These mP-54 commuter cars from Con-Cor are finely designed and engineered and masterfully executed. While found primarily on the Pennsylvania Railroad, a fair number of these cars were sold to other roads around the country.
Product Review: Con-Cor's mP-54
Commuter Coaches and Combines in HO scale
by Don Spiro/photos by the author, except as noted
When one hears the Pennsylvania Railroad nomenclature “mP-54” long trains of Tuscan and gold striped electrified cars with a “round/owl eyed” faces when approaching will no doubt be the first image that comes to mind. The mP-54 electric MU was at one time so prolific on the Pennsy electrified lines, it was said it was almost impossible to stand trackside under the wires for less than twenty minutes or so without seeing one approaching in either direction.
These durable electric MU’s had their origins in the early twentieth century as lightweight commuter coaches. In 1906 the Pennsylvania Railroad decided for fire safety purposes that any passenger car passing through the new Hudson and East River tunnels into and out of Penn Station New York would have to be constructed of all steel. The mP-54 series of cars was a result of this decree. Initially, these cars were built as commuter coaches, but it was intended from the outset these cars would be easily converted to electric MU cars when the planned electrification was complete.
The designation mP-54 comes from “m” for motorized unit, “P” for passenger car and “54” the length in feet between the inner bulkheads. Why 54 feet? While the overall length was 62 feet from coupler face to coupler face, that somewhat abbreviated 54-foot interior length allowed for faster loading and unloading of passengers on tightly scheduled commuter runs. Weight savings was another factor designed into these cars. Instead of the usual and very heavy fishbelly underframe prevalent in the railroad industry at the time, the Pennsy mP-54 design team opted for a more lightweight, fabricated center beam. Wider steps on the four corners also sped up the loading/unloading process.
With roof-mounted pantographs in many of these cars future, the roofline was kept purposely low. Round porthole style windows were used on the ends instead of the more common square window. These “porthole” windows would be a signature feature on the electrified cars and carry over to the N5-C class of cabin cars. This was Pennsy jargon for cabooses and other pieces of equipment. There were different sub-classes of mP-54’s as the Pennsy covered all the necessary needs in commuter travel: full baggage, RPO/baggage, combines and coaches. While a majority of mP-54’s were motorized for use under Pennsy’s wires, a fleet of non-electrified mP-54’s were used in commuter service out of Pittsburgh. Behind G-5 ten-wheelers for power, they made the consist for a fine purposeful looking commuter train. It’s easy to assume the Pennsy found uses for the remaining small number of non-electrified mP-54’s throughout their vast system.
The motorized version of the mP-54 was a large part of the Pennyslvania Railroad's commuter fleet. Here we see a two car train of electric self-propelled mP-54's cruise through New Brunswick, New Jersey on July 13, 1965. Photo by Timothy Mader
Con-Cor has released three styles of the mP-54 commuter car: the mP-54 coach and combine and the unusual mBM-62 RPO/baggage car. I have to tell you up front this review comes unsolicited from the manufacturer. In spite of modeling a freelanced railroad, I had planned to add a set or two to my roster when Con-Cor announced the cars. At 62-feet long, they are a perfect length and size for a small layout like mine. Quite a few of the prototype cars were sold second hand to a number of railroads including as it turns out, my road! When I received the cars, it was readily apparent right out of the box that the Con-Cor mP-54’s were too good not to share in a review, they were simply exquisite!
My set consisted of an undecorated mBM62 RPO/baggage car and coach. From the low profile clerestory roof down to the stunningly executed Pennsy 2CP2 trucks, the Con-Cor mP-54 cars are some of the finest passenger cars I’ve seen manufactured to date. Of course the first task I performed was to check the model against prototype for dimensional accuracy.
I did an internet search for Pennsylvania Railroad Passenger Car diagrams and was directed to Rob’s Pennsy Home Page. This site has an enormous collection and is a clearing house for Pennsy information such as diagrams, freight cars, cabin cars, passenger equipment, photos, operations, sidings, signaling and on. One could literally spend days on this site so thorough is the coverage. After an hour or so of A.D.D. behavior clicking on endless interesting topics of Pennsyology, I focused in on the section on passenger car diagrams. Rob’s has diagrams of Pennsy passenger equipment back to the 1800’s and there were diagrams for the mP-54 coach and combine, the mBM62 RPO/Baggage, the PB62 full baggage car as well as the 2CP2 trucks. I compared diagram dimensions to the models and on all counts I found the models to be completely accurate.
The undecorated cars are painted a rich Pennsylvania Railroad Tuscan red with black roofs, trucks and underbody. The paint is opaque and evenly applied throughout. The paint seems just a bit thicker on the RPO/baggage car but not so thick as to be anything offensive. The roof, finished in a satin black is low as it should be and the contour matches the diagram perfectly; very nice! The electrical conduit another signature detail is cast along the center of the roof on all of these cars. All the proper clerestory vents and end rain drip rails are sharply executed.
Details on the car abound. There are free standing wire grab irons in all the appropriate locations. As mP-54’s were always intended for commuter service, there were no diaphragms. Instead three finely molded chains are draped perfectly across each end door, when two cars were coupled together the chains were hooked to the adjacent cars providing a rudimentary hand-hold on either side of the end platforms for those passing between cars. These chains along with the unique and signature Pennsy porthole end windows give the mP-54 their classic: “Owl Eye” face. There’s a nicely detailed buffer below the door and small delicate steps on the end corners so a conductor could have a safe foothold when he hung out to hang up the markers. The underbody features battery boxes, all the brake components, brake piping, tanks, a belt driven generator (no belt though) steam traps, the signature box beam center sill with delicate rivet and bolt head details and those extra wide steps for quick loading and discharge of commuters. There are the proper hoses on either side of the coupler box, two brake lines and a steam pipe and a delicate coupler lift bar finishes off the end details. The steam pipe is rather plain in detail so either delrin or brass steam pipes would be an easy replacement for the more discerning eyed modelers.
On the RPO car’s delicate steps are on all four corners and under the baggage doors, and there’s a pair of steps packed in a little bag for the modeler to add under the RPO door. In addition, a mail grabber is attached over each of the RPO doors, itself the finest mail grabber casting I’ve seen this side of brass cars.
The 2CP2 trucks are rich in detail and accurate in every dimension to the diagram. There are inboard and outboard brake beams and shoes, the bolsters and springs are substantial as on the prototype and the depth and rich detail of the trucks is truly exceptional. These are some of the finest passenger trucks I’ve seen in a long time. The car rolls on scale 36² wheels and electrical pick up for the interior lighting is similar to that used on diesel models.
There’s a copper bar between the axle and inside truck frame which picks up “juice” from both wheels and transmits it into the car via a tab on the copper pickup bar. This makes for flicker free lighting, however, I was a bit disconcerted when I first ran the car. The lights flickered occasionally. This happily proved to be a function of the blackening used on the wheels rather than shoddy contact. These cars roll. The trucks add a whole new meaning to the term “free-rolling.” My layout has no grades or so I thought until the coach began rolled ever so slowly along a section of my layout, while I was taking the RPO/Baggage out of the box.
Some comments on the interior illumination are worth mentioning. I must say I’ve never been too enamored by passenger car lighting except for those old post-war Lionel Aluminum cars with the whimsical passenger silhouettes. In HO scale, I’ve never seen passenger car lighting that I would refer to as realistic... until these cars. The coach is lit by six tiny diodes mounted on a circuit board in the ceiling. Four diodes are in the car and one each in the vestibules. They glow a rich amber/incandescent hue and there is that slight light fall-off between the diodes so prevalent in old passenger cars.
I have got to say this bit of light engineering really does the trick. Rolling by in the dark, they look like what I remember mP-54’s looking like at night in passing and are just pleasant and nostalgic to watch. The RPO/Baggage has the same lighting set-up as the coach. The entire car is lit but rarely were baggage cars or baggage compartments lit except when loading or unloading at stations or terminals. When I paint the cars for my road, I plan to blacken out all the diodes except those in the RPO compartment; that would be lit at night for mail sorting.
The interior of the coach features seats, a toilet in the bathroom and bulkheads for the bathroom and vestibule, however, there is no bathroom or bulkhead door, just an opening. The seats are cast in a reddish color, but I have not been able to find out if this is the proper color. Given the accuracy of everything else, however, on these fine cars, I can only assume it is correct.
The RPO car features sorting racks visible through the windows. It begs for some mail bags and an attendant which is very easy to add as there is a truly great feature in these cars, they disassemble with ease! If you’ve tried to take apart some of the recent passenger car offerings from other manufacturers, you know it’s an engineering puzzle to get the car apart even with exploded isometric drawings. Tabs lock and unlock in the oddest of places, one or two always snap off in the removal process, in some areas you often need three and a half thumbs to get say a roof off. Not these cars!
Starting at one end gently spread the sides from the underframe and the body begins to lift off. Work your way down the length of the car, spreading the body slightly as you go and when you get to the other end, the body easily slips off. Marvel at the thoughtful engineering and simplicity of the light bar, it is held aloft to the underside of the roof by four sturdy metal rods which do double duty as they conduct the electricity up to the lights from the contact strips which pick up from the trucks.
It will be easy and a lot of fun to add passengers in the coach, same goes for window shades and other little details easily seen through the crystal clear and flush fitting window glazing. The roof separates just as easy from the car body. If you’re uncertain, there is a fine exploded diagram packed with each car of the assembly sequence of all the components. For that somewhat declining but passionate population of modelers who still love to paint their equipment, the ease of taking these cars apart for painting will give you a week of smiling till it hurts.
Given the new and improved Con-Cor of late having produced such fine models as the Union Pacific M-10000, Chicago’s North Shore Electroliner and the General Motors Aero Train, I suspected the mP-54 cars would be fine models, but these car have far exceeded my expectations. You would have to look to recent brass passenger cars to use as a base comparison. From any angle these cars have nailed this significant and signature Pennsy mP-54 commuter car.
Are there any problem areas? I could find only a few and they are miniscule and easily corrected; one is the simple steam pipe casting I mentioned. There are no doors in the end vestibule or bathroom, easily corrected with some sheet styrene or modified Tichy Trains or Grandt Line door castings. The last is the oversized coupler provided with all the cars. Will scale couplers ever become the norm in HO scale model offerings? I hope so. I plan to add Kadee No. 58’s when I paint the cars. (Please note in the photos I cut the trip pins off the provided couplers.) Other than these few items, you’ll no doubt find these cars as I did, to be incredible. Yes the later Pennsylvania P-70 coach is the one most associates with non electrified Pennsylvania commuter trains. The m-P-54, however, was prolific and their shorter length makes them much more suitable for smaller sized layouts.
The Pennsy did sell off a number of the mP-54 series cars to other railroads. Additional road name offerings by Con-Cor are accurate though they did miss the Erie, Susquehanna, Chicago & Western Indiana and perhaps a few others I’m not aware of. These road names may be planned for future runs of the cars. The mP-54 cars are presently only available as two-car sets although they are not packed in a single set box. The cars each come in the familiar tan Con-Cor boxes. I can understand why Con-Cor has chosen to sell the cars as sets, however, it would be nice to see additional coaches available separately so longer trains could be readily modeled. Honestly though with a retail price for these cars of $119.98 a pair which works out to $59.99 a car, these cars are a downright bargain in a day and age where one can easily pay over 40 dollars for a single freight car. Con-Cor has announced that powered electrified mP-54 cars are in the works, check their web site for updates.
8101 East Research Court
Tucson, AZ 85710-9658
MP54 Commuter Cars
Available road names are Pennsylvania pre- and post-World War II schemes; Boston & Maine; Long Island; Norfolk & Western; Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines; Santa Fe and undecorated.
Visit web site for MSRP
These mP-54 cars are among the finest passenger models to be offered in HO scale to date. They are finely designed and engineered and masterfully executed. All are “on-the-money” accurate and a genuine visual treat to see in operation, both day and night. I’m guessing many Pennsy modelers will at the least be weak knee’d or short of breath when taking these cars out of the box. Try and be sitting when you do this! Those who model roads which bought the cars second hand from the Pennsylvania or those just looking for some truly fine passenger equipment will be equally thrilled.
These cars are available in two-car sets: two coaches, a combine and coach or an RPO/Baggage and Coach set.
This review originally appeared in Railroad Model Craftsman in 2010.