DC or DCC?

Back when I was a kid and had my first layout, there wasn’t really all this digital stuff. I seem to recall that Trix had something new called Selectrix which let you run more than one loco on one track, but it was proprietary, non-standard and of course all your locos had to be Minitrix brand, which limited choice somewhat.

Aside: I just looked up Selectrix in Wikipedia and it turns out it’s still going! I wasn’t expecting that.

However, when I recently started to look at how best to control the trains on my nacent layout, I quickly came across something called Digital Command Control or DCC, which allows multiple locos to move independently on one track, and also allows the control of accessories like points, signals and sound effects. DCC is an open standard, adopted by numerous manufacturers, and there are plenty of choices available in terms of controllers and interfaces.

So, what to do? Stick to good old fashioned DC power, where there is one train and one controller per loop of track, or plump for digital control along with its inevitable learning curve?

sprog3In the end, I came across something called a Sprog which helped me decide. A Sprog is a DCC controller that sits between your computer and the layout, allowing you to control your trains using (free) software on your computer. As a die-hard geek this really appealed to me, and I’ve learned that I should be able to run software called JMRI on my MacBook, hook it to the Sprog via USB, and install an app on my Android smartphone so that I can walk around the layout and control the trains wirelessly with my phone. This made it a no-brainer – DCC it is.

I know that I will have to learn new wiring techniques, and I know that DCC locos are usually a bit more expensive than their DC versions, but come on – controlling multiple trains over wifi with my phone? How could I possibly resist?

Sprogs in action
Share Button

Where to model

So I know I’m going to create an N gauge layout, but what to model? Broadly speaking, there are 5 options:

  • Britain
  • Mainland Europe
  • North America
  • Japan
  • Something esoteric

I did what you might expect. I googled. I want to enjoy looking at my trains, not watch them thinking ‘jeez that’s an ugly colour scheme’… so I looked at the kind of models available for each of the possible options. I knew I wanted to model a vaguely modern era, so I looked mainly at diesel and electric traction.

But I also wanted to ensure that there was enough choice available without spending the price of a small house or having to build everything myself, so I decided to eliminate the last option immediately. There’s no point in modelling the railways of Vietnam or Azerbaijan, when no stock is available and everything must be scratch-built. Not when you’re as impatient and cack-handed as me, anyway.

After extended googling, I realised:

  • I’m not interested in British outline, maybe because I grew up in a railway-centric household and travelled by train in the UK so much that familiarity has bred contempt – and some of the latest colour schemes make my eyes bleed
  • I simply don’t know enough about Japanese railways, cities or landscapes to try modelling them
  • In North America, trains are long – very long – and I don’t think I can do them justice on an 8 foot long or shorter layout

So that left Europe, which felt right – I’ve travelled on European trains quite a lot, and have always enjoyed seeing the various liveries, which seem to me somehow classier than British train liveries.

Having narrowed it down to Europe, I was going to weigh the various merits of different European countries in turn, when I realised that there was one country in Europe that stands out, in terms of the variety of colour schemes and motive power, and also offers good opportunities for putting together trains containing stock from more than one country – and that country is Switzerland.

You have the SBB national railway company of course, then there’s the BLS running through the middle of the country, and a whole bunch of smaller companies. Not to mention the possibilities for running multinational passenger and freight trains. And on the landscaping side, Swiss railway lines are so full of tunnels and gradients that interesting layouts can be built in smaller spaces without looking too unnatural (it’s hard to justify a tunnel if you’re modelling the Netherlands).

Some searching online confirmed that there is a wide range of Swiss outline available from many manufacturers, from old 1930’s locomotives to the latest Vectron cargo locos and Cisalpin passenger rakes. And if I model Epoch V (roughly 1990 to 2007), I can run a variety of locos and coaches in different colour schemes without it looking out of place.

So, decision made – I will be setting my layout somewhere in Switzerland. And it’s also a great excuse to holiday in Switzerland again sometime soon. Purely for research purposes, you understand.

BLS Ae8/8 in N gauge
BLS Ae8/8 in N gauge
Share Button

A return to the fold

It was a sad day when, at the tender age of 14, I had to sell my unfinished 6 foot by 5 foot N gauge layout to some friends of the family, partly because I found I had less and less time to keep it maintained, but mainly because I was heading towards O levels and needed to focus.

It’s now 33 years and one emigration since those O levels (I did OK by the way), and in the intervening years I’ve thought more than once about getting back into railway modelling. I love trains and train travel, especially in mainland Europe, and a couple of holidays in Switzerland over the last few years pushed the idea to the front of my mind, where it stayed, refusing to go away.

Finally, a couple of months ago, having decided to quit my day job and become self-employed, I also decided that while making major life changes, it was time for a new hobby, and railway modelling was going to be it. I would take it slowly, try to keep my budget moderate, and build a layout over the course of a few years.

Having made this momentous decision, instantly my head filled with thoughts of scale, gauge, country and era. I decided the first thing I had to settle on was scale and gauge.


I don’t have the luxury of having acres of attic or garage space, or indeed acres of any kind of space, and I knew that whatever I built could be no longer than about 8 feet, but I still wanted to run realistic-looking trains (i.e. more than 3 coaches).

Basically that meant modelling either in N gauge, or pursuing the narrow-gauge option and modelling in OO9 or HOm (though the scale is bigger, coaches and locomotives are generally a little shorter than standard gauge OO or HO stock).

Having narrowed it down to these two options, I browsed the web, looking for inspiration. What I found (in addition to bucketloads of inspiration) was a significant difference in price. It looked like, in general, buying HOm locos and rolling stock could easily cost twice as much as buying similar stock in N gauge.

I don’t have bottomless pockets and so the decision was made for me. I will build an N gauge layout. I can buy 5 or 6 trains in N gauge for the price of 2 or 3 in HOm. I also have to figure in postage costs since Malta (my home for the last 10 years) has no model railway shops.

Because I work as a web developer and consultant, it occurred to me that documenting the build in a website might be quite fun, and so here we are. Over the next months and probably years, I will post here with information about the build process, the decisions I make, the stock I buy, landscaping, wiring, and I’ll try to include photos whenever possible to keep things interesting.

BLS - one of my favourite railway companies
BLS – one of my favourite railway companies
Share Button