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DCC – some user perspectives

Why go DCC?

Well if you’re happy with analogue control and it does everything you want to do then don’t go digital. But there are some things that digital control can do well, that are either impossible or very hard to do with analogue control. Just as a guide, this list covers a few things, but it’s not exhaustive These thoughts on the advantages of DCC are covered in more detail on this page;

I changed to DCC for two reasons – I wanted to abandon the use of a control panel wherever possible and I wanted to get the best slow speed running I could get. I guess I bought the first digital bits and pieces the best part of five years ago, in 2001. At that time I considered it an investment in an emerging technology to determine whether it was a path I would follow. Some of the potential identified at that time has taken a year or two to emerge (and some of it still hasn’t) but I’ve not been disappointed. In fact quite the opposite. And I find I enjoy the freedom in operation that DCC offers.

I still feel that if you can’t identify (at least) two reasons why you want to go to DCC then you probably shouldn’t. The learning curve is as steep as the one to learn about analogue control and there’s an equally broad range of hardware and components to play with and evaluate for use.

I should also add that the involvement of computers in DCC can be as much or as little as you like. From nothing at all through to full automation. I use a PC for programming (we deal with programming with a PC here) and I’m considering whether I’d like an automated fiddleyard or correctly operating signals on the next layout. For the moment though I drive all the locos and change all the points. There; that’s one common misconception quashed!

So you want to go digital; now what?

Decide on your control system I guess! There are an awful lot of digital systems out there now. And an awful lot of clones of an awful lot of systems. For example both the major ‘UK’ systems use technology from the US. What is widely acknowledged now is that the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) has played a key role in defining a set of standards and where possible ensure their adoption across all two-rail systems. The equivalent body in Europe in the NEM; they too have a set of standards that aren’t much different to the NMRA ones.

I model both European and American railways so wanted a system that would work equally well with proprietary DCC equipment from both sides of the Atlantic. Which means Lenz. Lenz is considered pretty much the reference system for both the NMRA and NEM. And it’s still the only system that carries the NMRA’s ‘Conformance’ seal of approval. Being made in Germany it’s widely accepted in Europe; Lenz-based systems are available from Roco and Bachmann and in the US Atlas sell a version of the Lenz ‘Compact’ as the Atlas ‘Commander’.

You may also decide to buy on the basis of features, or price. In general the cheaper systems offer much less in the way of functionality. For example the Roco ‘Lokmaus’ and Bachmann ‘Easy-DCC’ are both limited in the number of locos you can operate and can’t program decoders very well (more of which anon). I bought the Lenz ‘Compact’ after doing a lot of homework. I should mention here that I’m an enthusiastic user and have no trade connections with Lenz, their distributors, agents or suppliers. So that’s the caveat out of the way, here are the features that sold it to me:

In short it was very nearly a fully-featured system that would allow me to evaluate the potential of DCC and related products. As such it’s proved extremely capable; in fact the only reason I’m looking to replace it is because it doesn’t support 4-digit addressing which is going to be pretty much obligatory on a shed layout like Lokwerkstatt Zittau-Pethau.

As I know you were about to ask; the replacement will probably be Lenz ‘Set90’.

I feel it’s fair to point out that the Lenz ‘Compact’ is not without its detractors. The programming interface isn’t great; but I live with that because most of the time I’m driving my trains not programming them and the driving interface is very intuitive.

The other issue is the so-called ‘Er9 problem’. One useful trick with the Lenz system is that it tells you what’s wrong with an error code if it finds a fault. Er9 is a code that indicates the system hasn’t been set up properly. The problem is that the system can re-set itself if it’s short-circuited. There is a simple solution to this; use the ‘Compact’ with the correct Lenz transformer and you’ll have no problems. Every time I’ve heard of the problem it’s with people using the ‘Compact’ with other brand (or no-brand) transformers.

Glossary (not exhaustive and probably a bit simplistic!)

Origin or real life as it exists / who does what:
This page last updated 05/12/2008. Copyright © Euram Solutions and Steph Dale 2004-2007. All Rights Reserved.
Steph Dale can be contacted through the contacts page