What should the future of DCC be?
you only need two wires
The most common response I hear about the use of
DCC, (Digital command control) is "It is too complicated and I don't
understand it". Can it be that hard or more to the point, should it be?
Frankly, at present, it could not be more
complicated. There is now a bewildering number of systems on the market and
every one of them is different in so many respects that it is very hard to
understand what it is all about. Even the language is not standardised. It
is my belief that the companies selling this stuff make great efforts to
'hook' the consumer into their system by building in incompatible
So what does the stuff do?
In its simplest form, DCC allows you to run
several locomotives on the same bit of track without having to isolate them
from each other. This can be most useful if you wish to park a line of locos
at the engine sheds or if you want to double head or have a second train
following the first.
The system will also allow you to have lights on
your train which can even reverse with direction of travel. Coach lighting
will not dim as trains go slower so that is a plus too. You can easily
programme the locomotive to accelerate and slow down smoothly although it
takes a little practice to learn to stop at the chosen place.
The mobile decoder (loco chip) is the one thing
that is standardised. Some chips give more options for additional functions
and they vary in size and of course reliability (and price).
The downside of this is, of course, that it is
very easy to replicate the Harrow train crash! The system requires a mobile
decoder to be fitted in every locomotive and you have to read the manual
which is usually as clear as mud and as thick as the bible. It is also quite
expensive. Expect to spend at least £200 to equip an average home layout. If
you send your locomotives away to be chipped, expect to spend a great deal
Is it worth going to all of that trouble for
that? In the end, I think the answer is Yes but I understand why others
So why is DCC still gaining
In theory, DCC is the gateway to all kinds of
extra facilities which are virtually impossible to achieve using DC power.
The idea of being able to add realistic sound to
your locomotives is irresistible to many. I have to say, the result can be
very effective but usually it is infuriating. When looking at your model
locomotive, you may have noticed that it is quite small. Work out how far
away from you the actual prototype would have to be to appear that small.
Now ask yourself what you would actually hear from the real locomotive at
that distance. You will certainly not hear the sound of shovelling coal for
Rather sadly, far too many sound installed
operators are so excited with the technology that they feel the need to
share it with as many people as they can. It never occurs to them to turn
down the volume at all!
Chips with sound are still rather large and of
course space has to be found for a loudspeaker too. I have managed to get
sound into 009 by fitting it (as an accessory decoder) to the adjacent
My gripe is that it is still extremely difficult
to programme these decoders and some actually require special hardware to
add new sounds. Every make has a different system and frankly most do not
have an easy way to adjust volume control. It is a complete mess. If you are
able to buy a chip pre-programmed for your loco fine and good but that is
not always the case by any means.
Depending upon your choice of chip, you will be
supplied with a number of function possibilities. You will be able to select
lights, make sound (if you have a sound chip) and it is now even possible to
couple and uncouple your stock.
Some systems can follow your train around your
layout, knowing where it is at all times.
Most of these innovations come from the USA and
to a lesser extent, Germany. The Brits usually have to accept the crumbs that
fall from their tables and frankly, many of the facilities provided are just
not that relevant. Model railroading in the USA is in many respects quite
different to what goes on in the UK, apart from the fact that the Yanks wear
very silly caps while the Germans seem to go railway modelling in three
Many private US layouts seem to be built on
floor areas equivalent to an Heathrow runway and US clubs take running
trains to dispatched timetables to the extreme. A 'driver' clutching his DCC
controller will walk alongside his train for seemingly hundreds of yards,
switching on and off all sorts of loco lights and suchlike (not forgetting
his silly hat and bandana).
Most Brits are forced to minimise their layouts'
size as their houses are smaller than the average US garage. So when is DCC
So far, I have only talked about mobile decoders
and their control. Actually, there are also 'stationary decoders'. These are
decoders that can operate points, signals, uncouplers and the like. Each
item must be given a 'stationary decoder address' and with a bit of luck,
you can also change points and signals from the same hand held controller.
By now, of course, your hand held controller will have more buttons on it
than the most complicated entertainment centre zapper. It will also
cost a pretty penny too. If that is as far as you intend to go, frankly I
see no point in it at all. It is so much easier to operate such equipment
from conventional DC control panels with a simple flick of a switch.
You can be assured, however, that you will have
spent a great deal of money and spent many hours puzzling over the various
so what's the point?
For most of us railway modellers, we spend much
of our time with our layouts alone. Unless we have lots of parallel tracks
in a loop, it is very hard to operate more than one train at a time. For
many, this can become a tad boring after a time. Wouldn't it be great to be
able to set up routes and see several trains going about their business at
the same time? It could be really fun to develop different operating
routines, select one, and watch it all happen while enjoying a nice beer.
This is the holy grail of DCC.
Even now, this is possible as the operation of
County Gate will attest. Sadly, setting it all up is anything but fun unless
you are a serious computer geek. I can honestly say that even after several
years, I am totally unable to do such things myself. There is so far nothing
on the market available to us which makes such an endeavour viable for the
average modeller. Most of us have big time restrictions concerning our hobby
and frankly, to have to spend hundreds of additional hours working on
automation is not an option.
Our County Gate automation has come about thanks
to the help of some very clever expert people and I have just tried to
follow orders and wire the stuff together. Equipment from several sources
were used and hundreds of hours were spent making them all work together. It
has actually taken longer to automate the layout than it did to build it;
the project taking four years!
So far, the industry is filled with computer
geeks who frankly, have spent little time in making DCC accessible for us
rank and file modellers. I sometimes think that they are actually trying to
start a new hobby specifically excluding railway modellers!
DCC development 2012
So let's look to what should
happen in the future.
You want to have an automated model railway and
have elected to go with ACME DCC Products and have received your
installation kit. You have soldering and modelling skills and know the
basics on how to operate your laptop computer. When ordering your DCC kit,
you remembered to specify whether you have a MAC or PC, by the way. The cost
and complexity of your kit will depend upon the number of baseboards, points
and signals you will use. The kit even supplies the correct plugs and
sockets you will need to run the system from one baseboard to the next.
The well written and illustrated manual will
take you through the basic wiring requirements of your nascent layout. It
will describe how to run a track power bus bar through the baseboard and how
to and where to install track supply droppers. It will also explain how to
modify your points to be DCC friendly.
It will tell you to allocate each point and
signal with a four digit number such as 0045, and suggest that you clearly
write each number by the unit under the baseboard. Nothing could be simpler.
Now you install the DCC equipment. Each
stationary decoder can operate 20 points and 20 signals. If you need more,
just fit a second unit as supplied. Each stationary decoder has a connection
to track power and a connection to a 12 volt DC power supply. They are also
connected together and to your controller by cables similar to the Digitrax
LonoNet system. This will allow digital messages to be passed around the
system independent of those on the track.
There are clearly marked multiple connector
blocks for the points and signals. All you have to do is to connect the
point motors and signals to the blocks, writing down which wires go to which
numbers on the decoder. There is a simple plug that can be put into one of
two positions depending on whether you are using solenoid or motor
You then have to connect a cable from your
controller to a USB on your laptop. Now, load the CD disc into the laptop
and follow the simple installation sequence. Once the installation is
complete, a series of prompts come onto the screen.
The first will ask you to switch on your layout
system. The software will detect how many stationary decoders you have
installed and if necessary, allocate a different master address for each.
The next prompt will ask you which points and
signals you have connected to where on the stationary decoder. There will
then be a test prompt so that you can check that all your equipment is
operating as it should.
So far, your software does not know what your
layout looks like. You are then asked to draw your layout on a screen and
give each signal and point the correct number. The layout is drawn by
pulling down track sections, curved and straight, points and signals from a
menu. Once you are satisfied with your drawing, you will then be asked to
run a DCC locomotive around the layout. The software will automatically
learn where your loco is by transponding.
All is now ready to set up an operating
sequence. Place your locomotive at the start, usually, say, in the fiddle
yard. Highlight the route you wish to take with the train (until it must
stop) by using a highlight pen from the menu. Enter that route.
The computer will then set that route and you
can drive the loco along the route. If you wish something to happen, stop
the loco where you wish and press the 'mark' button on the software.
You will then be given a menu where you can select the instructions you
require. These may be related to the speed of the train or signal settings,
sound or lights etc. You may be running into a loop where the train will
stop. You can 'mark' a point where the train slows down and 'mark another
where you wish it to stop.
At any point along the route, you can also
'mark' the initiation of another route for another train, and so it goes.
Very quickly, you will be able to set up a
complex operation cycle which can be made to continue until you wish it to
stop. If you are unhappy with the result, you can edit or just throw that
programme away. It would be possible to develop several exciting sequences
which can be set in motion when you wish.
In addition, your software programme will change
CV values on any of your locos wherever they are in an easy and
Nothing could be simpler but so far, no one is
doing it so as a consequence, very few will take the plunge into automation.
A real chicken and egg situation but
IT WILL HAPPEN.