Two features in the August RMC

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(Click on the cover to visit RMC online)

I have two features in the current (August, 2015) issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

The first is my report on the 2015 New England Northeast Railroad Prototype Modelers meet, which Pierre Oliver and I attended at the end of May. I had a great time and I look forward to going back to that meet in the future.

The second is a feature on using an iPhone or iPod Touch as a throttle, as I do on my layout. This distills and organizes a lot of the information I’ve presented previously on my blog into a feature that addresses what’s needed, the advantages and disadvantages compared to a regular throttle, and some considerations to make such a migration successful.

If you pick up a copy, I hope you enjoy the stories. I enjoyed writing them and it’s a pleasure to work with Stephen Priest at RMC.

My TouchCab migration

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(An iPod Touch makes a terrific wireless throttle with TouchCab installed)

In my report on last week’s visit by my friend Michel Boucher, I mentioned that while the layout ran very well from a mechanical perspective, I had a couple of problems with my throttles. One of my two Lenz keypad throttles is wearing out, and a Lenz rotary knob throttle was having problems talking with the command station. I decided I needed to do something about this.

My initial thought was to buy a new Lenz keypad throttle. But when I priced them, I realized that they’re about the same price as a brand new 16Gb iPod Touch. This is relevant because I’ve been using an iPod Touch as a throttle for a while now, thanks to an app called TouchCab. As a bonus, this solution gives me an elegant and robust wireless throttle – something Lenz has not offered.

Given that I’ve had positive feedback on TouchCab during visits from several friends, including Hunter Hughson and David Woodhead, I’ve decided to use TouchCab as my layout’s primary throttle.

I’ll still need to have one Lenz keypad throttle in good condition, which I can use to handle all programming tasks. (To that end, I’ll likely pick up a keypad throttle at some point to have as a spare.)

But for regular ops, I’ll use TouchCab from now on (or, at least, until I find a good reason to not do so).

To that end, the iPod Touch in the picture above arrived today. I’ve loaded it with a stripped down set of apps and it will live in the layout room. I will have to look at cases (perhaps an Otter Box) to keep the device safe from the inevitable trip to the floor. I will also have to design and build a rack to mount near the sector plate for charging and storing throttles.

Regular operators with an iPhone or iPod Touch can also load TouchCab on their own device and use it on my layout.

“Best Toys Ever!”

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(All trains on deck: The sector plate, ready for an operating session)

Chris Abbott had business in my part of town yesterday, so he dropped in for a visit. It was his first chance to see the layout since I’d upgraded all of my locomotives to TCS WOWSound decoders, so while we did not hold a formal operating session we did run a few trains…

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The decoders give me more options for replicating the operation of a real locomotive, so they’ll take a bit of getting used to. As an example, here’s what’s involved in going from a full stop to moving forward, with throttle function buttons noted:

Blow two short whistles to indicate forward direction (F3)
Turn off blower (F4)
Turn off injectors if running (F8)
Open cylinder drain valves (F5)
Start bell (F1)
Release brakes (F6)
Open throttle
Turn off bell once moving (F1)
Close cylinder drain valves (F5)

It sounds like a lot to remember, but Chris and I have both spent some time in the cab of a steam locomotive, working as a fireman’s apprentice at a tourist line, so we appreciate the ability to duplicate this sequence in miniature. We know the process – we just need to remember which button does what. It occurred to me last night that the TouchCab throttle app for the iPhone may solve this problem, since it includes icons that one can map onto the various function buttons.

While we had a lot of fun playing with the new sound decoders, we found a curious feature – one we need to avoid for now, and fix down the road:

I use Lenz throttles with keypads. There are four buttons for the throttle: coarse deceleration (-16 speed steps); fine deceleration (-1 speed step); fine acceleration (+1 speed step); coarse acceleration (+16 speed steps).

Normally, I operate using the coarse buttons: I have momentum set fairly high (CV3 = 50), which helps sound decoders produce a dynamic chuff sound. But Chris was being more cautious so he started a train by tapping the fine acceleration button once (to the first speed step – V1 – of 126).

We were both surprised when the train took off at full speed!

Fortunately, nothing was damaged and Chris stopped the train quickly. But further experimentation showed us that…

1 – V1 put full speed to the locomotive.
2 – V2 brought it to a complete stop.
3 – V3 and beyond behaved normally.
4 – The reversing switch worked properly, so the same thing would happen in reverse.
5 – It happens with all locomotives, not just one.
6 – Analogue (DC) operation is turned off on all decoders, so the decoder should not be reacting to the pure power on the rails with no signal.

The short-term solution is to avoid using the fine acceleration/deceleration buttons. The long-term solution is to contact TCS to inform them of the issue and see what they come back with. Meantime, if anybody else using these decoders has had this same problem and found a solution, I’d love to hear about it!

That said, we still had a great time and I look forward to Chris’ feedback on the new decoders.

Afterwards, we retired to Harbord House for pints and fish: Salmon Wellington for me; classic fish’n’chips for Chris. Very, very tasty and we’re definitely favourites with the staff there.

As for the title of this post…

While we might think our trains are the best toys ever, my dogs know better. They are great fans of Chris on any day – but especially yesterday, as he brought them each a new frisbee:

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(Jack and Mocean say, “Stop taking pictures: Let’s play!”)

Thanks Chris! We’ll put them to good use in the dog park this weekend!

Ops and Clubs with Jeffrey

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Yesterday, Jeffrey Smith visited. Those who know the name will appreciate that I was very excited about this.

Jeff runs the CNRy in Ontario website – an amazing source of information for railway historians and modellers. Jeff is a transplanted Canadian – he lives in Missouri right now but still has family in southern Ontario. He got in touch to say he’d be doing a bit of research at the University of Toronto – which is just a few minutes from my house – so we arranged to meet up for the afternoon.

Jeff and I started with a typical operating session – working a freight extra to Port Rowan and back. As is typical of recent sessions, we used the TouchCab application and an iPod Touch as a throttle, and put the Sergent Engineering couplers through their paces.

Overall, things went well and continue to trend in the right direction – although I still need to do more work before I’m happy with the couplers. (I have an idea about that…)
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As it was his first time at my place, I was keen to get Jeff’s impressions. He noted that he’s seen the whole layout on this blog so it was pretty much as he expected, but it was still nice to see everything in person – and to hear the ambient audio. The bird calls seem just right for setting the season and place, and quickly fade into the background as the train starts to roll.
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After our session, we retired to Harbord House for club sandwiches and pints of Conductor’s Craft. Jeff and I discussed many things, but the subject that sticks most with me this morning is the role that prototype modellers play as railway historians.

It’s not just what we do with the material we find – but the fact that we go looking for it and then organize and share what we find with others. I think of the information that’s in the heads of the people I know in this hobby – and how easily it can disappear. I know this first-hand, as I’ve witnessed great researchers – friends – who have passed on and I appreciate how much of their knowledge has been lost to us.

Unfortunately, many non-rail historical societies are not that interested in aspects of history that extend beyond genealogy. The good news is that the Internet has given us an excellent distribution channel – one that Jeff is putting to great use with his website.

For my part, I need to do more to share the information I have that’s publicly available, but perhaps hard to find. Jeff has given me some great information over the past couple of years – much of it from public sources like Library and Archives Canada.

A mountain of info is available – it just needs someone (or to be more accurate, “many, many someones”) to dig through it, catalogue it and share it. If we can figure out ways to co-ordinate our research so that we don’t spend as much time reinventing the wheel, so much the better.

To that end, Jeff gave me copies of a few documents from the archives about my branch. I’ll share that information via this blog once I figure out how best to do that.

A great discussion and a great visit, Jeff – I look forward to the next time we get together!

The hobbyist who came in from the cold

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(Heading home after a busy day on the branch, with Jeff Young at the throttle)

On Tuesday, my friend Jeff Young came over for an evening of fun and trains.

Jeff is a live steam enthusiast, with a lovely garden railway. He’s well-known in the water boiling community, thanks in part to the column on live steam that he writes for Garden Railways magazine. He runs his garden railway in all sorts of weather – fair and foul:

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Jeff has been working in the garden since well before I met him. But at one time, way back when, he worked in the “indoor scales”. Jeff admitted that it’s been ages since he’s participated in an operating session: It’s not unheard of for live steam enthusiasts to hold such sessions, complete with car forwarding and dispatching systems. But it’s rare. That said, one time when visiting for a non-rail activity Jeff mentioned he’d like to have a go on the Port Rowan branch, so I invited him over.

We had a great time, and Jeff needn’t have worried about his operating chops. Apparently, operating a model railway is like riding a bike – once you master it, the skills are with you for a lifetime. Jeff took on the role of engineer and by the time we had checked the bill box at St. Williams and were ready to switch the team track spur, he was whistling and bell-ringing like a veteran.

Jeff was really impressed with the TouchCab app that converts an iPhone or iPod Touch into a Lenz DCC throttle. (Follow this link to read all of my posts on TouchCab.)

(Recently, I’ve been using TouchCab more and it’s getting a lot of positive reviews from visitors. Not surprisingly, those who use Apple products elsewhere in their lives love it. But also, those who do not have a DCC system of their own tell me that they find the interface a lot more intuitive than a standard DCC throttle.)

Since I’m still testing the Sergent Engineering S scale couplers on my layout, I’d set up a freight extra with a fair bit of work to do. If the real branch had hosted as much traffic as we switched on Tuesday, it might still be in business today! As it was, we ended up with one car we couldn’t position into its final spot in Port Rowan – so we left it on the run-around:
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That’s the only run-around in town, so the gondola will add an interesting complication to the next operating session. (And no, we could not leave it on the head of the team track: There’s a sign just beyond the last boxcar in the above photo that prohibits this and we do play by the rules.)

Curiously, when pulling a tank car and placing a hopper car on the elevated spur in Port Rowan, engine 80 slipped its drivers and stalled on the incline. It’s never done that. I’ll have to investigate. Things to look at include:

1 – The drivers (slippery?)
2 – The track (slippery?)
3 – The pony truck and tender trucks (sticking wheel sets?)
4 – Other cars that were in the train (sticking wheel sets?)

The Sergent couplers continue to improve. We had a sticky coupler on my Milwaukee Road rib-side boxcar, which gave us some grief. I’ve made a note of it, although the problem may work itself out as the car gets switched more frequently. Other than that, uncoupling was faultless and the few missed couplings could be attributed to brakeman (Read: Me) error.

I’m now confident enough of the operating reliability of the Sergents that I will place a bulk order to do the rest of the fleet when they return to the market – hopefully later this summer. (Follow this link to read all of my posts on the Sergent couplers.)

And the couplers sure do look great. They’re a nice complement to small rail and small wheel flanges:
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All in all, a great evening running trains – and I’m pleased with how well the layout performed. Come back anytime, Jeff!

Before our operating session, I introduced Jeff to the wonders of Harbord House. Knowing that we share a love for beer, I’m surprised that in all the years I’ve known him I haven’t taken Jeff there before.

Jeff and I had a great discussion about the live steam hobby – something that also stokes my coals, although my participation at steam-ups has plunged since starting this layout.

That said, I have some ideas to inject some enthusiasm into that aspect of my hobby and I discussed these with Jeff. Plans are afoot…

Couplers and throttles :: A visit from Hunter

Last week, my friend Hunter Hughson dropped in for an operating session – another opportunity for me to put the Sergent couplers and TouchCab throttle app to the test.

The couplers are not yet operating at 99% reliability – but they are improving, so I’m pleased. And yes, I do expect them to work almost perfectly – at least as well as Kadees – because anything less will make running the layout less fun. I’m confident I’ll get there with the couplers. It’ll just require running trains to get them working smoothly, and train myself to line them up for coupling.

The pleasant surprise, though, was just how much Hunter liked the TouchCab throttle. It’s not for everybody – I really like some features (an iPod Touch is small and light, there’s no cord to tangle, and the function buttons can be overlaid with icons for bell, whistle and so on – which is really handy for guest operators) but I also like the standard Lenz keypad throttle because I can navigate around it by feel. That said, I’ll be using the TouchCab a lot more often, and I have a couple of suggestions I’ll share with the developer to see if we can improve it.

Meantime, Hunter has written his own impressions of last week’s operating session. To read more, click on his photo to visit his blog:
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After our operating session, my wife joined us for dinner at Torito, a terrific local Spanish restaurant. Torito specializes in tapas – small plates meant for sharing. My favourite is the padrón peppers, oiled and done on a skillet and sprinkled with sea salt. This is not Torito’s recipe, but it must be pretty darned close:

The best way to enjoy Padron Peppers

They wash down really nicely with glasses of mojitos…

Two days of trains and food

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It’s been a fun couple of days, running trains and enjoying meals with friends.

On Wednesday morning, Chris Abbott dropped in on his way to work. We set up his iPhone to interface with my layout via the TouchCab wireless throttle app. (On a technical note, I’ve now set up the TouchCab category on this blog, so those interested in this system can find all relevant entries in one place.)

While running a train via TouchCab, Chris also did some testing with The Galvanick Lucipher to get some first hand experience coupling and uncoupling the new Sergent couplers.

Overall, things went well. I had one or two couplers that gave me trouble but I suspect I can address the problem by adding some Neo-Lube to the pivot points for the knuckles, as shown here:
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Afterwards, we retired to Harbord House for lunch and discussed several things, including a weekend visit by Chris to the TrainMastersTV studio in Belleville and the wiring scheme for my S Scale Workshop modules. Chris will be helping me with the wiring portion and he’s come up with some innovative ideas that I’m sure TrainMasters TV subscribers will love.

Last night, Mark Zagrodney joined me for an ops session in which we did further tests. We had slight hiccups with both the TouchCab and with the couplers:

The TouchCab issue involved some lag-time between transmitting a command (e.g.: “Turn on the bell”) and having the system execute it (e.g.: “Ding-ding! Ding-ding!”). Later, we lost all input from the throttle. I think – but will have to confirm – that the problem was caused by having a regular Lenz throttle plugged into the system and assigned to the same locomotive we were trying to run with the TouchCab. For future tests, I will make sure the Lenz throttles are set to a different address.

The coupler problem may have been caused by two factors. First, I’ve converted a lot more equipment to Sergent couplers. This week, I added Sergents to a 2-6-0 and six more freight cars – several of which were involved in last night’s session. It could be that I need to work these new couplers more and (as noted) add some Neo-Lube to the pivot points. Second, to set up for this session I pulled all Kadee-equipped cars out of St. Williams and Port Rowan, and swapped in Sergent-equipped cars. I’ve found that cars that are set in place – instead of switched into place – don’t have the coupler shanks lined up for proper coupling. Once they’ve been coupled to and uncoupled, they are properly aligned.

Still, it was a most enjoyable evening.

Prior to our operating session, I met up with Mark at the downtown location of Lee Valley Tools. Then we popped next door for dinner on the rooftop at The Spoke Club. Beer and red meat were followed by elaborate desserts:

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(Phyllo baked chocolate banana bread with strawberry coulis and sorbet)

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(Lemon mousse delight with chocolate cardamom ice cream, vanilla tuile and macerated raspberries)

Back when I was working in On2, Mark, Chris and I used to get together once a month to either work on my layout or run trains. But then work and life got in the way. However, the planets may once again be coming into alignment so we can revive our tradition. I hope so – we have a lot of fun together.

Thanks for dropping in this week, guys – I’m looking forward to more!

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Coffee, couplers and cord-cutting

My friend and neighbour David Woodhead was interested in a couple of things I’ve written about recently on this blog and elsewhere, and he wanted to experience them first-hand. So yesterday I put on a big pot of coffee and he dropped in for a visit.

First, David wanted to know more about TouchCab – an app that interfaces with the Lenz DCC system to let one use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a wireless throttle. I’ve written about this before on this blog, but David – who also uses Lenz DCC – hadn’t had a chance to try out the system.

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(An iPhone makes an awesome throttle)

I was really pleased David’s interested in this, as I tend to not use the system as much as I thought I would when I first installed it. There’s nothing wrong with the system – but I also have Lenz wired throttles and they’ve always done a fine job for me so I tend to reach for those first.

So, David’s visit was a great opportunity to get reacquainted with TouchCab. And I’m going to have to use it more often. I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive the interface is and I was able to use it with confidence in almost no time, and with no need to refer to manuals. I will need to keep this in mind for future operating sessions. It’ll be nice to cut the cord.

The second thing David wanted to know more about was my experiments with Sergent couplers. We ran a train (the one seen in the above photo), and switched a fair number of cars in Port Rowan. The work included swapping two cars on the elevated coal track, which is the least accessible track on the layout.

The Sergent couplers worked fine. We had a few issues that were related to human error – namely, not checking that knuckles were open before trying to couple up. Those will resolve themselves as I become more comfortable with the couplers.

We were both impressed by how little slack there is in these couplers:
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A train of a half dozen cars has about as much slack as two cars with Kadees – and that’s after modifying the Kadee couplers to remove slack action in the draft gear.

Finally, I took advantage of having a second set of eyes around to investigate why one of my passenger cars was derailing near the west siding switch at St. Williams. David and I determined that it was a tight gauge problem near the headlocks, which was forcing the troublesome bogie to ride up and over the rail.

After David left, I grabbed the track-working tools and made some adjustments. I appear to have solved the problem – further tests will tell.

Thanks for dropping in, David – it was great to see you as always, and the layout is better for it too!

“Running Trains” with Chris

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Chris Abbott visited yesterday and since it was one of the first really nice days of Spring, we spent the afternoon in the layout room. Well, we’d planned this get-together a couple of weeks ago and that’s just the way it goes…

I’ve had some problems recently with derailments, so I invited Chris for a work session. The idea was simple: We’d run a couple of trains and look for problems. We wouldn’t worry about prototype paperwork, proper switching procedures or any of the stuff that we employ during a normal operating session. Rather, we’d cover the line, using the “Mother may I?” method of dispatching and working through all the spurs and other secondary tracks in the process. If we found a problem – a repeatable problem – we would stop and fix it.

Having another person help me with this task would accomplish two things:

– First, Chris was a second set of eyes and fresh opinions about the nature of any problems.

– Second, I would be less likely to overlook or downplay a problem that would require a major rework. (An example of this might be the need to pull a switch point and fabricate a new one. I hate doing that – especially when working over finished scenery – so I’m more likely to wonder “What’s on TV?” when I run into that kind of repair.)

The good news is, we each ran a train to the end of the line and back, working through various sidings – shoving and pulling cuts of cars – and only encountered one problem: A derailment during a backing move through the turnout in front of the Port Rowan station. What’s more, we were unable to repeat the derailment. It could be an issue – or it could’ve been a bit of dirt or loose ballast in the frog. We don’t know. But we left it alone and will keep an eye on that turnout in case it causes more trouble.

For now, it looks like I’ve managed to fix the derailment problems that were plaguing me earlier this year.

And while we didn’t uncover any major problems, it wasn’t a wasted effort: We had a lot of fun – not holding an operating session, but just “Running Trains”…
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Chris and I did other things, too:

– We discussed plans for adding a hand crank to control the sector plate. Chris has been thinking about this since we built the plate, but many other things have gotten in the way and it’s never been a priority for either of us. But Chris would like to tackle it now so he double-checked some measurements and has retired to his work shop to build the mechanism. Stay tuned.

– I solicited his input on some plans for future scenery projects in the Lynn Valley and I can now proceed with those. Again, stay tuned.

– We realized that Chris had never tried TouchCab – an app that allows one to use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a wireless throttle. He was impressed, and it was good for me to get reacquainted with the system. I’m going to make a point of using it more often.

– I introduced Chris to Night Train – a dark ale from Junction Craft Brewing. It went down very well.

My wife joined us as we wrapped up the day with a visit to The Caledonian – an always-fun Scottish pub. It’s about a 20-minute walk from home but owners Donna Wolff and David Wolff always make the place feel like a second home – and the walk encourages one’s appetite.

Sundays at The Caledonian mean a traditional roast beef dinner – and this Sunday was particularly special as The Caley celebrated Tartan Day. The whisky-tasting was sold out and the place was busy but Donna found us three spots at the bar. There were Highland Dancers to entertain the crowd – and we had three pours left in our bottle of Edradour Caledonia 12-year-old behind the bar, so it was all good.

(Thanks for the great day of work and fun, Chris – I look forward to the next one!)

iDCC (or, “Using an iPhone as a throttle”)

Today, I ran trains on the Port Rowan branch using my iPhone.

I use a Lenz DCC system for train control. I picked this system because I was introduced to Lenz back in the mid-1990s: Friends in my operating group had Lenz on their layouts. I have always been impressed by the system’s architecture, its reliability, and the ergonomics of its throttles. But I know everybody has their favourites and DCC system choice largely comes down to familiarity.

(Kudos to the National Model Railroad Association, however, for recognizing early on the value of establishing interoperability standards, so that any decoder can be controlled by any DCC system.)

Recently, I received a Lenz LAN/USB interface (Lenz 23151), which I ordered from Tony’s Trains. I’ve always had great service from Tony’s.

This interface allows one to hook up a computer to use the Java Model Railroad Interface (or “JMRI”) to perform a number of tasks on a layout. The one I like best is the ability to program and manage DCC decoder settings – particularly useful with sound decoders, which have dozens of CVs to adjust.

But the Lenz interface can also be hooked directly to a WiFi router, without a computer. This, coupled with an app called TouchCab, allows one to use an iPod Touch or iPhone as a wireless throttle. A brand new iPod Touch carries an MSRP of $200, compared to $135 for a Digitrax UT4D and $180 for an NCE Cab04PR. So yes, it’s a bit more expensive, but the iPod Touch can do so much more than run trains. I have not investigated the going price for a used iPod Touch but as new models are introduced, with larger capacity for music and apps, there are bound to be some bargains.

Since I already have an iPhone, I downloaded TouchCab and picked up an Airport Express wireless router and some cables from my local Apple dealer.

It was a five-minute job to connect the cables: An ethernet cable between Airport Express and Lenz 23151, and a standard XpressNet cable between the interface and a Lenz LA152 throttle plug-in panel.

I had some trouble setting up the network, but only because I’m not gifted when it comes to troubleshooting computer networks. When I couldn’t get things to work after an hour, I called for help: I jumped online, joined the TouchCab forum, and described my problem.

Within 24 hours, I had a response from the developer with information on the values for various settings on my Airport Express and Lenz 23151 – including step-by-step instructions covering how make any required changes. Another couple of minutes of fiddling plus a pause for the system to restart itself, and I was running trains on my layout from the TouchCab. (Thank you, Jens, for your help!)

I like the system architecture for several reasons:

* WiFi wireless systems are darned robust and I get a great signal anywhere in the layout room (and beyond);

* The use of an iPod Touch or iPhone means anybody with such a device can create a throttle to join in the fun. Also The Airport Express is not connected to the Internet and not used for any other function (like computer networking) in the house, so it’s safe from hacks – even if someone did hack it, there’s nothing they could do with the access. And when I’m not running trains, the network is turned off – which is the safest of all;

* It will be easy for developers such as Jens at TouchCab to make improvements or introduce new features. The throttle is a blank slate of touch-sensitive glass – so rearranging the user interface, adding buttons or other features requires software programming expertise, but no changes to the hardware. (Why would one want to do that? Well, for example, one may want to use different interfaces for different types of operation: one throttle configuration may be optimized for yard crews, while another may best suit mainline running. Already, another throttle app offers such a choice.)

As for the TouchCab – I really enjoy the throttle interface. It’s easy to add locomotives and assign descriptions to each function key, and it’s easy to use the cab in operation. This is not a cab for programming – it’s a cab for running – and it does that very, very well.

While I have wired throttles and plenty of plug-in panels, this gives me – and my guests – a robust, wireless option. And … it’s cool!