Going Digital

Adding Digital Systems to your trains

How a Model Railroad works- the old way

Traditionally, model railroads have a power supply device which may be called a transformer, power pack, or cab. This device puts power into the train track and by turning a knob or lever or the like, the power may be increased or decreased, causing the train to move faster or slower. In addition, a variety of accessories such as turnouts (switches) may be activated or deactivated  by sending power to them or not. This type of control system is known as Analog.


Digital Systems

The biggest change in model railroading in the last 25 years is the introduction of relatively inexpensive digital control systems to model railroading. Basically, the locomotives and possibly other model items such as the rolling stock and track-side accessories have a digital computer device, known as a decoder (sometimes called a chip) installed that takes commands from a controller of some kind. The layout itself has a constant power supply applied to it  and instructions sent to the decoder tell the train or other item what to do with that power. One can also add sound files and speakers to produce a variety of sound effect. Almost any HO or O scale train and most N scale diesels and some N scale steam units can be fitted with a decoder and nearly any accessory can be controlled with some combination of decoder and support device.

Decoders that are intended to control locomotive function (ie, that are intended to pick up rail power and run motors) are called ‘mobile decoders‘ whereas those which are intended to control accessories (in the train or not) are known as stationary decoders. For clarity, those decoders intended to control trackside accessories, such as turnouts (switches) and lights, will be referred to as accessory decoders but this is not an official term. Decoders which hold sound files and therefore are designed to make sound are called sound decoders. Most of the time, a sound decoder is also a mobile decoder but not always, so the term mobile sound decoder (msd) is used.


Why install a decoder in a train?

First of all, the decoder allows your digital control system to talk directly to the locomotive or other item exclusively and to give it directions that only apply to it. This means you can run many locomotives and accessories at the same time at different speeds and in different directions or you can ‘lash’ them together to operate as a single unit. You can even run them into each other if you want (not recommended unless you are Gomez Addams)!

Second, using digital systems on a layout in place of conventional systems simplifies the wiring and control board for a layout. Old fashion block controls and multiple cabs (transformers) are no longer required. As layout builders, we can tell you from experience that if one accounts for one’s time as billable (which of course we do!), it is usually cheaper to build a digital layout over an analog layout even if one has to pay for converting old trains to digital control.

Third, most trains operate better under digital control than under conventional control, especially trains which operate on AC powered track such as O scale and Marklin products. Digital systems allow a variety of programming options to optimize the way a train responds to commands so it runs more like the real thing (or not if you prefer). Digital systems also allow for programming special light features (such as flashing headlights). However, digital equipment will not improve the performance of a poorly running train. Trains that run poorly need to be serviced or repaired or upgraded before or as part of the digital installation process.

Fourth, though you can have a digital control system that sit in one place, most are designed to hold in your hand and thus allow you to follow your train as it moves around your layout. This is known as ‘walkaround’ control and it can be accomplished using a radio signal or a simple tether. (There are conventional walk around systems too but they are relatively difficult to set up and they are typically expensive).

Finally, the most convincing argument for most customers is the ability to have and control sound systems so the trains sound like the real thing. Sound effects are cool!


Different Digital Families

There are essentially four families of Digital Control Devices in use in model Railroading. These families are not inter-compatible, though some controllers can operate more than one type of system and some chips or installations include more than one system.

DCC or Digital Command and Control is by far the most widespread and is governed by standards set by the National Model Railroad Association or NMRA. The vast majority of new N and HO trains either are equipped with DCC or are DCC ready (meaning they have a plug for connecting to a DCC computer decoder). Most older trains in N or HO can be retrofitted with ‘aftermarket’ DCC systems sold for that purpose. Rail Tales is very familiar with DCC systems and with their installation. However, installation situations vary widely and so does the difficulty (and cost) of retrofitting older models.

DCS or Digital Command System is a proprietary product of MTH and is installed only in their trains. DCS is not available as an aftermarket installation except for MTH trains. Rail Tales sells DCS systems and is familiar with their operations but does not do DCS installations at this time.

Marklin Family include a number of different formats and devices but they are all backwards compatible to older systems. The current format is known as Mfx. Marklin systems should only be installed in Marklin and Marklin compatible trains. Rail Tales is very familiar with Marklin systems and is proficient in installing them.

Lionel products are proprietary to Lionel trains and include TMCC, Legacy, and Lionchief. Due to problems with them and lack of support from Lionel, Rail Tales longer sells these systems or the train sets that incorporate them. The failure rate was too high…


Controlling Decoders

While most decoders can be made to respond to Analog signals (ie. varying the power input or sending on/off pulses), they work best if they are managed by a control system meant for handling digital systems. More importantly, the ability to control the trains individually generally requires a digital control system. There are more than a dozen control systems currently in production and all of them work. We here at Rail Tales have our preferences but which one is right for you depends on many factors. The most important of these is which type of digital system you have…


Control Systems

Rail Tales sells and supports NCE, DCS, and Marklin digital controller systems with a staff that is proficient and trained by the manufacturer in these products. We have used Loksound (ESU), MRC, Bachmann, and Digitrax control systems and have decided not to support or encourage their use for various reasons. Draw your own conclusions…

For DCC users, NCE offers both affordable entry level products and excellent advanced user models. All the entry level models can be upgraded and all will operate all DCC decoders. We operate NCE in the store and in our store club and shown all the options, nearly all our customers choose NCE.

For DCS users, the DCS systems are easy to operate for basic tasks but are complicated when things go wrong. DCS has a lot of innovative advanced features and can operate some Lionel systems. For O scale users, it is a very good option.

For Marklin users the regular and advanced Marklin systems are highly intuitive and can do it all. They can theoretically operate DCC decoders but this interface requires some technical skill and so Marklin controllers are not recommended for most DCC users. The system makes operating Marklin trains very convenient however. The advanced Marklin ‘central station’ has a lot of ‘cool’ factors but it is expensive. The very basic digital controllers that come in the entry level sets are extremely simple to use but limited in what they can do. The midrange system (Mobile Station) which comes in some sets and is also available separately is a very affordable, powerful, and intuitive system.

For Conventional O Scale users, the DCS system allows you to operate your O scale trains with one handy walkaround radio device. This is not strictly speaking a digital operation but it has many of the advantages.

Note: There are a lot of other systems out there with new brands being introduced every day. Each will be someone’s favorite. Some of them are direct sales only and some of them we just don’t know anything about. The systems we sell are manufactured by companies with a long history and a solid reputation combined with ready availability of upgrades and replacement parts.

Our Recommendations: If you operate Marklin, buy Marklin. If you operate O scale and want to go digital, go with MTH. Otherwise, we have found the NCE system to be the best all around value and performer.

Rail Tales has a Marklin, DCS, and NCE system for you to try in the store.


Hybrid Systems

MRC manufactures a hybrid system that allows the user to control the sound effects and other special digital features of a digital train on a conventional layout. This allows walkaround control as well. For persons who want digital train sound effects but have a conventional layout or a lot of conventional trains, this may be a good solution.

Broadway Limited (BLI) sells a device to control digital features on a conventional layout. This can also be a solution for conventional users who want to add digital sound.


Getting Started with Digital

The first step is to talk to us in detail (or talk to your local hobby shop that handles digital systems if you have one and are not local). We will show you sample digital equipped trains and system and go over in more detail what digital means. Digital is not necessarily right for all users, especially N scale operators, those who have a lot of older trains, and those who enjoy the complex wiring of analog systems.

If you are new to model railroading and decide to choose digital then you can simply purchase your new locomotives with decoders already installed. If you are buying Marklin this is an easy decision because they currently only manufacture Digitally equipped trains! For other brands, most HO and N trains have a Digital option now. Broadway Limited and MTH have a digital option for all their trains for instance. You can also buy non-digital models which are DCC ready and easily add a decoder or have us do it for you.

If already have some equipment that is not digital, then you have to decide whether to upgrade the equipment by adding digital decoders (and making any other improvements that might be required) or replace the equipment. Most HO and N scale trains made in the last 15 years which are not already digitally equipped are what is known as “DCC ready”, which means installing a decoder is relatively easy. Older trains may require some significant work to convert to digital operation and many are not worth the cost and effort. Rail Tales can evaluate each locomotive for digital conversion feasibility.

Rail Tales is able to offer digital installations on trains bought from us using decoders bought from us and is able to offer digital installation in locomotives bought elsewhere using  decoders bought from us but will not install decoders bought elsewhere.

Rail Tales will only install Marklin, ESU, NCE, and Soundtraxx wired decoders. We will also install TCS ‘drop in’ decoders. We do not install Digitrax or MRC decoders.


Digital Upgrades

If you have conventional trains that need to be upgraded to digital function, Rail Tales can provide you with the decoder and other supplies and tools necessary to perform the operation yourself or we can do it for you.

Cost for the Decoder: Decoders come in three types: drop in, plug in, and wired. Mobile decoders cost between $20 and $50 with most situations being handled by the low end of that range. Sound decoders cost between $100 and $150 including the speaker with drop in decoders usually being toward the lower end and wired decoders toward the upper end.

If we are installing the decoder, there is a 15% discount for credit card purchases and 20% discount for cash purchases off of the MSRP on the decoder. If you order the decoder from us rather than taking it off the shelf or if you purchased the locomotive from us or the control system, the same discount applies. If you did not buy the controller or locomotive from us and we are not installing the decoder and  you are taking it off the shelf, expect to pay retail.

Drop in decoders replace an existing component in the train with a same sized decoder and most of the time no soldering is required. We will generally install drop-in sound decoders as part of the purchase if you also bought the locomotive from us. Otherwise, the hourly rate applies.

Plug in decoders have a plug (6 pin, 8 pin, 9 pin, or 21 pin) which inserts into a receptacle inside the train. We will generally install plug-in sound decoders as part of the purchase if you bought the locomotive from us. Otherwise the hourly rate applies.

Wired decoders require soldering as part of the installation.  Expect 1 hour for a regular decoder and 2 or more hours for a sound decoder at $25/hour. It is possible that the motor will have to be changed as well, which has the same hourly rates. If you are not comfortable soldering small wires and working in tight spaces, you do not want to attempt this. If you are fairly proficient with electronics, you can do this with some careful study.

Soundtraxx, our preferred DCC system, has two levels of sound decoder. Their Economi line is very affordable and will push the customer’s cost to the low end or even below the low end of the given ranges. For customers who just want some cool sounds and basic DCC features, Economi is a good choice. Their Tsunami 2 decoders are much more capable, doing some fantastic things that no other decoder on the market can do but they (of course) cost more and will push the customer’s price to the top end or even a little above the given ranges. They are worth the investment if the customer wants the train to run and sound as much like the real thing as possible.

Specific examples:

Old Athearn, Stewart, Spectrum, Atlas, and Kato locomotives can usually be converted to digital with a basic wired decoder costing around $25 and requiring about an hour of labor for a total of $50 per locomotive. Sound installations usually take an hour more, most of which is fitting the speaker and programming the sound features. Typically, adding a sound decoder costs about $120-160  including the decoder cost.

Old Proto 2000 locomotives can be converted to digital using a basic decoder but the lights have to be replaced. Using Evans LED lights, the cost runs to about $60 on average. Installing sound in older Proto 2000 locomotives can be very expensive because the frame has to be milled in many cases in order to fit the speaker. Labor may run to 3 hours or even 4. Sound installations can run $160 or more  including the decoder cost.

Older Marklin locomotives require a replacement motor but Marklin makes conversion kits as does Loksound. Usually the lights have to be replaced as well. A Marklin mobile decoder installation usually runs $80 and a sound installation runs about $180.

Old Tyco, Bachmann, AHM, Life-Like and similar low end locomotives are not good candidates for conversion.

Some Mantua, Roco, Fleischmann, and Riverossi locomotives are good candidates for conversion and some are not.

Old brass locomotives can be very difficult to convert. The motors usually have to be replaced. We no longer offer this service but can give you a good reference.


How-to Tips: We are happy to give some basic hints and tips for doing it yourself but we do not do instruction in decoder installation. We do perform demonstrations of DCC installs on the fifth Saturday of the month (see our schedule of events and make sure to call ahead). Otherwise, if you want to do it yourself, it is best to refer to the manufacturer website. The Soundtraxx website is particularly helpful and the link can be found on our site at Favorite Links.

Sample Guide: Blue Box Athearn Hints and Tips:

This is not a comprehensive or step by step instruction, only a series of hints on technique that we use.
What we generally do with Athearn trains is we solder red and black wires to the appropriate (right and left) brass studs on the pick-up frames behind the wheels. We do not count on the ‘body contact stud’ that grounds the frame, since it can get dirty enough not to carry a clear DCC signal. The body is still grounded though, so don’t let the decoder touch anything metal inside the train.
We remove and discard the bridging strip on the top. Also we usually cut the ‘hook towers’ that the strip touches unless we are mounting a speaker to one of them. You can leave the towers and solder a wire across them instead of attaching wires to the brass studs for that side but we prefer not to have the towers in the way.
With blue box, you have to isolate the motor by removing it and placing an insulator between the lower motor pickup and the frame and then soldering a wire to the pickup strip to accept power from the decoder. This is the most important step when converting blue box. If you do not insulate the motor bottom from the frame, you will probably destroy the decoder.
With modern decoders, you should (and in most cases have to) isolate everything that the decoder operates, meaning you have to run both poles (wires) of all accessories through the decoder (headlight = white, light ground = blue for instance). We NEVER use the existing big Athearn bulb- it draws a lot of power and can actually overdraw the lighting function if you have more than one bulb on the circuit. It is also difficult to isolate the bulb from the frame. You can use the mounting bracket to hold an LED (Evans makes an LED with resistor included that is easy to install- we have them in stock in all sizes).

Our Recommendations: We will install only NCE, Marklin, and Soundtraxx wired decoders at this time. There are many decoder manufacturers out there and all of them make usable products which are going to be someone’s favorite. Most of them we have installed at one time or another. However, we understand Marklin and Soundtraxx systems and what they can do better than any other system and are therefore most comfortable with these two brands.

With all DCC installations, we will make some program function and feature settings for the customer, usually 6-8, as part of the installation. More elaborate programming does cost extra but is something the customer can do himself or herself.

Loksound decoders often are purchased without sound files and have to be programmed.




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