Adding Digital Command Control to The Lackawanna Terminal Dragging oneself from the dark ages into the shining light of technology...albeit, reluctantly

 By Steve Kay, President and CEO, Lackawanna Terminal Railway

The Opportunity for change

When a major addition was added on to the family abode in 1989, I was forced to tear down my old layout due to the construction. This was not necessarily a bad thing as I was not totally happy with the way the railroad was designed. Anyway, it just seemed right to tear it down and start again.

One of the major considerations in starting over again is the job of wiring a large railroad. Several considerations come to mind:

1. Do I want a centralized control panel which would require a full time Dispatcher when operating the layout to route power, control interlockings, and generally keep the chaos of an operating session within reasonable limits? Do I want to put up with the hassles from the ATDA, the contract negotiations, the constant whining about being cloistered in a darkened room far away from the action...alone...a carefully cultured tan fading in the dim light of the model board?

2. Should I go with a walk-around system where operators route their own power from toggle or rotary switches positioned around the layout as I had done in previous layouts? Do I want to entertain the problems of one engineer forgetting to neutral his block switch once he clears the block causing the following train to instantly and suddenly reverse, killing the crew and causing untold millions of dollars in damage to the cargo?


3. Should I try something entirely new, stretching my normally cobweb laced mind with new concepts of control mixed with the latest in microchip technology? Should I once more spend happy hours at the workbench carefully soldering connections I can no longer see without the aid of glasses with the magnification of the telescope at the Mount Palomar observatory?

Yeah, number three sounds good! I should do that! And why not I asked. I have humbled the answering machine, I learned to program the VCR before it was replaced by the DVD layer. I have a remote garage door opener and I can "boot" the computer without getting a "system error message" (well, at least most of the time). Hey, why not "go for the gold" with the birth of the Lackawanna Terminal Railway's ever dynamic rail system. Surely, such a great undertaking as creating a railroad that never existed,  planning, then building the structure that is to become a living, breathing transportation entity deserves the finest control system technology can create (or money can buy). Well, maybe it can be bought on the installment plan.

Anyway, It was time to do some research.

I don't belong to a club so I turned to my extremely small cluster of dedicated modeling-type friends and the Internet to see if anyone had ideas about what was state of the art in control systems.

Well, my extremely small cluster of dedicated modeling type friends failed me worse than my seventh grade math teacher. This was new territory for our group and I was going to have to go this alone. "Call us when you figure something out", they cried as they ran up the cellar stairs and out into the sunshine.

Some of the criteria set by the Lackawanna Terminal Management Team's Electronics and Operational Controls Division were:

1. The system must be easy to install and operate. I was happy with the rheostat and reversing switch technology. I personally like having total control over the engines on a train (the controls the engineer uses on real locomotives are simple, even though the technology behind the electrical cabinets is not). Plus, too many buttons only tend to confuse me. Look at the advertisements for some of the DCC systems. The throttle looks like a 12-in-1 tv remote. Too many buttons, not enough digits on the hands. The 12-in-1 remote that is part and parcel of the   NCE system became the "These are all the buttons I need to run the train so let's ignore the rest of them should something go so terribly wrong" remote. On these occasions we call for the Lackawanna Terminal Railway's Director of the Electronics and Operational Controls Division and he makes everything better. NCE also makes a digital rheostat throttle for those of us who are still confused by all the options available with the more complex Cab04 Pro Cab or Pro Cab-R "Dog Bone" throttles.

2. There must be consistent, easily available customer service. No "here today, gone tomorrow" tech support since CVP Products has been in business since 1976, a lifetime in model railroading terms. 
The here today, gone tomorrow scenario has come and stayed. CVP has morphed from Railcommand II into the world of Easy DCC. Add the lack of support for the Railcommand system made the Lackawanna Terminal Railway's switch to NCE Digital Command Control a sure thing. 

3. The control system must be user friendly allowing the engineer to run the train and not have to worry about such non-railroad stuff as power routing. The system must be easily adaptable to a walk around configuration. 
The Railcommand II system that the Lackawanna Terminal Railway used was converted to radio control and I really was happy with that so when we made the jump to NCE the Lackawanna Terminal Railway's Management Team ordered the radio controlled Pro Cab-R system.

4. The trains must perform in a prototype manner. Slow starts, precise speed control, multiple engine consists, plenty of amps, the ability to mix manufacturer's locomotives in the same consist were some of the most important of these requirements. 
The NCE DCC system does all of that and more.

What was out there in 1989:

In doing research for my new control system, I turned to the Internet, specifically the Trainnet section of Compuserve. I found all the answers to all my questions there and believe me, it was a learning experience. There were devotees of the NMRA Standards on-line who pushed Digitrax like it was manna from heaven conducting a  vociferous, highly technical, and sometimes acrimonious battle with a pair of devoted Railcommand fans.

The problem, I discovered, with Digitrax and the other NMRA Standards compliant systems of the time was that they conformed to the NMRA standards. Well, actually, the problem was with the NMRA standards. Like, what standards? It seemed that the NMRA was constantly updating their "standards" with recommended practices and changing things around. I really wasn't interested in working with changing standards and committee decisions scare me. This, plus the infamous "programming track" and the fact that the NMRA standard allowed manufacturers to design proprietary systems which were not compatible with each other in many important ways. Also, at the time, the NMRA systems were using a telephone modular plug which was too flimsy for constant use over a long time. These were some of the problems that caused me to look elsewhere for my control system. 
The programming track is still a pain but we have switched to an off-the-layout programming track so that the system can continue to operate even while programming visiting engines.

Enter the Railcommand System:

What impressed me about the Railcommand system, which was being pushed by a pair of  rabid devotees, was that it was designed by a company I had dealt with before (remember the radio controlled system derived from a airplane radio control system featured in Model Railroader some years ago? I have built several of these systems and found Keith Gutierrez's  instructions were well thought out and the product worked the first time I tried it).

I decided to send for literature for all the systems available at the time. I got responses from Digitrax and Railcommand. The first thing I learned was that a digital control system is 
NOT CHEAP! This gives added incentive to be cautious when deciding one system over another. The literature from Railcommand made the final decision easy.

I ordered two systems. One for myself and one for a modeler-type friend who decided to jump in and convert his layout to the Railcommand system. I ordered both systems as kits to save money on the initial investment. Since I had previously built electronic kits I figured this would be the best way to go and I wasn't disappointed. The instructions were easy to follow and Railcommand offered a 
fix-it free policy if I screwed up (which I did, but that's another story).

The results were all that was advertised. The Buss wire system was simple and extremely reliable. The receivers are "drop-in" simple to install and troubleshooting suggestions are easy to follow. I was even able to call CVP Products on a Sunday night when I didn't follow instructions and things didn't run right. The engines that I equipped with receivers work reliably and in a prototypical manner.

What's so great about Digital Command Control? Here's the list:

Digital Command Control is easy to install:

1. Simple 2 wire throttle bus: This is the best thing to come along since the discovery of catnip (my cat suggested this analogy and since he threatened to sleep on my face if I didn't include it, here it is). Simply run two wires around the layout and solder feeders to the track. No power selection toggle switches or rotaries to wire. The
 NCE DCC start up system is comparable to the cost of all the required wiring and toggle switches of a conventional control system.

2. Drop-in and plug-in receivers: These are so simple to install, even a locomotive engineer like myself can do it. 
Warning: If you have any electrical engineer type geniuses around, keep them away from the receiver installation. It is far too simple for them to understand!

3. Works with all block detectors: If you're gonna have a signal system, your control system has to be compatible!

4. Proven reliability: Works the first time, every time and has the capability of being continually upgraded to maintain the highest possible standards without modification to the receivers installed in the locomotives.

5. Versatility: The 
NCE DCC System can be used as it comes from the box or, for those of you who understand such things, coupled to a computer to handle all the functions of the Command Center.

But, after all that was said above, out goes the old and in comes North Coast Engineering's (NCE) DCC System the Lackawanna Terminal Management Team has switched from CVP's Railcommand II to North Coast Engineering's DCC Products.

We made the switch to North Coast Engineering for several reasons: 

1. CVP Products, which designed and manufactured Railcommand II, after many years being the better alternative to DCC, went full ahead into DCC with Easy DCC leaving Railcommand II as the redheaded stepchild and an expensive alternative to DCC. I discovered to my chagrin that to equip the remainder of our regularly used engines with Railcommand II, at $42.00 per engine (discounted by volume: Units of ten (10)) would cost nearly as much as an entirely new 
NCE system. 

2. It was apparent that CVP's customer support for Railcommand was wavering since orders for new receivers (not decoders as in DCC) would be backordered while components were assembled.

3. Members of the Lackawanna Terminal Management Team's Electronics and Operational Controls Division, who had done much research into the whole assortment of electronic options available to the Lackawanna Terminal Railway, chose 
North Coast Engineering as the manufacturer of choice. Their report and the follow up threat to the health and well being of the top dogs in the kennel convinced the Lackawanna Terminal Railway's Management Team to opt for the NCE system.

During a meeting of the Lackawanna Terminal Railway's Budget Committee much cajoling and smoozing, whining and whimpering brought the needed funds to finance the switch from Railcommand II to North Coast Engineering Power Pro-R starter set (a radio equipped Power Pro system) and the railroad has never looked back. Because the Lackawanna Terminal Railway is divided into six electrical sections for troubleshooting purposes a second booster was purchased.

NCE system was installed in place of the Railcommand System using the same buss wires and all Railcommand equipped locomotives had NCE decoders installed according to NCE's recommended practices. The changeover was painless and the new system was up and running in short order. In addition to a radio repeater (purchased to eliminate a dead spot in the basement) UTP outlets were strategically placed around the layout for those who do not have radio equipped throttles.

The NCE DCC System is user Friendly: You can forget about all those little electrons running around in the rails and run trains.  
Isn't that really the bottom line for all control systems?

Using NCE is no different for the engineer than any other conventional throttle. The throttle itself is light in weight and fits comfortably in the hand. The performance of the locomotives is smooth and speed control is precise. Whether you are switching in the yard or running three or four engines on the head of a long freight, you are confident that the train will do what you tell it to do. Momentum is controlled from the throttle and you can infinitely vary the time delay so that you can follow your train from one operating position to another regardless of how far they are apart (or if you want to stop at the "goodie" table on the way to the next yard. (be careful how long you languish amongst the chips and dip, however or that train you were running may run itself into a whole bunch of trouble. That train will continue to run no matter what may be in it's way). If you are into running trains, electrical block considerations are a diversion that detract from the fun. I am into running trains so we have now chosen NCE DCC over the all the other NMRA compatible digital systems available on the market. I am glad I did and the number of NCE DCC equipped engines operated by the Lackawanna Terminal Railway will continue to grow.


While my modeling-type friends were trying out the newly installed North Coast Engineering System, I was busy under the layout connecting wires to electrical stuff under the layout. From across the room I heard comments like, "Cool, this is really cool" and "This is really great!". These guys were having a lot of fun and that is what the hobby is all about!

Those who come to run the 
NCE system are always impressed with it's versatility; the ability to run trains like the prototype without the restraints of conventional power routing systems.

An item of interest:

I have divided the railroad into six separate electrical block sections as a tool in troubleshooting shorts or other electrical problems. I have used double pole, double throw toggle switches to isolate these sections and have one conventional throttle (Aristo-Craft Train engineer radio controlled throttle) so anyone can bring a conventionally controlled engine to the layout and run it on a section of the railroad that will not interfere with the operation of the NCE DCC  system. The sections are the top and bottom levels, each of the two helix tracks and the top and bottom peninsulas. See the enclosed track plans for easy reference.

Visit the 
NCE web site and see for yourself!

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