Control Equipment

One significant development in model railroads that occurred after I left the hobby in the late 1970s has been Digital Command and Control (DCC). The first Hornby unit appeared around 1980. DCC allows multiple trains to run on the same track because along with the power to the tracks a signal, much like the Internet, is transmitted in packets. Each packet has an address that refers to a specific device on the DCC network. That device can be a switch, a signal, or a locomotive. Pre-DCC, usually called DC for Direct Current, is still used, but for large layouts, DCC is really the only option.


My plan is to use Digitrax DCC to control the layout and most of the switches. I am still thinking about block control to run the signals directly, but this will require more devices, cost and understanding prototype operations better. I think I will design the layout with them in mind so I can decide later whether to add them.


Of course, once you have a hardware interface you can do a lot with software to control your layout. I plan to use the Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) to control the layout. This package is free, open-source, and has several modules, not just locomotive control.

The two modules I plan to use off the bat are DecoderPro and PanelPro.

DecoderPro allows you to program decoders, they are devices such as locomotives and switch controllers that have embedded controllers that can read the DCC packets, determine if the message is for them and if so, act upon the message inside the packet. JMRI also contains a database of settings that can be applied to other devices.

PanelPro allows you to build control panels in software to show the state of your layout and devices and to control them. This seems to be a much quicker way to go than building a fascia-based control panel as part of the layout. I may have a facia control panel for the classification yard. It does involve lots of wiring which can get complex.


I plan to have a small number of electrical blocks to provide some measure of short protection. I plan to have most switches controlled, probably by Cobalt switches. These are best bought in bulk and Amazon prices seem to be reasonable, at least right now. I’d also like to have a selection of buildings lit, especially in the towns, and those lights controlled, either through DCC or panel switches or possibly both. Woodland Scenics sells a plug-and-play lighting system Just Plug┬áthat simplifies adding lighting. The cost may be prohibitive for my layout but I will likely try it to see if it makes sense for certain cases.

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