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Shunter, Switcher, Switch Engine, Pure Fun

Updated on October 18, 2013

Model Railroad Shunters and Switching Puzzles

A switch engine (or shunter) is a small locomotive used for switching (shunting) railroad cars. If you love model locomotives, switch engines are the cheapest, most fun, and easiest way to get a lot of model train engines. With a little care you can buy 10 or 12 switchers for the price of just one of the latest and greatest, DCC equipped steam belching monsters or high tech diesels. Switch engines are smaller than road engines,so you can display more of them in a given space (or store more of them in your closet - LOL). They run well on the layout you already have (as opposed to the "super layout" you're going to have "some day") and they don't look ridiculous running on tight curves (unlike your UP Big Boy or your SD-70ACE). Switch engines (also called shunters, switchers, or for PRR fans shifters) are perfect for small shelf layouts and the tight curves found on HO scale 4x8 layouts. Most of all. collecting and running model switch engines is just plain fun.

Varney Dockside
Varney Dockside

Varney Dockside

The original HO Scale steam switch engine...

The first widely available HO scale switch engine was the Varney Dockside 0-4-0 switcher. This little engine was so popular that after Varney went out of business it was produced by several other model train companies including AHM (RIvarossi), Bowser, IHC, Lifelike, and Mantua. All the HO Dockside engines are similar, but some have more factory detailing than others. My Dockside was made by AHM/Rivarossi and features a fairly complicated valve gear that is pretty uncommon. I paid about $30 for it on eBay.

Rivarossi dockside switcher switch engine
Rivarossi dockside switcher switch engine
Tyco Shifter
Tyco Shifter

Tyco Shifter

The iconic HO Scale steam switcher...

One of the most popular HO Scale switch engines of all time was Tyco (Mantau) 0-4-0 Shifter. Tyco put thousands of these in "Brown Box" train sets and after Tyco went out of business AHM and Model Power both made versions of this engine for several. My first train set came with a Tyco Shifter (I still have it) and I've acquired a few more over the years. The original version had a metal boiler with one sand dome and one steam dome and a metal tender. Later versions used the same boiler but substituted a plastic tender, and the final versions used a plastic boiler with a second sand dome added. These are very cool little locomotives and you could almost build an entire hobby out of collecting, restoring, and modifying all the different versions that were produced.

Bachmann 0-6-0T - Perfect for your logging, industrial, or mining railroad...

I bought this little Bachmann Spectrum switcher with the idea of converting to an Sn42 mining locomotive, but then for Christmas I got Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California - Vol. 2 and read about the Mojave Northern. This line still runs today, and during the steam era they ran three 0-6-0T locomotives as their road engines (and an 0-4-2). It's a great line to model so I'm keeping this engine HO Scale and I bought 2 more. Great little engine - runs slow and smooth.

Timesaver Layout - Classic Switching Layout...

Timesaver switching layout
Timesaver switching layout

If you want to run your shunters, the Timesaver switching layout is a classic. It doesn't take up a lot of room, and it's the perfect layout to give your switch engines a good workout. Even if you just want to display them, an interesting track arrangement is better than a closet shelf...

Tyco Diesel Switcher
Tyco Diesel Switcher

Tyco Diesel Switcher

A classic HO Scale diesel switch engine...

The Tyco Diesel Switcher is a classic HO Scale diesel switchers and is also just about the smallest HO Scale switch engine you can get (except for the Dockside switcher). I had one of these as a kid and I remember it seemed to run pretty good as long as I kept the brass wheels clean. My current copy was picked up on eBay for $12.00 plus shipping.

Atlas HH660 HO Scale switcher
Atlas HH660 HO Scale switcher

Atlas HH660

A small Southern Pacific switch engine...

My favorite prototype railroad is the Southern Pacific so when I saw this little HH660 by Atlas I just had to have it. For a long time this was my most expensive switch engine because I decided to splurge and get the Gold Edition with digital command control (DCC) and sound. I didn't (don't) even have a DCC control unit yet but you only live once, right? They also paint this locomotive for other roads I like including the Milwaukee Road and the Boston and Maine. My SP unit will most likely reside on my Slim Princess layout once I get it built.

Southern Pacific GE 70 tonner in Black Widow paint scheme
Southern Pacific GE 70 tonner in Black Widow paint scheme

Bachmann Spectrum GE 70 Ton Switcher

Another small HO Scale switch engine...

The GE 70 ton switcher is just a little bigger than the HH660 and it works great on small HO scale layouts. Mine is made my Bachmann and it has DCC but no sound. Mine is painted and unlettered - I plan on lettering it for my Owens River Valley Railway. I also want to get a second one of these and have it custom painted and lettered in Southern Pacific's Black Widow scheme. Unlike some of my switcher engines, the Bachmann 70 tonner is still easy to find - you can get them for $75 or less on eBay.

Bachmann GE 70 Ton switch engine in HO scale
Bachmann GE 70 Ton switch engine in HO scale

Model Power Industrial Diesel Switcher - A switching critter for my Sn42 model railroad...

Build a Switching Layout - 8 great switching layout track plans...


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    • pcgamehardware profile image


      5 years ago

      Nice selection. :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice Lens. Very interesting and entertaining. Nice Work.

      Thank you for visiting my newly launched Squidoo Lens -

      Be seeing you.

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 

      6 years ago from Connecticut

      My layout is geared towards running long freights and passenger trains,but I did include a small yard and several sidings for a little switch work. My favorite switcher is an old 0-4-0 Mantua camel-back that I repainted and wired for DCC control. Nicely done!

    • CuAllaidh profile image

      Jeff Johnston 

      6 years ago from Alberta Canada

      nice... used to love my model trains... one of these days I'll have to get a space large enough for me to set up a track again :D

    • yourselfempowered profile image

      Odille Rault 

      6 years ago from Gloucester

      Great selection of switch engines, and very interesting lens! Blessed. :)


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