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  • Simple Lighting Effects

    Help Enhance Walthers HO Scale Hiawatha Skytop Lounge Observation Cars

    By Mark Preussler, MMR

    Fans of The Milwaukee Road rejoiced at the news when Walthers announced they would introduce an entire passenger train of Hiawatha equipment with paint jobs to cover several eras of the train’s existence. To date, Walthers continues to introduce entire passenger train sets of other well-known trains such as the 20th Century Limited and Super Chief. The Milwaukee Road models like the other offerings are certainly well done. However, in the Hiawatha set, one car stands out; the Skytop Lounge Observation.

    Built in the late 1940s at the railroad’s shops located in the heart of Milwaukee, these cars had a real greenhouse feel to them as glass panels not only surrounded the passengers along the sides of the car, but the railroad saw fit to extend the panels to the roof in the observation lounge area of the car. It truly was an impressive exclamation point at the end of one of the nation’s most beloved trains.

    The HO model certainly captures the feel of the prototype; however a couple of improvements can still be made as there are a few details left off of the model, apparently to keep the costs down. The improvements both focus on lighting; the rear marker lights located on the sides of the car and the oscillating rear light, which can be made operational without too much hassle.

    The car is designed so that the “glass” rear end lifts off as a unit. Simply use a small screwdriver to pry the glass lounge away from the rest of the car. Walthers includes a nice exploded view of the parts and assembly to follow, but as a rule you will want to pry in the area above the rear truck. You will hear and feel the sides pop away from the rest of the car and then you will be able to gently pull the glass unit back off the car. Once off, you will see an opening at the rear of the one-piece interior that will accept a 1.5 V 30 ma bulb. I used a 1.3 mm size Miniatronics red bulb. Next, remove the rear coupler assembly and note the series of screws, which run along the center of the underframe. These screws hold the interior in place. Starting at the rear of the car, I worked toward the center and floor removed three screws. This will allow you to lift the rear of the interior and access two metal strips, which Walthers sandwiches between the interior and the underframe. The strips run the length of the car and provide power for interior lighting if so equipped, as well as weight. We will solder a wire on each strip and cut away a small piece of the interior floor (think carpet) to bring the wires up into the passenger compartment. Now it’s just a matter of how you want to route the wires from the bulb and how you want the rear light to function. On the prototype this light would automatically come on with a brake application if it weren’t already on. I operate with DCC, so I used a Digitrax TL1 accessory decoder to power the bulb and to provide a Mars lighting effects by setting the various CV’s listed in the instructions. I had no issues programming the Digitrax decoder with my NCE system, but keep in mind the TL1 does not support programming “on the main”. You will need a program track or JMRI Decoder Pro computer interface to change address and CV’s. Also remember that little bulb will need a resistor. I used a ¼ watt 390 ohm.

    If you want to get really fancy, there is a pretty interesting way to add lighting to the rear markers as well. Note from my pictures that the markers are somewhat cigar shaped. The center is wider than the ends. They will need to be cut so that a fiber optic line can be routed to the rear of the marker. Circuitron, among others, markets various thicknesses of fiber optic line, and I found .030” line to be about right. Note where I cut, and then through trial and error, work the fiber optic line into position on the car body and test fit the marker. I needed to use a very small round needle file to get the fiber optic line angled correctly and also used the file to hollow out the backside of the cut marker light. What you are trying to do is to make the fiber optic line look like the end of the marker, which you cut off. By having the marker casting slightly hollowed out with some curvature on the backside, you will be able to butt the assembly onto the fiber optic and make the unit look almost stock again. All parts can be epoxied or “CA’d” with any good ACC type glue. Once dry, I used red Miniatronics 3 mm LED’s lined up to the ends of the fiber optics and connected them with shrink tubing. Use the same two-wire set previously used for the rear oscillating light to provide power. I made these a constant on feature, but again a decoder could be wired in as on the rear light. I removed the interior bulkhead, which separated the “rear dome” area from the rest of the car. This allowed me to gently bend the fiber optics to the center of the car and out of sight from the rear of the car.

    So there you have it. The red lights look great even under a ceiling full of fluorescent lights in my train room. They really stand out. I would suggest that the rear oscillating light project is do-able for most modelers while the marker light project is a little more involved since we are modifying parts.  All that’s left is to sell some tickets and populate the Skytop!


    For more information, contact Mark Preussler at


    The rear of the car simply snaps off as shown. This allows you to easily work on the small side markers.  I used 2 LED’s to ease any chances of a sharp bend on the fiber optics. The LEDs need resistors, so don’t forget to add them per the manufacturer’s instructions. I left my markers as “always on” since the LED’s draw very little current and they also do not heat up. The rear oscillating light is a simple addition using a Miniatronics 1.5 v red bulb. The light flashes with a Digitrax TL1 decoder as described. Once the rear of the Skytop is off, you will easily figure out how to locate the bulb to rest behind the rear oscillating light. To help eliminate the light from “bleeding through” to the interior, simply place some electrical or duct tape to the underside of the interior seat casting.

    When all the markers are on, it makes an impressive sight! While not 100% correct for the car, the extra effect is easily noticed.

    Follow the arrow to cut the marker light. The decoder and wires could be arranged a little neater inside the car to make the installation almost invisible. The rear of the car comes off easily by prying the rear shell away from the car body just above the trucks. The seam where the parts separate is easily seen.  


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    • Original Author Mark Preussler

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