The saga of the BLS Re 4/4

As you will have gathered I’m creating a model railway based on Switzerland, set in the late 1990s to early 2000s. But I don’t want all my stock to be from the SBB state railway, so I’m going to model a location that could feasibly have traffic from other railway companies, particularly the BLS (thanks to some childhood holidays in the Bernese Oberland region).

Imagine my delight when I saw an Arnold BLS Re 4/4 loco for sale (one of my favourite locos). It was billed as new, digital, and original packaging (OVP as they say in Germany). Ker-ching! Sold to the guy from Malta.

About 10 days later it arrived, and this was when the saga really started. The Arnold box said “Digital, channel 25”. So I put it on my programming track and fired up JMRI on my laptop. When you add a new loco, JMRI offers to try and read the decoder type for you. Unfortunately it failed. I had this happen on a new Minitrix loco which proved to be fine so I thought nothing of it and tried overriding with each Arnold decoder in turn. No go. It wouldn’t read any data from the loco, not even a channel.

So much for the ‘new loco wizard’. So I opened up the programmer window and tried to read all the CV variables. Each time it would pick up a series of different random values. Weird. I tried writing a channel, but then when I tried to read the CVs back, they all came back null (empty).

Then, when I switched on the track power, the loco immediately hurtled along at full speed and shot off the end, with no JMRI throttle window even open. Almost as if it was DC and not DCC, huh? Luckily it powered itself into something soft and no damage was done.

After much head-scratching and some more abortive attempts to rectify the situation, I messaged the supplier. They replied within 24 hours with the kind of information that makes you bang your head on the table and shout “of course”!…

There’s digital and then there’s digital

In this case, “Digital” did not mean “DCC”. It meant the early Arnold pre-DCC digital system that used registers instead of CVs. I had assumed that in the world of model railways, “digital” always meant “DCC”. Apparently not so. Suddenly the reason for my programming failures was crystal clear. I was doing it wrong.

This also meant that the loco, while it was admittedly unused, wasn’t new in the sense of being newly manufactured. It was built in the 1980s and had been in storage since that time. I wasn’t sure quite what to make of this. It looked immaculate but I felt a bit cheated somehow.

After a couple of messages each way with me saying that it was natural to assume it was DCC programmable and I wasn’t happy that it wasn’t a new model, the supplier agreed to fit a new D&H DCC decoder into it without charge if I sent it back to them. This was definitely the best solution (I thought the loco itself was stunning) so that’s what we did.

Freshly DCC’ed

Fast forward to today, and the loco arrived back in the post with a brand new D&H DH10C decoder installed. The supplier enclosed the decoder instruction leaflet, which is all in German, but I can always Google translate it if I need to (my German is very rusty).

So I set up my programming track, fired up JMRI and attempted to read the decoder type. JMRI recognised that it was a D&H decoder, but couldn’t identify the model number. So I picked the most likely one from the list (the DH10C with most recent firmware version). This did the trick, and soon my loco was crawling up and down the programming track. As far as I know it doesn’t have a keep-alive installed, but it successfully negotiated Fleischmann points on all but the absolute slowest speed setting (1 out of 28). On speed 1, it stuck in one direction but was fine in the other. On speed 2 and above, no issues.

As a final test I used JMRI to change its channel from the default 3 to another number, and that worked straight away without any problems.

So my loco roster now consists of three locos – 2 SBB and 1 BLS. The new addition is a little noisy at very slow speeds but the tone of the motor smoothes out as you increase the speed.

So ends the saga. I think there are two lessons I can learn from this. Firstly, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and secondly, deal with a supplier courteously and they’re more inclined to go the extra mile for you.

Postscript: since sending the loco back for the decoder to be fitted, I’ve discovered that JMRI has a “register” programming mode as well as the normal DCC modes! Mind you, I have no idea whether this would have worked, and I guess now I never will…

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