Has DCC Failed Us?
Digging around in the multitude of electronic gadgetry I take to setups the other day, I rediscovered a few things I forgot I had. Perhaps I'm alone in this, or perhaps...? An elderly DT100 with a broken knob, and a Buddy Throttle, woah remember those? At this point both Digitrax misfits, gone the way of VHS. I found my LocoBuffer still in translucent project box and 25 pin serial connector. The DCS100 and DB150 I have are still going strong although the DCS100 had to be repaired a few years ago. Going through what some may classify as e-trash, I started to wonder, "has DCC fulfilled it's promise for BETTER control of our trains?" With the word "better" meaning also more enjoyment in our niche of modular railroading.
Going back in history and remember some of the first setups has been a very good exercise for me. It really has been important to reconnect to the thinking of Free-mo then and tying or even course correcting the path in my mind. One of the more humbling recollections was the former DC control system employed. Each block had it's own throttle. Very simple and easy to setup. No memory or radio control. No functions or lighting effects. No signaling. The one thing it was, it was very very quick to setup.
Layouts then had the same amount of joints to bridge rail, perhaps more, same amount of module wiring connections, sans the DCC Loconet and MSS buses. There were also fewer participants at the layout due to SLOMRC club owned community modules that needed attention. The thing that gets me looking back is that we were ALWAYS running by early evening. And I mean starting to run full trains. Not just solo test locomotives, but full on trains. This gave us an extra evening to enjoy the layout. The real HARD part was installing bridge rails. Once that was completed, trains were immediately traversing the layout. It was very cool to be up after all that work.
The last two setups I was active in. Both times, installing the bridge rails went FAST compared to setups in the past. The layout was leveled and electrical connections connected, signal system was on all before the DCC system was operational. After installing the last bridge rails, it felt like the hardest part was next. Getting the picky DCC to work. It's pretty specialized work. Every time you will need the manual, a fresh battery in a complex throttle, and lots and lots of patience.
None of this really sank in until I was texting Harry Wong about upcoming projects. I mentioned to him I planned on detailing an A-B-A set of Amtrak E-units for my dad to run. The B-unit is a dummy and an IDEAL candidate for hosting batteries for the two A-units. Yes, radio control via wifi on an iPhone and independent power source. This would give my dad unlimited access to a dormant layout for 6-8 hours on a Friday night. Talk about liberating! Bypassing the throttle bus checking, the booster grounding, radio throttle receivers, the stringing of mainline power buses...all of it...eliminated.
To be fair, this setup time isn't really that bad in terms of a permanent layout. Once it's done, that's it! It's all operation time until you either get tired of your layout or tear it down due to lifestyle changes. Us modular guys, it's become routine inconvenience. One that has numbed us to the reality of it's time consumption, like the shoe that doesn't quite fit. You become numb to it to do your other daily tasks. The realization happens later after the old shoe is off, once you get different shoes that fit better.
The problem really isn't with one manufacturer of DCC systems over another. All will require to be grounded, all will need throttle bus checking, others will need the radio throttle receivers to be setup, all boosters can't work without the command station connected to them, and all will have some setup to do.
This seems to be the case more often then not. The claim of reduced wiring seems to be a bit of a myth.
These tasks take time. Perhaps some systems have a faster setup then others but they all have the basic same weaknesses. The weaknesses do take a toll on the setup and how much we can enjoy the weekend running trains. Perhaps it's just something we have to live with and I will have to get over it. Accept the good about DCC with the bad, unrefined, complexities of the system.
Before I do, I not only have a right to ask, but also the responsibility to as a part founder. "Has DCC failed us Free-moers?"
Yes, a bit.
There is absolutely no benefit to additional capability and increased complexity if it goes largely unused, is a struggle to setup, and subtracts from the time we have on a weekend running trains. Most DCC systems seem to have it in mind the user goes through the pain of setup ONCE. Free-moers have no such luxury.
From decoder installation/programming to booster setup and resetting. How much are we babying the train control system vs running our trains? Have we really asked ourselves, what is the cost in additional time to running the user unfriendly throttles and rebuilding our consists after the command station is reset on a given weekend? Is it REALLY better just because we get function control and hold our own throttles? Are these proprietary throttles with 1985 era Texas-nstrument-scientific-calculator interfaces, really easier and better for running trains realistically? More importantly, are these said throttles really fun to use? Are we having fun yet?
It surprises me how exposed all of us are to the complexities of the control system. As the rest of the computing world becomes more integrated and seamless, "it just works" is a phrase completely absent from model railroading. Speed matching is becoming a hobby within itself and the methods vary much like making moonshine. I would NEVER think of introducing the hobby to someone new with speed matching locomotives. Perhaps as a way to keep them out of the hobby, you'd have better success.
The promises of DCC, transponding, stationary decoders, signaling, remote control, automation, all have been delivered but at the most crude, and difficult to understand and implement level. Most are impractically implemented so modular layouts can't cost effectively take advantage! I really have seen more layouts fully automated with CMRI and other non DCC components, at a much more refined and sophisticated level, 20 years ago. Has DCC really made any of this better? No, just reinvented the wheel and alienated more people with arcane interfaces that are reminiscent to DOS and serial ports. All that plus peripherals that may work half the time with lots of coercing.
If DCC wants to remain relevant in my roster, the manufacturers of DCC systems will have to make significant investment into ease of use, and practical application of capability. Develop devices that make consumer speed matching a no-brainer. Locomotive manufacturers need to work together and develop a gold standard to which locos are speed matched to from the factory. Throttles with easy to use interfaces...the FREMO FRED to date is my favorite throttle. Why? Because "it just works". Boosters and command stations need to become plug and play with no extra user side grounding, phasing, kicking and cursing. Manufactures of DCC systems have become comfortable with taking their technology 50% of the way or so and leaving it to the users to complete the circle. It's time for them to make all this extra complexity and DO something with it. Keep it simple...just want to run trains, not drill through CVs or delete stagnant slots on the command station. If that's all they will offer, well, perhaps it's time to convert to battery power and a wifi throttle on my iPhone.
Steve Jobs from Apple and Steve Dorsey from Twitter agreed that technolgy should be transparent, meaning that when a user presses a button, they are not exposed to the mathematics and mechanics of how it works. It just does.
Are we there yet?