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!

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

  1. I have just finished putting together a Lenz TouchCab system for a friend who has decided to jump straight from analogue to wireless DCC – it was the wireless part that convinced him to change. You can go wireless on economy budget as well – we are all using iPod generation 2, which can be picked up on eBay for less than $50 in the USA (unfortunately a bit pricier here in the UK), and similarly my local PC shop picked up several excellent Netgear wireless routers (the out of production model) on eBay for £20 each. These are powerful, very robust and automatically set the IP addresses of the components attached to them. Brilliant! I took one of my iPods to Seattle to demonstrate when I went to the recent Narrow Gauge Convention, as lots of the layouts there are using Lenz, and was also able to drive the wayfreight on a friend’s layout in Toronto. In addition I was able to keep in touch with home by e-mail and pull up a street map of central Toronto, all on my train controller!

    • Hi Bob:
      Thanks for the comments. I really like what you say about being able to use the iPod for things other than running trains – especially handy while travelling, as you say.
      And as you note, “throttles” can be even less expensive than the official Apple price that I quoted.
      Thanks for the thoughts!
      Cheers!

  2. I too have been using TouchCab on my Lenz controlled layout. Since my primary wireless throttles are CVP’s RF1300 and new T5000 (which I really like), for me TouchCab on my iPod touch or an iPhone with the Lenz 23151 is useful in four primary scenarios
    – when I want control of more than the standard function set supported by the CVP throttles
    – when I want an operator to see graphical symbols for the functions to help them remember what function controls what (I would like to be able to customize this by loco address)
    – When I need extra throttles – can add in my iPod touch (4th gen)
    – when I want to drive the train from elsewhere in the house. I have a wireless camera in one of my locos (soon to be more), and have the Lenz connected into my home network. This means I can sit in the recliner in the family room two floors down and drive the train with the iPod Touch while watching the video feed on the 61″ TV, just as if I were sitting in the cab…

    Michael

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