KB211: History of Model Train Control Systems-Pre DCC

This article was last updated on Oct. 20, 2010, 6:03 p.m. | Print Article | Leave Feedback


The first steam locomotive to pull a train appeared in 1804, although there were examples of vehicles operating on rails even earlier than that.  As railroad technology captured the imagination of investors, it also captured the eye of the general public.  It was inevitable that someone would make a child’s toy of this wonderful thing. 

Models of trains would evolve like any other technology.  As railroad technology advanced, so did the quality of model trains.  What started with crude blocks of wood evolved into cast iron “floor toys”; these crude trains were meant to be pushed along on the floor.  Soon came sectional track from Märklin of Germany and the first “layout” was created.  For several years, model trains were powered with wind-up mechanisms like clocks of that era.  The clockwork trains developed into their final iterations, becoming advanced devices that used elaborate trackside trips to start and stop them.  But other trains were now being operated with electricity.

As electricity became more prevalent, it was only natural that it would be used to operate model trains.  Initially, some of these trains used straight house current to run them, but the ensuing shocks and yelps from startled family pets would lead to the use of a transformer, which converted high voltage electric current into a more tame twelve to twenty four volts.  Eventually, eighteen volts became a de facto standard.  As electric powered model railroading became more advanced, automated approaches were used to control multiple trains through the use of signals.  And as the number of trains on a model railroad grew, these approaches became more complicated.

An early attempt at advanced model railroad control came from Lionel, an industry leader of its time.  In 1946, Lionel introduced its Electronic Set, which allowed for the remote operation of the locomotive’s whistle, remote dumping operation of one of the cars and remote uncoupling of the different cars, at any location without the need for special tracks.  It was a technological breakthrough and a maintenance nightmare at the same time.  This train set used a special control box with push buttons; inside were a series of radio tubes which when operated sent a specific radio frequency through the track to the desired device.  The locomotive and each of the cars had a tuned coil which responded to this signal.  Although elegant in concept, the push button control box produced signals that were, in the dry terminology of the day, “rich in harmonics”.  The outcome was that when Junior operated the automatic dump car on his railroad, he also was possibly operating the neighbor’s new automatic remote garage door opener.  The Electronic Set soon became a collector’s item.

But technology was not to be denied, and in 1964, the massive General Electric Company introduced its advanced model train control system, Astrac.  In retrospect, it is interesting that such a large company would take an interest in model trains, and evidently Astrac was an outgrowth of another use for this technology developed by GE.  In any case, Astrac had all of the elements, offering remote independent control of up to five model train locomotives.  It was the beginning of a major model railroad development, electronic control.

What followed were a series of systems which continued the evolutionary development of advanced model railroad control.  Two of the more popular systems were PSI's Dynatrol system and Keller Engineering's Onboard system.  Both of these systems used audio tones to control each locomotive. In 1978, Model Railroader magazine published a series of articles on how to build your own command control system. The system, called the CTC-16, could control up to 16 different trains, all on the same track. This system would evolve into CTC-64, which could control up to sixty four locomotives.  At about the same time, Hornby of Great Britain introduced its Zero One digital system for advanced model railroad control.  With the passage of time, all of these systems have become historical predecessors to advanced model train control.

In 1984, Märklin introduced its Digital system.  An old line, well established manufacturer, Märklin brought credibility to the concept of using advanced electronics to control model trains.  The Digital system controled both trains and remote devices through the use of decoders.  Designed for use with its AC powered model trains in H0, the Digital system included a complete range of products for advanced model railroad control.

For reasons unknown even by Company insiders, Märklin chose to field another system developed by a contractor for similar advanced control of model trains which used the more prevalent DC voltages commonly found in H0, N and other scales.  Ultimately, it was this system developed by Bernd Lenz which would be the foundation of Digital Command Control (DCC).  During this phase of train control history in Europe at least 7 different multi-train control systems evolved none of which were interoperable.

Although the Märklin Digital system was the predominant system in Europe, there was concern in North America that reliance upon one supplier was not desirable. 

It is from this foundation that DCC became the command control system of choice in America.  While the Märklin system was closed-architecture, DCC was open-architecture, which allowed for many vendors to produce many different products, all of which were interoperable with each other because of the commitment of manufacturers to maintain this level of compatibility demanded by US consumers.  What followed was a long series of sometimes fractious discussions amongst the manufacturers to establish a common standard which responded to the market’s requirements.  It is that set of industry standards which is today’s modern DCC, and what once was confined to the North American market has now established itself as a world-wide method of train control.

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