Snowy Soo

Run a round.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Choosing a DCC system: don't get caught up in the hype

With DCC, you're controlling the locomotive directly, instead of power to the track.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned that I have a few boxes of model railroad stuff from when I first got started in the hobby as a kid. I can’t remember exactly what those boxes contain and I won’t know for sure until I return to my parents house in British Columbia and crack them open. It’s like a model railroading time capsule! I know much of what’s in there is crap: cheap Tyco rolling stock with horn-hook couplers, brass track, one of those “loaf of bread” tunnel forms, etc. But I also happen to know there’s some good stuff in there as well. A few pieces of Athearn blue box rolling stock and locomotives with Kadee couplers, some nickel silver track, some good model railroading books and a very good DC throttle, the Tech II Dual Power model you see below:

One of these has sat in my parents basement for years. Will it still work?

Now I’m sure most readers have heard of Digital Command Control (DCC), an innovation that has come to the hobby in the years I was away. There’s loads of info on the web about DCC so I won’t go into too much depth here but essentially it allows the operator to easily and independently run locomotives without chopping up the track plan into separate electrical blocks. Instead of controlling power to the track, you are controlling each individual locomotive

I operated my old layout in pre-DCC days, using the throttle you see pictured to the right and separate electrical blocks operated with cheap (but reliable) Atlas selector switches.

This DC-with-blocks type of configuration works okay but it requires a lot of wiring and with more than one operator, someone always seems to run their train into the wrong block. With DCC you don’t have to worry about this, you can have two locos running along the same stretch of track each controlled by a separate throttle. And you can achieve this with very simple wiring.

Now at first I considered operating my layout with the old Tech II and my DC engines. After all, this layout will almost never have more than one operator working at a time and there is an expense in buying a new DCC system plus adding decoders to the locomotives. (((An aside for those new to DCC: digital command works by installing tiny little electronic chips, called decoders, in each locomotive. These decoders allow each loco to “talk” to the command station.)))

In the end though, I decided to move ahead with DCC. Assuming it still works after 20 years in storage, I will use the Tech II to test locos, power accessories, etc.

Here’s why I went ahead with DCC:

1.   I’m impatient and I’m not sure when I can get my old stuff out of my parents’ place any time soon. They’re getting older and hauling all these boxes to the post office is a lot to ask.
2.   DCC really is the way the hobby is going (or has already gone). It’s not just one company using this technology, they are all following an industry standard where decoders made by one company can be controlled by a command station made by another, so I didn’t feel my money would be wasted.
3.   It wasn’t too costly. I bought a DCC starter set (more on that below) for about $200 delivered to my door. I remember paying more than $120 for the old Tech II, but that was back in like 1986.
4.   I’m no wiring wizard but I’ve watched enough videos and read enough articles to see that adding decoders isn’t too difficult.
5.   The ability to add sound. You pretty much have to go DCC if you want sound on your layout.

So I’m sold on DCC, now which system do I buy?

You can spend hours reading online forums, articles, etc, about the pros and cons of the various DCC systems on the market. I did all that reading and now regret that I’ll never get those hours back. The way I see it, and I know many of you will disagree, it comes down to two excellent systems: NCE or the Digitrax system.

The conclusion I came to is that both are excellent systems and the debate over which one to buy is rather like the Nikon vs. Cannon debate that often rages among photographers whose time would be better spent taking pictures.

Like the choice photographers face between Cannon and Nikon, both Digitrax and NCE are great systems, both are very expandable and both will do what 99% of what you will ever want and expect  for a comparable price. The main difference, as I see it, is that the Digitrax starter system (the Zephyr) is a stationary cab, while the PowerCab is a command station built into a walkaround throttle on a tethered cord. I realize I’m glossing over all sorts of details here but like I said, I don’t want this to be a DCC debate forum.

So what did I decide? In the end I went for the … NCE PowerCab. With taxes, delivery, etc. it arrived at my door for about $200. I bought it from local online retailer Canadian Express Line.

So why did I go with this system? I like the fact I could walk around with the throttle right out of the box. The stationary  Zephyr just reminded me too much of the DC power packs of old. Of course you could always add a walkaround throttle to a Digitrax system and be on your feet right away, but I liked that the NCE system allowed me to do this right out of the box. 

Also, I read through the manuals of both systems and the NCE just seemed more user friendly to me. Does that mean Digitrax is a bad system? No way. In fact most clubs seem to use Digitrax so if I get into modular or club railroading I may find myself regretting this decision. But what’s the worst that will happen? I sell the ProCab on eBay, buy a Digitrax system and move on. Any decoder-equipped locos will work with both systems. For now however I think I made the right choice and with the decision made, I'm looking forward to the other aspects of building this layout.

My advice to other modelers agonizing over DDC decision is this is: buy either of these systems with complete confidence. And if you’re in a club that uses one of these systems, buy the system the club uses. Then, once the decision is made, don’t look back and enjoy running trains and building your layout confident that you bought into an excellent, expandable DCC system.

In the next section I will actually have track in place and can start running trains…  

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