The Controls - Digital

Ultimately, after a lot of consideration, I chose to use command control to operate my coffee table railroad.  If you’ll bear with me for a bit, I think that you will agree that the best choice for train control of a simple coffee table model railroad is with command control. 

Not that the command control systems and command control system proponents have made it easy, mind you.  For a longer description of my feelings about command control, please see my blog on the concept, here.

Inevitably, discussions of command control always seem to slowly slip into techno-jargon. And, proponents of one system will trash the “opposition”. Unfortunately, this results in turning the average model train enthusiast off. Or bewilder them to the point that they just stick to the DC analog control systems that they know.  As mentioned earlier, you can make things work in a coffee table with some fancy wiring and electrical devices.  It does not have to be that way.

The thing to remember is that command control places the actual control of the locomotive inside the locomotive itself. Unlike DC-analog control, digital control of the locomotive is handled by a mobile decoder inside the locomotive.  And, with mobile decoders that are equipped with load compensation, it means that a model locomotive will operate at the same speed, whether it is going uphill or downhill.  With load compensation, slow speed locomotive operation can result in very realistic model train operation.  Because of this, even a model railroad with only one locomotive still benefits from command control. Such a railroad would usually be a switching railroad, and having fine slow speed control is very helpful. Or, the railroad could be one that has many gradients, with the train going uphill and downhill. In other words, a railroad very similar to my coffee table project.

My coffee table project started in the early 1990’s. Don’t give me a hard time about how long it has taken. But in those early days, command control units were not yet widely available for N-Scale trains, so my early planning and execution was for a coffee table railroad controlled with conventional analog DC.  In part, my delay in executing the coffee table design was my continued quandary over control. By dogging around as long as I have, technology caught up and suddenly my life became easier.

At the same time, the question of cost has to be considered. As of this writing (2012), a full fledged command control system with all the bells and whistles (literally) would cost well over $400.00.  All of this to control, at most, three locomotives. And, realistically, only one of those locomotives would be in operation at any given time. Even the entry level Digitrax Zephyr would cost over $200.00.  Clearly there had to be a better way.

The first system which I gave consideration to was a Bachmann E-Z Command System:

This is a very basic unit, able to control up to ten locomotives.  Of course, the model railroad intelligentsia look down their noses and sneer, but I don’t really care.  All I want it to do is to control a moving locomotive.  Remember, I’m not likely to be doing anything fancy with it, just running trains.  And because command control really takes place within the locomotive, I can have a “dumb” control system that is still able to command a “smart” locomotive.

Alas, the E-Z Command System does not control solenoid devices such as track switches, and my coffee table railroad has three such turnouts inside the table enclosure. For the moment, my plans for layout control meant that I was going to have to resort to a wiring harness for turnout control.

Although I had a method for creating such a harness, I didn’t want to do it. Each turnout required two wires, plus a common wire plus wires from the power supply.  My search continued.  Fortunately I got lucky.

When searching on eBay, once again, I came across an Arnold Digital command station, the 86501 Commander 9, for sale:

The full details of the system are located here.  It is a very simple system, able to control 9 locomotives and four solenoid devices such as remote track switches.  Perfect for my needs.

Fortunately, the unit I bought on eBay actually works, so my command control issues with my coffee table project are solved.

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