VIA Rail Steam Generator Unit Quartet

Canadian National Railways had a massive railway network that had extensive passenger service well into the 1970's.  When steam locomotives were being replaced by diesels, unlike many other railways CN elected to use separate steam generator units (SGU) for secondary and branchline trains.  This was to allow freight units to be used on these trains instead of dedicated passenger service units.  

Between 1955 and 1957 CN ordered 94 SGU from CC&F (15400-448, 1958), GMD (15450-479, 1959) and NSC (15480-494, 1960), each with a different configuration.  These cars served in CN passenger train service through to the divestment of CN's passenger services into VIA Rail Canada in 1977. These cars continued in VIA service to the end of steam heated passenger cars in 1996 when they were retired. 

Over the years a few options for modeling these cars were available including resin and brass, particularly several different versions of the CC&F and NSC (and maybe the GMD?) SGU released by Overland Models (OMI) in the late 1980's.  Later on Rapido Trains released a RTR version of the GMD SGU.  

Bedarail recently released a CC&F kit representing the first order of these cars.  I ordered a pair of these cars and decided it was time to do a batch of VIA SGU for my Hudson Bay Railway passenger trains.  I decided that I would do all the OMI and one of the Bedarail kits to start.  Four of any specific build is about my limit.  More than that and it becomes more of a chore to do.  

The OMI cars are pretty much ready to go, they just needed painting and decaling.  I did add piping to the rooftop of the NSC cars using 0.032" wire with 0.030" flat brass supports soldered onto the pipe, using photos as a guide for placement.  I didn't have any measurements but used photos to get the length and location.  I added a blob of solder on the end of the pipe that attaches to the roof and filed it to a cone shape to match photos.  

Steam piping on the Bedarail underframe, using the OMI model as a guide

The Bedarail kits are more involved as they are 3D printed bodies with basic underframe and roof details.  The modeler provides trucks, couplers and other details.  I used an OMI CC&F SGU as a guide for the underframe details, using various phosphor bronze wire sizes for the pipes, wires and other gizmos.  I added some additional parts seen on the prototype with bits and pieces from my scrapbox.  I also cut styrene to cover the rear of the battery boxes to give them a more prototypical look.  

On the roof top I added wire vents following prototype photos.  I also added some wire guides to keep the MU cables out of the way of the door as was present on the prototype.  I bent grab irons for the car, and man are there a lot of them!  I painted them separately and put them in place when the body was painted.  I also added a length of chain to the hand brake housing on the B end of the car.  

On the right is the unmodified Walthers GSC BX Express truck; on the left is the same truck with the brake hangers trimmed off.  It is almost dead on for the SGU trucks

Bedarail designed the car to use Rapido SGU trucks which are correct for these cars.  I had a pair of Walthers GSC BX Express trucks which are very close to the Rapido trucks.  These come with outside hung brake shoes which are not correct for the SGU trucks.  However it is a simple matter of cutting off the brake supports and sanding the ends of the trucks to shape.  Otherwise they are correct for the SGU.  I also trimmed off the raised ring around the center hole in the truck bolster to get the correct height for the car.  

Painting and Decaling

For the OMI cars I did a bit of preparation in the form of soaking the cars in acetone to clean any lacquer that was applied to the undecorated cars.  The cars were scrubbed with a toothbrush and dried.  This was followed by a soak in vinegar to give the car a bit of "tooth" for the paint. I honestly can't tell if there was any effect on the car but I was advised by several knowledgeable people with brass painting experience to do this.  For the Bedarail car, I  washed it with warm soapy water to clean up any dust, oils, etc.  I let it dry and proceeded with painting the quartet.  

I used Mr. Surfacer 1000 to prime all four cars.  This gives a very nice finish that was a good starting point for painting.  I painted the cars with TLT CN Blue that is a good match for VIA blue.  When this was dry I masked the sides of the car and sprayed a warm black that I mixed from Vallejo Air black and grey paint.  I also painted the underframes and trucks with the same warm black mix.  Before painting the trucks I removed the wheel sets and painted them with my standard method for wheels (more <here>). After removing the masking I applied Vallejo gloss varnish to the car sides and ends in preparation for decalling.  

Black Cat Decals has released a decal set specifically for VIA Rail SGU.  I picked up 4 sets to use on these cars.  I used photos as a guide for decal placement.  The trickiest part is applying the stripes to the sides of the brass cars as the end grabs interfere with the decals.  I trimmed the decals to fit around the grabs and used TLT VIA yellow to touch up any areas that needed it.  There was a fair bit of variation in the small lettering on the SGU so use photos as a guide for placement.  The Black Cat set has several variations on this lettering to choose from.  

After decalling the cars I used Tamiya TS-80 matt finish to get everything sealed and ready for weathering.  These cars were generally kept clean in my era so I used an oil wash to bring out the rivet lines on the cars.  I also added a light coat of road grime to the underframe, ends and sides of the cars, trying to keep it varied so they each have a different character.

This was a fun project although I will admit that doing four cars at once is about the maximum I would want to do.  Now the passengers on the Hudson Bay and Thompson trains will be kept comfortable as they make their way to and from northern Manitoba.   


  1. Sure we're in the Golden Age of Model Railroading when it comes to availability of rolling stock, be it R-T-R or niche kits like the Bedarail line produces. But there is no less modelling inspiration and originality than in the Silver Age of Scratchbuilding when it comes to the level of craftsmanship and creativeness seen in these SGU's, Marc. Huge wow factor and your trains are indeed going to look Oh So Prototypical!
    Thanks for sharing your modelling,
    Eric Gagnon


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