Back to the Future?

My intention here is to write about a rather different perspective on throttle wiring and usage, different block power on/off conventions, and how this relates to different operations with regards to both train running and signal wiring and usage. This article will do much more than discuss unusual train control conventions. It will actually look at where model railroading has been, where it is now, where it is going, and how conventional wisdom sometimes has to step aside and accept that reality should not be asked to mold itself to beliefs; rather, beliefs should be made to bow to reality. You may be surprised. I was.

Past, Present, and Future

At first, there was track, trains and throttles. You'd connect them up and they would run. It was pretty simple, and therefore in order to make it more fun hobbyists added more trains in order to have more action. Since there was no sense in having a throttle run several trains at once—which would be silly rather than fun—this meant adding throttles. Each throttle running a loop was the obvious way, but having electrically isolated sections within a loop that were operated with different throttles came soon after. Several trains could go point-to-point around feature-filled dogbone layouts or whatever and things really got exciting. There weren't many toggles to flip, and a stranger could run your layout with virtually no learning curve. It was simple but exciting. And it was called section control. See fig. 1 a couple of web pages forward.

But some people wanted a more dynamic control system, and they wanted to avoid the expense of a throttle for every section. People didn't really have the budgets for enough throttles (or if they did they simply didn't feel like making such a big investment) so that it was comfortable doing walk-around train running. And layout heights were lower so walking around with the loco you were running didn't really suggest itself as strongly as it does today with 4' to 5' heights not uncommon with walk-around layouts. Linn H. Westcott, in How To Wire Your Model Railroad, says that "The chief fault of section control is that you need many sections and many throttles if you want railroad-like operations." And that section control ". . . offers limited flexibility in control and costs more to install than cab control." He also mentioned speed-ups at section boundaries as a section control weakness.

So cab control was begging to be born—and it was. It introduced block toggles and separate direction controls (usually Main for mainline and Auxiliary for turning tracks)—and it was and is so flexible that you can operate any block from any throttle. You can still operate in section control mode when you want, or you can operate in full dual-cab mode. Consult a wiring book (if you're unfamiliar with this subject) to see more about dual-cab and multi-cab train control. It's not difficult to understand, wire or operate. See fig. 2 two web pages hence.

Next came walk-around running, courtesy of plug-in throttles (usually tethered) that you could carry around the layout with you, plugging and unplugging. You could still have dual- or multi-cab train running, but you got to get right down there close to the action and be the "virtual" engineer—you were virtually in the cab driving. This was less detached than a long view from a control panel. And it was more satisfying—especially for larger layouts.

Note: I'll be leaving out various other ways of running model railroads because they are not needed for the purposes of this article. I'm just looking at basic milestones here. I built and ran model train layouts in the 50s, the 70s, and the 90s, so an objective overview is fairly easy to make here.

And then came running model trains with computers. This didn't have too big an impact because most hobbyists would rather interact with trains than with computers. Running simulated trains on computers was born in the late 80s and you didn't even need real trains for this. It was/is a great way to go for people who don't have the (a) time, (b) space or (c) money for real layouts, or for people who want to try out various layout ideas the easy way—without investing time or money.

And next came DCC (Digital Command Control), which eliminated the need for blocks and block toggles, and which "lets you run trains, not toggles." This was a nice improvement over dual- or multi-cab control, for some people. You still had to plug and unplug hand-held throttles, however. See fig. 3, ahead.

And finally there's wireless DCC, the newest control innovation. No more plugging and unplugging. Have they finally gone about as far as they can go? Is this the ultimate control system that will never be topped? What's in store for us in the future? I predict that people will continue to build layouts in the future and that control systems will continue to evolve to give us as many choices as possible. There will be only a small amount of Toffler-described overchoice or future shock, but there will be a lot of possibilities, and people will continue to discuss these possibilities in articles and letters. No one system will dominate because people's desires are simply too diverse.
Multi-Throttle Operation
throttle on multi-throttle train layout
scene on multi-throttle train layout