model train set on track

Automate Your Train Layout

e*Train Issue: Sep 2003   |   Posted in:

By Dr. Joseph Lechner

Automating Your Model Train Layout, by Don Woodwell with Chip Miller and Mike Reagan; 8½” x 11”, 122 pages, spiral bound; July 2003, D&D Royalties Inc., $19.95.

TCA members Don Woodwell, Chip Miller and Mike Reagan have written a helpful book whose stated purpose is to show hobbyists “how to apply commercial electronic modules to enhance a model train layout”. Is it model train or toy train? Most of the book’s projects are parts of Woodwell’s O 3-rail pike; however, many of his ideas are also applicable to scale layouts; and Reagan discusses a command system that is specifically designed for 2-rail DC operation.

AYMTL is an example of what my profession calls a “survey course”. The university where I teach offers a class called Music in the Western World whose goals are to expose students to a variety of musical genres, and to whet their appetite to explore music on their own. This course won’t teach you how to read music or play an instrument; you don’t need to be able to do those things in order to succeed in the course; but you will learn what an English horn sounds like, and you might discover that you enjoy Beethoven string quartets. Similarly, AYMTL won’t teach you how to design a digital circuit; you don’t need to understand electronic jargon; but you will learn about dozens of devices that are commercially available, and how you can use them creatively on your layout.

Chapter 1 covers basics of electrical wiring and shows you some of the tools and supplies you might need. You won’t find an equation for Ohm’s Law here; but you will learn where 12 gauge wire is needed and when 16 gauge is sufficient.

Chapter 2 discusses constant voltage lighting devices for locomotives and cars. Clear photographs show a GP-9 with working ditch lights; an N5c caboose with lanterns and a flashing rear-end device; a Pullman with regulated interior lighting; and a GE 44-tonner with a constant-brightness headlight. This is not a how-to manual; the author’s purposes are to tell you what’s available and to show you how it will enhance your hobby enjoyment. If you’re impressed by the brilliant headlight on his diesel switcher, Woodwell tells you where to get one (it’s a model RL-1 from Dallee Electronics). He tells you briefly how he installed it, but you will probably rely on Dallee’s instruction sheet for step-by-step procedures.

Chapter 3 introduces track detection circuits. Some of these (insulated rails; 153C contactors) have been used by tinplaters for half a century; others (magnetic reed switches; digital circuits) were first developed by scale modelers but are now commercially available as modules that can be installed on 3-rail systems.

Chapter 4 discusses accessories that come with sound systems. The emphasis is to show you a sample of what’s available and why they’re fun. You’ll see a model sawmill and an engine works that emit realistic machinery sounds; a grade crossing with bell sounds; a station where the telegraph operator is clicking out a message; and a newsstand where the newsboy starts talking when the train arrives. This chapter also samples some accessories with subtle action, such as a flickering campfire or an operating oilwell pump.

Many of us grew up playing with Lionel #152 crossing gates and #154 highway flashers, but now we’ve put those childish toys away because the gates descended at frightening speeds and the crossbucks were 36 scale feet tall. In Chapter 5, Woodwell shows realistic, scale-sized signals and crossing gates that move slowly. His NC-Lines layout has a completely functional signal system. Woodwell offers a thorough discussion of what signals get placed where, and what the signal aspects mean.

Chapter 6 discusses automated train control. A familiar tinplate example is Lionel’s #132 station that used a heating device to pause the train for a few seconds. Today, an electronic circuit from Burns Manufacturing can accomplish the same feat without melting your station. These circuits can not only stop the train for a predetermined time, but can also slow the train as it approaches, activate a recorded announcement in the station, and change a signal from red to green when it’s time for the train to depart.

Postwar Lionel publications showed how 022 switches could be used to control a two-train layout where one train would automatically pause until the other had safely reached a passing siding. Much more is possible with today’s digital electronics. Woodwell mentions Circuitron products for 2-rail DC operation as well as Dallee units for AC operation. He describes an On30 layout on which Bachmann’s logging train negotiates a switchback (two turnouts; two stops; two direction reverses) untouched by human hands.

Chapter 7 discusses more advanced automated operation. On Woodwell’s trolley line, NC-Traction, each car leaves the terminal, pauses at its remote destination, returns to its point of origin, and stops automatically. Postwar operating freight cars and accessories can be completely automated. Woodwell describes a layout where a Lionel #3451 log car is delivered to a #164 lumber loader and unloads its logs. A locomotive then moves the car to the other side of the #164. There, the car is loaded and the train departs. The cycle can continue indefinitely. Locomotive, UCS track section, turnout, and log loader are all controlled automatically by commercially-available devices.

Chapter 8 briefly discusses command control systems. Chip Miller wrote the sections on Lionel TMCC and MTH DCS systems for AC operation. Mike Reagan, of Train America Studios, contributed sections on Scale Command (an adaptation of TMCC for 2-rail DC operation) and Layout Control System (which interfaces TMCC to a personal computer). This brief (17-page) chapter is not a technical manual on command control. It does not tell you how to use every button on your CAB-1 or your DCS remote. It is not a substitute for the manufacturer’s instructions. It does not describe every piece of command equipment offered by Lionel or MTH; but it does show how to connect a simple starter layout, and it lists some of the things you can expect to do with command control.

AYMTL concludes with two useful Appendices. The first is a brief (one page) list of publications for further information. The second (four pages) is a list of manufacturers who supply the circuits and accessories described in this book.

Woodwell seems to assume that his readers own a computer and have access to the Internet. In the second appendix, he provides URLs and email addresses for manufacturers, but no postal addresses. Phone numbers are given for some vendors, but not all. Further, AYTML is being marketed primarily over the Internet. To obtain it, you must visit where you may either download it electronically for $12.95 or order a print version for $19.95 plus $4.49 shipping and handling. While I agree that many hobbyists who are interested in automation also happen to own computers, many other potential readers do not. I certainly hope that Don will advertise this book in the hobby’s print media.