model train set on track

Substantial–MTH DCS

e*Train Issue: Mar 2003   |   Posted in:

By Tom Lytle

Whoa, big fella! This thing is huge! I don’t know whether bigger is better; but man, this thing covers a lot of ground. The manual alone is 120 pages of goop. Its’ got a full dashboard. It has “soft keys”. This behemoth is the Digital Command System courtesy of Mike’s Train House.

I’m not sure whether a twelve year old could pull this thing out of the box and get it to work in ten minutes. I’d say he’d be lucky to get it in a week. There goes the ”ease of use award”. I have to credit Mike. It is here…finally. I’d hate to think of what this would be like if he hadn’t been so insistent on the quality of the product. This roll out could have been a real nightmare. Right now it is just a bad dream.

The command system can be purchased by component. I wouldn’t. At least the first purchase into this brave new world should be the DCS Remote Control Set. With this you get the hand-held remote, the Track Interface Unit (TIU), the manual, and the video. Not that all of this gets you on the tracks any faster. There is a lot of information to absorb just to get things started. There is a mountain to master this system.

When I first opened the box at my club (HTOS), it wasn’t the ”Quick Start” in the manual, which got me through; it was shear dumb luck. But I did manage to get Jim Corbin’s GS-2 puffin’ down the track. My first impression remains; this is not for the technically challenged. The experience was not easy nor clear nor consistent. Obvious wiring questions were not answered by the simple diagrams on the box, nor the simple text in the front of the book. This could have been a lot better.

To help you along, here are my observations.

The TIU has four major circuit paths through it. Two are labeled “Fixed”. They expect to have a high constant voltage run through them (if needed), and the TIU simply super imposes the DCS signal on top of these voltages, which are affected by the remote control. The TIU also has two “Variable” voltage paths. The voltage in can be regulated by the remote control to the output terminals. The voltage out on these terminals also gets the DCS signal super imposed as well. The variable voltage posts operate in the same fashion as a Power Master from Lionel.

An admonition; always apply power to the Fixed Voltage 1 terminal at least. This is where the TIU gets its power if it is not externally provided. Another word; use fresh AAA batteries on the remote. I have heard that the remote can eat batteries for lunch, so lay in a stockpile. Yet another recommendation is to go ahead and at least sit through the video. It will get you up with the terminology so that you can suffer through the book.

OK, an aside here. The video is dry to boring. This is not very enthusiastic. The Lionel Trainmaster videos by the same people had a lot more gusto. Does anybody going through this entire product “love’ it”? It sure doesn’t seem so to me. MTH might want to try some 3-Rail types in focus groups. So far their marketing does not impress me. It certainly does not stimulate me. And boy, I sure could use some.

Then there’s the remote. A plethora of buttons to choose from (or to get confused with). You might want to sleep with this thing a couple of nights. There is so much inside, even the 120-page manual doesn’t cover it all. The two main features of the remote are the LCD screen and the central spin knob. The letters on the LCD might be a touch small for some. The knob spins and has a button under as well. I have had some problems already spinning and pressing. The trick is to spin and not press. Multifunction devices can be a sore spot of contention, especially if they are hard to use or easy to break.

As much as MTH tells you how all of the choices in the system can be overcome by shortcuts and acronyms; operation of these remotes is tedious. I don’t particularly like this. This is my same complaint I have with the Digitrax system.

Now lets throw in some monkeys. Remember that wireless remote you bought for the Z-4000? The DCS remote can talk to the Z-4000 wireless remote as well. More menus, more spinning.

Ah, yes, The Lionel Train Master Command Base. Hook the serial port of the TIU to the serial port of the Command Base. Be sure to waste $20 on the MTH cable with only two wires in it. Also be careful to hook it up the right way (there is only one correct way). Then, you can have the closed DCS system talk to the open TMCC system. By the way, not everything is documented and not all of the TMCC features are mapped by the DCS system (e.g. How do you set momentum for Lionel from the DCS?) And not all of the mapped features are done so correctly by MTH (e.g. the Aux 1–7 feature of Tower Com’s string is not sent correctly from the DCS to the TMCC).

Now that we have the zoo, we can have the bizarre. When I ran the MTH NASA switcher under these circumstances, not everything worked with DCS. I was missing those two seldom-used features; whistle and horn. Who needs them? What I finally found out was that if I got the RF interface for the Z-4000 out of the picture, everything worked. It only took four hours to come up with that one.

By the way, another gotcha is the problem of having too many command controlled trains on the same track. That is during the programming phase. This “phase” has not been well defined, nor are there any guidelines on when and where the “separate programming track” would be advisable to implement.

There is one really cool feature of the DCS, which I am very enthusiastic about. The Protosounds 2 cards in the engines DO talk to the TIU and the remote. The engines actually talk back to the system. This is called the “SmartRead” feature. This is the first step into transponders. VERY COOL!

There is a lot more. I still haven’t received my Accessory Unit (AIU). But I am looking forward to it. I thought I’d just give you my initial two cents. This is a big step in technology. It remains to be seen whether this will sway the masses. I think that Mike can be successful with this product if he is very careful. He needs to especially listen to his users and react appropriately. I hope that this product will inspire the competitors (Lionel & QSI) to do a better job in their endeavors as well.

I’ll let you know more as things progress.