Model Railroad Command Control


Allow me a moment of personal commentary.  Model railroading can be a complicated hobby.

It’s a lot better now than in the late 1940’s, where you had to build everything.  Back then, you built your own locomotive from a kit (and it often didn’t work the first time, either), you built your own rolling stock, you laid your own tracks.  The whole lot.  You rarely hear long time model railroaders whining about how great the old days were.  Trust me, they weren’t.  Today, things are a lot better, but there are things that are good news/bad news.  Model railroad control with advanced electronics is one of those things.

The concept of model railroad command control is simple enough.  A central command station generates coded signals which are sent out over the track to all the locomotives.  Each locomotive has a decoder which interprets those coded signals and, if the signal is meant for that locomotive, executes the commands from the central station.  There are also decoders for solenoid devices such as track switches.

I’ve been interested in the subject since General Electric introduced ASTRAC to model railroading in 1963, a system which never really caught on.  It would be Märklin that made the world safe for command control with their Märklin Digital system.   It was brand new, and I liked it from the get-go.  The system was both advanced and user friendly, a rare combination.

Märklin plowed a bunch of money into promoting this new command control system and into the support of the Digital dealers and operators.  I attended my first Märklin Digital dealer training seminar in 1986, a two-day event.    For Digital to succeed, Märklin felt that a well-trained network of dealers was key to Digital’s success.  I use Digital to this day on my home railroad:

Märklin Digital Control Panel

It is a reliable system, and, most importantly, it does what I want it to do.  What you don’t see is what was necessary to get to the point that “it does what I want it to do”.  Here, this is part of what was necessary:

Märklin Digital Decoder Panel

You didn’t really need to see that, did you?  What you would rather see is this:

Amstetten Station Layout

Actually, I’d rather you see this instead of the background wiring, too.  I did what was necessary for the railroad to operate in a certain manner, but it is helpful to remember that things don’t need to be this complicated for you to have a good time.

Although Märklin Digital was very successful from the start in Europe, it never really caught on in quite the same way in North America.  In the American market, the dominant control format is DCC.  Unlike Märklin Digital, DCC is “open architecture”. As a result, there are several manufacturers of DCC equipment, many of them based in the United States.  No reason to get into the “whys” of this, just accept that DCC is the electronic communication format of choice here.

That said, there is a degree of difference between the different manufacturers.  As with so many other model railroad matters, everybody has their own taste and preference for a DCC system.  And, while DCC is open architecture at the individual locomotive decoder level, it is not open architecture at the command control system level.  The whole promise of DCC was that it would be cheaper than Märklin Digital, which is what it proved to be.  Along the way, DCC also became more powerful than the earlier generations of Digital.  Which is another story for a later day.

The point being that while DCC locomotive decoders can be used with all DCC systems, you’re only going to buy one DCC control system, and generally the different components of that system are going to come from one manufacturer.  And while individual locomotive decoders can be bought for as little as $20.00, the command stations, throttles and such can run into some money.  Combine this with the notorious thriftiness of the average model railroader and you’ve got a formula for some interesting events.

A lot of model railroaders put professional golfers to shame with their drive to not spend a lot of money for something.  The model railroad manufacturers use the term “value oriented consumer” because it sounds a whole lot more professional than some of the other descriptions.  The net result is that when it comes to the selling of DCC command control systems, there’s a lot of elbowing and elitism.

Generally, model railroad DCC systems tend to be in clusters, like infectious diseases.  An adventurous modeler buys a DCC system and learns how to use it.  Another model railroader friend comes to visit, sees the command control system and decides that it is for him.  His choice of a DCC system is likely to be same system as what they have seen.  So, too, a good train dealer has a preference of systems, for a variety of reasons.  Model railroad club layouts are also influential.  On the plus side, this behavior means that a command control system often becomes popular for reasons other than competitive excellence.  This is not bad, just a statement of the general reality of the market.  At the same time, this clustering of command control systems often leads to the model railroad equivalent of sports “trash talk” about competing systems.  There’s a lot of elbowing going on out there, often for no good reason.

I say this because I am writing about an application of electronic command control for a specific project on my personal website.  On the pages that I am currently working on, I’m describing how I approached a model railroad control issue in a coffee table.  Ultimately, my solution is to use command control, because it makes things easier for a number of reasons, and it won’t require a wiring panel like the one above.

The idea in this situation is to control two or possibly three locomotives, and to control three track switches.  Very simple, and for many command control systems, far below these systems’ capacities.  Keep in mind that even the “basic” command control systems can control 10 locomotives.  Some of these basic systems also can control up to 8 track switches.

The “entry level systems” are now capable of operating 20 locomotives at any given time, and are able to access over 9,000 locomotive addresses.  They are also capable of operating 999 turnout addresses.  In short, far more power than my little coffee table would require.

Yet, why do I want to use command control in this situation?  It is because of a feature called “load compensation“.  Märklin introduced this concept in the mid-1990’s with its new 6090 decoder.  Basically, the command station sends a speed command to the locomotive and the load compensating decoder balances the motor voltage so that this locomotive goes the same speed all the time.  Uphill, downhill, with a light train or a heavy train.  It’s a terrific feature.  And, like the concept of sectional track in the 1870’s, the concept of load compensating decoders was willingly shared by Märklin with the rest of the model railroad industry.

Because my coffee table project has track gradients, I know that I want to equip this railroad’s locomotives with load compensating decoders.  And, since the coffee table railroad is N-Scale, my choice will be DCC because of the widely available number of N-Scale sized decoders.

But as I am writing about this, an interesting episode comes to mind.  As I was working through the coffee table design, I knew that I wanted a really simple command control unit.  In practice, this unit would control 2 or possibly 3 N-Scale locomotives.  If implemented, it would also control three track switches.  Very simple, and I had a unit in mind, the Bachmann unit:

Bachmann E-Z Command System

Bachmann E-Z Command System

Yeah, it’s pretty boring, but, on the other hand, my requirements were three locomotives and three turnouts.  Granted, this Bachmann unit doesn’t control turnouts, but my personal irritation centers on something else.

As I was considering which command control system to use, I asked a fellow model railroader who is also on the business side of the hobby what he thought about this particular unit.  “Oh, it’s a piece of ****”.  I reiterated what my requirements were, but he was adamant that I needed something “better”.  Presumably, one of his products.

It surprised me in a way, but you also have to wonder how many potential model railroaders were turned off by an elitist attitude.  And, you have to wonder about the mission-creep that DCC often takes on.  Where the whole premise once was “two wires”, meaning that the basic technology only required two wires to the layout to get command control.  In practice, however, it takes more than two wires, depending upon how many locomotives you have and such.  But what gets me is that when the command control intelligentsia get together, it’s a never ending complicated cavalcade of CV’s, stop bits, zero stretching and whatever else their active minds can come up with.

Given the attitude of those serious DCC enthusiasts, a lot of model railroaders seem to conclude that they would be just as happy with analog control lest they get sucked into command control, which can be a hobby all unto itself.  My point is that while command control should be seamless and invisible, it rarely is so when in the hands of the “experts”.

Which brings us back to the “piece of ****”, above.  While it is a limited unit, it also may be more than sufficient for many in the hobby.  For while the E-Z Command unit itself has limited controls, it will be used to control individual locomotives.  And each locomotive has its own decoder, assigned an unique address.  And within that decoder are powerful adjustments that make each locomotive both unique and realistic in operation.

In short, the command station itself can be “dumb” since most of the complicated stuff happens with the decoder in the locomotive.  A knowledgeable third party such as your train dealer can program the locomotive.  This would not be just the locomotive address, but also the speeds, the light functions and a host of other specifications.  And, under normal circumstances, the locomotive can be programmed in one location and then brought home to be used in another location.

So, calling the E-Z Command unit a foul name does little justice to the model railroad layout owner.  Yes, there are more advanced systems out there, but not everybody needs to fly a 747 when a Piper Cub will do.  And, by the way, even if you have just one locomotive, command control may still be for you because the load compensation feature makes for very smooth slow speed operation.  Perfect for switching railroads, for instance.

In a way, the elitist attitude is as old as the model railroad hobby itself.  In Europe, kids who had Märklin layouts felt superior to the kids with Fleischmann.  In America, it was Lionel versus American Flyer.  And, for a lot of model railroaders, there is the elitism of being in O-Scale rather than HO.  I suppose that this is fun stuff, but in the end it doesn’t really serve the purpose of expanding interest in the model railroad hobby.


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2 Responses to “Model Railroad Command Control”

  1. Chuck Lytle Says:

    Saw an ad in a 1952 bound volume of MR for radio control by a company by the name of EDCO Products. Know anything about what they were doing?

    • Riley Says:

      Apparently not much. The only mention of EDCO is in patent applications by other companies. Presumably EDCO was an undeveloped idea. To me, the chronology of model railroad command control starts with the Lionel radio unit, then GE’s ASTRAC, then Keller and Hornby Zero 1. The NMRA shows this chronology:

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