DF4E Class Diesel-electric Co-Co+Co-Co
The DF4E's were a relatively small class of diesel electric locomotives manufactured by Sifang Locomotive works from 1994. They are essentially a pair of single cab DF4B's permanently paired, the cabs being a more angled design similar to DF4C with enlarged front windows. The introduction of the DF8B sealed their very early fate and by year 2000 they were removed from service and converted into single unit double cab DF4B's by Qishuyan Rolling Stock Works, many of which are still in service today (2023).
The DF4E was a bit of a surprise release, and one shrouded in controversy. From what I have been able to determine, the drawings were made by Aurora Miniatures and then sent to Sino Model's factory. Soon afterwards a disagreement has arisen and Sino Model have gone out and manufactured them under their own brand. Aurora made their own DF4E's shortly afterwards with a rival factory and undercut the price of Sino Models already cheap models. And you thought "Days of our Lives" was gripping..
Sino Model's DF4E's have a plastic body shell which sits on top of a large heavy alloy frame. Both units are powered and there is no electrical connection between the models, being joined together with couplers. Seven versions were produced, covering most road numbers and livery variations and both cab designs (square headlight and arched headlight style). There is a very good amount of features and details and given all of the above, are incredibly good value at around 1500rmb.
The models are very nicely packaged in a solid two-piece cardboard box. The models are screwed to a plastic platform and these sit inside a bed of medium density foam. Each model is wrapped in a soft plastic sheet to prevent detail parts snagging. There is another small plastic sheet which wraps around the rear portion of the locomotive to give extra protection to the radiator grids.
The box contains a small bag containing spare couplers and optional non-functioning radiator grids. The instruction manual is very comprehensive and well laid out. It is also unusual in being bi-lingual in Chinese and English!
The details are, generally speaking, very beautifully recreated. Most of the added on detail parts are brass, steel or plastic. At first glance, they may appear bland, but no less than the real locomotives!
Air horns are milled brass pieces. All grab irons and handrails are steel wire, most of them painted in the main body color. Window glazing is complete and the edges are painted black to simulate the rubber seals. Wipers are ultra fine brass. Front and rear air hoses are tri-colored plastic pieces and look fantastic, as do the wire uncoupling rods painted grey with red handles. Marker light surrounds are injected plastic and chromed. All louver vents are hollowed out and, even though plastic, are extremely sharp. Cab and engine room doors are spring loaded, meaning they can be opened, although I haven't found a way of keeping them open. The cab itself is fully detailed with all controls, seat, on-board signaling equipment and cabinet detail present. Engine room detail is also provided which adds to the aesthetics and also doubles to cover the model mechanism. The molding detail here looks good, if a little plasticy, but nothing that can't be modified with a grimy wash.
The bogie details are excellent with very good depth. Traction motor cases between the axles are very realistic. The suspension springs are separate wire parts and look great. Maybe one of the neatest features is the traction booster arms with movable linkages connecting to each side as the bogie pivots just like the real thing. All other detail is present and correct including steps, sanding equipment and brake rigging.
The paint work is very nicely applied. Colors are rich and the edges are nice and sharp. Lettering is fairly minimal, as per the prototypes, but very sharp and appropriately colored depending which version you get. The builders plates are painted on rather than separate parts, however the almost microscopic characters are all perfectly legible and being that the Sifang builders plates are rather small compared to other builder plate types, it's not a major detraction.
The roof detail is really very nice with a huge amount of grab irons strewn all over. There are two removable panels supplied for easy access; one for the decoder and one for the radiator fans. These fans are the DF4E's party piece and are functional. More details are provided below in the 'Performance' section of the review. For those who do not wish to use this feature, Sino Model has supplied a replacement set of non-functioning radiator fans. The removable panels fit nicely and are very easy to remove with an almost invisible gap. This is achieved by some very small and powerful magnets. The decoder panel has some slightly offset pins to align with the body to ensure it is installed the correct way. They simply act as a guide and don't require any real force to push in. Since this review, I've noticed one of these magnets was so powerful, it pulled one out of the main body shell (you can make this out in the enlarged photo in 'Electronics' section) - since repaired with a small drop of superglue.
Both units are powered with electrical pick up and drive coming from all wheels. Each unit is extremely heavy together tipping the scales at a whopping 1.6kgs. The large motor has a heavy brass flywheel on both ends to assist with smooth performance. My units are very quiet in DC mode (once the radiator fans are switched off!) and they both operate well throughout the speed zone.
All the models were sold as DC, but DCC ready. They have been extremely well planned and future proofed for DCC users. Not only is there provision for a speaker in each fuel tank, they have even included the speaker! DCC users will need a 21-pin decoder. Well, two to be precise as there is no electrical link to share one decoder for both units. They come with a semi-dummy decoder plug which contains ten switches in which all the individual light functions can be turned off. To make it even better, the decoder can be accessed through a clever roof panel.
Right next door is the radiator fan assembly, the louvres which are functional! These are not the first models to have this feature, that honor goes to Aurora's earlier DF5 - another clear sign some of the technology was, shall we say... borrowed? Underneath each set of louver vents is a pair of powered fans which expel just enough air to give the fans a rippling effect. These too can be accessed via a removable roof hatch. Power is taken from a pair of sprung pins which contact the main board when the roof is in place. The visual affect is very nice, however the sound is as loud as the air-raid sirens used during the Blitzkrieg. They can be switched off manually - see in the photo above the little switch bottom left of the dummy decoder. It is a shame they were fitted with these insanely noisy motors, and it will ultiamtely be up to the owner to decide whether the noise effect is worth the visual effect.
The lighting suite is most impressive and features an amazing amount of lights. The main headlight and markers are slightly off white (almost pink?) and have good intensity. The white marker lights on the front and read are also the same hue and rear markers are red - all of these lights are directional. Other lights include bogie lights (two over each bogie!), cab light, side cab number lights and engine room lights.
The units as mentioned earlier are connected via couplers. The front ones are very easy to remove and replace with Kadee couplers by simply removing the screw from the bottom of the coupler box, replacing the coupler and putting the screw back in. It took less than a minute each to replace mine with Kadee #158 whisker couplers. Note the photos in this review show the model with these Kadee's on the front portion of both units installed (and yes, I remove the magnetic pins from my couplers). Unfortunately the rear ones are more much more problematic. They are plastic knuckles, but on a very wierd and unique multi prong shaft. The effect isn't particualrly good as the gap between units varies anywhere from 1mm to 5mm's difference, as seen in the photo below. As far as I can ascertain, there is no easy way to convert to Kadee's (or any other coupler type). I will work on this in the future once time permits.
Sino Model have made a very good model and disassembly should not be needed under most circumstances, but should the need arise, the body shell is held on by three lugs in the frame spread evenly down the body. The manual shows the positions of these and to remove, just insert a toothpick or similar between the shell and frame next to each lug and the shell lifts off very easily.
The DF4E is a bit of an oddity in China Rail having such a small number built and operated in a very narrow window of time, but is very welcome addition to HO scale rosters nonetheless. They are beautifully designed (thanks Aurora!) and build quality, features, details and performance is very good. Some of the livery variations are questionable and there are some aspects I don't like - especially the rear couplers - but when you consider the price point, they still represent extremely good value for money and are a very interesting prototype. Aurora Miniatures have promised me a sample model to review which they claim is better, but after 18 months, I am yet to acquire one.