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Getting started with DCC should be a no-brainer and you do not need to get technical to run a train! In fact, running a train “out of the box” usually entails nothing more than attaching (2) wires to the track (just like you would with traditional DC), and ensuring that you have a DCC fitted train on the track.
The fun really starts when you start adding turnouts, loops, blocks, signals, WiFi and computer control. This is when you should stop for a second and become mindful of the DCC selection choices you make…here’s why.
At first, the choice of DCC system may not sound like such an issue.
Perhaps you received your first train set, and it included a starter DCC system. Perhaps your hobby shop recommended a certain brand or perhaps you fancy something you read about in a magazine.
Everything should work just fine, until you start expanding your system, and this is when you may well realize that the DCC systems from competing companies are not necessarily compatible with each other!
The “DCC Incompatibility” has got to do with licensing of the DCC protocol, as well as the Control and Feedback Bus technology implementation of each system.
You will quickly realize why inter-compatibility is always going to be a major issue.
All modelers will eventually run into the issue of “Automation”, and this is where your choice will either work for you or against you.
Be warned that I am probably biased – but this is based on my own experience of what works and what does not, availability of products, expansion and upgrade options, and the level of support received from the supply chain (manufacturer, distributor and vendors) over a period of time.
We have tried out and operated numerous layouts using different systems and therefore we offer several DCC systems.
Thus, based on availability, pricing and support, I favor and highly recommend looking at systems that use LocoNet and XpressNet. These 2 protocols combined makeup a majority of DCC products. By sticking with a common protocol, you have the availability of products from multiple manufactures to meet specific needs.
Most people who “just want to run trains”, will be happy with any of the DCC systems and probably do not need to read on.
Remember, there are many good systems available and even the most basic DCC system is still ultimately a vast improvement over the traditional DC system.
So how do you begin to plan your DCC setup?
Think of this as being like buying a car. Many people lean toward one brand or another, but ultimately the price, the features (what is it going to be used for), and support are the deciding factors. The same is true with DCC systems.
Making a decision on which DCC system to purchase starts with how you intend to use the system.
Is the DCC system for a large club with many members or do you just intend to run a small shelf or 4X8 layout? Or perhaps you are a member of a club and you need a system at home that is compatible with the club’s system.
Cost is always a big factor, keeping in mind possible future expansion of your layout.
Also remember that all manufacturers decoders should work with any DCC system regardless of the system you buy. It will run any DCC equipped locomotive. (NCE decoders won’t run if you are using RailCom) (another exception and/or possible /limitation being the number of functions available to your system. Not all DCC systems implement or support all functions).
Which features do you need ?
Apart from automation features or add-on modules, most people will initially only consider the features or functions available as part of the Controller or Throttle. While you initially may only require a few function keys, you may well find that additional function keys are no longer optional but required. Sound decoders for instance are expanding the use of function keys.
If you are using sound F0 to F8 is the minimum for sound control. Most DCC systems have added more function keys to their cabs or throttles. It is best to have F0 thru F12 with sound. Some systems have F0 thru F19 available. Some modelers are intimidated by all the keys on some of the handheld cabs, but once you start operating a DCC system you will find that only a few keys are used for locomotive and accessory control.
Just like the TV remote, you only end up using a few keys. Other features that have become popular are Wireless cabs and throttles that allow you to walk with your train without the bother of plugging in the cord every few feet.
The number of operators that will be using the system and the number of locomotives that will be operating are also important. Knowing this will help to determine the number of cabs or throttles and power boosters needed.
If you have full Automation and Computer control in mind, your choice is really limited (actually a good thing) to a few systems, with my recommendation being a system that is compatible with the NMRA standard and which uses the X-Bus, Cab Bus or LocoNet, anything else will probably have you pulling your hair out.
You probably know that command control systems enable independent operation of locomotives without traditional insulated blocks and multitudes of toggle switches to control power routing. As a result, we can simply enjoy running trains without worrying about properly throwing a block toggle every time a locomotive or caboose enters and/or leaves a section of track. Engine terminal movements are greatly facilitated with the use of command control since locomotives can be closely parked without concern as to where the plastic rail joiners are located.
Currently, several commercial systems are available utilizing various technologies such as WiFi, radio waves, infrared waves, analog signals, digital signals, and others.
Each Product has its own set of advantages and disadvantages relating to size, cost, sound generation, susceptibility to noise, multiple unit running (MU’ing) ability, sole-source cottage-industry manufacturers, etc.
Although there are clear market leaders, no Single product or approach has yet emerged as a marketplace front-runner with obvious unbeatable advantages over other technologies.
Once you have enjoyed the benefits of DCC there is simply no turning back!
You are again reminded that Manufacturers have varying implementations of the DCC protocol, and once you have implemented a Control/Feedback Bus you will be tied to that technology
(changing pretty much means replacement of the entire DCC system and components – a very costly exercise indeed)
The two most commonly used and most-widely available Bus Technologies used are the X-Bus (XpressNet) from Lenz and the LocoNet Bus by Digitrax. Even though they are the creator of those protocols, licenses have been extended to other brands. A few exceptions to this rule are accessory decoders. These devices have a signal input from the track instead of/or besides the bus input and typically respond to commands sent by a throttle or a computer program and therefore can work with any DCC brand.
Now To The Good Part!
Let’s Plan. Use the following sections to help determine what products you will need to get the results you are looking for.
DCC Features & Descriptions:
This feature is used when a track turns back on itself. Or any track that returns a train in the opposite direction that isn’t making a circle. In short, it swaps the polarity of the rails to match the adjacent track segment.
This feature is used for dispatching, signalling, computer control and automation. Each block has one common rail and one rail that is wired to a separate input on the board. When a loco or freight car with resistor wheel sets enter the block, this information is then reported the DCC bus system. With a computer you can then see where your trains are and what signals are affected.
This feature is used to add realism to your layout. DCC boards can mimic different aspects to match prototype operations. Signals can be controlled by block occupancy, toggle switches, throttle or computer.
This feature allows you to lash-up multiple locos to be controlled by a single loco address. You can even set the direction and match the speed. There are 3 types of consisting. Simple, universal and advanced. This varies between systems.
Tethered & Wireless Throttles
Most brands offer throttles in either configuration. Wireless is the obvious choice for those with a medium to large layout so you can follow your trains around the room without having to plug in. The newer WiFi based throttles rival any of the others in features, price and performance.
This feature is the new kid on the block (no pun intended). RailCom is block detection but provides 2 way communication with your loco provided it has a Railcom supported decoder. With basic block detection you computer only knows that the track is occupied. With RailCom your computer not only knows it’s occupied but also knows what loco is in the block and what direction it is traveling. Besides these features there are several more than have been defined by the NMRA. Ex, how much fuel is on board and what type (coal, diesel), what size the tank is, how long it takes to fill, amount of sand, battery level, etc…. You can read more here. NMRA RailCom Link
One more feature I’ll mention is that with RailCom you have the ability to not only program a decoder on the main but to read back the CV’s of a decoder on the main just like a programming track.
Short Circuit Protection
This feature allows you to breakup the layout into separate power districts. These devices keep the short from shutting down the booster or command station. Operators in other blocks during a short can continue on uninterrupted.
This can technically be done without DCC but there are several DCC options available. Powering frogs can help eliminate stalling on turnouts.
This can also can be done without DCC but again there are several DCC options available. Automating turnouts can provide lots of interest to your layout. It can almost become necessary on a large layout, hidden staging yards and hard to reach places. With DCC you can throw a turnout with a throttle, toggle, push button or computer.
This concept is almost endless but very obtainable. Take your time to define exactly what you want the computer to be responsible for. This will help narrow your focus down to something that can actually be completed. You can always add new features later.