned by the Government of Canada came into play. CN had to obtain its requirements from different regions of Canada, and MLW was located in Quebec. CN approached MLW about building a new version of its FPA-2 and FPB-2 units, fitted with steam generators, passenger gearing for a 93 mph top speed, using the Alco/MLW 251 engine, which had by this time proven very reliable.

Delivered in 1958 and decorated in CN’s 1954 passenger livery of green, black, and golden yellow, these 34 A-units and 12 B-units immediately went into service hauling CN passenger trains everywhere on CN between Windsor, Ont., and Halifax, N.S. Their introduction almost totally completed dieselization of CN passenger runs in Eastern Canada with the exception of a few branchline trains. Trains magazine called the FPA-4 “the last and the fastest” of the FA series.

MLW FPA-4Steve Lucas lensed a service-worn CN No. 6783 ready to leave Toronto Union Station on the point of a Montreal-bound train in the late 1970s. Rapido offers this livery, but the weathering is up to you. Canadian National introduced this red-nose “wet noodle” look in 1961.

During the 1961 repainting of these locomotives, the units appeared in the new livery (No. 11 Red, No. 17 Lettering Gray, and black) designed by James Valkus as part of CN’s visual redesign program across the CN system. The still-used-today CN “lazy 3,” “snake,” or “wet noodle” designed by Allan Fleming was applied to the nose. These locomotives could even be seen at Canadian Pacific’s Windsor Station in Montreal in CN/CP joint pool train service. With the cancellation of the CN/CP pool agreement on October 31, 1965, between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, CN instituted fast Rapido train service between Montreal and Toronto in competition with CP. Remember that 93 mph gearing on the FPA-4s? CP shortly afterwards gave up and abolished its passenger service between these two cities having single track for two-thirds of its run versus CN’s double-track Kingston Subdivision.

Growing up trackside in Burlington, Ont., in the mid-1970s, these were probably my favorite locomotives at the time; located 32 miles west of Toronto, many CN passenger trains hauled by Montreal Locomotive Works’ FPA-4 and FPB-4 units passing through town. I watched (from a safe distance) as they flew through Burlington at 80 mph or better on the point of passenger trains between Toronto, London, Windsor, and Sarnia. The odd FPA-4 hauled train even stopped at the station, allowing me to talk with the crew briefly and instill in me a desire to be a locomotive engineer someday. The conversation ended when two “peeps” of the communicating system whistle sounded in the cab, and the train took off like a racehorse out of the starting gate accompanied by a black plume of Alco/MLW smoke.

CN put that 93 m.p.h. gearing to good use on express and piggyback trains run at night between Toronto and Montreal. The 65 m.p.h. speed limit for such trains was often just a guide! However, these engines saw a lot of use outside my trackside world. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, these locomotives hauled the Scotian, the Maritime Express, and the Ocean to Montreal. Between Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, these locomotives were regular fixtures on passenger trains, too. FPA-4s often headed Montreal–Seneterre service in Northern Quebec and the CN-Ontario Northland passenger services between Toronto and Cochrane, Ont.

In April 1978, CN sold most of its passenger equipment and locomotives to newly created VIA Rail Canada, Inc. VIA continued to use the FPA-4s and FPB-4s in the same service that the locomotives had covered at CN. After signing a release at CN’s Spadina engine terminal in Toronto, I walked freely around the shop, always seeing a few of these engines on the turntable, shop tracks, or in the roundhouse. With the engine terminal now long gone, I treasure those Kodachrome slides that I took at Spadina, particularly of the FPA-4s. The Rogers Stadium — home of the Toronto Blue Jays — is there now; the pitcher’s mound is where the turntable used to be.

In 1988 and 1989, I was working as a brakeman at VIA Rail in Toronto. FPA-4s still headed up passenger trains, some of which I worked. VIA’s Toronto–Windsor trains saw A-B-A sets of these MLW locomotives hauling Detroit Tigers fans to Toronto to watch them play against the Jays. Trains 58 and 59 — the overnight Cavalier between Montreal and Toronto — were a personal favorite to work on, once I learned how to ask for tickets in French. “Billet, s’il vous plait?” The engineers were often Quebecers whose first language was French; I tried to understand radio talk spoken in French. On the head end was almost always an FPA-4. Even Canadian Pacific’s International of Maine Division saw FPA-4s pulling VIA’s Atlantic through Maine in the middle of the night. By this time, these engines were a bit long in the tooth, having frequent breakdowns. One -30-degree morning at Brockville on Train 58, the engine oil filter on the FPA-4 pulling the train disintegrated. Working Train 665 from Toronto to London one summer day, the traction motor cables on the rear truck of 6793 caught on fire 30 miles before London. I got to learn how to use a 25-pound extinguisher that day! In spite of this, these locomotives continued to put on some impressive performances, such as an early 1989 five-hour run I worked from Toronto to Montreal — 335 miles — on Train 168 with five coaches. These engines were runners right to the bitter end.

Working Trains 58/59 between Montreal and Toronto one night, my conductor asked me about my desire to be an engineer. “Why don’t you go up to the head end? I can handle the stops for a bit.” A short walk through the grimy engine compartment of the FPA-4 on the point and I was in the center seat as we loped along at 50 mph through the fog. A very unforgettable cab ride it was!

The age of these locomotives and being fitted with only a dead man pedal when an electronic Reset Safety Control (RSC) system was required on mainline locomotives in Canada made rebuilding them uneconomical. Canadian regulations outlawed the use of a locomotive in lead position without an operative RSC after March 31, 1989. As such, VIA retired its FPA-4s on April 1, 1989. Besides, VIA already had found a suitable replacement in General Motors’ F40PH (also offered by Rapido Trains and reviewed in June 2015 Model Railroad News). Caught short of power for its trains, VIA borrowed some CN GP40–2LW units to haul trains in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor until the railway received more F40PH units.

But the story doesn’t end here. With no requirement for an operative RSC in the U.S., many FPA-4s found a new life. Shortline New York & Lake Erie bought a few from CN, as did the Grand Canyon Railway in Arizona and Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in Ohio. The Napa Valley Wine Train in California also runs four FPA-4s. Two FPA-4s are painted as New York Central locomotives at the Danbury Railway Museum in Connecticut, while another runs in Baltimore & Ohio livery on the Cuyahoga Valley. MLW’s FPA-4s will continue to run for some time yet to come, and now they can run on your layout, too, with Rapido Trains’ models.

Rapido Trains MLW FPA-4The Model – Ahead by More Than a Nose

Rapido’s model is the first plastic ready-to-run model of Montreal Locomotive Works’ FPA-4 and FPB-4 ever made. However, it’s not the first time that Alco-designed FAs and FBs have been made in plastic for the HO market. The Alco FA has been modeled in HO scale by several firms. John English’s Hobbyline, Lionel-HO (using John English’s tooling as the basis), Train-Miniature, Model Power (Rocomade), Frateschi of Brazil (imported in the U.S. under the E-R Models name), Like-Like’s Proto 2000, and most recently Bachmann along with brass imports and other makers in several popular modeling scales have all offered FAs. No firm has ever offered Montreal Locomotive Works’ FPA-4 in a readyto- run model other than brass, and the one brass model that I saw offered in HO had some inaccuracies.

Why is this review titled “Ahead By More Than a Nose?” Each of the previous manufacturers of Alco FA/FPA models has had their own interpretation of the Alco/MLW nose and roof. The result has been numerous different renderings — none of which were correct, in my opinion, until Rapido Trains decided to end the inaccurate modeling and conjecture once and for all. CN FPA-4 6765 is preserved at Exporail in Montreal. Rapido Trains held an “FPA-4 Scan Party,” where the entire locomotive was 3D laser-scanned in front of a number of guests and modelers. This process compiled a 3D digital file that formed the basis of mold-making for the body shells of the Rapido FPA-4 and FPB-4.

As is usual with Rapido locomotives, the model is packed in a clear plastic frame that cradles the model; small foam pads located where the frame actually contacts the model prevent damage to the paint. This is inserted into a transparent sleeve, enclosing the model. The packaged model drops into a foam cradle inside a thick card box, preventing the model from moving during shipment. It’s packed more securely than some brass locomotives in my collection. This care in packaging the locomotive resulted in no damage whatsoever to the four Rapido FPA-4/ FPB-4 models reviewed here.

In the box, Rapido includes an English/French instruction manual, an exploded diagram showing how the model goes together, a decal sheet of numbers should you want to renumber the locomotive, and a spare part or two, including ditch lights for later prototypes that used them. The road numbers on the decal sheet include every FPA-4 or FPB-4 that CN or VIA had, so it’s an easy matter to renumber the model without cutting and replacing numbers one by one.

Excellent detail is a hallmark of Rapido models, and Rapido’s FPA-4 is no exception. Taking the model out of the box, I was impressed with just how well-detailed it is. I have looked for missing details on the outside of these locomotives and found only the speed recorder cable missing. Everything else from the Sinclair “skate” radio antenna on the cab roof to the handbrake chain is modeled. Few other firms model a handbrake chain on ready-to-run releases. What’s more, these details stood up to my rough handling, including placing the model on its side. I would not try this with my kitbashed locomotives.

Looking at the locomotives overall, all measurements called out in the CN Mechanical Department Diesel Unit Data Book sheets match those of Rapido’s model. Even the length between coupler pulling faces matches the diagrams — a feat in itself considering that metal Kadee-type couplers are used on the model. There is one slight prototype difference: these locomotives used AAR Type F couplers rather than the Type E on Rapido’s locomotive.

Rapido’s FPA/FPB-4 models are highly detailed, almost museum quality models. Each model produced is matched to photos of the actual locomotive at a specific time in history. The result is a model that conforms to the prototype well for those modeling have brass that is not this exacting in detail. When you buy a Rapido model locomotive that is based on a prototype, you can be confident that it is accurate and will withstand scrutiny against that prototype. No stand-ins here!

CN 6779

Rapido’s model of as-delivered FPA-4 6779 has everything from the speed recorder drive on the rear truck on the engineer’s side to f lag brackets on the nose. Grab irons are wire of the correct diameter — not oversize plastic moldings. MU air hoses correct for CN’s Westinghouse 24RL locomotive air brake system setup are on both ends, as well as Barco steam pipe details. There is an impressive and prototypically cluttered array of hoses, levers, and pipes on each end of this model! A 27-pin MU receptacle is located near the top of the rear door, along with another MU hose, a ladder to get to the upper part of the locomotive for service, and a working backup headlight.

Rapido Trains MLW FPA-4CN’s lift ring arrangement is modeled above the door. CN’s FPA-4 and FPB-4 locomotives did not have air brake system cooling coils on the rear of the unit, instead having them behind a dropped grille on either side of the locomotive under the cooling fan shutters, also modeled here. Small warning stencils are found either side of the rear door, with lettering visible under magnification — or if you’ve better eyesight than me! The walkway under the door moves to allow for close coupling on even 18-inch radius curves.

Looking at the trucks, the “Dofasco” (Dominion Foundries and Steel Company, Hamilton, Ontario) logo is molded into the sideframes as on the real trucks. Brake cylinders are modeled in the “released” position, rather than “applied” as on many models. How would the locomotive be able to move if the brakes were applied? The handbrake chain guide appears where the chain would go to the handbrake in the carbody. Coupler operating levers are at both ends of the locomotive — the front levers are recessed in an opening in the pilot.

On the roof, MLW steam generator air intake and exhaust fittings are modeled. These are markedly different in appearance from those used by EMD/GMD, even though the same Vapor OK-4625 steam generator was used on both makers’ locomotives. No dynamic brake fittings are modeled; this is correct because CN crews used power braking when bringing a passenger train to a stop, using graduated release with the train’s air brakes. Bell and horn are on the roof and are correct for CN practice. That whole “bell under the cab” thing did not work out too well in Canadian winters.

The radiator fan exhaust grille modeled replicates a type used by MLW that was made up of several strips of running board laid side by side. A radiator cooling fan is underneath it — this fan also cooled the air running from the compressor to the main reservoir. The correct radiator shutters for FPA-and FPB-4 locomotives are modeled, which are different from earlier Alco/MLA FA units. CN’s passenger units used Farr grilles. Fitting commercial etched Farr grille material to a model for those modelers kitbash- ing Alco/MLW units fitted with these was a real chore at the best of times — Rapido did the work for us.

The correct exhaust for the watercooled turbo of the MLW 251 engine is modeled, as well as wire eyebolts used for all rooftop wirework versus oversize plastic moldings. The model is painted black, CN Green No. 11, Olive Green, and CN Yellow No. 11/ Imitation Gold. These colors match the Canadian National Railway Historical Association’s (CNRHA) “chip of many colors” prepared and researched by CNRHA President Emeritus Stafford Swain and sold by the CNRHA some years ago. The illuminated number boards have correct MLW number board characters for the numerals, as used by CN. Lettering is of proper CN style, including even the stenciled warning on the end of the unit and CN locomotive class designation, MPA-18b (Montreal (Locomotive Works) Passenger A unit, 1800 HP, series B), under the road number near the rear.

Fuel and water filling locations are called out by more stencilling on the combined fuel and water tank. This is important, for obvious reasons. Each corner of the locomotive has locations called out per regulatory requirements — “FR” for front right, and so forth. “LIFT HERE” notations are stencilled at the ends of the locomotive. “Stainless steel” kickplates are modeled at the bottom of cab doors and behind the steps on the sides where crews would ascend/descend to and from the cab. A nice finishing touch is the MLW builder’s plate below the cab windows.

Even the underside of the locomotive is replete with fuel, train and steam lines, along with tank details. As if you’d want to f lip the engine over on your layout, but if you do, this model will still look great. Modeled inside the cab are the control stand and a Westinghouse 24RL engineer’s brake valve. In front of the engineer’s seat is a Chicago Pneumatic speed recorder, with even the speed-indicating needle modeled on its face showing a speed of about 45 mph.

VIA 6790

After VIA took over CN and CP’s intercity passenger service in 1978, it acquired most of those railway’s passenger diesels. Included were all of CN’s FPA-4 and FPB-4 locomotives. They soldiered on in CN red, black, and gray for a few years but were repainted into VIA’s blue, yellow, and black by the early 1980s. By this time, extra grab irons and a narrow walkway had been added on the engineer’s side under the cab window to allow service staff to clean the windshields along with servicing the bell and air horn per FRA requirements for operation on VIA’s Atlantic running on CP Rail through Maine. Not all VIA units received this walkway. Rapido’s model adds these details, but correctly retains CN’s MLW number board characters as delivered. This locomotive is in the second version of the VIA livery, the first version of the blue/yellow having an angled demarcation between yellow and blue on the cab side. All this is confirmed by a slide that I took of this locomotive at Spadina.

Rapido Trains MLW FPA-4By this time, the roller bearing end caps were exposed on the trucks rather than covered as delivered. Rapido models this too. VIA for some reason did not indicate which were the fuel and water fillers on the fuel tank. A friend told me of a trip on VIA’s Atlantic when it was stopped at Brownville Junction, Maine, on the CPR. Service crews accidentally piped water for the lead FPA-4s steam generator into the fuel tank, and the engine shut down.

Proper VIA typeface and lettering are used on this model, with the red warning labels on the end of the locomotive warning crews to disconnect steam pipe and trainline jumpers before uncoupling the locomotives.

CN 6864

This is a model of a B-unit, FPB- 4 6864 in the CN 1961 “sergeant’s stripes” black and Gray No. 17, and Lettering Gray. Again, the gray matched the CNRHA’s “chip of many colours.” Besides having no cab, the MLW FPB-4 has a few different features that are modeled correctly on Rapido’s offering. Two steam generator exhausts and air intakes are found at one end of the locomotive only, this time in the end of the unit where the cab would have been on an A-unit.

A single-tone air horn is on the roof for use when hostling this unit light around an engine terminal. It would not have been used on the road. Very little lettering is on the model, but what is there is correct for CN. Under the road number is CN’s class designation, MPB-18a—Montreal, Passenger, B unit, 1800 horsepower, series A.

Rapido Trains MLW FPA-4Napa Valley Wine Train 71

The 71 is a model of one of four ex-CN/VIA FPA-4s that found a new life “south of the border,” as we Canadians say. It sees regular service on the Napa Valley Wine Train in California. Units 70–72 kept the original MLW 251 prime mover, and you can ride behind them today as you sip a glass of local wine and enjoy a meal.

The Napa Valley Wine Train kept appliances on their locomotives as when purchased from VIA. They are painted in a striking gold, green, and maroon color scheme that is best described as very distinctive, but classy livery indeed. Even I am warming up to it! Rapido’s model includes the line’s crest on the nose door and details left on from VIA.

Where the Wheels Meet the Steel

Rapido’s FPA-4 weighs 14.5 ounces out of the box. Pulling power is 3.6 ounces, so the model’s efficiency is quite good at just under 25 percent. On Digital Command Control (DCC), the model’s minimum scale speed is 1.01 mph and has a maximum scale speed of 75 mph. The wheels are stainless steel and were found to be in gauge when checked using an NMRA Mark IV Standards gauge. Coupler height is at NMRA Standard as well.

The engine is fitted with a 21-pin ESU LokSound Select decoder. The 21-pin decoders have been fitted to many models in the U.K. and European markets due to the number of functions that can be run on a locomotive compared with the NMRA standard 6- or 8-pin decoders. Rapido is probably ahead of the curve on this compared to other North American manufacturers.

Tested on DCC, the models ran smoothly on the test track with no hesitation or stalling, tracking around 18-inch radius curves in spite of having handbrake chains modeled between the rear truck and locomotive frame. The instruction booklet says that one can improve slow speed performance using Rapido’s “Awesome slow speed thingy.” I did not try this, finding these models’ performance excellent out of the box.

Following the instructions in the manual, I was able to change two of the models’ DCC addresses to their respective CN and VIA Rail road numbers from the factory default addresses of 03. The usual F8 on the keypad turns on and off the sound. Engine sounds were recorded on the real ex-CN/VIA Rail FPA-4 6764 on the New York & Lake Erie Railroad in upstate New York as it pulled a dead locomotive up a steep grade, thereby simulating an engine working hard pulling a four- or five-car passenger train on level track.

The 21-pin decoder allows for a lot of neat “bells and whistles” that would not be possible using the standard NMRA 8-pin decoder harness. You’ve a choice of 13 discrete functions from bell and headlights to Doppler horn, and steam generator sounds including blowdown and air brake release. The volume of any sound feature can be increased or decreased by tweaking individual Control Variables (CVs). White and green classification lights are controlled by F9 and F10, respectively. F0 turns the headlights on and off; F12 dims the headlights. The factory default horn is a Nathan K3L as used by CN in the mid-1970s and VIA, but can be changed to an M3H that these locomotives were delivered with by changing CV48.

Rapido Trains MLW FPA-4

“B units need love, too! ” Rapido’s rendering of CN’s FPB-4 in the 1961 livery shows the same attention to detail that is found on its A units. The correct CN No. 17 Grey is used for the “sergeant’s stripes.” Note the two steam generator stacks on the roof and the single-chime horn. The vacant space where the cab would be on A units provided room for two steam generators on B units.


Rapido Trains’ True North Locomotives has produced yet another excellent model that once again sets a new standard this time with its MLW FPA-4 and FPB-4. This is probably the most well-detailed and accurate Alco/ MLW carbody style HO-scale model — ever.

Having laid the groundwork with this excellent model, Rapido is also producing Alco/MLW’s FA/FB-2 and FPA-2 in HO scale. These will be made to order with a deadline of March 7, 2016. Road names announced include Baltimore & Ohio, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Erie, Great Northern, Lehigh Valley, New York Central, and Pennsylvania Railroad. See Rapido’s web site for reservation details.


Rapido Trains
500 Alden Road, Unit 16
Markham, ON L3R 5H5 Canada

Montreal Locomotive Works FPA-4 diesel locomotive with DCC and sound – HO scale

Canadian national (1954 scheme)
#20505; MSRP: $325

VIA Rail Canada
#20522; MSRP: $325

Napa Valley Wine Train
#20529; MSRP: $325

Montreal Locomotive Works FPB-4 diesel locomotive with DCC and sound – HO scale

Canadian National (1961“wet noodle” scheme)
#30506; MSRP: $300

This review appeared in the January 2016 issue of Model Railroad News

This article was posted on: December 15, 2015