Thursday, 13 July 2017

DC or not DCC



DCC, NCE, MRC, ESU.... Confused? Well I am. Its enough to send your mind whirring faster than a passing freight train. If you answered no, then chances are you have already got your head around the various terminology that goes with model train set Digital Command Control, or DCC as its commonly known. Easily the most heated debate amongst railway modellers here in Australia, is which operating system is better? DC or DCC? Let's be honest, asking a retailer which is better will always guarantee you the same answer. They'll always try to sell you the more expensive option. I can be a bit more blunt with my answer however, in that I write simply for myself so don't stand to generate anything from this post other than a few laughs.

DC or Direct Current, has been around for ages. A simple positive and negative 12 volt set of wires connected to your track from a transformer power pack that lets you control the amount of current sent to the track by the throttle. To some, DC represents the stubbornness of our hobby in hanging onto outdated technology that is well past its' use-by date.

Here are my Top 5 funny meanings I've heard model railroaders give this acronym.

  1. Dinosaur Control - an oldie but a goody.
  2. Dummy Control - as in only dummies still use it.
  3. Dunny Cab - Australian for toilet, you figure the rest.
  4. Dull Control - as in it makes operating a layout more boring.
  5. Death Cab - as in they're not interested in change, and will stick with DC until they die.

DCC or Digital Command Control, supplies power to a block of track by one set of wires, and sends individual digital signals to the locomotive via the decoder chip that is fitted inside, enabling individual command control of things like speed, headlights, ditch lights, cab lights etc. Being able to operate lights individually on a locomotive while it is stationary, without having the brightness respond only to an increase in current or speed is a good argument, in fact a very good argument as to which system may be better. But it does have some drawbacks, namely the added cost of converting your layout to DCC operation.

No-one that I've spoken with about DCC operation has had the guts to say anything bad about it. Maybe that's because there is nothing bad to say about it. Or it could be a case of The Emperor's new clothes, and everyone just agrees for fear of ridicule. Well, maybe its about time someone stood up for the humble DC modellers in this hobby, or the manufacturers might think we no longer exist and stop producing quality DC locomotive models in the future.

So in that spirit, here are my Top 5 funny meanings I feel DCC could be short for.

  1. Doesn't Come Cheap - an obvious place to start.
  2. Digital Computer Crap - here's another blasted contraption I have to learn.
  3. Darn Cruel Contraption - as in all that money and it just fried another decoder!
  4. Diesel Confused Comprende - does anyone know what number I'm programmed under?
  5. Definitely Couldn't Care - as in I'm way too old for this and I will stick with DC until I die...

For the past few years, I've noticed a changing trend in the way model railway manufacturers are advertising new models. We've moved on from the self-explanatory DCC-ready, (as in capable of fitting a DCC decoder chip inside the locomotive to convert the model to DCC operation at a later date), to more confusing terms like Bachmann's DCC On-Board and the latest trend of advertising models as DC/DCC with sound. In fact, there is a growing trend among model railway manufacturers both in the U.S. and here in Australia to produce sound equipped models that are already installed with a decoder capable of recognising and then running on either DC or DCC track. At first glance, this appears to be the next step in finding a one-size-fits-all approach to keep both DC and DCC modellers happy, and sound in our hobby is a big selling point. But is DCC on DC still DC? Or is DCC on DC more like DC and 1/2?

I've now had two experiences with running DC/DCC sound-equipped locomotives on my DC powered layout, and to be honest they were both disappointing. To be fair, I won't name each manufacturer, as in each instance it wasn't their product that was at fault, rather the way that sound-equipped DC/DCC models are perceived in the hobby, and the reality of how they actually perform on a DC layout.

First was a model fitted with a DC/DCC QSI sound-equipped decoder, that after going through its usual start-up sound sequence, moved off the mark very slowly thanks to the built-in inertia. It stood to reason that it also stopped very slowly, which on a short bookshelf layout quickly proved to be very frustrating. Most of the time I had to stop the model quickly as it neared the end of the track, and instead of enjoying the shut-down sound sequence the model would just come to a silent, abrupt halt. The horn function required a quick back-and-forth flick of the throttle's forward/reverse function to activate. Most of the time the decoder misinterpreted this as the power turning off, and would come to an abrupt halt and revert to going through the whole start-up procedure again. Needless to say, it soon frustrated me to tears. Given that the model wasn't really the right match for the era I was modelling, (I'd purely been enticed to buy it for the sound function), it was soon sold on eBay.

More recently, a model fitted with a DC/DCC Loksound sound-equipped decoder gave me grief right from the moment it was placed on my DC powered track. After going through the long, drawn-out start-up procedure, the model just stood still and shook with the sound spluttering in and out. Turning the throttle up would result in the loco suddenly taking off at near full speed. I had to phone the manufacturer who put me in touch with Paul Baker, the expert on all things DCC at The Trainman.net . Paul gave me perhaps the most honest answer with what was wrong. A DC/DCC sound-equipped locomotive operating on a DC layout is not DCC. The loco simply was not drawing enough power.

A DCC power pack supplies an average of 16.5 volts to the track all the time. A DC power pack by comparison supplies 12 volts, in increments from zero through to 12 volts as controlled by the throttle. The decoder in a DC/DCC model requires 9 volts for the decoder to start, and it isn't a simple matter of starting the model at a higher throttle setting. Once the start-up sequence is completed, the model then responds instantly to the throttle setting. Smooth starts are impossible. As for the horn sound? On this particular decoder it was not possible in DC mode. For that, you guessed it, I would have to upgrade to a DCC system. Needless to say, the two pre-orders I had for other sound-equipped models have now been cancelled.

When it comes to a one-size-fits-all approach, a model touted as being DC/DCC compatible is just a gimmick, and a misleading one at that! For the extra bucks a DC modeller will pay for a locomotive that is DC/DCC sound equipped, they get a locomotive that is very limited as to what extras they can actually utilise. Yet they still have to pay DCC prices and are still subject to the same problems of shorting decoders and the expense of replacing them should anything go wrong. Trust me when I say a decoder can still go 'pop' on a DC layout! A DCC modeller on the other hand, already has a DCC equipped layout and won't really care if the more expensive locomotive is capable of running on a less expensive DC system. DC is still DC, just as DCC is still the only option for those who want to turn the lights on their locomotive individually and listen to the engine idle while their train is stationary.

I had my crossroads moment, and I chose to stick with plain old DC operation. At the end of the day I have a small bookshelf switching layout, and as Paul Baker kindly explained, if I were to go down the digital path I would most likely want to de-program the momentum from each locomotive anyway to continue operating a small layout enjoyably. If I were to change my mind in the future with DCC, I'm sure my first point of call will be to contact Paul at The Trainman.



Although enjoying sound while operating a loco would have been pretty cool, I'm now more interested in seeing if I can incorporate something like Broadway Limited's Lightning & Thunder pack into my layout. If you haven't seen or heard what this new product is all about, then you must watch the YouTube clip above. And best of all, it's a DC product that won't require anything more than installing two LED strips and mounting the sub-woofer beneath my layout. I first need to find out whether I can get it to work using a household Australian 240 volt plug before I invest any more dollars.

There are plenty of new Australian prototype HO scale models due to be released in the next 12 months, and the majority of these are now being made available in either DC or DC/DCC with sound versions. Southern Rail Models will soon release their 10 Class steam locomotive, then Auscision Models will follow with their 442 Class and NR Class diesels, an 85 Class electric locomotive and even a Railway Pay-Bus in 2018. While over at SDS Models we are all waiting word on the re-release of the Austrains 81 Class and their own version of the NR Class diesels. With the average price difference between the DC and DC/DCC with sound models offered by each manufacturer being $100.00 Australian, I hope I have at least shed some light on what standard DC modellers like myself can expect if tempted by the idea of adding sound. My advice is an echo of the old saying, 'in for a penny, in for a pound.' Either go all-out and invest in a decent DCC system, or just stick with a tried-and-true standard DC locomotive and save yourself the price difference.

Perhaps in future there might be some more development in the Australian market with off-board sound for DC modellers, such as the KATO Unitrack Soundbox. I know I would be interested.

See also; Railway Modelling Vs. Blogging

6 comments:

  1. I understand the frustration. Almost 20 years ago, I installed pure DC control on the ACT Model Railway Society "12th Street Yard". The exhibition layout was a pleasure to operate on DC. Each main line had its own controller, as did the switching yards out the front. Point isolation in the fiddleyard meant that trains only ran when the points were set. Interchange from the main lines to the switching yards involved a route selection knob, and a push button diode matrix to align up to 5 points. The route selection know also energised the switching yard for the appropriate mainline cab, whilst turning off the switching cab power to that section. It was a bit complex to wire, but apart from the diodes, and CDU, a straight forward control, and easy to drive. However, some boffins in the ACTMRS wanted to retrofit DCC to the layout, and that created a whole swag of problems - even resulting in no trains running when the DCC system went into meltdown with the large number of sound equipped locos on the track. Horses for courses - select the best control for your circumstances - but the simplicity of DC is hard to beat

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  2. I suppose it all comes down to what meets your needs. Too small a layout and DCC probably has no advantage for the extra money spent. Too big a layout and you've got a headache whenever the system goes into meltdown. Some guys like the techno-gobbeldy-gook side of the hobby. Others like myself want to quit every time that I do wiring. At the end of the day I just want my trains to run whenever I have the time to sit down and enjoy them.

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  3. Hi Phil,
    I have a controller that operates DCC on a DC layout as my layout is. It is made by MRC in the States. It also has 28 functions. The only problem is that you don't need to program the locomotives for them to operate, but it will only operate one loco at a time. It is a MRC 1050 model and can be seen being used on youtube.

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    1. Thanks for the tip James. I think it may have been one of the control packs that was suggested to me as a solution, but I'd already bought two new Auscision DC controllers before the Brisbane Model Train Show, (one was for a back up) and had the extra cost of getting them both safety tagged. It ran fine with just a couple of isolating toggle switches on the staging shelf for basic operations. By sticking with them, I can at least put the money saved from updating a control pack towards a couple of new locos before the year is out. And yes, they will both be plain DC. I'll just have to use my mouth to make train noises like I did when I was a kid...
      vvvrrrttt!

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  4. Phil, something I forgot to mention. You said that the unit would shut down when you flicked the direction switch. This will happen if the direction switch has a "centre off" position. If it is a on/on switch and you flick the switch the horn should blow, changing direction before the loco "dumps" it's air (after braking) then the sound should not drop out and the direction will change. This worked on both my previous layouts on "DC".

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    1. You're right. The problem was at first with a "centre off" position controller, but it also depends on the brand of decoder you are using to get the horn to operate on a DC layout. A QSI sound-equipped decoder will allow the horn function in DC mode, but not an ESU Loksound decoder, even with my changing to a DC controller that had a separate reverse switch. It also comes down to the type of layout you have. A continuous run loop will allow enough time to "wind her up" and let the momentum take over when braking. But a stub-ended bookshelf layout like mine doesn't give enough time to appreciate either before the loco reaches the end of the track. For now, It's a road I've been down, but one I'm not likely to bother with again.

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Thanks for taking the time to visit Philden. I hope you'll book a return ticket soon. Cheers, Phil