Knuckle Coupler Reviews

by Dan Wexler

Note: This article is from Dan's Winter 1999 From the Cupola column. --webmaster

One of the advantages of a home layout is the ability to experiment with different techniques and technologies before recommending them for club use. Such is the case with couplers. During the past year or so Iíve had the opportunity to test a few of the many new knuckle-type coupler brands. 

Background

Close to thirty years ago The Kadee Co. introduced an AAR Janney type coupler. Even though itís slightly oversized, Kadeeís coupler works flawlessly and has become the industry standard for serious modelers worldwide. Over the years Kadee developed a number of variations on their basic delayed-action coupler, such as long and short shanks of varying lengths, as well as offset high and low.

Kadeeís patents ran out about three or four years ago. In the model industry's haste to grab a share of the knuckle coupler market, several companies introduced Kadee clones. Some of these couplers are okay, while others are just plain junk. This review records my experiences with some of the new coupler brands.

The Couplers

Accumate Accurail includes this coupler in all their new car kits. Though it looks like a knuckle coupler, it is not readily compatible with Kadeeís. The knuckle doesn't open or close easily, making switching almost impossible. They are made of a tough plastic and seem to be sturdy. This coupler will probably work well in unit train service.
Intermountain These couplers are included with the newer runs from Intermountain. They have the look of the Kadee #5 and mate up well with them. All parts of the coupler, including the centering and knuckle springs, are made of a nylon/delrin type substance. I own fifty Intermountain SFRD reefers that include these couplers. So economic factors swayed me to use them. Iíve been using them in unit train service now for about three years and so far no failures.
McHenry Life-Like includes this coupler with almost all Proto 2000 equipment. It looks very much like the Intermountain except that it's made of plastic and the centering spring is a Kadee clone. The main problem with this coupler is that the plastic knuckle spring has a "memory." When the couplers are stored in the open position for prolonged periods, such as when they are tight against the side of a storage container, the spring never returns to its original position. As long as there is a load on the coupler while you run the train, it stays closed pretty well. The problem occurs when you put the couplers under slack conditions. When trains reach a flat area and stretch out again, the couplers stay open and the train separates. Personally I've experienced 100% failure on all my Proto 2000 locomotive original equipment couplers after just a few hours of operation. In the last year or so McHenry has changed the plastic spring to a Kadee type copper spring. This may help the problem but the plastic coupler still does not operate like metal Kadee couplers.
E-Z mate This is Bachmann's offering in the knuckle coupler market. It comes as standard equipment on most Spectrum models. These are the couplers that started the whole discussion about off brand couplers. As with the original McHenry couplers, the plastic knuckle springs stay open after moderate routine use. Unlike McHenry I've seen no notifications of an upgrade to a real spring. we'll have to wait and see with these.
Athearn I have heard from a reliable source that Athearn is also joining the knuckle coupler frenzy in the very near future. We'll have to see if their offering will be of the same quality we've come to expect from Athearn.

Summary

The advantage these couplers have over Kadee is either price or that theyíre already included with a kit. They are all about half the price of Kadee couplers, but this is one of those instances were you really do get what you pay for. The major problem with most of these couplers is their lack of dependability or their inability to work well with the Kadee uncoupling ramps or the Rix uncoupling tool, which for my purposes make them useless.

As your Superintendent, I recommend that the club standard for the foreseeable future remain Kadee. It's still the finest coupler on the market. If a member wishes to run their own dedicated train using off brand couplers they should be allowed to do so, providing they meet the other criteria for coupler standards. However should couplers fail the car(s) will be removed from the layout and not be allowed back on the railroad until after being re-certified with Kadee couplers.

I hope all this has been helpful, as always I look forward to your comments and suggestions.