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An overview of MRR control and introduction to DCC

If you are reading this then there is a fair chance that DCC control is new to you and that you are wondering about taking your first steps into DCC control… However before you read on it is important to understand that DCC isn’t really new at all, in fact, it has been available now for nearly 20 years, and has matured into a highly reliable & globally standardized system with fantastic features!

As DCC evolves. So should help and information pages, so this is an evolving area of our website - as we receive new questions from people like you or discover new things about DCC, we will do our best to quickly add to the content of these pages. If we find new, clearer ways to describe things, we'll change what's here.

Of course DCC continues to evolve, so we know that no matter how hard we try to explain some issues, there will always be more to say… or even a need to clarify some points for individuals, so YOUR QUESTIONS are welcome at any time.

Please don’t hesitate to ask - if we know, we’ll send you and answer as soon as we can - if we don’t know, we will research and find an answer for you. Our email address is at the top of every page in this Website.

What is DCC?

DCC is quickly replacing the traditional AC/DC control methods used by modellers for over 75 years. No matter which brand makes it, DCC is made to a pre-set standard and is therefore whilst there ARE differences, the basic building blocks of a DCC controlled system are interchangeable no matter who makes them.

As I write this, the only significant deviations from the global NMRA-DCC standard are made by “Trainset brands”, so as our first significant “Advice point” in these information pages, that you be VERY careful of Digital control systems made by manufacturers whose primary business is locomotives, rolling stock and train sets!

We are not anti these brands at all... however their reasons for creating controller product is simply to allow them to sell sets with multiple loco’s or to expand the exposure of THEIR brand, and compatibility with standards therefore has little meaning to them - Additionally, even when they do comply with NMRA DCC standards, they often also save cost reducing functionality of the controllers, so their product may give you less control, programming or other flexibility and benefit… So -  no matter how good they look, or how low their cost, check carefully first. If in doubt ask us, as a simple question may save later frustration.

What is the DIFFERENCE between DCC and conventional DC control? This is a complex subject, but DCC is able to be as basic or as complex as you wish, so a simple definition is helpful.

Think of it this way. With DCC, you can tune, operate and control each locomotive as an individual item, and choose to make it operate on its own or in concert with other locomotives. With conventional DC control, even at its most sophisticated, you really only control "blocks of track" and any locomotive on that track must always respond the same way. At its simplest, DCC offers better loco performance and does more with less wires & wiring complexity than ANY brand of DC system.

Every DCC system, big or small, allows evolution or growth to give you almost unlimited potential to add things that DC users only dream of - changing routes using the buttons on your control unit, switchable smoke units and lighting in loco’s, simple creation of signal and turnout/point interlocking via direct or PC control, and now very commonly, sound that is IN each loco - and not just a simple "chuff" or diesel noise, but flange and brake squeal, coupler clank, steam injectors, correct loco-by loco steam "beat" or "loco specific" diesel sounds.

It's not a surprise therefore that DCC has become the new standard method of controlling a model railway layout. The technology is simple and reliable too - Whilst the modeller still turns a knob or presses switches to control the locomotives much like before, the actual control signal is broken into small "information packets" and goes via the rails to each individual specific locomotive, and ONLY that locomotive responds to each command.

Because each controller can remember and control each individual locomotive via a pre-set number and can also control a quantity of locomotives at the same time (as well as managing accessories and their control) DCC literally places the control of the layout "in the owners hands" for the first time ever!

A short history of model railway control

We’ve come a long way since the beginning. Initially, Model railways were powered by clockwork or live steam power, and were in the main, hand made toys for the wealthy. The inception of the "electric train set" evolved in the decade before world war two and was a true milestone, allowing the age of model railways as a hobby for the whole world to begin. (Did you know that at its peak, Model Railways was the second most popular hobby worldwide, after stamp collecting).

Initially most common "electric powered" models were produced in 1/4" or 7mm scale, known collectively as "0 scale", however as manufacturing techniques and materials became more sophisticated, first S Scale, followed by 00, then H0, TT and finally N and Z scale developed.

The consistent thing about all these scales and sizes is that although they grew in usability and acceptance because of ever-greater detail and performance, and this in turn enabled larger and larger layouts because of smaller and smaller model size, power and control remained conceptually the same... A voltage was applied to the track, and by adjusting the level of that voltage, the model was made to go faster or slower. By reversing the power, the locomotive was reversed.

Of course for a small "Set" or simple oval layout, this control method is adequate. However, as layouts become larger, a more complex track layout evolves, and more locomotives need to share that track.

To maintain independent control, it therefore becomes necessary to add additional control units, each separated by switching or "isolated" sections of track. Eventually, wiring becomes a hugely complex project, complicated control panels must be created and even basic operation relies very much on a complicated set of control activities, because although the owner really wants to control his locomotives, he must in fact control the track and it’s electrical configuration first.

DCC - a new control system is born

After modellers interest had been stirred by "command control" experiments by several brave individuals, some commercial pioneering systems such as the GE "Astrac" and the Hornby "Zero one" system were brought to market for a brief time. These failed for various reasons and development stalled for a short time….

However, with the advent of very stable chips in the form of low cost micro sized PIC processors it became possible to provide a sophisticated control system at a reasonable price at last, and Digital Command Control (DCC) was born.

In a unique effort never seen before in our Hobby, the US based NMRA became involved and created a set of "standards" for DCC development with the support of pioneering manufacturers and a solid base for the evolution of DCC was born.

What's wrong with your old DC controller?

Nothing, if you are happy with it I guess - but are you SURE you are happy with it - most aren't! DC control is now in steep decline because it just does not really answer many of the "wants" of the more sophisticated modeller.

DCC is now growing quickly because it allows far more flexible operation of the trains, returns fine loco control to the modeller & removes much of the need for complex wiring. Why is DCC so much better? because with conventional DC control, no matter how complex you make your wiring, it will still remain hard to control even one loco perfectly or tune performance between loco’s properly - and you will continue to find it almost impossible to control two loco’s independently on the same track. You will need to evolve and grow complex control panels too, and as you have probably already found out, when problems occur with "evolved" wiring on a long-term layout, pleasure soon departs!

Besides, no matter how hard you try with DC control, you will NEVER have the opportunity for realistic operation of multi-unit trains, double-heading, banking and running two loco’s in opposite directions close to each other on the same pair of rails…So realistic running remains close to impossible… no matter HOW complex the wiring becomes - and without digital, forget sound, easy point control, lighting control, silky smooth loco performance and a host of other options available off the shelf for DCC right now!

Why should I change to DCC?

DCC simply wins because the technology is made to a pre-set group of standards by all brands. Sure it is a sophisticated product, but the "interface", which is the bit you get involved with, is simple, easy to use and easy to apply to your layout. In fact, wiring for DCC is MUCH simpler than creating the complex wiring, switching and control panels needed for a normal DC layout.

Consistent standards guarantee every competent manufacturer a solid market platform, and because of these same standards, one Manufacturers items will work with all others too, so a viable commercial product has quickly evolved to be a very flexible, simple to apply and extremely stable control method.

Because of this consistency and stable manufacturer base, DCC is a safe and long-term investment for the modeller because without doubt, DCC is here to stay. As an added benefit, "pre-set standards" also mean that new items maintain "backward compatibility" rather than making earlier items redundant.

It is important to understand that DCC has at it's core the ability to deliver many sets of instructions to many loco's, accessories or various "machines" via a single wiring circuit, and that it can maintain control or remember many simultaneous tasks... That means less wiring, easier operation and more flexibility. Simply, it’s easy to understand, easy to set up, and easy to use.

DCC is evolving very fast… Modellers are clever and adventurous, so whilst it was not all that long ago that pioneering individuals picked up on the possibilities, now more and more average modellers are benefiting from the improvement in control that DCC makes possible! To paraphrase a well known UK magazine, DCC is definitely "The way ahead" for all railway modellers who like to run trains!

So if DCC is the coming thing - What is in it for ME?

If you desire controllability, better slow running, smoother running locomotives, operations that mirror prototype methods, the potential for "at hand" accessory control, double heading, banking of heavy trains, the potential for computer control, switchable loco and coach lighting or sound in your loco’s - you really do NEED to make the change to DCC.

DCC was made possible by the lower cost of new technology, but it was born from the need to make it better, lower wiring complexity, add to realistic railway modelling and improve usability… So it does more for you, with less complication.

DCC continues to evolve to do more and more for the modeller, as you will find out, but for it’s ability to simplify the basic wiring process alone, it deserves your attention. In fact it delivers so much more to every user that it is the fastest growing "New technology" ever seen in the hobby. And it’s clearly here to stay!

Cost - I can't afford to change overnight!

Fair enough…while the cost difference compared to a standard DC operating system is not necessarily big, it’s not a small investment either. However there is NO need to simply dump one system and adopt another immediately!

We believe that once you experience DCC you will WANT to change as soon as you can, but gradual change IS possible and MANY modellers do it that way. You see, DCC standards allow "chipped" loco’s to work perfectly on a DC powered layout!

So… the transition CAN be gradual. Chip a loco and it will STILL be able to run on your normal layout under DC control – and even after you make the switch to DCC, you can still "visit" or run your loco’s on your club or friends DC-only layouts.

Of course, you cannot MIX your DC and DCC controllers, but you CAN arrange power to the track via a simple switch so that you can run DC one day, DCC the next as you make the transition. If you don’t see how this can be done, EMAIL me for more info.

Finally - It’s easy to "chip" most locomotives, and even the complex ones aren’t that hard given a little information. EVERY loco CAN be converted (I’ve never found one that can’t be done anyway). Some are harder than others of course, but help is at hand right here if you need advice, and if you don’t want to do it yourself, we can direct you to high quality installers who will do the more complex tasks for you. Click here to email us and discuss HOW that difficult loco can be converted.

OK - what's my Next step?

Well - We don’t expect you to simply drop everything, run out and purchase the very first DCC unit you see, so we strongly recommend that you do a little research before you commit to your new DCC system.

Please take the time to read the other information pages in this section, make a few notes and think carefully before you make a final decision!