All Aboard for Digital

Model railroading, the tinkering hobby that caught on before most homes were even wired with electricity, has gone digital.

Digital technology lets model railroaders rule their iron horse empires from programmable control units or home computers, allowing for far more sophisticated and realistic operations. Once-simple locomotives have morphed into complex gadgets that mimic the sound and motion of their real-life counterparts.

"The old-fashioned way, that's not real railroading," said Bob Santelli, a technician at Culver City's Allied Model Trains. Digital has grown so popular among train buffs that Santelli works full-time putting digital decoders in locomotives and advising hobbyists on their home setups.

Model railroading always has been gadget-intensive, but digital has transformed the hobby. In addition to more lifelike sound and lighting, digital systems allow several locomotives to be controlled separately on the same track--a feat not possible with traditional analog setups. Also, the electric wiring of complex track layouts is drastically simplified.

"Digital has given us much more control," said retired California Highway Patrol officer Ken Josing, whose 450-square-foot model train layout takes up the living room, dining room and entryway of his Conejo Valley home.

Electric model railroading began before electricity was common in homes, according to John Balogh, head of the National Model Railroading Assn.'s digital interest group.

"You just needed a battery for power and a resistor to adjust the speed," Balogh said. "More sophisticated transformers, control units and track switches came later, but the basic analog principles remained the same."

And those principles are pretty simple. Electricity flowing through metal tracks is picked up by metal wheels or brushes and powers a basic motor. If the current to a segment of track increases, the locomotives on it all speed up. If the current is reversed, they all change direction.

At the Original Whistle Stop train store in Pasadena, Peter Ely demonstrated the most fundamental way in which digital has changed the hobby. He put two locomotives on the same stretch of straight track.

"It used to be that if two locomotives shared the same track they had to be going the same direction and at the same speed," he said.

Analog model railroaders get around this limitation with the use of a blocking system to isolate various segments of track, but each segment requires its own wiring, often resulting in a mass of wires underneath layouts. Toggle switches also are needed to control the segments. "You ended up thinking more about the electronics than the trains," Balogh said.

With digital, the power still comes through the tracks, but a decoder in a locomotive gives it independence. On the test track, Ely used a hand unit about the size of a Walkman to make one of the engines run forward. Punching a button and twirling a dial, he made the second locomotive catch up to the first, then suddenly stop and reverse direction so they traveled to opposite ends of the track.

For an outsider, this new degree of control may seem insignificant. But it has revolutionized the hobby, according to Ely. "The whole idea is to make it as if you were right in the locomotive, controlling the train," he said.

The first commercially available digital setup was brought to market in 1964 by General Electric, which long since has abandoned the model railroad business. This system, called ASTRAC, or Automatic Simultaneous Train Control, allowed as many as five locomotives to be individually controlled by radio signals.

DCC, or Digital Command Control, was the next major step forward and is still the state of the art. Developed in the 1990s, it sends packets of information from a command station through the rails to decoders in locomotives and other devices.

A full-featured DCC setup can control the speed and direction of more than 100 trains at a time, and DCC allows for easy upgrading and expansion of a setup.

Most DCC systems are controlled by hand-held units that can be radio- or infrared-controlled or wired directly into the layout. Although it's still fairly rare, a personal computer can be used to run a DCC system. Using a desktop or laptop probably will become more common when standards are set for interactive controllers that can allow for an accurate visual readout of where all the trains on a layout are situated.

"You could be like a real dispatcher, a thousand miles away from the trains, controlling them," Ely said.

The price of DCC units has fallen drastically from when they were introduced. Starter kits that went for about $1,000 in the early DCC days now can be had for less than $200 and up, depending on the level of sophistication and expandability. Individual decoders, which used to cost about $100, now sell for as little as $20.

In addition to sophisticated track controllers, enthusiasts install complicated systems in locomotives that sample the sounds of real engines and accelerate and brake like real trains. For instance, Santelli from Allied Model Trains programs steam engines to lurch as they start from a dead stop--a motion he calls the "kick in the butt." A tiny speaker makes the sound of the engine working up a head of steam and a whistle gets louder and more shrill as the speed increases.

Head-On Collisions One Disadvantage

As with many hobbies, model railroading can be a money pit. For example, adding digital sound to a locomotive costs about $200, installed, not to mention the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that can be spent on the meticulously detailed, vintage locomotives and cars available. Near where Santelli works is a sign that reads: "My wife says if I buy one more train car she's going to leave me. I'll sure miss her."

One disadvantage of individual control is that the trains can more easily plow headfirst into each other, an event that used to be known as a "cornfield meet" but is now more popularly named after a television and movie family that loves to crash model trains. "We call it an 'Addams Family,' " Santelli said.

Model Train Enthusiasts Embrace Technology

To avoid such mishaps, the Santa Susana Railroad Historical Society--which is 100% digital--rotates the job of dispatcher among its 36 members. The job entails sitting on a raised platform to watch the various tracks snaking through the restored 1903 depot in Simi Valley. There is a spectacular replica of the 1955 Twin Cities Zephyr that used to run from Chicago to Minneapolis, plus Western Pacific, Santa Fe and Union Pacific locomotives hauling trains as long as 57 cars.

The club, which features numerous miniature depots and towns along its many tiered tracks, has chosen to freeze the look of its layout in the late 1950s.

"Nothing is as exciting or as wild as this digital stuff," said Mike Petrone, a semiretired production manager. "We can control up to 99 cars at once. Of course, if you had 99, you'd spend most of the time keeping them out of the way of each other, putting them on sidings."


Times staff writer David Colker covers personal technology.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World