The Bachmann Spectrum Birney Safety Car is an excellent model a trolley that was widely used from before WWI through the post WWII period, and now again in the 21st century on heritage operations. They could be found on large urban operations, and on small town near-do-well systems, and so should be attractive to both dedicated trolley modelers, and to those just looking for an add-on trolley line.
Review: Bachmann Spectrum Birney Trolley Car in HO
by Gary Quale /photos by George Riley
Bachmann has introduced a new HO streetcar in their Spectrum product line. The Spectrum Birney Safety Car is very nicely detailed and smooth running model of a very widely used prototype. The model comes with a factory installed Bachmann dual-mode DCC decoder.
By the mid 19-teens, the automobile was making noticeable inroads on urban transit rider ship. Larger systems responded with larger cars, trailers and some articulated units, which helped during rush hours, but resulted in longer headways in off-hours. On smaller systems, the response was less frequent service, but longer waits for a trolley led many to just walk to Main Street. Working separately in 1915, J. M. Bosenbury of the Illinois Traction System (that operated 19 systems with about 750 streetcars in smaller Midwestern towns), and Charles O. Birney of the Stone & Webster Engineering Corp. (that managed 26 street railways with some 1,300 cars mostly in the south), each developed designs for new, low-cost, light-weight, single-truck, one-man street cars. Bosenbury was granted patents for his design, but in recognition of Birney's work on an almost identical design, assigned half to Birney. Some sources called the design "Bosen-Birney", but the more substantial adoption of the cars on S&W properties has led to use of just "Birney." A relative of Mr. Birney maintains a web site with much information and many pictures of these cars.
Managements were initially concerned with the reaction of a public used to cars with a motorman and conductor to these new cars with just a single operator. These new designs were called "Safety Cars" to counter these potential concerns. The key safety feature was a pneumatic system developed by Bosenbury with the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. in 1913 for some earlier ITS one-man cars. If both the dead-man controller handle and a foot bypass pedal were released, the system tripped the main circuit breaker stopping the traction motors, actuated the sanders, initiated an emergency brake application, and vented air pressure from the door closing actuators so the doors could be manually opened. On the Bosenbury single-end car design, the system also opened a rear emergency exit door. Another safety feature was that the operator could not open the car doors without first making a full service brake application. A safety feature for the operator was to substitute the original single trolley pole with two poles, so the motorman did not have to walk out into traffic to swing the pole around at the end of the line.
Over 6,000 single-truck Birney cars were built between 1915 and 1930 for use in the US, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, and Australia. Most were built by Brill's American Car Company subsidiary, but other manufacturers also made Birneys. The typical single truck car was about 28' long, seated 32 passengers, and was powered by two 25 HP motors. A double truck version was also introduced. The cars were initially successful in lowering costs and providing more frequent service, ideally with "a car in sight at all times" according to a popular slogan. Production peaked in 1920 at 1,699 cars that year, and then began to decline. The light weight and low floors of the cars resulted in poor traction in snow. The low weight on a single truck resulted in a rough ride that was exacerbated as track maintenance was deferred in the later 1920's and the depression years. The one-man front entry and exit led to bunching of passengers at the front of the car, yielding uneven weight distribution that was sometimes enough to cause the rear wheels to derail. The public came to think of the Birneys as flimsy. In Detroit, where larger Peter Witt cars were popular, the disliked Birneys were derided as "Half-Witts". In spite of this several Birney cars survive today at trolley museums and heritage streetcar operations.
The Bachmann Birney is a tiny gem! It is a scale 27' 6" long, or just 3 13/16", a full ½" shorter than the long available Mantua/Tyco 8-window Brill semi-convertible single truck trolley. The model conforms to Birney plans in the Carstens Publications' Traction Planbook. Our two samples came painted and lettered as Sacramento Northern Railroad #62 (a car that is preserved at the Western Railway Museum) and Philadelphia Transit car #62. The paint is smoothly applied and the contrasting color on the window frames and doors is sharply defined. The lettering is opaque and crisp, as is the lining on the lower side and end panels. The Sacramento Northern car comes with factory applied destination signs for Yuba City and Marysville, which are appropriate for this car. Bachmann also supplies separate generic stick-on signs for Zoo, Broadway, Main St., City Hall, Electric Park, Special, Downtown, The Loop, Out of Service, and Car Barn.
In addition to the Sacramento Northern (#80203) and Philadelphia (#80201) cars that we reviewed, Bachmann also offers the car decorated for Baltimore (#80202), New York & Queens (#80204) and New York's vast Third Avenue Railway System (#80205). The Philadelphia and Baltimore cars don't come with side window safety grilles, while the other three do. The grilles are plastic, but are as delicate as some etched brass models.
The roof of the car snaps off to provide access to the upper circuit board and decoder socket. A spring brass finger connects the trolley poles to a contact pad on the circuit board, allowing the roof to be completely removed (except for the trolley pole retriever ropes). Be careful not to let the roof twist while it is removed, as any twist will prevent the retriever ropes from hanging naturally. With the roof off, two screws allow removing the upper circuit board, which is in turn connected by an 8-pin micro plug to the chassis and lower circuit board. This gives access to the car interior should the modeler want to add passengers and a motorman to the car. The upper board carries two yellowish LED interior lights and two directional red LEDs that illuminate the two taillights above the center window on the ends. The lower circuit board carries connections to the wheel pickups, motor, Track-Pan switch, and two white LED non-directional headlights. The headlights, rear taillights, and interior lights are on continuously in the DC mode, and are turned on and off by F0 in DCC. F1 dims all of the lights.
The model is powered by a small can motor with worms at both ends that drive the axles through idler gears that provide additional gear reduction. The Birney weighs 3.2 oz., most of which is in the thick die-cast lower chassis. The top of this chassis has representations of the passenger seats, front partitions, and front motorman's controls and stool. (These details at the other end are sacrificed to make provision for adding sound.) The combination of all wheel drive and this weight allowed our sample to climb a 15% grade with minimal slipping! Under the DCC designated front end of the car is a Track-Pan slide switch for selecting two-rail or overhead operation. The Pan position connects both trolley poles to the decoder and open-circuits the left side rail pickups. For those who operate to the East Penn club standards with all wheels grounded, there is easy access on the bottom of the car to solder a jumper wire between the spring brass wheel pickups on the two sides. The trolley poles have slightly oversized working wheels in slightly wide harps. When the pole is down, the pole base has both ends of the springs and the pole pivot in the same horizontal plane, so there is no vertical force to raise the pole or hold it up against the hold-down hook. As a result, the poles have to be raised over 30 degrees before there is enough spring tension to hold the wheel reliably against the trolley wire.
1400 East Erie Avenue
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19124
Birney Safety Car
80201 - Philadelphia
80202 - Baltimore
80203 - Sacramento Northern
80204 - New York & Queens
80205 - (New York) Third Avenue Railway System
The model comes with a factory installed dual mode DCC decoder connected via a standard 8-pin plug. Bachmann provides a separate DC only plug for those that don't want to use the decoder. In the DC mode, the Birney started to crawl at about 3 volts at a speed of 0.37 smph. The lights came on at about 4.5 V. The unit was going at 54 smph at 12 V and had a top speed of 93 smph at 16 V. The article on Birneys in The Colorful Streetcars We Rode (CERA Bulletin B-125) states these cars had a top speed of about 20 mph, which was obtained at 6.0 V and 0.02 A. Current draw was 0.05 A at 12 V with wheels slipping. When operated with a Digitrax DCC system at factory programmed speed step 1, the streetcar speed was 5.5 smph, and speed step 99 produced 93 smph. Operation was smooth and quiet in both modes. Bachmann does not offer sound on their Birney model, but they have included a 5/8" diameter recess with a baffle plug at the rear end of the chassis for installing a speaker.
This is an excellent model a trolley that was widely used from before WWI through the post WWII period, and now again in the 21st century on heritage operations. They could be found on large urban operations, and on small town near-do-well systems, and so should be attractive to both dedicated trolley modelers, and to those just looking for an add-on trolley line. We hope that Bachmann will soon offer these cars additional paint schemes for trolley systems across the rest of the country.