Powering My Trains: The Start of My Journey Learning about Digital Command Control (DCC)

Having not used Digital Command Control (DCC) in the past and owning only a few factory equipped sound and DCC locomotives, I started with a fairly blank canvas. This led to a lot of reading on the internet to gather as many opinions as possible and see which things are most important to me and my layout.

My original concept did not involve operations and slight changes have made that a little more important, but my path chosen did not make the adjustment difficult. One thing that seemed universal was the advice to choose a command and power system supported by a local hobby shop or a local club. Not belonging to a club, I chose the former and sought the advice of Raymond Stern at Pro-Custom Hobbies in Eldersburg, MD. He recommended Digitrax and as it was unlikely I would be running more than five trains at a time, I purchased the Digitrax Zephyr Xtra DCS51 All-in-one Command Station/Booster/Throttle (recently replaced by the Digitrax Zephyr Express). It fits the size and scope of my planned layout, offers programming, 3 amp power, and throttle all in one unit. It looks and feels similar to the DC Power Packs I was used to, so that held some charm.

The little stand is just clamped to a leg as a temporary location.

For convenience in wiring the layout I purchased an NCE LWK25 – DCC main bus wiring kit designed to handle 25 feet of double mainline track. I later purchased additional wire and connectors, and a high-quality wire stripping tool to make life a little easier. Important lesson learned in the process is to not tin the wires to be inserted into crimped connectors. It’s a thing, ask someone experienced in electrical circuits.

Not my best work, but with multiple turnouts and track connections in one location it was needed. I will relocate, twist-tie common leads. and retest when I complete this module.

Programming pre-equipped locomotives proved a little challenging and I had to add a Soundtraxx 829002 PTB-100 Programming Track Booster to boost power to my programming track. It worked, but the steps in changing CVs with the Digitrax multi-function unit for anything more than changing the locomotive’s address were long and tedious (multiple button pushes in specific orders). This led me to using JMRI Decoder Pro (freeware), something that I had considered as a worthy investment from the beginning. This was confirmed after programming a few locomotives and then having them reset or lose a CV change. I am very supportive of a product that would keep the stored values somewhere other than the locomotive for ease of reprogramming when something goes wrong. It also eliminates the button pushing and uses a more familiar Windows interface. I purchased the Digitrax PR4 USB to LocoNet Interface with Decoder Programmer and connected it to my Windows 10 machine on the desk near my layout. This is the piece required to connect the Decoder Pro running on the Windows machine to the programming track (other brands are available). It also allows the Windows machine to act as a throttle and I can later connect my layout control system to my computer, if desired. I am still experimenting with these products, but after playing around with programming types and rebooting the machine several times, it has been able to program all of my older Broadway Limited and Bachmann factory sound equipped locomotives, as well as one experimental set of non-factory equipped P2K locomotives that I am adding Soundtraxx DCC and sound units to over time. The changes to operating the Bachmann EM-1 (it’s a must have for a B&O Modeler) have made it worth it already.

Digitrax PR4 connected and running.

Adding sound decoders and speakers is the subject of a few more blogs in the future, as I am equipping the ABA set of P2K Alco units first (along with some prototypical detailing) before I tackle my Kato F-3 ABA set and the OML Peddler’s brass Q-7f Mikado. All in good time.

One operating session on John King’s B&O layout led me to want walk-around throttle control, as it puts you literally in the engineer’s seat as you follow the train on the layout, the old single control point from the power pack days had to be updated. I found a simple, effective solution with WiThrottle, an app for my iPhone and iPad. Game changer. It’s a $10 app (free trial version available) and required the purchase of the Digitrax LNWI LocoNet WiFi Interface that connected to my Command Station with the supplied LocoNet cord. Up and running in ten minutes. If I need more throttles for visitors without iPhones, used iPods are available pretty cheap.

WiThrottle in action controlling the Q-3 Mike right behind it.
WiThrottle locomotive selection screen.

I am pleased with my ability to add pieces to the system that I find I need over time, while keeping a low initial investment. Some may prefer to buy a system that does it from the beginning with a larger initial investment, I believe that is a matter of preference.

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