This article was originally published in the New York Times in 2001, as part of a series I did for their ‘Circuits’ section. In hindsight, the digital revolution never really caught on for model trains, as the hardware cost too much and the implementations never standardized.
Nov. 1, 2001 – At a railyard here across the bay from San Francisco, a Southern Pacific freight train gives a quick horn blast and begins its run across the Central Valley of California. Nearby, a brightly painted Art Deco passenger train chugs and clangs as it climbs past gold rush landmarks like Emigrant Gap on its way across the Sierra Nevada.
The train sounds mix with the excited voices of grown men playing railroad engineer on a Saturday morning.
”I’m in the hills, I’m coming down. . . . I’ll stop in Roseville.”
”You’re rolling again.”
”Hey, you’ve got to keep an eye on your train!”
From the noise, or a quick look around, you wouldn’t guess that the San Leandro Historical Railway Society is playing with high technology. Yellowed railroad mementos hang on the walls of a restored 1898 train depot, now home to the club’s three-level model track layout. The scenery and accessories evoke the 1950’s, the decade of transition from steam to diesel.
Yet here, as across the country, the model train has met the microprocessor. Each locomotive carries a thumbnail-size circuit board packing more processing power than the computer that went to the moon on Apollo 11. The days of watching trains just run around in circles are over.
”It’s getting closer and closer to running the real train,” Pat LaTorres, a club member, says of the new technology, called D.C.C., for Digital Command Control. ”You have to work around each other, use the crossovers from track to track, to have a fast train overtake a slow one. I was hooked when I first tried it.”
The technology enables several trains to run on a single layout without cumbersome wiring or the central control station that was previously necessary. More people can run trains at the same time and everyone is closer to the action, thanks to hand-held throttles that look like television remote controls.
Suddenly, a loud noise. Eric Gonzales, a high school senior, has rear-ended his 1940’s vintage steam Nickel Plate Railroad passenger train into Barry Chinn’s diesel-pulled freight train, causing a commotion.
”O.K., who’s driving?” Mr. Chinn yells.
”My fault,” the Nickel Plate engineer says, using some manual intervention to solve the problem. ”I thought it was on the other track. Anyway, no caboose on the train — no injuries.”
Collisions are not the only aspects of model railroading that have become more lifelike with digital technology. Customized sounds like ”blowing down the boiler” (venting dirty foam, which blocks the transfer of heat in a steam engine), can be downloaded to locomotives from a PC. Running lights from a specific era, like the pulsing Mars Light on 1940’s diesel engines, can be simulated for effect. Accessories like signals, switches, snowplows and cranes can more easily be brought to life.
The new technology has even won over veterans like Vern Cumins, 84, who has been a model railroad enthusiast since 1933. ”This is the greatest thing — the sounds, the control,” he says. ”When I started, the cars were made out of wood blocks.”
On this Saturday morning, Mr. Cumins, Mr. Chinn, Mr. Gonzales and a few other club members are each running one train on the club’s layout as they walk around the perimeter, occasionally making an adjustment on hand-held throttles that control speed, direction, sounds and light.
For hard-core modelers, entire railroad performances can even be scheduled and run, using PC-based software programs like Railbase Professional and Computer Dispatcher Pro. Many clubs run highly disciplined monthly ”operations” sessions that simulate the running of the real railroad, complete with rule books, job titles, timetables and waybills. Some carry out preassigned orders, assembling trains in the yard and delivering cars and goods to model factories.
To make it feel more like the real thing, club members wear radio headsets during the operating sessions as real engineers would, even though they are only a few feet from one another.
”American model railroaders like to see themselves as engineers,” said Norm Stenzel, sales manager for Digitrax, a leading vendor of Digital Command Control equipment. ”In your mind you’re simulating what the guy on the ground is doing. You’re the total train crew. You’re in the cab. You’re on the ground throwing turnouts” (to switch from one track to another).
All this is made easier by the new technology, which was developed in Europe in the early 1990’s and has gained momentum lately because of falling prices.
Digital Command Control intersperses digital control signals with the power current running along the track, allowing modelers to send instructions to specific locomotives or other devices equipped with a tiny decoder (typically an integrated chip with an eight-megahertz, eight-bit central processing unit and two or four kilobytes of read-only memory).
The decoders receive instructions from the users’ hand-held throttles via a small master controller unit typically hidden away and optimally connected to a PC so the trains can perform more functions.
”It’s like Ethernet on the rails,” said Mark Gurries of Silicon Valley Lines, a model railroad club in San Jose, Calif., that is building a D.C.C.-enabled layout. ”We’re running packets of information on the track continuously. It’s allowed people to take whatever they have and enjoy it more.”
Ranging in price from $10 to $300, Digital Command Control decoders support a wide range of features and functions. Many manufacturers are now shipping locomotives with built-in decoders or slots for easy installation.
The decoders are compatible with hardware from any manufacturer complying with the standard, which means that any D.C.C. locomotive can run on any D.C.C. layout. The better-known manufacturers include North Coast Engineering, Digitrax, Lenz of Germany, Atlas Model Railroad Co. and Model Rectifier.
Complete systems including decoders and controllers can range from $150 to $1,000. That is only part of the $5,000 to $20,000 a serious hobbyist or club might invest in a garage-size or larger layout, including track, roadbed, scenery and lumber but excluding rolling stock. (For the less dedicated, a nondigital Christmas-tree-type starter layout can be had at Amazon.com for about $40.) At most model railroad clubs, members run trains from their personal collections on which they have typically spent $1,000 and up.
So what’s next on the upgrade path for model railroaders?
Some scoff at the new Microsoft Train Simulator, a PC-based software program that allows armchair engineers to run six trains over 600 miles of routes. Yet one of the most popular toys at the San Leandro club is a locomotive with a video camera that transmits wirelessly (on a UHF frequency) to a television in the next room. When the train is running, onlookers crowd around the television to see the ”cab level” view of the layout whizzing by.
”We always thought the trains weren’t going that fast,” said the club president, Thomas Blinn. ”But when they get going 40 to 50 miles an hour, you get dizzy watching the TV. That camera locomotive was the best $400 we ever spent.”
At the Silicon Valley Lines club, where most members work at high-tech companies, Chris Erickson, a member who designs hardware at Apple Computer, predicted that the next generation of D.C.C. would support two-way communication. It would include tracking and positioning capabilities similar to satellite-guided navigation, allowing inventory management as sophisticated as that of a real railroad.
He also envisioned miniature motors that will enable windows to open, fans to spin, passengers to move around, and so on.
”You’re dreaming now,” interrupted Mr. Gurries, the club’s D.C.C. expert. But then, Mr. Gurries reflected: ”The fact that you can sit there and show off is kind of what it’s all about. It’s like hot rods — one-upmanship. Where does it stop? It stops when your wife says, ‘You spent how much?’ ”
Here’s what this article looked like in print: