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 differences.

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 more.

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 think not.

So why is DCC still gaining ground?

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 starters!

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 coach.

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.

The market

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 piece suits!

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 worthwhile?

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 manuals.

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. Automation.

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 equipment.

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 understandable manner

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.