Electric Locomotive Pantograph Arcing

Electric Locomotive Pantograph Arcing

By Roger Heid


When I was a kid, I frequently got to ride on a trolley, also called street car. The first trolleys were horse drawn. Now, they were electrified. During the hours of darkness, I noticed some sparks coming from where the pantographs were touching the catenaries.

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This was something I did not give much thought. It was just something that happened and I took it for granted. Where there are catenaries and pantographs, there will be sparks.  Later on, I learned that these sparks were not really ‘sparks’, in spite of their appearance. ‘Arcs’ is actually the correct nomenclature, in scientific terms.

Mother Nature provides an extreme case of ‘arcing’ in the form of lightning. In a machine shop, you may find an Arc Welder. Nicolai Tesla would turn in his grave, if you called it a ‘Spark Welder’. Sparks are flying during an argument with your boss, but that’s an entirely different issue.

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Imagine a 6 inch gap between their foreheads. The sparks caused by the arcing would set their heads on fire.

One must concede, however, that under certain conditions, severe arcing will result in sparks flying away from the scene of arcing as an unwanted side effect. In either case, both, unintended arcing and sparking are generally considered undesirable, as it is the case with pantographs. Using an arc welder, the arcing is intended, the sparks are not.



For Christmas of 1960, I bought myself an Electric Locomotive. My older cousin gave me his entire stock of masts and catenaries. Now my entire layout was electrified. Right away, I noticed the arcing, and I enjoyed it immensely. This looked real. Of course, it looked real; it was the real thing, reduced in scale. Along the line, I also had observed this on the full-sized railroad locomotives.


Sometimes, I ran my new electric locomotive for a while just to watch these occasional arcs. This fascinated me, and I started to wish they were more intense and brighter. So I studied up to find out what was causing the fireworks.

After some fiddling around, I managed to greatly intensify the effect by ‘treating’ catenary sections, in select locations. I do not recommend for anyone to try this at home. Therefore, I won’t tell you what I did. You see, I wound up having to replace both pantographs and all the ‘affected’ catenary sections. I consoled myself by knowing that sometimes progress comes at a price. The fact that my quest for progress was rather dubious by nature did not occur to me until I had to borrow money from piggy bank.

A few years ago, I rekindled my old hobby and decided to follow the digital path. At this time, the nature of my layout does not call for overhead electrification, but this is subject to change. Since in the digital world, catenaries are typically not powered, I would certainly miss the arcing effect. Indeed, I would miss it a lot.

It came to mind that I could install a separate line, all analog. I tend to reject this idea, because, according to my own rules, any locomotive of mine must be able to reach any location on my track layout. This is one of the great benefits of digital operation, in the first place. You see, I could wind up in that in that infamous spot between a rock and a hard place if weren’t willing to forfeit the ‘sparks flying’. It would have to be one or the other. Drat! But I can bend my own rules, can’t I?

So I went to field to research this matter. I figured if we can send a man to the moon and have talking calculators, we should be able to effectively resolve this situation, as unimportant as it may seem in the grand scheme of things.

There is this rich acquaintance of mine who has a very large layout on which everything happens on its own. He turns on a lap top and pushes a button to awaken a synthetic world, no hands on required. Originally, he had intended to drag it to shows, in sections. The nature of his job does not allow for this, time wise. He had worked on this for about 20 years.

I was lucky enough for him to answer the phone. I asked him if ever heard of the Viessmann #5068 arc generator. He told me he had two of them and to stop by and take a look. I did, and I was impressed.



There is one thing I did not like. This black 2 conductor wire needs to be installed on the pantograph. It takes away from the realistic appearance of the pantograph. He does not care about this.

If I were to install it, I would unbraid the wire, straighten it, run it up on both sides of the pantograph and paint it silver, for a more realistic look. But that’s me.

The product description speaks of “easy to install”. I am not so sure about that. My acquaintance said it was a cinch. For him, everything is easy, being an engineer of some sort. If you are mechanically inclined, have the needed tools and know about proper soldering procedures, you should be able to tackle this project. If not, leave it to a guru.

If any of you knows of a different or better method or product, please leave a comment. If you have questions, please post them in the Forum under the Technical Corner topic.

Thank you.







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