(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.