DCC: Upgrading to keep current

Mystery Box
(What’s in the box? I’m not telling – yet: Stay tuned.)

I have a perfectly good DCC system. And I’m about to replace it. I’ve ordered a new system – from a different manufacturer – and it should arrive this week.

I’ll write more about the new system once I have it in hand and have had a chance to connect it to the layout, but some may question why I would upgrade. For me, it’s really about keeping current with technology changes in the hobby.

I first got into DCC back in the mid-1990s. I had a friend in our round-robin who had become a Canadian manufacturer’s rep for Lenz, so I got an early start.

DCC was brand new. Lenz was brand new. My friend was running software build 0.86 on a Lenz system. Of the many quirks, it didn’t yet have English instructions on the hardware, so all the commands and feedback were in German. “Aus” for “Off” (a short), etc.

Another friend in our group had built a medium-sized, freelanced, operations-oriented layout with DC cab control. He had five memory cabs, selected through rotary switches. The memory meant one’s train would keep moving while the operator unplugged to move around the layout. It worked very, very well. NO problems at all. So, understandably, my friend’s initial reaction to DCC was lukewarm. “Why would I switch?” he’d ask. And frankly, none of us could answer him. I sure couldn’t.

But then he had a group of old-timers over for an ops session. They were 10-20 years older than him. He’d first learned about ops on a layout that they had built. And he realized really quickly that they were confused by the concept of five-cab control and memory walk-arounds. And that experience played a big part in his decision to switch to DCC.

My friend didn’t decide to switch to DCC to make it simpler for the old-timers, but because he realized that if he didn’t stay current with the hobby, he would become like them. The hobby would pass him by, and when he went to other people’s layouts, he’d be the guy wandering around like a lost person.

So he switched. He moved all his rotaries to Cab 1, and wired a Lenz system to it. There was a steep learning curve for decoder installs, especially with the decoders being a large as they were at the time. And it wasn’t a cheap transition. Nor did it happen overnight. But he took the plunge.

And almost immediately, things changed on my friend’s layout – for the better. We stopped looking at rotary switches and started running trains. We re-worked how trains interacted with each other, especially in yards where road power was being cut off and switchers were adding or removing cars. We started adding helpers to one of the grades, because it was easy to do and the helper could be independently controlled.

None of this was expected, and it was all great. And this was before the advent of sound. We had NO idea sound was coming when my friend converted his layout. And you can imagine how sound changed the operating sessions! Everything slowed down. We instituted two-person crews on most jobs, because the engineer now had more to do. As a consequence, we also cut the number of trains running on the layouts and cut the speed of the fast clock in half. We started incorporating real railway procedures, like pumping air in the train line and performing brake tests. And so on.

So, fast forward to today. I’m still using a 20-year-old system (I bought my first Lenz base station in 1996). Things like JMRI have completely passed me by: I’ve downloaded it, but never used it for several reasons. For starters, when I first encountered it, decoders – even sound decoders – were relatively simple to program using CVs right off the throttle. Today, there are so many more options that even changing the ring rate of a bell can involve three or four CVs. Second, I don’t have a computer hooked to the layout or in my workshop – something I will have to address at some point.

My current Lenz throttles have a 10-button keypad for functions yet current decoders can have up to 28, so accessing anything above F9 involves switching to another stack – a complicated, disruptive process. (And even though my layout is simple, there are a lot of functions to access on my locomotives – cylinder drains, injectors, blower, bell, whistle, etc. etc. etc.) So once again, I find myself playing the layout instead of running the trains.

From a long-term perspective, the throttles – which I really do like – are entirely hardware defined, which means accommodating new features is difficult. And yes, the system can be upgraded – and has, in the past – but those upgrades require sending the throttles back to the sales rep so he can pull and replace IC chips, because the system itself is not software defined, and not Internet enabled.

So, it’s time to try something more advanced – to stay current, and prepare for the future. Because I want to take advantage of the many new, incredible features that are on the horizon – as well as those that have not yet even been conceived. And I don’t want to be that guy wandering about, looking lost, in the ops sessions.

15 thoughts on “DCC: Upgrading to keep current

    • Hi Simon:
      Good question. I still use TouchCab, although I have found that having everything – including throttle and direction – on a touch screen means one has to look at the screen a lot more than I’d like in order to use them. Hardware-based throttles like my Lenz throttles have the advantage of allowing operators to adjust speed by feel, without taking their eyes of the train. It was a consideration in my choice of system.
      As well, the developer of TouchCab is no longer updating the application. It works for now, but at some point it may not (for example, if Lenz updates its hardware).
      The good news is, I still have opportunities to use my Lenz system, which I’ll detail in a future post.

  1. Trevor, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m in three rail O Scale and have been using TMCC since first introduced in 1994. Not much changed until the introduction of MTH DCS in 2000. That was the next leap, but not quite there yet. I was living in my TMCC paradigm and though why switch to Lionel Legacy when it came out. Everything is running just fine. Well when it came to assembly lashups and saving the lashups I found out just how far behind I had fallen. With TMCC I could only build and store nine lashups. The process to set up lashups was cumbersome. Duplicate numbers had to be assigned to lashups greater than nine. With Legacy the process of creating and storing lashups was so greatly improved. Now one could store up to 99. All that rambling to say I agree with you. One has to stay current with the Hobby and the advances that come along with it especially if you operate.

  2. I’m looking forward to reading more about the decisions your make with regard to hardware.

    Lenz was popular on local layouts but the ease of getting some newer systems, largely NCE, off the ground certainly is evidenced in the number of layouts that are adopting it either as a first choice or through upgrade.

    Simon’s already mentioned WiiThrottle but I use it when as an operator on the local scene and really like it.


  3. Trevor,
    As always, a terrific read.
    I started my interest in 1974 and dabbled every Christmas holiday season designing THE ultimate layout. Three kids and a thriving dental practice interrupted the build of the empire on a 4×8. Now that I’m retired, and living as a snowbird in The Villages Fl, where we have a club with 150 or so members, the interest has flourished once again. My NCE Powercab is waiting for me in Fl to be used on my layout. Oh, I did purchase a lot of stuff in the early years and eBay over the last few years.
    I did purchase an early innovator in the DCC market for $250US or so in the late 70’s or early 80’s. The hand control made the bell sounds as I recall. It was the ONBOARD system, out of California. I just found the F9 unit that I wired up. Man, those were fascinating days to be on the cutting edge…. Oh wait, that was my dental days…. 😉
    Love your interviewing style on Trainmasters TV…. Have you considered applying for Peter Mansbridge’s job as of July 2?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Hans – especially about TrainMasters. As for Peter’s job – I don’t know if I can say “Toniiiight…” with enough gravitas…

  4. So very right you are. I, too, bought Lenz because my friend was a distributor. After joining the Operations Circuit and seeing what other systems could do, I became disenchanted with my system. Even worse was their lack of upgrades and advances, especially wireless. Now, they’ve largely pulled back from the American market.

    If funds ever become available, I’ll happily switch to another system. As you said, either grow or wither.

  5. Trevor, I think I know what system you’ve ordered (OK, I spied your post on the MRH forum several days ago and got the hint). I also changed systems back in March for some of the same reasons you’ve indicated. However, I went with NCE as it met the requirements that I had for a new system.

    One can read about it here:

    And a bit more here:

    Good luck with your new system!


  6. Are you going dead-rail? I’ve long been in the DCC camp, but one day batteries will be good enough, and dead-rail will be the way to go. Maybe that time is sooner than I currently think.

  7. Interesting. I loved the Lenz 100 throttle when I first acquired it 11 years ago, but I sold it 5 or 6 years ago when I switched over to NCE. Why? Just a nicer hand held throttle. Have tried the touch cab, but as you said, I do feel more comfortable being able to operate without look at the controller. A speed knob and direction switch are the minimal requirements, but a couple more for the horn, and with the exciting developments in sound decoders of late a brake button, are joining the list.

    Also looking at battery power and radio transmission, but would rather use 2.4GHz than the FM options provided by after market providers: some options are currently denied to me, as the manufacturers only sell their products for the North American/Oceanic licensed wavebands.

  8. Flashback to 1994, I converted 4 AHM heislers to lenz LE100 (or something like that) decoders and setup Lenz on the Eastern Loggers layout…completing the last install the night before the annual NMRA show and wired my cab (8) of the modules to the Lenz system. Attaching homemade panels to the layout the event changed the club and inspired many local layouts to make the change. Suddenly we could run any train anywhere…Without thought of the 8 position block selectors….

    I still have a Lenz system, but will not be expanding it when I build a layout. The LH100’s are old and the LH90’s are impossible to learn to use. Love the atlas throttles (still available from atlas I understand) I’ll probably go NCE or CVP (I like the looks of the new OPS throttles). I’m reluctant to go with an AP for 6-8 operators, how do I acquire the phones, what if they do not all have the same software running, etc… So I’ll probably stick with throttles provided by the DCC system.

    I’m curious on what choice you’ve made Trevor. I can see where you’d go with one of the

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