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All Aboard for Digital

Model Train Buffs Take the High-Tech Track to More Realistic Railroading

July 05, 2001|DAVID COLKER |

Model railroading, the tinkering hobby that caught on before most homes were even wired with electricity, has gone digital.

Digital technology lets model railroaders rule their iron horse empires from programmable control units or home computers, allowing for far more sophisticated and realistic operations. Once-simple locomotives have morphed into complex gadgets that mimic the sound and motion of their real-life counterparts.

"The old-fashioned way, that's not real railroading," said Bob Santelli, a technician at Culver City's Allied Model Trains. Digital has grown so popular among train buffs that Santelli works full-time putting digital decoders in locomotives and advising hobbyists on their home setups.

Model railroading always has been gadget-intensive, but digital has transformed the hobby. In addition to more lifelike sound and lighting, digital systems allow several locomotives to be controlled separately on the same track--a feat not possible with traditional analog setups. Also, the electric wiring of complex track layouts is drastically simplified.

"Digital has given us much more control," said retired California Highway Patrol officer Ken Josing, whose 450-square-foot model train layout takes up the living room, dining room and entryway of his Conejo Valley home.

Electric model railroading began before electricity was common in homes, according to John Balogh, head of the National Model Railroading Assn.'s digital interest group.

"You just needed a battery for power and a resistor to adjust the speed," Balogh said. "More sophisticated transformers, control units and track switches came later, but the basic analog principles remained the same."

And those principles are pretty simple. Electricity flowing through metal tracks is picked up by metal wheels or brushes and powers a basic motor. If the current to a segment of track increases, the locomotives on it all speed up. If the current is reversed, they all change direction.

At the Original Whistle Stop train store in Pasadena, Peter Ely demonstrated the most fundamental way in which digital has changed the hobby. He put two locomotives on the same stretch of straight track.

"It used to be that if two locomotives shared the same track they had to be going the same direction and at the same speed," he said.

Analog model railroaders get around this limitation with the use of a blocking system to isolate various segments of track, but each segment requires its own wiring, often resulting in a mass of wires underneath layouts. Toggle switches also are needed to control the segments. "You ended up thinking more about the electronics than the trains," Balogh said.

With digital, the power still comes through the tracks, but a decoder in a locomotive gives it independence. On the test track, Ely used a hand unit about the size of a Walkman to make one of the engines run forward. Punching a button and twirling a dial, he made the second locomotive catch up to the first, then suddenly stop and reverse direction so they traveled to opposite ends of the track.

For an outsider, this new degree of control may seem insignificant. But it has revolutionized the hobby, according to Ely. "The whole idea is to make it as if you were right in the locomotive, controlling the train," he said.

The first commercially available digital setup was brought to market in 1964 by General Electric, which long since has abandoned the model railroad business. This system, called ASTRAC, or Automatic Simultaneous Train Control, allowed as many as five locomotives to be individually controlled by radio signals.

DCC, or Digital Command Control, was the next major step forward and is still the state of the art. Developed in the 1990s, it sends packets of information from a command station through the rails to decoders in locomotives and other devices.

A full-featured DCC setup can control the speed and direction of more than 100 trains at a time, and DCC allows for easy upgrading and expansion of a setup.

Most DCC systems are controlled by hand-held units that can be radio- or infrared-controlled or wired directly into the layout. Although it's still fairly rare, a personal computer can be used to run a DCC system. Using a desktop or laptop probably will become more common when standards are set for interactive controllers that can allow for an accurate visual readout of where all the trains on a layout are situated.

"You could be like a real dispatcher, a thousand miles away from the trains, controlling them," Ely said.

The price of DCC units has fallen drastically from when they were introduced. Starter kits that went for about $1,000 in the early DCC days now can be had for less than $200 and up, depending on the level of sophistication and expandability. Individual decoders, which used to cost about $100, now sell for as little as $20.

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