Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Radio control

A couple of years ago I wrote a letter to AMRM asking why it was that real radio control had not taken off in model railways.

Power and digital command control (DCC) still rely on the track to transmit the energy and digital signal information to move locomotives. To me, the reliance on the track is a real weakness. Why wouldn't it make sense to run locomotives powered by rechargeable batteries and operated by wireless control systems (yes, I know that there is wireless control in DCC but the power and digital signal still relies on the track to convey this information).

We all know that to get a reliable model railway we need to have excellent trackwork. There is an emphasis on wiring the track effectively to transmit power (both DC and DC) and digital signals (DCC) for maximum operational performance. But getting the electrics right and ensuring the track is clean and well wired is often very challenging; and certainly time consuming.

A series of articles in AMRM followed explaining the operation of a Sydney suburban passenger set using battery and radio control. The premise was excellent but I did have some misgivings on the amount of work involved. I understand that Bergs Hobbies might be providing kits for this type of radio control as used in the articles.

The layout design special interest group (a NMRA group based in the US) ran an article about using radio control for model railways a few years back (Layout Design Journal, Issue 37, pages 42-45). I need to track down a copy.

As someone who is almost ready to jump onto the DCC bandwagon, I am wondering how likely and how soon it will be before battery and radio control becomes the standard operating system for model railways. Being able to disassociate control from the track would be a huge boon for the hobby. Such control is already available in model planes and model cars, albeit of a somewhat larger size to HO/OO scale model railways.

And I know how fast technology is moving in model railways. The marketing manager of Hornby in the UK was recently reported (in Railway Modeller, I think) saying that in a couple of years now it may be possible for model locos to emit real prototype engine smells!

Is DCC going to be just an intermediary step between between analogue control and remote controlled battery powered locomotives? I desperately need to know before spending a lot of money going down the DCC path!


  1. Brad

    DCC will be around for a long time as there is a standard for the track communication that almost all manufacturers support.

    There are also a number of radio systems in use, the one I am familiar with supports the use of current Plug & Pray sound decoders. They also run off battery packs.

    Don't forget that there are already a number of radio throttles in use on several DCC systems.

    Just to start the ball rolling.


  2. I tend to agree with Gerry on this, & whilst the aspect that Brad says in regard to the general run of things these days with track power & the need for utter clean wheels is a hindrance, I am not sure about the use of batteries as the source of model power at least at the moment.

    DC, was around for a long while & DCC is still in its basic infancy & there is still a lot of development left in it, & each new decoder & system seems to get better each year.

    Looking at the way someone modified the Bergs cars for battery operation certainly is interesting, & yes I understand he is selling, or in the process of doing it, but its not cheap, what I see of it at this stage is very much a proprietry thing to kick his own sales along, much like the MTH models in the US, which cause more problems than what they achieve.

    Colin Hussey Anonymous because I am not a google member as such

  3. Gerry and Col,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Just back from a mate's place who suggested that recharging of the battery in the locomotive could be done continuously through voltage to the track. I know I am trying to disassociate the track and the power, but perhaps this is one way of overcoming any shortfall in battery life. Mind you, I am hopeful that battery size will get smaller and more powerful, and battery life will be greatly improved in the future.

    At least the acceleration and control of the loco is independent of the track providing electric current and/or digital commands.

    But as you say, DCC has a strong commercial base and growing modelling support. One would expect DCC to continue in the forseeable future...or until a more commercially viable alternative comes along.


  4. There can be great advances in getting rid of the track as a source of power. No longer will we have to worry about dirty track, and all the complications of power distribution. However, I can't help feeling that radio control (as shown in the recent AMRM articles) will be no more than a fad. If dirty trackwork is an issue, the Lenz Gold range of decoders, with the added power pack (containing super capacitors) will allow locomotives to traverse 10-20cm of otherwise "dead" track.