The Right Way to Start with DCC

As Wrightsville Port is very much in its last chapter, I have started preparing for the next Model Railroad. Now this new railroad will be radically different and I aspire to do some really cool stuff that unlocks the full potential of Digital Command Control and Computer Automation, albeit within a limited physical space. So to start with, I decided to go for a small test bed where I will create the prototype of block detection, signalling and computer control before taking on the actual project.

Now, while doing this, I will be recording every step of the process to ensure that it helps those who are starting with the hobby. Despite many resources available online, often things get really confusing – I struggled in my initial days and wasted time and money, not because I didn’t what needs to be done at the moment, but I did not have the ‘big’ picture’ in front of me. I learned things along the way, which means that I often had to re-do what I’ve already done to fit the new stuff in, and anyone who has done that knows how frustrating it is not knowing where you’re going.

So, in this series, as I discover quite a few things for myself, I will be recording every step of the way so that someone else trying to find his or her way into the crazy world of digital railroad will not have to reinvent the wheel. Of course, it can never be full proof because methods differ based on the manufacturers that you want to follow, but my intent here is to get the basics right – so that discovering manufacturer specific items become easier for the new kid in the block.

Here is the first episode of Beginner’s Guide series. Key excerpts from the transcript is below as well in case you want to read on:

Find out how to get started with DCC wiring: In this volume 1, topics covered are basic wiring, turnout wiring, crossover wiring and wiring for block detection.

Now, a few things to clarify:

  • I will not be covering soldering and turnout modifications in this episode, but yes, there will be dedicated videos to cover those aspect that will compliment this video.
  • I will be in the Digitrax house for the overall system, but there will be instances where I will be using non-Digitrax products. E.g. All my Switch Machines are going to be Cobalt IP Digital Switch Machines that run off the DCC Bus and not through LocoNet. If you don’t know what LocoNet is, stick around, it will be covered in subsequent videos.
  • Also, the basic wiring described in this video is not dependent on which system you use. The wiring and techniques we will be talking about today can be used for any DCC system.
  • I want to achieve complete automation through a computer for my upcoming layout, and I want to unravel the secrets of doing that using this small prototype.
  • The Signaling system will be ‘Speed Signaling’ and NOT ‘Position Signaling.’ If you don’t know what I’m talking about then again, this will be covered in subsequent videos. Just know that the Digitrax system is designed to achieve ‘Position Signaling’ and not ‘Speed Signaling’ – so I will have to modify the purpose of the system to suit my needs. I have no clue if I’ll be successful, but hey, that’s the learning that I’ve signed up for.
  • I have used Peco electrofrog turnouts and a Micro Engineering turnout with insulated frog in this test bed. Considering I’ve made a crossover using the Peco turnouts that completes most common turnout situations in any railroad and you’ll find out how these different switches should be wired.

The way real railroads control their trains is through means of ‘blocks’ which literally means a block of track isolated from the adjoining track or tracks and electrically or electronically connected to provide a feedback of occupancy to the controlling system – either CTC or ABS

Typically, in a straight line of track without any divergence, the track is divided in multiple blocks with signals at each end of each block protecting them, in real life these individual blocks are often several miles long. Since trains are long and immensely heavy, they often take miles to jump up and down the speed range or come to a stop. So, the signals tell the engineers what to do based on the status of not just the immediate next block, but also one, two or more blocks ahead.

Things get complicated when there is a switch in between, in signaling term what is also known as a divergence. The signals then will have to tell the engineer which route they are supposed to take, and in case of a speed signaling system like the one I am trying to model, what speed they should be at. In a scenario like that a switch, or a combination of back to back switches needs to be handled as a separate entity – in signaling term, also known as the control point or CP. Often these switches and the blocks that they serve need to be ‘interlocked’: an electro-mechanical means to ensure only the right combination of switch throws are possible to create a passable route for a train. This is considered as the basic and most critical safety measure in any railroad across the globe.

Now, we will create ALL that in this tiny piece of board – yes, ALL of that – just in a smaller scale. The reason I explained the theory behind it is to give you an idea of what I am trying to achieve here. The ‘pro’ part in a beginner’s guide for DCC wiring is to give you an idea about how to do some basics right so that you can keep building on the base infrastructure as you grow.

Make sure to either subscribe to my YouTube channel or to this blog so that you can receive notifications of future videos on the topic.

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