My First DCC Experience

By: Todd Schacherl

I have had an 8x4 layout in my garage for about 8 years. It mainly consisted of three ovals with one spur. I had five blocks set up so that I could control each loop, the switching area and the spur. I then had two controller/power packs to control up to two locomotives at a time. I could get three going with two locomotives running off of the same controller. For many years this worked great for me.

Starting in November of 2000 I decided to build an addition that ran perpendicular from one end of my existing layout making a big “L” shaped layout. Once I added that additional layout with all of it's loops and spurs I immediately figured I would do the same thing I did on the original layout and use the standard cab control system and just get two more controller/power packs. Well after I thought about it and had a couple of supposedly workhorse types of controllers fail, I began to rethink my strategy for operating all of the various tracks. First thing experience told me was to simplify the wiring and only have two controllers. Well, this didn't work either because now it was just too limiting because I could really only run up to three or four engines on the whole layout.

Needless to say, I came to the realization that the cab control system was just not going to work for me. I've been in the computer industry for almost twenty years and I have always wondered what it would be like to use my computer to control my layout; the switches for the turnouts, the locomotives, accessory lights, street lights, crossing lights, and automated (hands off) running of the trains. I figured it was a fantasy until I started hearing about DCC (Digital Command Control). As soon as I heard that word “Digital” my interest was piqued. Immediately I was asking “What is DCC, what does it do, and how does it work?”

Everybody I asked, including the local train stores, would usually say, “Well, it's a way to control your locomotives and stuff.” Other than a few anecdotal horror stories, that was about the extent of their understanding of DCC. I did some investigation on the Internet and still I didn't have a feeling that I knew what it was all about. I started looking at the various systems, comparing features and specifications still not figuring out what I should get. I was sitting there thinking, I'm used to figuring this kind of stuff out but why am I not getting it. Finally I found somebody that said, “Look if all you want to do is run about five to ten trains at a time, get something really simple like the Atlas or MRC system and save your money. Not to say that the Atlas or MRC systems are bad, they are very inexpensive. I looked at it this way, if I was going to use the standard cab control system I would need two to four power pack controllers at $40 to $100 each. That's $160 to $400 for enough controllers and the DCC system I ended up with was around $180.

I figured that was a good enough cost justification to drop the money to get into DCC instead of doing it the way I had done it up until that point. If the system I got didn't work out I wasn't out $300 - $700 for some of the higher end DCC systems.

I ended up getting the MRC Command 2000 system with the Twin AC Power pack and one MRC decoder for around $180. I hooked up the power pack and the Command 2000 fairly easily by taking all of the leads from the track blocks and tying them together. The first thing I tried was to run a standard analog train. An analog train refers to a locomotive without a decoder chip installed in the loco. The first thing I noticed was that most of the trains ran slower than they did under standard cab control. At first I was disappointed that I couldn't run some of the really fast trains that would go scale 200MPH but I soon began to appreciate the more realistic speeds that the trains did run at. There's nothing like watching a really long train creep through town, into and out of tunnels, and to smoothly climb up grades. At this point I don't miss racing the trains down the track one bit.

The next thing was to try to connect up a decoder to one of my locos. I had a 2-4-2 Light Micado from the Athearn Genesis series that was “DCC Ready”. But as soon as I looked at the connector on the loco and the connector on the decoder they didn't match. The train had a white single-in-line 9-pin connector and the decoder had an 8-pin connector with two rows of four pins. I thought “So much for DCC Ready.” The directions for installing the decoder were very vague and certainly at first overwhelming considering all that I had heard and read on the Internet about “blown decoders.” Being that I only had one decoder, if I blew it up, I might not know that whatever problem I had, was related to the decoder or the wiring of the loco.

I decided the best thing to do was find a decoder that had the same connector as the train itself. After much research, I found that the Digitrax DH-121 had the connector I was looking for. I purchased it for about $20. I plugged it into my 2-8-2 and it worked right away. I could make it move, turn on and off the light on the loco and control it separately from the analog locos. At this point I was getting really excited. I got brave and opened up one of my Athearn switchers and preceded to try to install the MRC decoder that I still had. I cut off the 8-pin connector and quickly found out that the Athearn trains were quite a pain to make “DCC Ready”. They both use the metal chassis of the loco as the common ground, which is where the pickups from the wheels, the lights, and the motor all connect. When connecting the decoder, you must have the motor and the pickups isolated and not sharing a ground. This became such a pain I decided to look at my Walthers Dash-8 Amtrak loco.

I opened it up and found that there was a little circuit board with wires connected to it coming from the lights, the pickups and the motor. Well, what do you know, it was already isolated and all I needed to do was cut the wires at the circuit board and connect it to the correct wires on the decoder. Once I had the MRC decoder installed, it worked great. Now I could run three trains completely independently of each other, on the same track, and even in opposite directions. I was in heaven. By this time, it really started to click for me and I understood the practical workings of a DCC system. I'm really happy with my setup and I have figured out how to install decoders on the Athearn locos, although it is still difficult.

I'm telling my story so that you might get a feel for why DCC is really the future of model railroading and it really isn't that difficult to implement. I have noticed that DCC has received a bit of a bad rap and I think that is mostly because it is such a big mystery for so many and I think that the DCC manufacturers have not really done a good job of explaining it. But it is the future and as more accessories, software, and decoders are created, it will really open up a whole new world of sophistication and realism for model railroading. Eventually the loco manufactures will get on board and at some point not that far off, most new locomotives will be truly DCC Ready and there will be more information and understanding of DCC at the trains stores and clubs across America.

If you have been thinking about DCC, my hopes are that you can now begin to see the possibilities and realize that it's not as hard as it has been made out to be and when you get it going, you'll wonder what took you so long to convert. DCC has really opened up the operational aspects of model railroading and have brought it that much closer to the real thing. Before DCC, I was mostly interested in the visual realism of my layout and now I am much more interested in the realistic operation of it. Finally, I would like to call out to all those that are familiar with DCC and encourage you to spread the word and offer local assistance. As more people become familiar with DCC, the demand will grow and we will see more offerings from manufactures.

Here are some of the things I learned that I hope will help to clarify DCC, help to develop your plan, and provide some resources.

The choice of going with a simple inexpensive DCC system like the Atlas or MRC should be if you are going to run 5-10 trains on your layout and maybe control some turnout switches.

If you have a large layout and dreams of computer control, consisting, running more than 10 locomotives, block detection, and accessory control, you will need to look at the more expensive systems from manufacturers such as DigiTrax, Lenz, and NCE.

Most of the decoders for the higher end systems will run on the Atlas and MRC systems. You don't get to use the added features like 4 digit addressing but you can use the basic features and if at some point you upgrade to a high end DCC system, you already have the decoders installed in your locos.

Although DigiTrax has a decoder pre-wired with an “Atlas harness” to make it easier to install a decoder in an Atlas or Athearn loco, I would suggest looking for the “DCC Ready” locos or ones that already have the motor and pickups isolated from each other like the Walthers locos do. Retrofitting older locos can be a lot of work but not impossible and not without its rewards.

In a nutshell, how does DCC work? The two main components are the controller and the decoder. The controller (some systems also require a booster) has the throttles and other controls to operate your trains as well as accessories. The decoder is installed into the locomotive and as instructions are sent from the controller through the tracks to the decoder it “decodes” the instructions and responds accordingly which may be to turn a light on, move forward, or stop, etc. Each decoder has to have a unique address so that the controller can individually identify it.