Model Railroad Automation: Enhancing Realism with Technology

Model railroading has long been a well-liked hobby. People have recently questioned if model trains are a dying passion, but there is plenty of data to demonstrate that interest in this activity is as robust as ever.

Model trains continue to change despite suffering many difficulties lately, and new technical developments have even seen an upsurge in their appeal.

Model railroaders have a great desire to share their knowledge, skills, and expertise, which has been facilitated by the growth of associations, clubs, and societies. The community of model train enthusiasts has benefited greatly from this.

Model train technological advancements in the recent and foreseeable future have also contributed to the current popularity of this pastime.

The Evolution of Model Railroad Building


The idea of trains is far older, even if steam engine trains and locomotives were not created until the 1800s. The early Romans constructed a network of paved railroads for animal-drawn vehicles. Later, horse-drawn wagons based on the same underlying idea were developed to transport coal from mines to river loading places in England’s coal mining districts. These two trains served as prototypes for today’s cutting-edge trains.

However, the idea for having miniature railroads did not come from America. The first model trains were created by German craftsmen in the 1830s. These early toy trains required a good push along a track to move forward rather than steam or electricity. They were created by pouring molten brass or tin into a mold, similar to how the well-known tin soldiers were made. By mounting metal bases to hand-carved wooden fittings, a complete toy train was produced. They typically had no moving parts and were delicate. Models made with this early method of toy train production were simpler than those made using more recent methods. Fortunately, this period in the history of model trains would quickly give way to more intricate designs.

In the 1830s, a passenger train model was made by Mathias Baldwin, who founded the Baltimore Locomotive Works. By the end of that decade, several other toy companies had produced their own copies. The first self-propelled American model train is claimed to Connecticut’s George Brown & Co. in 1856.

The first mass-produced model train sets were created in 1891 by a German company called Marklin. Model train collecting became simpler for the common individual as model railroading gained mainstream. Railroads and electric trains became significantly more advanced as the early 1900s went on. The ability for electric-powered trains to run independently was an important advance in the history of model trains.  

By the early 1950s, model trains were by far the most popular toy among boys in America. Z-scale trains, which were half the size of N-scale model trains by the 1970s, were made widely available by Marklin Model Railways. Electronics had made a lot of progress by this point, which had an impact on how electronic model trains were made. These innovations had an impact on how model trains ran on the tracks.

Collectors sought more than simply model locomotives as model railroading became more and more popular. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, there was a steady expansion in the selection of rails, trains, and parts. 

The realism of model train kits increased as technology advanced. Model train engines were improved by new electrical applications, and the invention of plastic made it possible for designers to create incredibly realistic, lifelike model trains. Due to the high amount of consumer demand, manufacturers are now making much more intricate miniature trains and railroad equipment. 

1.2 Brief Overview of Automation in Model Trains

Since the 1940s, several advances have been made, but Digital Command Control didn’t emerge until the release of affordable microcontrollers. Over the years, a variety of proprietary command and control systems were made available; however, many of them had significant drawbacks, including a low channel count or pricey components. The introduction of command control was impeded by a lack of interchangeability, limited support, and growth.

Many of the command and control systems were analog in nature and sent orders to a decoder or receiver via phase modulation, frequency modulation, or audio tones. The electronics (the receiver) installed in the locomotive that react to signals from the control system are referred to simply as the locomotive’s decoder. This is the meaning of the word “channel,” as a particular frequency is used to manage a particular decoder tuned to a certain channel. similar like setting your radio receiver to the desired station.

In this context, the phrases “command control,” “carrier control,” and “analog command control” all refer to the same thing. The term “Carrier Control” was occasionally used to refer to a system that sent control signals on the rails via a carrier signal. These systems have an analog design.

Three main elements are required to automate a model railroad: sensors to detect the train, turnout control, and a method of connecting all three to a computer running the control software.

A Linux computer running Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI), which communicates with the NCE command station, serves as the automation’s central processing unit. The block panel has detectors attached to track which blocks are drawing electricity. Decoders for DCC accessories operate the turnouts. To read data from the block sensors and manage turnouts, JMRI is available.

None of the JMRI’s routes and logix modules are utilized by the system. Instead, Conductor is created using a single text file that, using a rich and expressive programming language, simply and concisely explains all the events and actions. The ladder logic as it is applied in commercial programmable logic controllers serves as the basis for the language design.

With the development of more affordable, compact, and dependable solid-state electronics, more things became feasible. For command control systems to transition from analog to digital in the form of Digital Command Control, it would take around 30 years. Electronics evolved to today’s potent yet tiny microprocessors as a result of the transition from the analog computer to the digital computer, which enables Digital Command Control.

Steps in automating your model trains

model train layout

Model trains are always entertaining to own and operate. However, using them manually might occasionally feel tedious. Automating your model railway layout just lets you sit back and relax while watching your train run on its own.

Step 1: Gather everything! Make sure you have all the necessary components before you begin.

  • a board for an Arduino Mega microcontroller
  • A motor driver shield from Adafruit (as seen in the image)
  • a 16×2 LCD display
  • a potentiometer of 10 kOhm
  • a 12 volt DC wall adapter with a maximum current rating of 1000 mA
  • a few wires

Step 2: Add your locomotive

Step 3: The Arduino Program 

An open source microcontroller called Arduino makes it simple (and affordable) for individuals to create little electrical devices. The Arduino is frequently used to build lawn watering systems or to manage robot motors.

The track is connected to the Arduino by a specialized motor driver. As a result, the Arduino is able to a. power the track and b. swiftly switch the voltage on the track to transmit the signal to the trains.

It utilizes DCC++, or its more recent version, DCC-EX, which is free source software. This program develops an interface that enables it to take a command in the form of a text string (for example, “6634 1 F3 0”) and translate it into a signal that can be sent to the train. This provides the Arduino with a great deal of versatility and enables it to serve as an interface between the computer and track. Additionally, the Arduino contains roughly 50 pins that may be used to control lights, signals, and other devices.

Step 4: Make the Control Unit 

Use as little wire as feasible to maintain a orderly arrangement. You may alter the pin connections in the Arduino software to wire the LCD screen differently.

Step 5: Form the layout

Step 6: Install the Train Controller

As a platform for the train controller, use a strong cardboard box with some weights inside. To support the controller board while it is standing on the platform, secure a plastic fiber ruler at the back with two flat-head screws.

Step 7: Attach the Power Feeder Track’s Wires to the Driver’s Motor Output.

Use header pins to attach the connection for the feeder track, or remove the connector and connect the track’s power using bare end wires.

Step 8: Place the locomotive on the track 

Step 9: Turn on the power and attach a 12 volt DC power supply to the Arduino board

Step 10: Verify that the setup is functioning correctly.

After the controller has been powered on for five seconds, the LCD screen should illuminate and the locomotive should begin to move. Keep an eye out for broken parts, loose connections, and short circuits. To guarantee adequate electrical contact between the wheels of the locomotive and the rails, make sure the rails are cleaned correctly.

Step 11: Join the Locomotive with the Rolling Stock

When the locomotive is working fine, add some rolling stock to it to make it appear to be a train.

Step 12: Start the Train

2.1 Definition and Scope of Automation

Automation, which comes from the terms automatic and action, is described as “the use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility”.

The phrase refers to operations that take place on a model railroad without the operator’s involvement, such as signals, crossing gates, turnouts aligning for a certain route, and other chores. Even the movement of trains can occasionally be managed without an operator.

A train that travels between stations without an operator is one example. The train could depart from one terminal, stop at another, then turn around and head back to where it started. The train may also stop at locations halfway between the two terminals.

The ability to control trains in a traditional way has been a goal of model railroading since its inception. Direct current power, solid state electronics that improved operation with features like pulse power, and other advances were among the advancements. Complex block systems would eventually be incorporated into the wiring. Despite all these developments, nobody was able to direct the train rather than the track.

2.2 Types of Automation Systems

For your model train to run well, you need effective and trustworthy control systems. We look into the world of model train control systems in this blog, giving you an overview of your options and helping you pick the best system for your model railroad. Making educated judgments requires having a thorough understanding of the various control systems, from old analog controllers to contemporary digital ones.

2.2.1. Digital Command Control (DCC)

Digital Command Control

Digital Command Control (DCC) is a standard for a mechanism for the independent control of locomotives on the same electrical piece of track when operating model railroads digitally.

Power sources, command stations, boosters, throttles, and decoders make up a DCC system.

The digital packet is produced by the DCC command station using information from a throttle. The digital packet includes the address of the decoder, instructions, and an error byte to verify that the packet is legitimate.

An amplifier (booster), which is included into many command stations, adjusts the track voltage in conjunction with its power supply to encode digital signals while supplying electricity. Additional boosters may be used to offer more power for large systems.

The signal on the track is entirely digital. The DCC signal is neither a carrier overlaid on a DC voltage, nor does it follow a sine wave. A binary stream of pulses is produced when the command station/booster swiftly turns on and off the power connected to the rails. Each data pulse is repeated, and one rail is always the opposite logical state of the other. The direction of movement is unaffected by the rail’s phase since there is no polarity. The mechanism for encoding data is determined by how long the voltage is applied. A binary one is represented by a short duration (often 58 s), whereas a binary zero is represented by a longer period (typically at least 100 s).

Each locomotive has a uniquely addressed multifunction DCC decoder that receives the signal from the track, interprets it, and executes the commands. Pulse width modulation is used to manage the direction and speed of the electric motor. Each decoder has a unique address, so it won’t respond to orders meant for another decoder. This allows for autonomous operation of locomotives and accessories anywhere on the layout without the need for additional cabling. Additionally, decoders may operate lights, smoke machines, and sound machines. The DCC throttle can be used to remotely control these features. Similar to the throttle, accessory decoders may also accept orders to regulate turnouts, uncouplers, and other operational accessories like lights and station announcements.

2.2.2 Analog Systems

In model railroading, the locomotive’s speed was adjusted by varying the voltage on the track. It moves quicker with more voltage. Lowering the voltage slows down the speed. The locomotive changed its course in response to a change in the polarity connection. Since most model railways used DC, analog control is often known as direct current, or DC. PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) was employed by some analog throttles to regulate the track’s average voltage. PWM was remained analog, despite the gains it provided for slow speed operation.

Analog employs voltage control to control speed and direction as opposed to Digital Command Control, which constantly applies the same voltage to the track. Not the train, but the track is in your hands.

It was being discussed to switch to direct current as early as 1934. The expense of electronics was the reason for employing a vehicle battery at the time because of Flat DC technology (automotive electrical systems were 6 volts till the mid-50s). While the cost of batteries was high, the cost of a vacuum tube power supply and solid-state selenium rectifiers was also high. Using a battery and a battery charger was the practical (and less expensive) solution.

With smaller motors used in HO size, direct current gained popularity. Smaller and more dependable direct current power supplies were made feasible by the development of solid state electronics. By the 1950s, the North American power system had been standardized to run at 60 Hz, which favored direct current by making the power supply design simpler.

Up until the introduction of Digital Command Control, Direct Current was the only method available for running a model railroad. Due to their exorbitant cost and utter incompatibility, previous attempts at command control invariably failed. DC prevailed because many modelers were hesitant to stake a significant amount of money on a proprietary command control system like ASTRAC or the subsequent CTC-16. Although Digital Command Control is more common than not, DC still has a strong presence today.

2.2.3. Smartphone-Controlled Systems

DCC users who employ smaller layouts have lately learned about an additional aspect of computer control as they control their layouts from smartphones or tablets. By installing a wireless (WiFi) router as a means of communication with the PC running JMRI, a number of easily accessible mobile devices may be utilized as extra model railway controllers. Any one of the growing number of model railroad operating programs may be used to control smartphones or tablets running iOS or Android as controllers. Since many users have extra or unused mobile phones or tablets, it is quite inexpensive to add more handsets to a model train.

The Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) offers development tools for computer-controlled model railroads. Because its developers want as many people to utilize it as possible, they used Java to make it independent of certain hardware platforms. JMRI is designed to serve as a ‘jumping-off point’ for amateurs who wish to use computers to manage their layouts instead than starting from scratch with a full-fledged system.

Since JMRI is a foundation for communication tools, a lot of hobbyists and software developers have been able to construct apps for model railroad control. The connection between WiFi throttles (iPhone, iPod Touch, or Android smartphone) and JMRI is managed through its WiThrottle window.

Under JMRI, a variety of preferences may be configured for WiFi throttles. All local networks get the connection information broadcast by the WiThrottle utility, making it accessible to any device asking for the service. Users do not have to input connection information into their device as a result.

Evidently, utilizing a phone as a WiFi throttle has some disadvantages; control will be lost if the computer running JMRI loses power or connectivity, or if the computer goes into sleep mode. To stop the computer from going to sleep while inactive for a long time, system options may need to be changed.

2.3 Benefits and Drawbacks of Automation


The hobby of creating model train can have both benefits and drawbacks with automation. The following are some benefits of its automation: 

  • Low-cost operation: Using an Arduino microcontroller and an L298N motor driver, the entire layout is operated for a fraction of the cost of conventional train control throttles and power packs. 
  • Ideal for displaying: Because no human intervention is needed to maintain control over the layout, you may use it at a show where you can’t always be present to operate the train and turnouts. 
  • Excellent for microcontroller hobbyists: If you already use or plan to use Arduino, this project is an excellent way to hone your coding abilities.

There are however drawbacks too to automation:

  • Additionally, automated procedures lack human flexibility. Because tools are often created for a very specific purpose and can only be used with a predetermined set of data and formats, automation doesn’t manage change very well. This implies that people are more adaptable and able to change in general.
  • Human interaction is still necessary for automation. The procedures require human oversight to make sure they are operating properly. Additionally, humans are required to create the procedures from scratch and guarantee that they include all relevant cases. This might call for a great deal of planning and knowledge of what is required in any given circumstance.

2.4 Cost Considerations

DCC Starter setups range in price from affordable feature-rich setups to simple DCC systems that cost little more than a quality analog power pack/throttle. The benefit is that you may choose how simple or complicated of a system to start with, and there may even be a path for upgrading. Because you do away with the overhead that DC needs for complicated processes, it is simple to utilize.

The additional wiring and switches with Direct Current complicate operations and are technically challenging. Train operations will be difficult for operators who are not familiar with your system. additional wiring and switches add complexity, which causes additional issues.

You don’t have to switch over to DCC right away for your complete motive power lineup. A excellent place to start is by converting a few favorites or frequently used items during an operating session. Some locomotives might not be possible to be converted to DCC or be suited for it. Others can have mechanical problems that need to be fixed right away or that are expensive to fix. These can be exchanged or sold. The fleet may be improved over time, much as the prototype. This problem is frequently the cause of absurd expense estimates or a “reason” not to choose DCC. Not everything needs to be converted right away.

Instead of spending a lot of time and effort updating the design and drive to DCC, it is simpler to launch and grow your empire in DCC. Direct Current can be sufficient if you don’t anticipate operating several locomotives with sound systems in the future. Be warned—it will not be the same once you have witnessed sound locomotives in action. Additionally, they need more current, which might be a drawback for a DCC system.