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by Davy Dick

Electronics for Model Railways

Here are my thoughts on this book.
I don't know if it is good but it is certainly big, with 22 chapters, around
450 pages and about 700 images and illustrations.
Hopefully, it will act as a useful resource.
To that end, all comments are welcome.
You can reach me at
Why do it?
I believe that there is a need for a book that tries to encompass the broad
electronic facets of our hobby. It is intended to help new members and
those who might be drawn to our activities.
There is not a lot of material out there, mainly old texts or books that
solely cover DCC. I think that the contents will be widely welcomed.
I have trialled the book to selected members covering a range of knowledge and experience, with
favourable feedback.
Who owns the book?
This is not intended as a 'MERG publication'. I will retain ownership of the book.
That is not to say that I think the book is perfect. I welcome suggestions for corrections,
amendments, addenda, etc., so that the book can develop to meet the broadest needs and to keep up
with technological changes.
However, it is not a 'Wiki', where individuals can remove and change the contents to match their
own personal preferences or hobby horses.
The book will remain as one document albeit in two volumes.
Any conditions?
The book is intended as a service to the model railway community.
It is not a commercial product.
It is strictly a non-profit production.
It must not be used for monetary gain.
It will be free to distribute and read.
There will be no changes to book contents or its use without permission of the author.
How will it be distributed?
To keep the book free, and to allow for continuing improvements, there will be no printed version.
It will be available in PDF format, with possible tweaking for Kindle users at some stage.
It comprises two volumes so that they are small enough to be handled by most email systems.
How can MERG use it?
Apart from the benefit of access to the contents, MERG could use it as a recruiting tool.
It could be added to the new members CD. [ It will be.]
It could be added to the Download section of the website. [ It will be.]
It could be used for publicity at MERG stands at exhibitions. [It will be.]
It could be made available through other model railway magazines, thus achieving free advertising
of MERG.
I have added a section on MERG, explaining what we do, what we offer including a membership
application form that can be printed out.
[ Davys book is being distributed to MERG members on a CD in the 2014 No.4 Journal mailing.]

Electronics for
Model Railways
Part A
By Davy Dick

2014 by David Dick

All rights reserved under the Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivatives Licence.
This book may be freely copied and distributed but may not be changed or added to without prior
written permission of the author.
This book is free and its material may not be used for commercial purposes.
This book is issued as, without any warranty of any kind, either express or implied, respecting the
contents of this book, including but not limited to implied warranties for the book's quality,
performance, or fitness for any particular purpose.
Neither the author or distributors shall be liable to the reader or any person or entity with respect to
any liability, loss or damage caused or alleged to be caused directly or indirectly by this book.
All trade names and product names are the property of their owners.

In memory of Margaret

Unless you are running an antique clockwork train set or have a large outdoor layout
running steam trains, you are already using electrical and electronic equipment.
For most railway modellers, power is supplied to the loco's motor through the track.
With the help of electronics, our layouts can be further improved. How about control
of points, signals, lights, turntables, crossing gates and barriers, uncouplers, sound
effects and much more.
We can even detect where trains are on our layouts or automate activities, with or
without computers.
At first sight, this may seem complicated but layout wiring and controls often
consist of lots of little individual circuits, each carrying out its own function (e.g.
switching a point or lighting an LED).
The chapters try to look at each issue and show how they fit together.
If you like, you can read through from start to finish. However, it is not meant to be
read as a book. If you are new to electronics, this book covers a lot of ground.
You are not meant to understand it all after just a quick read through.
You will also find that you already know some parts and are not currently interested
in other parts.
I would suggest that everyone have a read of the first chapter even if you think you
already know all the basics.
Also, as you are working with a hot soldering iron, knives and cutters,
drills and so on , be aware of safety at all times.
In particular, please read the safety notes on page 50 of Part A and page 72
of Part B.
Hopefully, there is something of interest in here for all railway modellers.

Davy Dick
Model Electronic Railway Group member 1853

Click on the page numbers to jump to chapters

Part A
Chapter 1 Basic electronics . . . . . . . .

Chapter 2 Loco controllers . . . . . . . .


Chapter 3 Layout wiring . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 4 Track wiring . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 5 Voltage problems . . . . . . . .


Chapter 6 Point wiring . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 7 - Point motors & servos . . . . .


Chapter 8 Scenic lighting . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 9 Coach lighting . . . . . . . . . . 142

Chapter 10 - Adding sound . . . . . . . . . . 157
Chapter 11 - Track occupancy detectors . 184
Chapter 12 R F I D . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 202
Chapter 13 Digital Command Control . . 212
Chapter 14 CBUS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Part B
Chapter 15 Transistors, ICs and PICs
Chapter 16 - Interfacing techniques
Chapter 17 - Computers and model railways
Chapter 18 Assembling a tool kit
Chapter 19 Soldering
Chapter 20 Using test equipment
Chapter 21 Pocket Money Projects
Chapter 22 Abbreviations & Acronyms
Appendix The Model Electronic Railway Group


Chapter 1
Basic electronics

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Basic electronic terms

Units of measurement
Before we start looking at volts, amps, etc., you should note that there are large variations
in electrical and electronic units of measurement.
For example, the steel pylon that brings power to your home might be carrying up to
400,000 Volts, while an LED (light emitting diode) in your layout might be working at
around 3 Volts.
Here is a chart that lists the most likely values that you will come across in model railway
One millionth of a millionth

pico (10-12)

One thousandth of a

Tiny measurement, usually of capacitance

nano millionth (10-9)

Tiny measurement, usually of capacitance

micro One millionth (10-6)

1F = one millionth of one Farad


one thousandth (10-3)

1 amp = 1,000 milliamps


1,000 times (103)

1 kilohm = 1,000 ohms

mega 1 million times (106)

1 megohm = 1,000,000 ohms (or 1,000 kilohms)

If you have not come across terms such as 103 or 10-12 before, its not that difficult.
6 x 103 means 6 multiplied by ten three times, in other words 6 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 6,000
Put another way 103 means add three zeros to the end of the number.
Similarly, 6 x 10-3 means 6 divided by ten three times, in other words 6 /10 /10 /10 = 0.006
An N gauge loco motor might draw a current of 250 milliamps (written as 250mA); this is
the same as a quarter of an Amp.
An electric fire might be rated at 1 kilowatt (written as 1kW); this is the same as 1,000


Computers use a different definition of some terms, as they operate in

binary (i.e. off and on) states. So, everything is in multiples of 2.
Here, kilo is 1024 (210) and mega is 1,048,576 (220).
These multiples are used to described memory size and disc drive and
memory stick capacity.

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You cannot see electricity. However, you can see, and often feel, its effects.
Electrical current drives motors, lamps, relays, electric heaters, etc.
It produces light, heat, radiation and induction.
So, what exactly is current?
Current is simply the flow of electrons along a material that allows its passage. Electrical
current always flow in a loop and a common analogy is to imagine marbles circulating
inside a hula hoop.
You will already have noticed that a battery has two terminals and the mains supply has a
live and a neutral. Both have an out and a return.
Of course, something has to push the electrons round the circuit.
An often used comparison is made between the flow of water and the flow of electrons.
This illustration shows a basic central heating system.
The water drops flow round the system,
passing through the boiler's pump, the pipes
and the radiator. The water is heated before
being pumped into the outgoing pipe. The
water dissipates much of its energy in the form
of heat in the load (the radiator).
The cooler water returns to the boiler to be
reheated and pumped back round again.
Compare that system with how a lamp on a bicycle works. As the wheel turns, it spins a
dynamo (an electrical 'pump'); the electricity is taken by wires to the load (the lamp bulb)
and returned again to the dynamo. The energy created by the dynamo is dissipated in the
lamp as light.
In fact, the electricity in your home is also organised this way, except on a much larger
scale, with huge power stations and the National Grid distribution network.
Now look at this basic electrical diagram. It
shows a battery as the electron 'pump', the wire
that carries the current to the load and the return
wire that conducts the electrons back to the
In this case, the load can be a lamp, a relay, a
locomotive motor or one of many other things
that will convert the electrical energy for its
own use.
While the water flow is measured in gallons that are pumped round, the flow of electrons is
measured in Amps (short for Amperes), or in milliamps.
Just for the record (there is no need to remember this), one Amp is
6,250,000,000,000,000,000 electrons passing a particular point in one second!

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Early pioneers of electricity thought that current flowed from positive

to negative potentials. In fact, electrons move from negatively
charged to positively charged areas.
To 'save confusion', you will often find texts talking about
'conventional current' (the long-standing but wrong description) and
'electron flow' (which is what actually happens). So, all the arrow
symbols that you see in diagrams (e.g. diodes, transistors) are
showing conventional current flow, not actual electron flow. Just
something we have to live with!

Let's continue with the central heating analogy for a moment.
The pump is pushing out water at one end, thus creating a shortage of water at the other end.
This difference in water pressure results in the flow of water round the house.
As you would expect, increasing the pump pressure results in more water being pumped
With electrical circuits, the power source creates an excess of electrons at one end and a
shortage at the other. This is known as the 'potential difference' and this results in the
electrons flowing round the circuit. This is true of any two points in a circuit; if one point
is at a more negative potential than another point, electron current will attempt to flow
towards the less negatively charged point.
Water pressure is measured in 'psi' (pounds per square inch) or 'bars' (one bar is the force
required to raise water to a height of 10 metres).
The difference in potential of an electrical power source is measured in Volts (or kV or mV).
The power source can be a battery (as used in your watch, mobile phone, laptop, car, etc.) or
a mains supply (us used for your cooker, washing machine, house lights, etc.).
For model railways, the mains supply is too high a voltage and has to be brought down to a
lower level. Many loco controllers either use an external power unit, or an internal unit, to
reduce the voltage from the 240 volt mains supply to the 12 volts commonly used for model
railways. (more later).

The amount of water flowing through your central heating pipes depends on the water
pressure, as already mentioned. But, it also depends on how easily the water is able to flow.
So, for example, if we replaced old wide pipes with new narrow pipes, it would lower the
flow. Similarly, if we screwed down the radiator valve, the flow would be lowered.
The flow of electricity will similarly be affected by the material it has to pass through.
Some materials, such as copper, offer only a very low resistance to the passage of electrons
and such materials are known as 'conductors'. Other materials, such as plastic and glass,
offer a very high resistance and these are known as 'insulators'. That is why wire is made
from copper inside a PVC sheath. The copper conducts the electrons and the PVC prevents
shorts to any other conductors.
Different materials have different resistances and properties, and this is used to good effect
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in model railway electronics. You can deliberately introduce extra resistance into a circuit
to reduce the voltage on other components (e.g. to control loco speeds) or limit the current
flowing through other components (e.g. when illuminating LEDs).
On other occasions, the resistance is inherent in the materials you use. Your layout wiring,
your loco motors, your point actuators, etc. all add their own resistance.
The measurement of resistance is in Ohms (named after Georg Ohm, a German physicist).
The symbol for Ohms is , (the Greek letter Omega) but this is seen less often in diagrams
and textbooks nowadays.
Although resistances are measured in decimal amounts, the decimal point is not used in
texts and diagrams as it is easy to miss.
The letters R, k and M are used, where R represents the decimal point, k represents one
thousand an M represent one million.
Here are some example resistor values:
560R is 560 ohms
R47 is 0.47 ohms
47R is 47 ohms
3R9 is 3.9 ohms
2k7 is 2,700 ohms
1M2 is 1.2 megohms

These are available in various shapes, sizes and performance.

The main characteristics of resistors are:

You can buy resistors with values as small as a fraction of an Ohm, up to resistors with
millions of Ohms of resistance.
Clearly, it is not possible to manufacture and stock every possible value in between.
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Instead, resistors are manufactured in limited fixed ranges of values. These were the
standards set up by the now defunct Electronic Industries Alliance, commonly known as
'preferred values' and these are shown in the table below.
Preferred series

Values available in that range


1.0, 1.5, 2.2, 3.3, 4.7, 6.8


1.0, 1.2, 1.5, 1.8, 2.2, 2.7, 3.3, 3.9, 4.7, 5.6,
6.8, 8.2


1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 1.8, 2.0, 2.2, 2.4,
2.7, 3.0, 3.3, 3.6, 3.9, 4.3, 4.7, 5.1, 5.6, 6.2,
6.8, 7.5, 8.2, 9.1

Colour coding
Larger-sized resistors have their values printed on them. In most cases, the values are
deduced from the coloured marking round the resistor body.
Most resistors use a numbering code that uses four coloured bands.

For example, the resistor shown in the illustration can have its value calculated thus:
1st band is brown = 1
2nd band is red = 2
3rd band is orange = multiply by 1,000 (simply add three zeros)
So the value is 12000 ohms, commonly known as a 12k resistor.
The fourth band is silver, which indicates that the resistor tolerance is + or 10% (the actual
resistor value can be greater or lower then 12k by as much as 10%).
If you prefer, you can use one of the many free software calculators that you will find on the
This one can be found at

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Another calculator can be downloaded from

The more current that flows through a resistor, the more it heats up (that's how your electric
fire or soldering iron works). Of course, we don't use resistors as heating elements its just
a by-product of using them to reduce voltage or current in a circuit. In fact, excessive heat
will eventually destroy a resistor. The wattage rating of a resistor tells you how much
power it can dissipate over a long period of time without being damaged.
Resistors fitted to electronic circuits where only tiny signals are being carried may use 1/8 th
of a Watt, while heavy current usage requires higher wattage handling (e.g. a car lamp bulb
or soldering iron may be 25W).
Most electronic circuits probably use resistors with W or W ratings.

Resistors are manufactured in their millions. To keep their price down, they are not
exactly precise, with their deviation between the actual resistance value and the stated value
being known as its 'tolerance'. Of course, you can buy resistors with very low tolerances
at a higher price. It depends on what you want to use it for. Most resistors are produced
with tolerances of either 2%, 5%, 10%, or 20%. Close tolerance resistors are
used where precision is important, such as transmission equipment (to work at the correct
frequency) or measuring equipment, such as your multimeter. In most situations, the
cheaper wider tolerance resistors are commonly used.
E6 series resistors have a 20% tolerance, while E12 series resistors have a 10% tolerance or
occasionally 5%. E24 series resistors are mostly 5% but some are available in 2%.

Most model railway applications use carbon resistors. They are made up of a rod of
carbon with wire connections at each end. If you broke one in two, the inside would look
like a pencil lead. They are the most common and are cheap and readily available.
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Other types are produced for specialist purposes. For example, resistors made from
metal film ( nickel chromium) are used in audio amplifiers as they produce less noise than
carbon resistors, and are less affected by heat and voltage changes
Where very high currents are being passed through a resistor, wire wound types are used.
They are constructed in a similar way to the element that winds round a bar of an electric
fire. They are often used for high precision measuring or where high power ratings are
required (some handle up to 300W). Early locomotive controllers used large wirewound
resistors to control loco speeds.
Surface mount resistors are now the standard for manufactured boards and are becoming
more used for hobby kits. They are tiny, with no leads, and require practice to solder to


Most resistors are of the 'fixed' type. That means that

they are manufactured to a specific value and that value
cannot be varied by the user. It is just a component
with two leads.
The illustration shows a couple of fixed resistors (one is
carbon and the other wirewound).
The symbol for a fixed resistor that you see in electronic diagrams is either a zig-zag
sawtooth-like shape or mostly commonly a simple rectangle.
Single resistors are not polarised. That means that they work whichever way they are
connected. The only exception is for commoned resistor arrays mentioned below.

Most circuits use a collection of individual resistors in their construction. Sometimes,

however, there are occasions when a collection of the same value are used in close
proximity, usually for a common purpose (e.g. connecting to a set of LEDs or to a group of
switches). In these situations, it is neater and saves space to use resistor arrays (sometimes
shortened to 'resnets')
These illustrations show a type known as SIL resistor
networks . SIL means single in line, a single row of
As you will notice, some resnets are 'isolated'.; each
resistor has its one set of pins and has no connection
to any other resistor.
The other, known as 'commoned', has one end of all
resistors taken to a single output pin.
The dot on the resnet case indicates pin 1, which is the
common pin for commoned resnets.
Another array is the DIL (dual inline) with two
rows of pins. All eight resistors in the network
will have the same value of resistance and there is
no internal connection between any resistor.
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You will already be familiar with variable resistors as they can be found as volume controls
in many audio systems and as a speed control for a model railway controller.
They are three-terminal devices and are often referred to as 'potentiometers' (sometime

shortened to 'pots')
Some are altered by turning a knob while others
use a slider to change value. In both cases, a
wiper slides over the resistive material and the
result is taken out to a third terminal.
The symbol for a variable resistor is similar to a
fixed resistor, with an arrowhead on the side to
show that its value can be varied.
Take this example of a 'linear potentiometer' with a value of 100k. That
means that there will always be 100k across its outer terminals. Its the
value seen at the wiper terminal that is changed when the knob or slider is
In our example, the outer terminals have 12V across them.
As the inner material has a consistent coating, the voltage is spread
evenly across the entire inner surface. So, the coating at the top terminal
will be at 12V, while the coating at the bottom terminal will be at 0V. It
follows that the middle of the coating should be at 6V. If we turn the knob (or move the
slider) to mid position, the wiper should be at 6V. So, by moving the wiper, we can control
the voltage that we use.
There is another type of potentiometer known as the 'logarithmic' type. They are specially
made for audio purposes, as our hearing levels are logarithmic. Make sure you always use a
linear type for model railway projects.

This illustration shows a couple of examples of

'preset potentiometers'. These are much smaller
than standard pots and have no external rod or
slider to alter values. Instead, they have a small
slot that allows the wiper's output to be set by a
These are common on printed circuit boards where there is no need for constant adjustment.
The wanted value is set and then left alone.
The symbols used are slightly different from variable resistors.

Ohms Law
Lets have one last analogy with central heating.
The amount of water flowing round your system depends on the amount of pressure being
provided by the pump, and the stifling of the flow from valves, narrow pipes and clogged
pipes. The three are interrelated. If you increase the pump pressure, more water flows
round. If you turn down radiator valves less water flows in that radiator, and so on.
And so it is with electrical current.
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The current flowing in a circuit is directly proportional to the voltage (greater voltage means
more current) and inversely proportional to the circuit's resistance (greater resistance means
less current).
So, if you know any of two properties, you can calculate the third. The calculations use V
to represent voltage, I to represent current and R to represent resistance.
The illustration shows a simple way to remember the three formulae.

From the middle pyramid, we can deduce that I = V/R (i.e. that current flow increases with
increased voltage but reduces with increased resistance).
These calculations are known as 'Ohms Law' (remember Georg?).

Some examples

If you place a12V battery across a 6V bulb, you get double the current. The excessive
heat burns out the bulb filament.
If you have a short in a circuit, you get as much current as the supply can produce
until the fuse blows - or worse.
If you have a bad connection or use wire that is too thin, you have introduced excessive
resistance. The diminished current flow will probably result in the device working
badly, or not at all.

Some calculations
You have a 6V bulb but your supply is 12V. The bulb
says it works on 200mA (0.2A).
We know that if we add extra resistance, the current
flow will be reduced. We also know that the current
flowing through the resistor we added will now drop
some of the voltage across it.
So how do we calculate the value for the resistor?
Well, the resistance of the bulb filament when hot
must be R=V/I = 6/0.2 = 30 ohms.
We want 6V to be dropped across the resistor, to leave just 6V across the bulb.
So the value of the resistor can be calculated thus: R=V/I = 6/0.2 = 30 ohms.
You could probably have guessed it would be the same value since we wanted to halve the
How about when we have a 4.8V 300mA bulb?
The calculations are only slightly more complicated.
We want to drop 7.2V across the resistor (12V-4.8V).
So, the resistance value must be R=V/I = 7.2/0.3 = 24 ohms.

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In these examples, we deliberately introduced added resistance to

achieve our needs. In model railways, the introduction of unintended
resistance is a source of problems. When your loco runs slower in one
section of track compared to another; when your solenoid doesn't quite
move the point as snappily as it used to; when the lights dim
unexpectedly these are all symptoms of unwanted resistance. This is
covered in detail in the chapter on layout wiring.

Series circuits
When you have more than one resistance, they can be in series with each other, or be
connected in parallel.
The illustration shows a simple series circuit.
You simply add the resistance values together to get the total
resistance between the two ends.
As the resistances are in series with each other; the same amount of current will pass
through all the resistances no matter what value of resistance they have.
But, according to Ohm's Law, the same current flowing through different resistances results
in different voltages across each resistance.
This is used to good effect in many electronic circuits.
The illustration shows two resistors in series across a 12 volt supply.
The 12 volts is distributed across the resistors depending on their values,
hence its name as a 'voltage divider'. The resulting voltage at their junction
depends on the ratio between the two resistors.
If both resistances were equal, there would be 6Vpotential between the
junction of these two resistors and 0V potential.
All voltages are relative to the 0V line.
Other examples include:
10k on top, 1k on bottom results in 1.091V at the junction.
47k on top, 12k on bottom results in 2.441V.
47k on top, 33k on bottom results in 4.95V.
As always, there is an online calculator to make life easier.
The voltage divider effect was widely used in early loco speed controllers such as the H&M
models. Like many others, it had a large wirewound
variable resistor. As the rheostats's knob was turned,
the wiper rubbed across the windings and varied the
amount of resistance placed in series with the
locomotive's electric motor.
Turning the knob clockwise decreased the added
resistance, increasing the voltage across the motor, thus
increasing the current flow and the motor speed.
Nowadays, we use more sophisticated ways of controlling loco speeds (see later).

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Tip :
If you need a value that you don't have in your spares box, make one up from other resistors
in series. For example, wiring a 820 ohm and a 180 resistor produces a 1k resistor.

Parallel circuits
Not all circuits are wired in series.
Your house lights, domestic appliances, PC, etc. are all wired in parallel with each other.
They all receive the same 240V supply but each consume different amounts of current from
the common supply.
In model railways, we use parallel circuits when we operate
locos, points, lights, etc.
The illustration shows how to calculate the resulting resistance
from two resistors wired in parallel.
If there are only two resistors, the equation can be simplified
R1 x R2
R total = -----------------R1 + R2

To avoid awkward calculations, specially if you have many resistors, you can use on-line
calculators such as:
Tip : If you want a value that you don't have in your spares box, you can make one up from
other resistors in parallel. For example, wiring two 1000 ohm resistors in parallel will give
you a 500 ohm resistor.
Other examples include:
560ohms and 470ohms give 255 ohms.
100ohms and 150ohms give 60 ohms (or you could use 33ohms and 27ohms in series).

We mentioned wattage earlier but how do we calculate the power being used by any given
You can calculate the amount of power if you know two of the
three electrical values voltage, current and resistance.
See the formulae in the wheel (E, like V, is used to indicate
So, using W = E x I, we can make some calculations like those
If your loco uses 1Amp at 12 volts, then is consumes 12 watts.
A 240V light bulb uses 0.417 amps (470millamps) to be a
100watt bulb.
A 2 kilowatt kettle uses 8.333 amps (240 x 8.333 = 2000)

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What is DC
DC stand for 'direct current'.
A battery is a typical store of DC energy. It has two terminals, with a potential difference
between them. One terminal (the -ve) has a surplus of electrons, compared to the other
(+ve). Place it in a device, switch the device on and the electrons start to flow.
All battery powered devices, such as your watch, mobile phone, iPod, etc. depend on a
constant flow of direct current during their operation.
The graph shows the voltage unchanging over time.

Electrons will always flow from the negative terminal to the positive terminal.
Its true that you can reverse the wires from a battery pack to a loco and train will go in the
opposite direction. However, although the current is flowing through the motor in the
opposite direction, the current itself is still flowing in the same direction between the battery
terminals. The voltage from a DC supply may vary and the current flow may vary (either
intentionally or through a battery weakening) but its polarity never reverses.
DC is used inside nearly all electronic apparatus, including industrial, domestic and hobby
DC is used extensively in model railways for loco motors, LED lights, most point motors,
DCC decoders and more.
Even devices that are connected to the mains use DC for their internal components
(transistors, microchips, logic circuits, etc.). The incoming mains is converted from AC to
DC as will be shown later.

What is AC
With DC, the current flow is unidirectional; it always flows in one direction.
Alternating current (AC) is completely different.
If you could look at the two pins of an AC supply, you would see that the voltage is
constantly changing, getting larger, then smaller then
changing direction.
The image shows a 'figure of 8' mains plug and below
is a typical AC waveform, like the sine wave type you
receive on your mains supply.
The illustration shows three complete cycles of the waveform as time passes and the stages
of supplying current to a circuit during a single time cycle are:

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At the beginning A, there is no voltage difference between the pins, therefore no

current will flow.
As time passes, see B, pin 1 has a higher voltage than pin 2, so current will flow
out of pin 1, round the circuit and back to pin 2.
Later, at point C, pin 1 is at its greatest compared to 2, with maximum current
flowing round the circuit.
At point D, the voltage difference has started to decrease, with reduced current
At point E, there is again no voltage difference between the pins and no current
At point F, the voltage difference is reversed. Pin 2 is now at a higher voltage
than pin 1, Current will again flow in the circuit but in the opposite direction.
At point G, pin 2 is at its greatest compared to 1, with maximum current flowing in
the circuit from pin 2 to pin 1
The AC mains supply then reduces again, see H.
At point I, there is again no voltage difference between the pins and no current flow.
The same cycle starts all over again... and again... and again...

You may wonder why such a complicated system is used instead of normal DC.
AC is more efficient to generate and distribute and cheaper and more reliable. AC in the
UK is supplied at 240 volts AC as the standard domestic mains supply. It is used directly,
without any modification, to power your cooker, electric fire, incandescent light bulbs, etc.

The time taken to complete this cycle is measured in time as its 'period'.
In the domestic supply for the UK, Australia, New Zealand, most of Europe, this cycle
happens 50 times every second (60 times per second for the USA, Canada and parts of
South America).
The number of times the polarity reverses is known as the 'frequency' and is measured in
'cycles per second' (CPS) or 'Hertz' (Hz). So the UK mains frequency operates at 50Hz.
That means that the mains goes through a complete cycle every 1/50th of a second i.e.
20milliseconds. Consequently, the frequency = 1/ period.

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The total movement from zero volts to full voltage in any direction is known as the 'peak
amplitude', with the 'peak-to-peak amplitude' measuring the total swing.
You will have noticed that AC power does not supply a constant voltage and current; it is
constantly varying. We need some way to measure the effectiveness of the power. This is
done by measuring the heating effect of AC compared to DC.
Obviously, 200 volts of AC would not produce the same heating effect as 200 volts DC. In
fact, the equivalent heating effect of a sinusoidal waveform compared to DC is 0.707 of its
peak value. This value is known as the 'root mean square' or effective value and just written
as RMS.
When you read that the UK household electricity supply is 240V, it is really saying that it is
240V RMS. It is providing the same heating value as if it was 240V DC.

If we measure the mains voltage with a multimeter set on the AC range,

we will read 240V, as the meter reads RMS values.
If we measure the same mains supply with an oscilloscope (which
displays the actual waveform), we will see that the UK mains has a peak
amplitude of 340V and a peak-to-peak amplitude of 680V.
The RMS voltage is 120V in the USA and Canada and 230V for most of Europe, Australia
and New Zealand.
The UK voltage is also meant to 'harmonise' with EU standards but still supplies at 240
(being within the 230V 10% rule).
As a quick method, multiply the RMS value by 1.414 to get the peak value, or multiply the
peak value by 0.707 to get the RMS value.
So, for example, a 15V AC socket on the rear of your loco controller has a peak voltage of
The difference between RMS (the value printed on the label of a supply) and the peak value
becomes important when we start to look at building a regulated power supply later in this

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Analogue and digital

Electronic circuits operate with either analogue or digital signals and both can be found in use in
model railways.

Also known as 'analog' in the US
A useful definition of an analogue signal is:
A nominally continuous electrical signal that varies in amplitude or frequency
Consider, for example, a simple loco controller with a potentiometer to control the output
voltage. Turning the knob will result in an output between 0V and 12V and every
possible value in between. Depending on the pot's physical construction, and the steadiness
of your hand, you could have an infinite number of outputs values.
The 'nominally continuous' part means that after you set the loco speed, the output voltage
will stay at that same level forever or at least until you change the speed again.
Analogue technology is also widely used in audio devices such as a microphone, a tape
recorder, a DJ's turntable, loudspeakers and headphones.

Digital technology takes a signal and converts it into a series of high and low voltages.
It has been around for a long time (Samuel Morse invented the Morse Code back in 1837)
but has really taken off in recent decades. The supreme example must be computers, where
every word, every picture, every sound or video clip is reduced to a long set of zeros and
ones (i.e. OFFs and ONs).
Other domestic examples include digital radio, digital TV, CD players, etc.
Sometimes, we even have both at the same time. If you have broadband internet in your
home, you probably are using ADSL technology (digital) on the same incoming telephone
as your normal telephone calls (analogue as far as the exchange).
In model railways, digital signals are increasingly being used to enhance layouts.
Some examples are:

Operating points using servos.

Pulse width modulation (PWM) controllers to run locos.
DCC controllers and locos fitted with digital decoders.
The CBUS system to control accessories and traction.

The image below is the actual digital waveform from a DCC controller.

As you can see, the commands sent to the loco use a series of pulses and it is the pattern and
length of the pulses that contain the information.

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If you pass current through a wire, magnetic field lines are formed around it.
If the wire is formed into a coil, this effect is magnified and concentrated; you have created
an electro-magnet with similar properties to a permanent magnet.
This is put to use in a huge number of appliances including shavers, doorbells, buzzers, etc.
In model railways, it was the basis of the majority of 'solenoid' type electrically-operated
points and for magnetic uncouplers.
Let's look at some examples of electro-magnetism in action.

How a solenoid works

When the voltage is applied to the ends of the coil, the current flowing
through the coil creates a magnetic field that pulls the metal rod into
the coil. When the voltage is removed, the magnetic field dissipates
and the spring pulls the rod back out of the coil.
Although a very simple mechanism, it can be found in many everyday
appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, car starters, door
locks, electric typewriters, circuit breakers, chime type doorbells,
vending machines, automatic tellers, etc.
A variation is to have two coils one that pulls the rod in one direction
and another coil that pulls the rod in the opposite direction.
For model railways, it is the basic technique used in Seep and Hornby
point motors (see later).

How a relay works

If the wire is wound round a metal core, the
magnetic field is strengthened and this is the most
effective way to create electromagnets.
A relay is just a switch that is operated by an
electromagnet instead of your finger.
As the image shows, they are available in a range
of different shapes and sizes, with different
specifications for voltage and current handling
and the number of switch contacts.
The illustration shows the principle of operation.
A voltage is applied to the ends of the coil and the
current through the coil creates a magnetic field that
attracts the small block of metal (called the 'armature')
towards the coil. The armature is attached to the moving
part of the switch and results in an electrical connection
between switch contacts A and C.
Removing the voltage collapses the magnetic field and
the moving contact is pulled back to its original position by the spring. If the relay is of a
changeover type, there will be another contact (B in the illustration). In that case, contacts A
and B are made when the relay is not energised.

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This image shows a close-up of one of the

relays. The moving part is L-shaped, with
the longer section being used to move the
switch contacts. The short section is close to
the coil (shaded red just for the sake of
When the coil is powered, the shorter (red)
section is attracted towards the coil and this
forces the longer section to pivot upwards.
This movement breaks the connection
between the middle and lower contacts and the middle contacts now touch the upper
While some relays use a spring to return the armature when power is removed, this relay has
its spring built in to the contact blades.
A main feature of relays is that there is complete electrical separation of input and output.
This provides a number of advantages:
A small current to energise the coil can result in large currents (say 5A) being
A small voltage across the coil (e.g. 5V) can result in higher voltages of 12V or
even 240V being switched
A relay can switch AC or DC.
A relay can switch audio or data.
A relay can have multiple contacts that switch at the same time.
The main disadvantages of relays are:
Being mechanical, they can be quite large compared to other electronic
Like all moving parts, they could be affected by dirt, rust, moisture, etc.
They are slower to operate than electronic components.
Some need more current than can be supplied directly be a module. This often
means that they need extra components to interface relays to electronic circuits.
Relays are relatively cheap and are easily understood.
Although they don't need any special handling precautions (they are not prone to damage
from static for example), they should always be used within their specifications.
The relay with the blue case shown in the earlier image is designed to be operated at 4.5V.
While it will still operate happily at 5V, it should not be operated at a greatly higher voltage;
the coil will overheat and burn out. On the other hand, the relay in the black cube is
designed to operate at 12V. While it may still operate at a slightly lower voltage, too low a
voltage will lead to unreliable operation.
It is also best to avoid switching higher voltages or currents than the relay is rated for. This
can easily lead to pitting of the contacts or even welding the contacts together.
Operating relays within their ratings usually provides many years of trouble-free operation.
In model railways, relays are used to great effect for section switching and frog switching
(more later).

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How a motor works

The most common type of motor used in model railways is the 'Brushed DC motor'.
Although AC motors exist, they are mostly run at mains voltage for use in domestic and
industrial appliances. A huge amount of research has gone into motor design but we can see
how a simple DC motor works without delving too deeply into the physics of it all.
These illustrations take us through the stages of creating a DC electric motor.
Everyone knows that if you try to place two magnets
together with their North poles facing each other, the
magnets will repel each. Similarly, if two South pole faces
are placed close to each other. Opposites attract and likes
In the first illustration, a magnet is fitted on a rotatable
shaft and positioned between a pair of magnets.
Since the two magnet's faces have opposing poles, the
middle magnet will be repelled and make a half rotation to
align opposite poles.
The second illustration shows the middle magnet being
replaced with an electromagnet (a coil wound round a piece
of metal), usually called the 'rotor'
When power is applied to the coil, it creates an
electromagnet whose magnetic poles are identical to the
magnet in the first illustration (i.e. N pole on the left, S
pole on the right). This magnetic field results in the same
180 rotation (the N pole now has moved to the right-hand
magnet). If the polarity on the coil is now reversed, the
electromagnetic magnetic field would produce a magnetic
field identical to the first field, the N pole is once again on
the left-side and the rotor will again spin 180.
Since the rotor is continually turning, the power to the coil
is fed as shown in the third illustration. The coil is wired to
separate sections of a 'commutator' which rotates along
with the rotor. It has conductive sides, usually copper, and
a bar of carbon is held in touch with each of the copper
areas. These brushes are connected to the DC supply.
So, as the
rotor spins,
the voltage
being fed out
of the commutator into the coil is reversing
regularly. This ensures continual rotation
while the power is switched on.
The image shows an actual DC motor.
A motor may have multiple windings (3-pole,
5-pole or 7-pole) and multiple segments on the
commutator, to ensure the smoothest rotation with maximum torque.

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How a dynamo works

The dynamo is basically a motor being operated in reverse.
With the motor, movement was created by passing current through a coil.
With a dynamo in a circuit, current is created by passing a coil through a magnetic field.
So, if you take a DC motor and manually rotate its shaft, a DC output can be taken from its
Current is only generated by the movement of the coil through the magnetic field; stop
rotating the shaft and the current will stop; turn the shaft faster and a greater current will be

How a transformer works

A transformer takes an AC voltage input and produces an AC
voltage output.
Sometimes the transformer is wired to produce an output voltage
that is the same as the input voltage. This is called an 'isolation
transformer' as the device connected to the output has no direct
connection to the mains supply. This helps minimise electric
shocks and unwanted electrical interference.
Many domestic devices, including model
railways, run on much smaller voltages than
the 240V mains supply.
In these cases, the input is still at 240 volts
but the output has to be wired to produce a
much lower voltage (typically 6V, 12V, or
The illustration shows the basics of a
transformer. There are two coils of wire
wrapped round an iron core.
The input voltage is fed to the 'primary' winding and the constantly varying voltage (in
both amplitude and direction) results in a constantly varying magnetic flux around the core.
The varying magnetic field then produces an AC voltage on the output coil, the 'secondary'.
Its like an electromagnet (on the primary) and an alternator (on the secondary) sharing the
same iron core.
The actual output voltage depends upon the 'turns ratio' of the coil on the secondary
compared to the primary. If the two coils had the same number of turns, the output voltage
would equal the input voltage (ignoring any losses).
Transformers can be 'step-up' or 'step-down' types. Step-up transformers have more turns
on the secondary and are used to produce the high voltages used in the old cathode-ray-tube
TV sets, and in car ignition systems.
For model railways, we use step-down transformers. So for example, if we wanted a 12
AC output, the transformer secondary would only have a single turn for every 20 on the
primary. The 1:20 ratio would result in a 240V input producing a 12V output.
Since a transformer has an AC output, it has to be converted to DC for use by most devices.
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Reading circuit diagrams

When a project is being designed, it is all about what components to use and how they
should be connected together. This might be done by scribbling on a piece of paper or
might be achieved through sophisticated software.
Either way, the result is a 'circuit' diagram' or 'schematic'. This does not try to show how
the project would look when built just a guide to what connects to what. This allows
someone to see how the stages of a circuit work and trace inputs and outputs.
The working project is then developed, showing the printed circuit board tracks and where
components sit on the board. This layout is used when constructing a kit.
Circuit diagrams can often be overwhelming at first sight, with lines darting all over the
page. Here is an example of a module that is used to control four servo motors.

Before looking at individual components and their symbols, it is useful to know that there
are different ways of indicating the same thing. Although we will look at various options, it
soon becomes clear which symbols are being used on a particular diagram, as they are not
mixed on any one diagram.
Wiring symbols
The illustration show four devices that are wired
together. Some wires are connected to each other, while
others cross each other without connecting. The red
circles show two ways of connecting wires together (you
will see both being used in magazines). In the top
example, a blob is used to show that they connect to each
other, while the other example shows wires connecting at
a 'T' junction to indicate that they connect.
The blue circles show two ways of wires crossing each other. In the lower example, one
wire 'humps' over the other, while the other two simply cross over. Just below the upper red
circle, the wire seems to 'break' and this is just another way of showing that the wires cross
each other without connecting.

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Ground symbols
This illustration shows different ways of showing
the common 0V point in a circuit, as many
components often have one leg wired to 0V.
This is used as a common reference point for taking voltage readings (e.g. a pin on a chip
may be 3V positive with respect to ground).
Most diagrams show the 0V line along the bottom of the diagram, with the +ve line along
the top.
The diagram on the previous page just used the inscription 0V to indicate the 0V line.
The other symbols may also be found in diagrams, depending on how old the diagram is or
whether it a UK or US circuit. Some circuits simply use the inscription Gnd to indicate
the 0V line.
The symbol on the far right is the 'Earth' symbol which is sometimes used, although it dates
back to a time when the connection was physically taken to real earth by burying a metal
rod in the ground. If you look at component C3 on the top left-hand side of the diagram on
the previous page, you will see that one end goes to the positive supply (see the +5V) and
the other goes to the first symbol in the illustration (the 'Circuit Ground'). This just means
that one end of the resistor is connected to the 0V line. It saves having to draw the line all
the way down to the horizontal 0V line and thus makes the diagram look less cluttered.
The second symbol from the left is that of the 'Signal Ground'. This is the common return
line for any signals travelling along the circuit. Often, this is used in the same way as the
first symbol.
The third symbol from the left is that of the 'Chassis Ground'. This is a common point for
components using the metal chassis of a device. It is often at 0V but not necessarily so.

Power symbols
In the same way as you can simplify the drawing of a diagram
by using symbols for ground, there are various symbols that
indicate the supply voltage, whatever level
that may be.
The diagram on the previous page used +5V to indicate the positive 5V
supply line.
The three symbols shown are also used to indicate that the connection
should be taken to the positive supply line.
This snippet from a circuit shows both the supply and ground symbols
being used.

The symbols shown are for three
varieties of lever switch and two push
SPST stands for 'single pole single
throw'. It has two terminals that are
connected together when the switch is
operated. The 'pole' indicates how many moving wipers are in the switch, while 'throw'
indicates how many contacts the wipe can connect to. In this case, it is a single wiper that
can either be connected to the other terminal or not a simple ON-OFF switch.
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The SPDT switch stands for 'single pole double throw', so the one wiper can touch two
possible terminals depending on which direction the switch lever is operated a changeover
A variation on the SPDT switch is the SPCO variety. It stands for 'single pole centre off'
and this switch can be moved to one of three positions. In the middle position, the wiper
touches neither of the terminals.
The DPDT switch stands for 'double pole double throw' and is really two SPDT switches in
the one switch body. It has two input terminals and four output terminals. The dotted line
indicates that both wipers move at the same time.
The NO pushbutton stands for 'normally off'. The two terminals are only connected to each
other when the button is pressed.
The opposite type is the NC pushbutton. It stands for 'normally connected' so the
connection is broken when the button is pressed,

Electronic components
Most of these components are covered later.
In the meantime, here are their symbols.

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Power supplies
Now that we have covered some basic principles, let's look at how they can be applied to
model railways. Most layouts need at least two sources of power:
A variable voltage to run the locos.
A fixed voltage to run lights, points, etc.
Sometimes, both power needs are built in to the one controller, with the controller providing
a separate power socket for accessories. Other controllers need a separate power supply.
The remainder of this chapter shows how a power supply is constructed.

Building a DC supply
Most electronic devices use low-voltage DC to operate their components. However, the
mains supply is at 240V AC.
We already covered how a transformer can reduce the 240V AC mains supply to a more
manageable low voltage AC.
So, the next stage is to convert the AC into DC. This is achieved using diodes.

A diode, also known as a 'rectifier', is a semiconductor device that allows
current to pass in one direction only.
The illustration shows the shape of a common diode and its symbol.
Diodes are available in a range of sizes and shapes, depending on the
maximum current they are able to handle. Other factors are operating
speed and maximum operating voltages.

Diodes and DC
Consider this simple circuit of a power supply (battery or power unit) wired to a bulb via a
diode. If the diode's anode is connected to the positive side of the supply, it is said to be
'forward biased' and it allows current to flow.
Note that the electron flow is against the direction of the arrow.

If the diode is reversed, with its cathode towards the positive supply, it is said to be 'reverse
biased' and no current will flow.
Incidentally, the bulb will not glow quite as bright as would without the diode, as 0.65V is
dropped across the diode.

DC uses for a diode

Hobbyists sometimes connect power to a module the wrong way round, which can have
grave consequences for the module. If a diode is wired in series with the power input, the
module will only draw current when the power is connected the right way round and no
current when reversed.
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It is also common to see a diode placed across a relay's coil

terminals, as in this portion of a diagram.
We know from earlier in this chapter that passing current through
the coil results in a magnetic field being developed around it.
When the voltage is removed from the coil, that magnetic field
collapses and this produces what is known as a 'back EMF' a
high voltage in the opposite direction to the original voltage across the coil.
This, if left untackled, could lead to destructive voltages being fed back into the rest of the
circuit. The solution lies in fitting a diode across the relay. While the relay is held in, the
diode is reverse biased and acts as if was not there. However, when the relay is released, it
is forward biased to the back EMF, the diode conducts and the current circulates round the
diode and the relay coil until dissipated.

Diodes and AC
This diagram shows an AC supply being connected across a diode and a resistor.
During the first half cycle, the diode is forward biased, current flows and a voltage is developed
across the resistor. During the next half cycle, the diode is reverse biased and there is no current
flow, therefore no voltage across the resistor.
This process is repeated for every cycle of the AC waveform. This is known as 'half wave
rectification', as only half of the input waveform reaches the output.

The result is that the voltage across the resistor is a series of 'bumps'. It is not AC but is not a
smooth DC either it is a rippled DC.
This is sufficient for some basic purposes but is very inefficient. The shaded areas show that only
half the available power is available after rectification.
A much improved supply uses a 'bridge rectifier' circuit as shown below.

This results in 'full wave rectification' as both half cycles are now used in the
final output. This has greatly reduced the ripple effect and doubled the output
A bridge rectifier is available as a component with four connections, two for the
AC input and two for the DC output.
Alternatively, a bridge circuit can be made up from four separate diodes.
Like diodes, bridge rectifiers are available in a range of sizes and shapes,
depending upon the current and voltage they need to handle.
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Smoothing out the ripple

The power supplies so far have very large voltage
ripples on them, making them unsuitable for
many circuits. The voltage level consistency can
be improved with the use of 'smoothing
capacitors'. These are large energy stores that
are explained later. The capacitor is fitted across
the DC output and is charged (like a battery)
while the voltage is high. When the voltage
starts to drop, the circuit gets its current out of
the capacitor. This causes the capacitor to
discharge but it is then recharged during the next
voltage surge.
The diagrams show the effect of the capacitors in half-wave and full-wave situations.
The darkly shaded areas are the voltage to be expected without smoothing and the lightly
shaded areas show the additional voltage lift from using capacitors.
The rate at which the capacitors discharge depends on the storage ability of the capacitors
and how much current is drawn from them by the circuit.
The stated AC voltage from of any transformer's secondary is an RMS value.
However, after rectification and smoothing, the DC level is quite different from the
secondary's AC level. Remember, the AC peak level is 1.414 times the RMS level.
For example, a 14V AC secondary output is really 19.796V peak. Since, after
rectification, the smoothing capacitor maintains this level, the DC voltage across the
capacitor might be thought to be 19.796V. Unfortunately, current passes through
two of the bridge diodes during any one half cycle and each diode drops 0.65V
across it. Subtracting these two voltage losses (a total of 1.3V) from the 19.797V ,
the final voltage across the capacitor is 18.5V higher than the expected voltage.

Capacitors are two wire components that are used in almost all electronic circuits, industrial,
domestic including model railways.
They are available in a range of sizes, types and specifications. Some are built for highfrequency equipment, some are designed for high stability, some for close tolerance, some
for high-voltage working and some for high storage capacity.
They are all, however, doing the same job; they store electrons for later use.
Their storage ability is measured in Farads and values range from picofarads (10-12) through
nanofarads (10-9) and microfarads (10-6) up to Farads.
In audio and radio frequency systems, coupling capacitors are used to connect stages in the
system; it passes the audio but blocks any DC component. In radio systems, they are used
for tuning and filtering.
In model railways they can be found in:

Capacitive discharge systems to move point solenoids.

Power supply smoothing.
Stay-alive capacitors for DCC decoders (e.g. for the Lenz Gold Mini decoder).
Wave shaping DCC and CBUS signals.
Timing for PWM controllers, flasher circuits, and other timers.

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Capacitors are made up from two metal plates that are separated by a conductive material,
known as the 'dielectric'. Like a battery it can store electrons; unlike a battery, it cannot
create electrons. A capacitor builds up a potential difference across its plates when a
voltage is placed across it. One plate accepts electrons from the circuit, while the other
plate loses electrons to the circuit.
Depending on their use, capacitor dielectrics can be made from polystyrene, polyester
polycarbonate and more, but the most used capacitors have ceramic or electrolytic
dielectrics. Ceramic capacitors have low storage capacity and are used in timing and
decoupling roles. Electrolytic capacitors have much greater storage capabilities and are
used for supply smoothing and capacitor discharge systems.
The upper picture shows a ceramic capacitor. These are 'non-polarised'
which means they can be fitted either way round. The symbol next to it
is for any non-polarised capacitor.
The lower picture is of an electrolytic capacitor, which has a chemical
dielectric. It is polarised and has to be fitted the right way round or it
will be destroyed. They have a strip down the side with minus signs
printed on them so that you can identify the positive and negative leads.
Its symbol has a white rectangle on top (the positive lead) and a filled
rectangle below (the negative lead). Some diagrams will also show a
positive sign next to the positive end, but not always.

Identifying values
The letter 'p' is used to represent values measured in picofarads, while
'n' represents values measured in nanofarads.
Microfarads use the Greek letter mu '' to represent microfarads as shown
in this image. However, it is commonly replaced by the letter 'u'. So,
22 and 2u2 both represent 2.2 microfarads.
Sometimes, a value is shown without the 'F'. So 50F, 50uF, 50 and
50u are all the same.
Similarly, a 10 nanofarad capacitor could be found in a magazine or on a diagram as 10n or
10nF. Equally, a 15 picofarad capacitor could be identified as 15pF or just 15p.
As with resistors, the letter is used as a decimal point.
So, a 6.8pF capacitor might be marked as 6p8.
If a capacitors marking has exactly three numbers, without any letters, then the value is
measured in picofarads. If you look at the blue ceramic capacitor above, you will see that
its value is 472 (i.e. 472pF).
The capacitor on the right is marked as .01, which means that it is .01 (one
hundredth) of a microfarad. Where decimal places are displayed, it describes
the capacitor's value in microfarads.
Lastly, diagrams might use different ranges to describe the same capacitor
value. For example, this capacitor, although marked as .01, could equally be
described as 10nF. A .001 capacitor is the same as a 1nF or 1000pF
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So far, we have been able to convert a 240V AC mains supply to a lower voltage AC, rectify
it to obtain a rippled DC voltage, and smooth out the worst variations with a large value
capacitor. While this is sufficient for some basic uses, a much more smooth and consistent
supply is preferable.
You cannot always rely on the stated voltage outputs of 'wall warts', the units with
an integral mains plug, that are inserted straight into a mains socket. The cheaper
ones do not match up to their performance description. For example, a unit rated
as 12V may produce 18V, dropping to only 9V when handling a load. Check before
connecting to your equipment.

So, a supply unit may state that it supplies 5V, but is it really at 5V and does it always
maintain a 5V output? These doubts can be eliminated using a 'voltage regulator'
A voltage regulator is a semiconductor device that offers these benefits:

It provides a guaranteed specific output voltage

It provides a constant voltage, over varying current demands.
It eliminates all ripple.

It is a three-pin device:

A pin for the unregulated input voltage

A pin that is connected to 0V
A pin that outputs the regulated voltage

It has a very simple symbol and the output voltage can usually be understood from its
markings. The most commonly used series start with a 78 or 79, followed by two other
number that indicate the output voltage.
78 indicates that it produces a positive output voltage (the most commonly used type) while
79 indicates that it produces a negative output voltage (this one needs to be fed with a
negative input, of course).
The voltage regulator shown in the symbol illustration is a +12V regulator.
If the first two numbers are followed by the letter 'L' it means that it is the smaller 100mA
type. Some examples of regulator markings are:

+5V 1A regulator
+6V 1A regulator
+5V 100mA regulator
-12V 1A regulator

Some typical voltage regulators are shown

in these images. They are not to scale; the
one on the left is a surface mount
component which is smaller than a grain of
rice. The one on the right looks like a
transistor and is used for low current
circuits as it has maximum current handling
rating of 100mA. The middle image is of
a type that can handle larger currents and is intended to have a heat sink (a chunk of metal
with fins to dissipate unwanted heat) attached to it, or to be bolted on to the metal case of a

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The unregulated DC input is connected across the regulator's input and ground pins, with
positive lead from the supply connecting to the regulator's input pin.
The input voltage should be at least 2V or 3V higher than the required output voltage. So, a
5V regulator should be fed by at least 7V and a 12V regulator should have at least 14V or
Any less and the regulator cannot be guaranteed to work consistently.
Although the 78xx and 79xx range of regulators have a maximum input voltage of 35V,
there should not be too high a difference between the input and output voltage. This is
because any unwanted power is dissipated as heat in the regulator and if the heatsink cannot
conduct it all away, the regulator will shut down.
It all depends on the current you expect the regulator to handle. Remember, power is
voltage times current. A high input voltage with a small output current will produce less
heat than a lower input voltage with a large output current. If in doubt, use an input voltage
that is not excessive compared to the regulator's output voltage.
This portion of a circuit shows the voltage regulator in use, with
a 100nF (0.1uF) capacitor across the output. This would be in
addition to the smoothing capacitors that would be fitted.
It is fitted to shunt away any unwanted high-frequency voltage
component that may have got through the regulator.
The benefits of regulators explains why MERG kits use a +12V input and convert inside the
module down to 5V. Any temporary drop in the 12V supply, such as might be caused by a
sudden high current (e.g. operating a solenoid or servo) would have to be very dramatic
before it would affect the 5V inside the module. This ensures that the internal components
of the module (e.g. logic circuits or PIC chips) are always supplied at the required
operational voltage.

Our final supply circuit

Bringing all this together, we get this circuit.

To recap, the circuit functions are:

The 240V AC mains supply is connected to the transformer's primary winding.
The transformer's secondary winding connects 15V AC to the bridge rectifier.
The rectified output from the diode bridge has a ripple that is partially smoothed by
the 100uF capacitor.
This is fed to the voltage regulator, which produces a consistent +12V DC output.
The 100nF capacitor takes care of any unwanted high-frequency components.
The 4.7uF capacitor carries out some final smoothing.
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Chapter 2
Loco controllers

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Loco controllers
As you have probably found out, loco controllers are available in all shapes, sizes, prices,
with different facilities, accessories and so on.
But let's start at the beginning.

The simplest controller

Here is the simplest DC speed controller one that was used extensively in early model
railway controllers. It uses a 'rheostat' (a large wirewound variable resistor capable of
handling large currents). As the knob is turned, the wiper rubs across the windings, varying
the resistance placed in series with the locomotive's electric motor.
Turning the knob clockwise decreased the added resistance, increasing the voltage across
the motor, thus increasing the current flow and the motor speed.

This works well on a basic level but it only allows the loco to travel in one direction there
is no facility to change loco direction.
Reversals are achieved by adding a DPDT (double-pole, double-throw) switch to the circuit.

Overload protection
No matter how well you build and run a layout, there are always unexpected derailments
with wheels shorting across points or the track.
Our circuit above would not be able to cope with short circuits. If the rheostat was turned
to minimum or no resistance, then there is almost no resistance across the power supply.
Unless the power supply had its own protection, there would a huge amount of current
(limited only by the current rating of the transformer). The wire windings of the rheostat
would then act more like the bar of an electric fire unless the diodes blew in the supply.
You could fit a simple fuse between the power supply and
the rheostat but that would be a bad idea, as it would need to
be replaced regularly.
It is best to fit a circuit breaker. The one on the left is a
thermal breaker (it breaks and resets itself when the short is
gone). The one on the right needs to be manually reset, like
in your domestic fusebox.
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If you want, go to eBay or an electronic supplier, buy a rheostat, a DPDT switch and a
circuit breaker and you can build your own basic DC loco controller!
Rhesostats are expensive so many circuits replace them with power transistors which are
cheaper and smaller. Apart from that, they function in the same way reducing or
increasing the resistance between the supply voltage and the loco's motor.
Of course, you will not have the most refined controller like those that are now available.
What are problems with a basic controller?

Jerky starts
This is an all too familiar problem. The loco is stationary and you increasingly turn up the
speed knob to find nothing happens until the loco suddenly speeds away (a condition
sometimes called 'jump starting'). The effect is unrealistic and unsatisfactory.
The sources of the problem can be both mechanical and electrical.

Static friction
The motor and its gears have their maximum friction when they are stationary, a
phenomenon unsurprisingly called 'static friction' or 'stiction' As the loco's speed
control is turned up, the increasing current through the motor has no effect until it is
sufficient to overcome the static friction. By this time, the speed setting is well advanced
and the loco flies off.

The metal of an iron cored motor is not uniformly present round the armature. There is a
gap between each pole on the rotor, as shown in the illustration ( and look again at the
picture of a motor in chapter 1). This results in parts of the rotor being attracted to the
nearest permanent magnet and being reluctant to be pulled away. It is the same effect
you will have noticed when pulling a magnet off a sheet of metal; its stays put despite
increasing pulling, before suddenly being jerked off the material.
Better quality motors use 'skew wound' construction.
The illustrations show the standard motor on the left and
the skew wound motor on the right. The non-metal gaps
run the length of the standard rotor, while the gaps run at
an angle with skew wound. Skew wound rotors have less
pronounced gaps, when viewed on the horizontal axis,
and this minimises cogging.

Motor resistance
This is the main cause of jerky starts.
First, a quick look at the phenomenon called 'back EMF'. We described earlier how a
motor can act like a generator as well as a motor. Well, when a motor is being turned by
an external voltage, it is also generating a counter voltage (the back EMF) which opposes
the supply voltage. It is the resultant voltage that determines the speed of the motor. The
faster the motor spins, the greater the back EMF; a stationary motor produces no back
You will recall that there are two resistances in series across the power supply that of the
controller and that of the loco's motor. The motor has a much lower resistance and a
higher current when stationary than when it is turning, due to the lack of any back EMF.

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The increased current means more voltage being dropped across the rheostat and less
across the motor. However, once the motor starts turning, back EMF occurs, the current
drops, less voltage is developed across the rheostat and more across the motor. The
sudden voltage increase makes the loco surge forward. Although this problem is worse
when using rheostats, it occurs with most DC controllers.

Loco slows or stalls

When an electric motor is presented with a greater load, its speed will slow. This reduces
the back emf and results in it drawing a higher current and effectively lowering its
resistance. Since this current flows through the controller as well as the motor, the
voltage available to the motor is actually reduced, as the controller takes a greater
proportion of the available voltage.
This explains why your loco slows on gradients, with heavy loads, or the friction of going
round tight bends in the track. In the worst case, the motor voltage will drop to a level
that prevents it from turning a stall situation.

Jerky slow running

Some of the problems might simply be caused by dirt on the track, or the wheels or the
power pickups. It might also be caused by poor mechanical transmission (motor gears,
valve gear, coupling rods, etc.).
Otherwise, it is similar to the above problem. At slow speeds, most of the circuit
resistance is in the controller and current changes affect the motor voltage less than the
controller's resistance. There is insufficient torque (i.e. turning force) being created to
maintain a smooth smooth rotation of the rotor.

Racing downhill
This is the opposite effect to slowing on inclines. When going down a gradient, the
motor draws less current due to increased back EMF. The voltage across the motor
increases and the loco speeds up.

Unrealistic performance
Unless you are very careful, it is difficult to achieve the realistic simulation of train inertia
and momentum. It would be much better if the controller could simulate acceleration
and deceleration effects.
So, if you suddenly turn the speed knob fully up you don't jerk away; you gradually build
to maximum speed. Similarly, a quick turn of the knob fully down gradually slows the
loco to a stop. In fact any speed changes should reflect the authentic performance of the

Approaches to solving these problems

We can easily tackle mechanical issues with some cleaning, adjustments and lubricant.
The electronic problems mostly concern achieving and maintaining sufficient torque (i.e.
turning force) in the motor.
If we can achieve sufficient instantaneous torque from the motor, we can overcome the
retarding effects of friction and cogging achieving smoother starts.
If we can maintain torque levels throughout the twists, turns, gradients and declines in the
track, we minimize stalling and jerky slow running.
The two main ways that controllers tackle this is by:

PWM Pulse Width Modulation

Back-EMF Feedback

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In most of the above situations, we wish we could just give the motor a bit of a 'kick' to get
it started or to avoid jerking or stalling and that's just what PWM aims to do. In fact,
Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) is nothing other than giving the motor continual 'kicks'.
With normal DC, we change the voltage from 0V (stop) to maybe 12V (full speed), with
every voltage in between.
At high voltages, we avoid some of the problems of stiction and cogging, due to the
momentum of a high spinning motor.
It is at low motor voltages that the problems are mostly evident.
If you could look at the voltage across a motor when using ordinary DC, it would like these
three charts which show the voltage at different speeds.

You can see how difficult it is to maintain torque at the slower speeds, with such small
voltage levels.
A PWM signal, on the other hand, looks like this for the same three speeds.

At the faster speeds, the output looks similar to a normal DC voltage. In fact, at the very
fastest speed, it would be a continual 12V just like normal DC.
It is the slow speed on that chart that is of the greatest interest. Instead of sending a small
voltage (say 2V) to the motor, a succession of 12V pulses are sent to the motor. Over a
period of time, its effective voltage is the same as the small DC voltage. If you tried to
measure the signal with a meter, it would look like a low voltage, as the meter would
average out the pulses.
However and this is the big advantage the 12V kicks provide the instantaneous torque
that tackles stiction and cogging. Its increased torque also minimises problems with
stalling and jerky slow running.

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The PWM signal has two factors:

How often the 'kick' happen known as the 'clock cycle'.

How long the pulse lasts known as the 'duty cycle'.

The clock cycle is measured in Hz and the duty cycle is measured as a percentage of the
available time.
In the example, the duty cycle's slow speed is running at 10%, the mid speed at about 40%
and the fast speed at around 90%.

Clock cycle
The clock cycle cannot be too long, as the pulses would appear too infrequently to be
effective. If the clock cycle is too short, the pulses would be arriving at a much faster rate.
At excessively high frequencies, the coil in the motor behaves more like an inductor and its
impedance (resistance to current changes) inhibits the passage of high frequency pulses and
reduces the current flow through the motor.
There is no one frequency that can be applied to all motors. ZTC Controls produces a
useful chart that shows the best PWM frequencies to use for different motor types; it varies
from 31Hz to 32kHz.

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As a general rule, the older 3-pole open frame motors, with straight slotted poles, benefit
most from running at lower frequencies.
Modern, 5 or 7-pole can motors, with skew wound poles, use mid frequencies.
Coreless motors can be run happily at higher frequencies, although slow speed running
might not be enhanced.

The average human ear, depending on your age, can hear frequencies between 20Hz and
20kHz, with maximum sensitivity between 1Khz and 4kHz (your landline telephone only
uses a band from 300Hz to around 3kHz).
With exception of the very highest frequencies in the ZTC list, all are within the human
hearing range.
Feeding a motor with pulses in the audible range usually results in an distinct buzzing or
humming sound from the motor. This is not normally harmful to the motor but some find it
To counteract buzzing, a loco controller can increase the frequency of its clock cycle, to take
it beyond the range of human hearing. 16kHz usually is beyond the hearing of a middleaged male, with frequencies up to 32kHz being beyond everyone's hearing ability.
The downside to a higher frequency is often poorer performance at slower speeds.
If you are already using DCC, then your decoders are using PWM to control
motor speed, set by the values in CV9 to match your individual loco's motors
(see the chapter on DCC). This CV is sometimes referred to as the 'repeat
rate'. The value entered into CV9 is the period (the reciprocal of the
frequency). So, higher values result in lower frequencies and vice versa.
Decoder manufacturers like to promote their decoders' by describing their
abilities to produce high frequency PWM. So, we have Silent Running(from
NCE and Zimo), Supersonic (from Digitrax) and Quiet Drive (from TCS).

Duty cycle
The duty cycle decides the effective running speed of the motor. It is a ratio of the voltage's
'on' time to its 'off' time. A 0% ratio means the pulse has no width, hence zero volts, while
100% means the pulse has no 'off' time, resulting in the full supply voltage across the motor.
While the clock cycle is a fixed value, the duty cycle will vary as the operator speeds and
slows the loco.
If you go back a page and look again at the PWM waveforms, you can make the following
observations. In the first chart, the 'on' time was 10% leaving an 'off' time of 90%. This
would be known as 1:9 mark-space ratio and would be the equivalent of 1.2V DC for a 12V
supply. The second chart would equate to 4.8V DC and the bottom chart would equate to
10.8V DC. If the operator tuned the control to full speed, there would be no 'off' period
and the voltage on the motor would a continuous 12VDC (just like a straight DC controller).
While high mark-space ratios are broadly similar to normal DC working, the real benefits
come at lower ratios. While a constant 1.2V DC supply exposes the motor to stalling, etc.,
the short bursts of full power produce greater torque and are much more likely to keep the
motor turning.

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Heat dissipation
In our earlier example rheostat controller, if we wanted to reduce a 12V supply to only 3V
for the motor, we would have to drop the other 9V across the rheostat. If the loco consumed
1A, then the power developed in the rheostat would be a full 9W. The same power would
be developed if we had instead used power transistors as the drive electronics. In both
cases, the power would be dissipated as unwanted heat.
PWM working reduces the harmful overheating effects. With PWM, power is totally
switched off during the 'off' times and the power developed during the 'on' times is nearly
all used by the motor. There is very little wasted power in a PWM controller.
PWM is also very handy for the controllers built into DCC decoders, otherwise the
excessive heat would melt the plastic bodies of the locos!
Lower clock cycles however, can have an effect on increasing the heating of the motor coil;
this is usually worse for small motors with little metal to absorb the heat.

Conclusions on PWM
Despite the noise and heat problems, PWM offers a great step forward in obtaining much
smoother running of locos, particularly at slow speeds.
Most DC controllers use PWM for that reason, and it is almost universally used as the motor
control system built into DCC decoders.
For best results, the PWM clock cycle should be matched to the motors in use.

We looked at back-EMF (often shortened to 'bemf') a little earlier and described it as the
voltage that is generated as a motor spins, its voltage being in opposition to the supply
voltage to the motor.
This diagram shows a battery supplying a motor. The
smaller battery, marked as 'Back EMF' represents the
voltage which is effectively in series with the main
supply, but with a reverse voltage. The motor,
therefore, is being run from the difference between the
two voltages.
Back-EMF is the voltage generated by the motor
windings moving in the magnetic field of the motor's
magnets. Consequently, the faster the motor spins, the greater the amount of back-EMF,
and vice-versa. Put another way, the back-EMF is directly proportional to the loco speed at
any one time.
When a loco comes to an incline, its speeds slows and its back-EMF reduces.
When a loco hurtles down an gradient, its back-EMF increases.
You could think of the back-EMF as a variable resistance with a value that changes with
loco speed.
In both cases, the current being drawn from the supply alters with the loco's speed even
though the operator has not touched the throttle control.

If we could detect these changes, we would know if our loco was running slower or faster
than the speed set by the operator. The controller's circuitry could then take steps to
automatically adjust the loco's speed back to where it should be.
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This approach is known as 'feedback', as the changes inside the motor are fed back to the
circuit in the controller.
Of course, it is not possible to read this feedback at the same time as powering the loco.
So, the steps are:
Power the loco.
For a very short time, cut off the power.
Read the feedback (the unpowered motor is still spinning due to momentum).
Restore the traction power.
The illustration shows the principle of how it works.
The voltage from the controller is taken
to the motor via the tracks.
When the feedback is to be measured,
this voltage is cut off.
The back-EMF generated by the
freewheeling motor is now on the tracks
and fed back to the controller, but in the
opposite polarity.
The detector circuitry measures the
amount of back-EMF and compares it
with previous readings.
If the readings are identical, no adjustments are made.
If the back-EMF reading has altered, either greater or smaller, this difference is used to alter
the speed control's output (see the red dotted link) to compensate.
Three different control systems use feedback techniques.
In a normal DC feedback controller, the circuit has to make periodic power
breaks to allow the bemf to be measured. These breaks may only last less than
a millisecond and need only occur infrequently (maybe every second or less).
In a PWM-based controller, the power is being switched on and off
continuously anyway, so it is easy to read the feedback during some of the 'off'
periods of the duty cycle.
In a DCC system, the bemf is read within the decoders, with no involvement on
the part of the controller.
Controllers which combine PWM and back-EMF feedback, and also DCC decoders, provide
much more consistent running than normal DC controllers.
You can expect:
Elimination, or a huge reduction, of jerky starting.
Improved slow running.
Reduction in stalling.
Consistent speeds up and down gradients and on track curves.
Speed calibration on DCC, so that all locos run at the same speed on the same
controller setting.
However, a balance has to be struck between improved running and having a train that runs
at the same speed under all conditions (like a car's cruise control). After all, you would
expect a train to slow somewhat on an incline.

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Other features
Other useful features for a loco controller are the ability to introduce acceleration and
deceleration. The controller converts an operator's sudden large speed change into a
gradual increase or decrease in speed.
No more jerking away from a standstill, or screeching to a sudden halt, or lurches as the
speed is altered by substantial amounts.
The controller's circuitry ensures gradual pulling away and slowing to a halt.
In DCC systems, this facility is saved as user-defined values inside in the DCC decoders.

DCC - Digital Command Control

For many years, model railway systems ran on DC. You varied the DC voltage to the track
and the loco slowed down or speeded up.
Modellers observed that things worked differently in the real world. The voltage supplied to
electrified railway systems or underground systems did not vary their voltage. The
overhead lines or rail tracks were supplied at a constant rate; the varying of the voltage to
the electric motors took place within individual locos. That observation started the
development of DCC, notably byBernd Lenz, which has now become widespread in model
Some find DCC a little complicated but we are discussing it here because the choice of loco
controllers, and probably some layout wiring, will depend on which system (DC or DCC)
you decide to use.
If you are not using DCC, you could skip to the next chapter.
If you are thinking of looking at DCC, then this is good place to start.
If you already have a DCC system, it is best to know how it works before considering how
it should be wired.
With DCC, the loco is always provided with full track voltage and it is up to the operator to
control how much of it is provided to the motor. This is explained in more detail later but
the main thing to recognise is that:
All sections of track are live at all times.
The electronic devices (known as 'DCC decoders') that can be connected to the track
provide great flexibility.
These provide a great many benefits to model railway enthusiasts, such as:

Simplified wiring

DCC does not require any complex wiring systems for normal operation.
A single power bus can feed the entire layout, connecting to every piece of track.
A DCC layout does not need block/section switches or relays.
A DCC layout, with less complicated wiring, results in fewer wiring problems.
A DCC control panel has a cleaner look, with far fewer switches.
A DCC layout need have no control panel at all, running everything from a handset.
Wiring reversing loops, wyes and turntables are simplified.

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Simplified working

With all sections live at all times, there is no need to remember what sections are live
or dead.
You can run multiple locos on the same section of track, at the same time.
You can run consists (one or more locos pulling a train).

Improved running

Non-polarised rails attract less dirt.

DCC locos use PWM, with its benefits of improved slow running and less stalling
(see earlier).
Given its constant high voltage track supply, it is less troubled by voltage drops in
Each loco can be set to have a constant stopping distance.

Motor tuning

You can set the loco's minimum working voltage, so that the motor is fed with this
voltage as soon as the operator advances the speed control to the very first notch.
You can set the loco's maximum voltage. So, for example, a shunter will be
prevented from racing round the yard.
You can set the rate of acceleration for an individual loco.
You can set the rate of deceleration for an individual loco.
You can set bemf (see earlier) for maximum performance.
You can tweak the reverse running to be identical to forward running.
You can match the performance of multiple locos, to allow smooth-running consists.
Each loco's electronics has its own individual settings that you set up and it remembers.

More than loco motors

DCC offers more than running motors. It is designed to handle a range of accessories, both
in the train and at the trackside.
Loco features

Since there is power available to all locos on any section of track, at any time, even when
they are stationary, the loco decoder can be configured to switch off and on various loco
features such as:
Sound (horns, whistles, bells, diesel engine and steam engine effects, brakes, etc.).
Lights (headlights, beacons, Mars lights, firebox flicker, ditch lights, etc.)
Lineside features

There are two types of DCC decoders- those intended for handling loco motors and those
intended for handling accessories. Accessory decoders obtain their power (and their
instructions) from the track and are used for:
Crossing and barrier gates.

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Simplified computer control

Computer control of DC layouts is perfectly possible, with the computer turning relays on
and off to switch the power to various track sections on and off. This is in addition to
controlling the track voltage levels for speed control.
Computer control is made easier with DCC, as the computer only has to tell a loco's DCC
decoder to start or stop the motor, or change the motor's speed. There is no elaborate and
complicated track power switching to worry about.
Each loco has to have its own electronics board fitted called a DCC loco decoder.
The trackside decoders are known as 'Accessory Decoders'. They don't have the
electronics for controlling the loco's motor, but provide switchable outputs for signals,
lights, etc. Most of these provide 4 or 8 switchable outputs on the one decoder. Other
decoders are designed to drive servos for point operations; others handle stall point motors
or capacitive discharge point motors.

As usual, benefits come with downsides namely:

The cheapest decoder costs around 12 and can be as much as 70 for large
gauge locos that require higher current. To equip a sizeable fleet of locos
would be an expensive undertaking.
While a bottom of the range DCC command station costs little more than a
good DC controller, the top of the range command station could cost over 500.
A DCC sound decoder costs around 100.
Railroad & Co Train Controller Gold is at the top end of computer automation
software and sells at 499 Euros. (fortunately, there are cheaper versions
including free programs).


You can only run one loco straight out of the box. Each loco decoder has to be
allocated a unique identification number. So, if you bought two locos with prefitted decoders, they would both be supplied with the same default address.
You would have to change one decoder's address to get both working on the
same layout. Similarly, if you bought decoders to fit to locos, you have to
ensure that they have different address numbers before trying to run them both
at the same time.
Decoders can be awkward to fit, specially in smaller gauges.
All decoders require some initial tweaking to get the best from them. This is
covered in a later chapter.
DCC decoders don't make poorly running loco run much better. If your motor
and mechanism is dirty, sticky, or badly adjusted, the electronics inside the
decoder cannot compensate for the lack of basic maintenance.

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DCC shopping list

If you are considering starting a DCC layout, here are the items to look for.

A DCC command station. The image shows a budget

model the Bachmann E-Z Command.
A separate power supply, if one is not built into or
supplied with the command station.
A decoder for each loco.

A booster unit, if you need to run more locos than your

command station can cope with at any one time.

DCC function decoders, if you want to operate
points and accessories via DCC. The image shows
the Lenz LS150 accessory decoder which can
switch six separate outputs.
A hand held cab controller, if you want to walk
around the layout while operating locos, etc. These
can be wired to the layout via a plug and socket, or
can use a wireless system.

How DCC works

This is a simplified explanation of DCC working, as there is a full chapter on this later on.
A DCC controller is called a 'Command Station' because it send out commands to the
various decoders that are connected to the track either in the locos or at the trackside.
These commands are sent on to the track as part of the power supply to the track (this is
explained in the later chapter on DCC).

The illustration shows three locos on the same section of track, being operated from a single
command station. Although they are shown next to each other, they can, of course, be
anywhere on the layout.
Each loco is fitted with its own decoder. In the example, the decoders have been given the
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unique addresses of 1, 2 and 3. There can be no two locos with the same decoder address
on the layout at the same time.
Each decoder is constantly looking for any incoming messages for itself. Messages for
other addresses are ignored. When a message is received that matches its address, the
instruction from the command station is acted upon. The message could be to go faster, go
slower, stop, reverse, etc.
In the example, the operator wants loco 3 to drive forward at half speed, so he/she selects
loco 3 on the command station and turns the speed control to half way forward. The
command station converts this setting of the speed control into an electronic message that is
sent out along the track.
Although the message is received by all the loco decoders, only the decoder with address 3
will respond to the message.
A similar process takes place when the operator wants to move a point. The accessory
decoder for that point will also have its own unique address. In this case, the message is
not picked up from the loco's wheels and pickups. The decoder is permanently wired
across the track near where it is to be used. Although the decoder will be receiving
messages via the track, it will require additional power for running the accessories it is
attached to.

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Chapter 3
Layout wiring

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Layout wiring
Some layouts are planned and some layouts just 'develop' with time.
While a lot of thought often goes into designing the tracks, the wiring of the layout is often
looked at afterwards. This can easily lead to ad-hoc wiring schemes involving duplication
of work, greater fault liability and even ripping out some parts to start again.
This is all avoidable if the layout wiring is considered along with the rest of planning of the
layout. Don't lay the track then think about the wiring; plan your wiring requirements
before laying the track.
This, in turn, means that you should give some thought about what type of layout you are
aiming to produce - from an electrical standpoint.
As we will see later, there are a variety of ways to operate and control a layout, with each
requiring different wiring systems (e.g. DC, DCC, CBUS, etc.). You may even decide to
buy particular brands of track and points that best match your final layout configuration
(e.g. do you need insulfrog or electrofrog points).

Layout Wiring Goals

The wiring of a model railway should have as its main aims:

Reliability (not prone to breakdowns, overheating, fire or shock risks)

Maintainability (easily looked after and corrected when things go wrong)
Alterability (the existing layout can be easily altered or added to)

These goals can be established by implementing some 'standards' with respect to the wiring.
Reliability complications include

Long wiring runs (voltage drop, induction, interference)

Multiple baseboards / connections
Multiple operators
Mixing DC and DCC
Feedback / automation

Maintainability / alterability complications include

No / incorrect documentation
No wiring scheme
No diagrams
No fault history
Inaccessible mountings

A short, but important, word before we begin.
All the wiring that runs above and below your baseboard should be at low voltage.
Mains voltages should never be allowed on the baseboard.
There are a number of circuit diagrams available on the Internet for constructing home made
loco controllers. Most use mains transformers to feed the rest of the circuit. Please don't
attempt this unless you really know what you are doing. An alternative is to use 'wall warts'
or 'power bricks' power supplies that are sold for use with consumer goods or computers.
These are double insulated and safe to use.
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Different operating approaches

Model railways are a hobby. That means that there is no 'correct' way to design a layout.
It's about what you want to achieve. Some may aim to run an exact timetable for a
particular railway line in a particular era. Others may prefer a more eccentric and chaotic
narrow-gauge layout based on imagination. Yet others may enjoy the challenge of
constructing a fully-automated, computer-controlled layout. Last, and not least, some may
be content with a simple 'Thomas the Tank' layout running round a loop.
All these, and others, are legitimate layouts. They only differ in the complexity of the
layout wiring.
A simple loop of track, with a point or two, is easily
wired by even the newest beginner, only requiring two
wires from the controller to the track.
Moving beyond a simple loop, to the medium and
large sized layouts, there are different attitudes to how
a layout should be run. These differences lead to
different wiring requirements.
Firstly, there is the ongoing discussion as to whether the train is controlled by the driver or
by the signalman. In most layouts, the trains are controlled by the operator (driver) with the
signals being purely ornamental (doing nothing) , or an optional extra (manually operated)
or simply tied to the trackside detectors. The other view is that to emulate the real world,
train movements are controlled by the setting of the signals and therefore the hobbyist
should have the primary role of signalman. The train movements are then dictated to by the
signals, either manually or automatically. That leads to different wiring approaches.
Purely manual
Everything is left to the operator.
There is no interlocking.
Trains can run into the back of each other.
Its up to you to control everything.
Everything is wired back to the control panel.
Manual with train detectors for signals
Train detectors are used but only to operate the signals.
They have no effect on the trains.
Trains are still controlled by the operator.
It is still up to the operator to ensure trains don't run into each other.
Manual with some interlocking
Train detectors are used to operate the signals.
They also operate relays that ensure power is switched off in the preceding section.
The operator runs the trains but is prevented from running trains into each other.
Manual with computer assistance
The operator still runs the trains by hand.
The train detector information is fed back to the computer.
The computer controls the power to the sections.
The signals can be operated directly by the train detectors or by the computer.
Useful for 'glass panel' operators - those using mouse controls on a monitor screen.
Fully automatic.
The train detector information is fed back to the computer.

The computer controls train movements based on this information.

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Layout options
The 'train set' of our youth was simple. A pair of wires from the controller was attached to
the track of the oval and the train ran in circles. One operator, one controller and one loco
on the track at a time layout control at its simplest.
When a more complicated layout is planned, that involves having several locos on the track,
or several operators, a number of different wiring methods are available.
There are two main approaches to layout wiring:
Block or cab control
Bus-based layouts

Block control
Real-world railways divided up mainline track into long blocks, with entry to each block
controlled by signals. This prevented trains from running into the back of each other.
This concept can be adopted for model railways in various options. We can carry out all
operations manually, through electronic modules, or through computer control.
For us, block control is a common means of controlling multiple DC locos on a layout. If
you divide your layout into sections of track that are electrically isolated from each other,
you can place multiple DC locos on the layout, each in a separate track section.
If you are installing track, you can use plastic rail joiners to isolate adjoining rails. If the
track is already laid, the rails can be cut with a fine-toothed saw or with a cutoff disc in a
Dremel drill (don't forget to wear protective glasses).
Since each loco sits on an isolated section of track, it can be operated in that section,
independently from any other locos on other sections.
You would create a block for each section of track on which you are likely to run, or park,
trains. Some sections will be long (e.g. a stretch of main line) and others short (e.g. a
siding or a passing loop). The more blocks you create, the more flexible the layout becomes
but the complexity of the wiring and switching also increases.
Since each block requires to be powered independently, they need their own separate power
wiring back to the loco controller.
This illustration shows a basic block system (sometime referred to as a 'Star' or 'Point to
Point' system).

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All the track sections shown are isolated from each other but are all connected to a central
point (the controller), usually via switches or relays.
The operator decides which locos to run by powering up that particular section by throwing
its power switch.
In the example, sections B, E and F are permanently wired to the controller so these track
sections are always powered.
Because switches S1 and S2 are thrown, sections A and D are also powered but section C is
unpowered as switch S3 has not been thrown.
So, throwing these two switches allows the operator to drive the train from block A, through
block B, to block D. If switch S2 is now turned off, block D has no power and the train sits
stationary in the block.
Now, if switch S3 is thrown, a train in block C is powered and could be driven from block
C, though block B to block A.

Each section is independent, so a failure in one section need not prevent the rest of the
layout from working.
Each section only draws a proportion of the total layout current.
You can concentrate the entire layout's device controls (circuit breakers, block detectors,
light switches, point control modules, etc.) in one accessible location.


The huge amount of wiring that is involved produces cable management problems,
unless meticulous records are kept.
The long runs to the remotest parts of the layout may cause voltage drops in the cable
and connectors, reducing the efficiency of the devices at the far end (e.g. locos running
more slowly, LEDs dimmer, CDU's being less punchy).

Multiple operators
The simple illustration above shows three tracks sections that can be switched between
being powered and unpowered. It is designed for one operator, running one train at a time,
using a single controller. That is enough for many home layouts, with the switches to
power the blocks mounted in a central control panel.
For larger home layouts and club layouts, there is a need to have multiple operators, each
running their own locos while still maintaining electrical and physical separation.
For every loco running on the layout, there is an operator with a separate controller and two
controllers should not be connected to the same block at the same time.
In some cases, the operation is simple: one
operator can be handling the main station while
another handles the mainline, another the
marshalling yard, and so on. To maintain
movement, there would have to be a common
handover point for each operator's domain. So,
for example, the operator of the main station and
the operator of the main line would require
control over a common block (e.g. entry to the
station throat).
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The illustration shows a DPDT (double-pole double-throw) switch. When set one way, it
connects controller 1 to the block; when set in the other direction, controller 2 is connected
to that block. You might prefer to have a 'centre-off' version of this switch so that, in midposition, the block is left unpowered.
This approach suits layouts where operators have defined layout districts to control and
eventually have to hand over the loco to another operator. It is less suitable if you want to
control a train as it goes all round a layout.

Cab Control
The most flexible approach is to allow all operators and all controllers access to all blocks.
This is known as 'cab control'. It gives any one operator the ability to control his/her train
anywhere on the layout. Naturally, this raises problems of 'interlocking' making sure that
no two controller access the same block at the same time. This can be achieved through
lots of switches, or through more complex arrangements using electronics and relays.
We could have a separate switch for each controller to every block, but this quickly creates
problems. Imagine a control panel that allowed 6 controllers access to 80 blocks a total
of 480 switches! However, there is an even bigger problem. To ensure that one controller
had sole access to a block, we would have to ensure that the other five controller's switches
were switched off accidents waiting to happen! Luckily, there is an improved switching
system that drastically cuts down the needs to a single switch for each block.
Let's consider a single block for the moment. If there
were four operators, for example, we could have an
switch arrangement like that shown in the illustration.
It uses a 1-pole, 4-way rotary switch. If controller 2
wants access to the block, the knob is turned to
position 2. This prevents the other three controllers
from connecting. The on/off switch can be left in the
'off' position when the block is not being used,
preventing unintended train movements.
This works well for a single block and can be
replicated again and again for other blocks, with a rotary switch and on/off switch for each
extra block added.
Switch panels
With a small layout, cab control is usually achieved by fitting all the switches to a central
control panel.
It is still possible to have a central switching panel in a larger layout, as long as the
operators are happy to have a main co-ordinator in charge of all layout block switching.
The main co-ordinator decides which operator can take over a block and provides access to
the block to the chosen controller. The co-ordinator informs the chosen operator that he/she
is ready to go verbally, through lights, or through switching track signals. This method
may be thought useful for running timetables, with the co-ordinator as the signalman,
dispatcher, or 'Fat Controller'. It still allows some degree of flexibility. So, if block 12
should never be available to controller 3, then controller 3 will not be wired to block 12's
rotary switch.

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Central control might be considered too restrictive and a common alternative is to wire
smaller local control panels throughout a large layout. The blocks of a goods yard may be
given their own control panel, as may a station or a fiddle yard.
This system is usually accompanied by portable handheld throttles that plug into the layout
close to the control panel. This way, any operator can walk up to a control panel, plug in a
handheld throttle, dial his controller number on a block switch, and start running the train in
that block. If required, a number of block switches can be similarly set, allowing the
operator to run the train across multiple blocks.
Moving from control panel to control panel, an operator can run a train anywhere on the
Another advantage of using local panels, is the shorter wire runs between the track and the

Electronic switching
While switches are the simplest way to ensure cab control, power to blocks can be
controlled electronically. When a relay switches one controller's power to a block, it
prevents other relays from switching until the block is released by that operator.
Many home-brew designs have appeared to meet the needs of particular layouts.
Ready-made modules are available for automatic block control.
Heathcote Electronics have a range of modules that implement interlocking and also include
acceleration and deceleration of the loco.
MERG's SuperBloc system produces electronic kits that ensure there is never more than one
train in each section at any one time. Trains can be controlled manually by setting signals
in each area, or run automatically via interconnected block controllers. It is designed for
DC motors.
Finally, control of blocks could be achieved by linking electronic boards to a personal computer.
CTI Electronics market a range of boards, under the 'Train Brain' range for controlling DC locos,
via a PC and MERG produce a range of kits for DCC in its CBUS range for standalone or PC

Bus control
This approach dispenses with lots of block switches
This illustration shows that a single pair of wires is taken from the controller and routed
round the layout.

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Wires are then run from each piece of track to connect to this 'bus'. So, all sections of the
track have power at all times. Control of individual locos have to be controlled by other
means this is the basis of DCC-based layouts.
In some cases, a bus could be wired as a loop, although not for DCC.

The huge potential reduction in layout wiring.

Fewer wires means the wiring is cheaper/quicker to install.
Fewer wires means reduced maintenance problems (fewer wires to break, fewer
connections to corrode, fewer wires to have to trace/colour code/document.
Fewer wires means less interference between longs runs of parallel wires (noise,
crosstalk, induction).
Easy to extend. Adding an extra baseboard, or adding a terminus, does not require lots
of extra wires to be run back to the central point. The devices are simply tapped on to
the existing bus which is extended to the new work area.


Vulnerability to breakdowns. Since the entire layout relies on a single pair of wires, any
breakdown in the bus could stop the entire layout from working. A system of cutouts to
various sections is necessary to restrict the breakdown to the section that is causing the
Without using additional boosters (see below), the bus has to handle the entire current
demands of all attached devices.

DCC (Digital Command Control)

DCC is becoming ever more popular due to its many extra facilities, including track wiring
simplification. At the level used by most small layouts, a single controller is wired to all
sections of track. The entire track system is powered at all times and special decoders are
fitted to each loco. That allows the controller to send messages to specific locos on the
layout, instructing them to move, change speed, change direction, switch on loco lights,
make sounds, etc.
Locos are free to move around the entire track system without the need for track breaks,
isolated sections, section switches or relays. Movement between stretches of track is
No block/section switches or relays.
Less wiring / fewer connection problems.
Can run multiple locos even on same stretch of track.
Automation software, commercial and public domain, is easily integrated.
Stay-alive capacitors can be fitted to locos. This minimises problems with insulated
frogs and dirty track (particularly welcome for smaller gauges with short
Points and accessories can be controlled via trackside decoders. These attach to the
DCC bus and get their power and instructions via this single bus. No need for a
separate accessories bus.
Expensive. Savings on wiring costs are wiped out by high cost of decoders.
Requires initial tweaking of decoders (setting the CV, motor tuning).

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Large scale DCC

Large DCC-based layouts create additional problems that need extra wiring.
If many locos, or locos that consume heavy current, are used then the total current demand
may be greater than that available from a DCC controller. Up to a point, that can be
satisfied by adding a booster to the controller.
Beyond that, the layout would have to be divided into separate isolated sections with each
section having its own power booster.
Also. large club layouts usually have multiple operators, each controlling their own work
area on the layout. The wiring system has to take that into account.
These problems are overcome at the expense of more complex wiring.
This illustration shows a large DCC-based layout that has locos with high current demands
and multiple operators.

A single DCC command station still controls the entire layout and locos can move freely
throughout the layout without any block switches. The layout is separated into a number of
isolated sections that connect to the command station through separate boosters. The
boosters have their own power supply and that means that the command station and its
wiring does not have to carry the total current of the entire layout. Each booster powers its
own district. The commands to control locos and DCC accessories come from the
command station and are sent to each booster via its own bus the Control Bus.
Another requirement for multiple operators is a connection between their hand-held
controllers and the command station. This wiring connection is known as a 'Cab Bus' and
may be specific to a particular commercial DCC system, as there is no NMRA standard for
CAB buses. The Cab Bus (or Throttle Bus), as shown, also allows computers and/or
control panels to communicate with the command station.

Other buses
Star and Bus wiring is not restricted to loco traction. It is also applicable to point control,
signalling, lighting, etc. For example, if a factory used 20 LEDs for internal illumination, it
would be very messy to have 40 wires routed back to the power supply. A single 'accessory
bus' could take the power to the building, where is would fan out to individual LEDs. In
other words, a bus to the building and a star formation inside the building.
Where heavy current peaks are expected, it is best to have a separate loco traction bus and
an accessories bus. That way, if a loco suddenly pulls away, the lights don't dim in the
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station; or if a group of solenoids are operated for setting a route, the loco does not suddenly
jerk down to a slower speed. In fact, for larger layouts, it is usually advantageous to have a
separate power supply for the accessories.

MERG's own 2-wire layout control system has huge implications for layout wiring.
It is based on the distributed bus method and is extensively covered in MERG's Technical
Bulletins (there are 10 different TBs in the G32 list).
There are also many articles in back copies of the MERG Journal.

This diagram, slightly adapted from previous MERG material, shows the versatility of the
Apart from power, all the devices that are shown interface with each other over a single pair
of wires the CBUS.
The devices include switches, LEDs, various point motor controllers, track occupancy
indicators, relays, etc.
To that can be added the CAN_CMD, which is a DCC command station that be controlled
by MERG hand controllers (the CAN_CAB) or by computer.

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This 2-wire bus can replace much of the traditional layout wiring.
For those beginning to plan a new layout, the CBUS system should be given consideration.
Even for existing layouts, CBUS can be used to implement new additions such as signal and
point operations, or track occupancy feedback to a mimic/control panel. This can be
achieved without altering the existing track power arrangements.

Summary of buses
This chart looks at the wiring demands of the most popular layout control systems.
The simplest DC system only needs track power a single bus. If you need to control
points or accessories from a control panel, you need to run wires directly from the panel to
each device. This includes the signal to operate the device and the power for that device.
Similarly, if you want to have panel lights indicating track occupancy, you have to run
signal wires back from every detector to the panel (plus the power for the detectors). In
total, you would need a track bus, a power bus to take the 12V power round the layout, an
accessory bus and a feedback bus a total of four buses.


Simple DCC

Large DCC


Track Bus

Direct from
controller to track
(maybe via
switches or

Directly from
controller to track
or via a booster

Via track boosters Use CBUS with

and power

Accessory Bus

Direct from
switches etc. to

Carried by the
DCC track bus

Carried by the
DCC track bus

Uses CBUS with

CANACC8, etc.

Occupancy and
other feedback

Separate bus

Separate bus

Separate bus

Uses CBUS with


Accessory power

Needs 12V feed

Via track bus

Via accessory bus

Needs 12V feed

Control Bus

Not required

Direct from
controller to
booster (only if
booster is used)

From controller to
Not required
multiple boosters

Cab bus

Not required

Not required

From all
controllers to
command station

From all
controllers to

Note that the CBUS system can control traction and accessories and feedback from the one
bus, with an additional power bus for the accessories and points. For an average layout,
two buses are sufficient; an extra CAB bus would be needed if a larger layout had multiple

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Chapter 4
Track Wiring

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Track wiring
The previous chapter looked at running a single train on a simple loop of track with a single
power feed. A place where most of us started. Later, however, you add points and extra
track, to allow for more varied running.
So that chapter discussed methods of laying the track as a collection of separate isolated
sections, making possible more complicated running operations. These included Cab
Control systems and large DCC systems using multiple boosters to feed many power
Another reason for having isolated sections, both with DC and DCC, is to allow for track
detectors to detect and act upon track occupancy (knowing that a loco is sitting on that
section of track, whether moving or stationary). For example, the MERG TOTI-4 and
TOTI-12 kits detect tiny currents when a loco is sitting in an isolated section. How the
feedback from these detectors can be used is covered in a later chapter.
There are two approaches to wiring isolated track sections:
Common return
Two wire feed
If you have not yet laid your track, you may want to look at these two options and decide
what is best for you.

Common returns
One wire from the controller is fed to one rail as shown in the illustration.
The other rail is cut into sections and the pieces are joined with insulated rail joiners.
section is connected back to the controller
through a device shown here as a blank box.
For a cab control system, these boxes represent
switches. This means that individual sections are
only powered when their corresponding switches
are thrown.
Alternatively, the boxes might represent track
occupancy detectors, such that the only detector
triggered is the one that is passing current
(through the loco's motor).


Simplifies wiring. Half the wiring of the twin

feed approach.
Simplifies fault-finding. If one section stops
working, there is only a single wire to trace for
a fault.


If using multiple boosters, the common return

must have a very high amperage rating, as it
has to carry the sum of all the boosters'
currents. For example, if six of the sections
were consuming 1A of current, the return wire has to carry 6A.

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If a single common wire is used to connect the return wire from the track, solenoids,
detectors, etc., there is an increased risk of interference (e.g. a pulse from the solenoids
affects the detectors resulting in false triggering).
Reverse loops still need to have isolated sections, to avoid shorts.

An improvement could be using separate returns for different high and low current devices.
So, for example, the power bus, traction bus and solenoids could share a common return.
These are all high current wires but are relatively immune to interference.
Low level signal wires, such as track occupancy detectors and logic signals for motorised
points could then share a common return that is unaffected by the large current pules on the
other return wire.
Note that although the diagram shows a single feed to the common return rail, multiple
feeds to different parts of the common rail are used to minimise voltage drop.

Twin feeds
To isolate a piece of track, both rails are cut, instead
of one. Every piece of track has both rails isolated
from adjacent track sections and each section is is fed
with two wires, one for each rail.
For block control, this means use a double-pole
double throw (DPDT) switch, so that both rails are
connected when the switch is thrown.
Reduces unwanted interactions. Since no
sections share a common return wire, the
chance of changes in one section affecting
another section is greatly reduced.
Easier to make future alterations, as all rails
sections are already wired under the baseboard.
There is no need to cut track and insert
insulated joiners. You simply rewire your
under board connections to what your new
needs are, without touching anything above the
Many more wire runs. Twice as many wires to connect.
More scope for faults. Twice as many connections to go faulty.

Positioning track breaks

As we have seen, there are a number of circumstances when we want to introduce isolated
blocks and sections:
These include:
For DC Cab Control.
For DCC power districts.
For DC/DCC track occupancy detection.
For programming the CVs of DCC decoders.

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DC Cab Control
The layout's track is cut into isolated sections that meet the operational needs of
the user. Sometimes a long stretch of track will be considered as a single block.
If, however, you want to run several locos on that stretch at the same time, the
track has to be further sub-divided. On most occasions, a single siding has to be
isolated (or at both ends for a passing loop. The plan has to cover all track
sections where a loco might be reasonably expected to stop, and also take into
account the likely maximum length of the train on each particular isolated section.
Power to the track sections is routed through switches/relays.
DCC power districts
Power districts are introduced to spread the heavy current demand in the layout.
This is usually caused by concentrated activities in distinct 'work areas' such as
main line stations, goods depots, marshalling yards, fiddle yards, etc. These work
areas can be isolated from each other and be fed from separate boosters, each
booster taking a share of the overall current demand.
Power to the track sections is routed through DCC power boosters.
Track occupancy detectors
The isolated sections should be chosen according to the function they are to fulfil.
For example, you may only want a single occupancy detector, to operate crossing
gates. Another option is allocate a detector to each of a layout's hidden sidings, to
indicate which are currently occupied.
You might even consider having many
occupancy detector sections all round a layout, to provide feedback for mimic panel
updates or computer automation.
Power to the track sections is routed through the current detectors.
Programming track
DCC-equipped locos have their decoders programmed using a SPROG programmer,
or the programming output from a DCC command station. The loco has to sit on a
stretch of track that is dedicated for programming locos and is isolated from the rest
of the layout, to prevent accidental re-programming of other locos. Some users
prefer using a small piece of track on their workbench, to avoid any possible
Power to the track comes from the SPROG programmer or a DCC command station's
programming output.

Feeds and droppers

Track buses carry power all round the layout but they don't connect directly to the track
rails. The track bus has to carry all the current needs of an entire layout, or an entire block
or section. To minimise track resistance and connection problems, the track bus is best
wired as a pair of continuous heavy current conductors that makes its way along the layout
under the baseboard.
Short wires are then taken from the track bus and fed through holes in the baseboard to
connect to the track rails above. These wires can be of lower current capacity, since they
don't carry the total layout current.
These short wires are known as droppers (because they drop through holes drilled in the
baseboard) or feeders (because they feed the power from the track bus to the rails).
There are conflicting opinions on how many droppers should be used for any one section of
track, with advice varying from 18 to 12'.
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However, there is general agreement on:

If a section is made up of two pieces of track, take a dropper to each piece do not rely
on getting a good contact from the rail joiners. Alternatively,some solder both rail ends
to the rail joiners, although this can lead to problems when the track expands/contracts
under changing temperatures.
Droppers should be soldered to track rails, not to joiners.
For long stretches of isolated track, use more than one dropper. This ensures continuity
should one dropper fail. It also improves performance (less voltage drop, since track
buses have lower resistance than most track rails).
Use the thickest dropper wire you can manage, taking into account aesthetics and any
soldering difficulties that may occur with smaller gauges.
Droppers should be as short as possible. This prevents the introduction of a high
resistance section into the current loop, which might prevent the short circuit protection
system of a controller or booster from operating (the current may be sufficient to cause
damage while not being high enough to trip the protection).
Smaller gauges have track rails with much smaller mass and therefore higher resistance.
It follows that a long run of z gauge track would need more droppers than the same
length of O or G gauge track.

DCC bus terminators

DCC systems generally run perfectly happily, with small distortions of the DCC waveform
being handled by the decoders.
However, where the bus is over 10m, or where you are
experiencing decoder efficiency problems, terminators can be fitted
to each end of the bus.
These devices are simple filters that prevent voltage spikes
appearing on the bus and upsetting (or damaging) decoders. It is
intended to improve the DCC waveform and thereby improve DCC
Terminators can be bought or can be made from two components as shown. The resistor
can be around 100 to 150 ohms 1W or 2W, and the capacitor is 100nF (0.1uF) ceramic at
50V working. The two are wired in series then wired across the ends of each bus.

Wiring suggestions
These are drawn from the experiences of others and should be given due consideration.

Routing wires
The track bus should be as short as possible (to minimise voltage drop), while following the
main track as closely as possible (to keep droppers as short as possible). Sometimes, you
may have to run spurs off the main bus to avoid long snaking runs for the main bus.
Of course, the track bus (or buses) are not the only wires on the layout. Under the
baseboard, you may have buses for accessories, lighting, point operation, track occupancy
feedback, etc.
Since every piece of electrical equipment has the potential to generate magnetic fields and
also to pick up these unwanted radiations, consideration has to be given to preventing
mutual interference.

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This means that wires from feedback devices (e.g. track occupancy detectors) should not be
routed close to DCC buses or, even worse, point solenoid wires or decoupling magnets.
Similarly, wires to heavy current motors should not be run close to DCC buses, to minimise
motor commutation spikes from upsetting DCC signals.
Where there are multiple DCC buses (from boosters), they should be spaced apart to prevent
'crosstalk' the signals from one booster being picked up on the neighbouring bus.
All this suggests that you should avoid running all the cable together in trunking, or
bunching to pass through the same hole drilled in the baseboard frame.

Twisting wires
DCC system rely on having clean signals that the decoders can understand. Any external
interference (from loco motors, point solenoids, radio transmitters, etc.) can modify the
signal and prevent reliable operations.
The longer the track bus wires, the greater is the danger of interference. While this may
pose few problems for small layouts, precautions are recommended for large layouts. A bus
wire acts like an aerial, picking up external interference and converting it into unwanted
voltages on the wire. So, if the two bus wires are twisted together, the unwanted voltage on
one wire is cancelled out by the voltage being induced in the opposite polarity in the other
There is no need to buy special twisted pair wire. Just twist the two wires loosely round
each other, approximately two to four twists per foot.

Connecting wires
Good, low resistance connections are essential for trouble-free operations, with reliable
metal-to-metal contact. This requires making 'gas tight' connections to prevent the build up
of oxides (poor conductors) between the wires and the terminals.
Soldering is the best way to ensure an air-tight connection.
Screwed connections can be successful as long as precautions are taken to ensure that the
wire ends and the screw surfaces are clean, shiny and free from dirt, corrosion, rust, oils,
etc. If the wire end or terminal needs cleaning, the connection should be completed as soon
as possible, before surface oxidisation starts.

Fitting droppers
The illustration shows two methods of soldering droppers to the track rail.
On the left, the dropper comes up through a hole in the baseboard and is bent as shown
before being soldered (don't forget about cleaning the track
area, tinning that area and the wire end before soldering). This
method is the only option if the track is already laid.
On the right, the dropper is soldered to the underside of the rail
before the track is laid. The other end of the wire is then
inserted through the hole and soldered to the track bus. This
method is used where some thought has been given to the
locations of track blocks/sections prior to laying a section of

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What current does a layout need?

The table shows typical current demands for one of each device.
These values will vary depending on different manufacturers of the same product.
The current demand can vary from as little as a few milliamps (e.g. LEDs) to 5A for a point
solenoid. For locos, it can be under 100mA for a Z gauge loco and as as high as 20A for a
long consist of O gauge locos.

Typical current demands

Locomotive motor: Z scale and N scale
TT, 00/H0 scale
O scale


Twin-coil turnout (point) motor e.g. Peco, SEEP

5A pulse

Motor-actuated turnout motor e.g. Tortoise, Conrad


R/C servo turnout motor


Memory wire actuator (turnouts and signals)


Light Emitting Diode (LED) (signals, train headlights / taillights)


Incandescent lamps (signals, train headlights / taillights)


Relay coils


CBUS modules


Track occupancy detectors


Signal wires (from TOTIs, to Servos, to/from CBUS modules)


We have to ensure that the layout's wiring can meet the demands of all the locos and other
devices that may need to run/operate at the same time.
Let's see what wire types are available and then decide what's best for a layout.

Wire standards
As usual, why have one standard when you can have
several? Why learn about them ? Because you will often
find them referred to in model railway magazines and on
the internet. More importantly, they are used as
descriptions of wire being sold by Rapid, etc.
The American Wire Gauge (AWG) is a U.S. standard for
wire gauges. Higher gauge number indicate smaller wire
diameters, with thicker wires having lower gauge numbers.
Although an American standard, it is often quoted in UK
and European descriptions.
There is also an Imperial Standard Wire Gauge (SWG) and
its values are not directly equivalent to AWG values. SWG
is not often used.
Probably the most understandable is the metric measure,
which describes the wire in terms of its diameter or its
cross-sectional area (CSA) measured in square millimetres. Unlike AWG, higher metric

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measurements indicate thicker wires.

Wires are sold either as a single solid conductor, or as a multi-stranded cable.
Multi-strand cables are described in the metric system by giving the number of strands,
followed by the diameter of each strand. So, for example, a wire described as 7/0.2 is made
up of seven strands of wire where each strand has a diameter of 0.2mm.
AWG, on the other hand, does not make a distinction between solid and multi-strand.
So for example, an AWG value of 24 could be a single strand of 24 AWG, or it could be
made up of seven strands of thinner 32 AWG wire (which together result in the same
current-passing capacity as a solid 24 AWG conductor).

Current ratings of different wires

As expected, thicker wires can carry greater current than thinner wires of the same material.
This tables describes some the wires that are available from Rapid Electronics and other
Number of wires/
diameter of each wire

Current capability

Available colours




Ribbon cable 7/0.127





11 (also 16 bi-colour)

Security alarm cable (7/0.2)


4,6 and 8 core










Twin and earth 1mm2 (lighting)


Twin and earth 1.5mm2 (lighting)



Twin and earth 2.5mm (power)

The current ratings shown are a good indication of what can be expected under
normal conditions. Some manufacturers are reluctant to stipulate an exact value, as
the current handling can be affected by external conditions such as the ambient
temperature and problems with heat dissipation.
The picture shows a piece of 'twin and earth' cable. It
has three solid conductors, two being insulated and one
being bare. Normally used for house wiring, it is often
stripped of its outer plastic sheath and used for carrying heavy currents round a
layout. Although often specified for higher currents, the table shows a more
conservative estimate to allow for the inevitable voltage drop at such high currents.
Some cheaper wires (e.g. bell wire) may not be made from copper, instead being iron
with copper plating. This increases the wire's resistance significantly (perhaps a
factor of 5 times) and lowers its current carrying capacity.

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Selecting wires for layouts

The earlier chart showed the current demands of various elements of a layout.
The wire chosen for a particular job should be able to supply the current needs of the
maximum amount of devices that could be operating at the same time plus an extra

Track bus
This is likely to have the heaviest current and the one most likely to suffer from shorts (e.g.
locos derailing). So, the wire should not be chosen for the maximum loco currents, but for
the maximum current in the event of a short.
You cannot always rely on a controller's cutout.
Consider a 12V, 5A controller, where the bus wire's resistance is such that the circuit current
can never reach 5A. In a situation where the supply can provide 5A but the short only
results in 3A , the controller cutout won't trip. However, since power is calculated as I x V,
the circuit (the track bus and probably part of the track) will dissipate 3 x 12 = 36W!
Clearly it is necessary to ensure the lowest possible resistance in a track bus, particularly in
the larger gauges where loco currents can be many amps.
Since the track bus runs the length of the layout and is hidden under the baseboard, it pays
to use the thickest twin and earth wires that you can afford.
One solution lies in sub-dividing the layout into blocks (DC) or power districts (DCC),
where the current in any one section is reduced.

The track bus carries the controller's
power across the entire layout.
It does not normally appear above
baseboard level.
To connect the track sections to the
track bus, small connecting wires are
soldered to the track, poked through
holes in the baseboard and then
connect to the track bus.
To prevent unsightly connections
between the droppers and the track in smaller gauges, it is common to use thinner wire than
that used for the track power. This is not a problem, as long as the dropper lengths are short.
Although these wires are thinner and therefore have a higher resistance, the fact that they
are short means that they do not much alter the overall resistance of the circuit.
The picture shows part of the insulation on the track bus being bared back to allow droppers
to be soldered to them.

Solenoid-operated points are designed to pass a large current for a short time and are usually
used in conjunction with CDU (capacitive discharge units) modules such as MERG's PD3
I measured the coil resistance of a Peco solenoid coil at just over 5 ohms and an old H&M
coil at just 2 ohms. In theory, a CDU's pulse of 20V should result in a pulse of around 4A
through a Peco solenoid and a whopping 10A through an H&M solenoid. Where such small

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coil resistances and such large currents are in play, the presence of even a small unwanted
resistance can have a major impact on performance. Wiring for solenoid power, therefore,
should use either 1.5mm or 2mm wire. The same considerations apply to electromagnets
used for uncouplers.
For these reasons, it is best to locate CDUs as close to the points as possible, to minimise
long runs carrying high currents. After all, the signal that controls the CDUs only requires
small switching currents.
Motorised switch machines, such as the Tortoise, operate with much less current (from 4mA
to around 20mA) and will happily work with 7/0.2 wire or even ribbon cable unless you
have particularly long runs to the point motors.
Servo operated points are becoming more popular for a variety of reasons (cost, speed,
controlability). An individual servo may only demand a few hundred milliamps while
operating. On the other hand,, moving multiple points (as in route switching) increases the
current demand substantially during movement and that has to be taken into account when
running power wires to servos.

The connecting wires to each accessory depends on the current draw of that accessory.
In most cases, 7/0.2, alarm wire or ribbon cable is more than adequate.
If you have a large motorised accessory, you would use 16/0.2 or higher.

Grain of wheat bulbs use around 80mA at 12V.
Lighting a row of buildings or a chain of street lamps soon totals
a substantial current draw.
To reduce wire thickness and reduce power requirements, most
modellers are turning to LED lamps for illumination
The picture shows a commercial OO lamp using a grain of
wheat bulb that uses 60mA. On its left is a home-built
equivalent using an LED that uses just 5mA.
Even the thinnest of wires can handle the current requirements
of a chain of LEDs, particularly if they are wired as groups
(where a group may consist of 3 LEDs in series).

Signal wires
Layouts may use a range of different signal wires such as
feedback from occupancy detectors, signals to drive servo
boards and the inputs and outputs of CANBUS modules.
This diagram shows the input signals to a MERG Servo4
board. Each input has a 2k2 resistor in series. Since the
voltage to any input is either +5V or 0V, the maximum
current that can be drawn is 5/2k2 ( a couple of milliamps).
Similarly, the outputs of a CANACC8 have 10k resistors in
series, limiting their current draw to half a milliamp.
Consequently, 10/0.1, 7/0.2, alarm cable or ribbon cable can
be used for signal wires.

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Suggested wire usage

10/0.1 or ribbon


Colour-light signalling, individual motor-actuated switch

machines (Tortoise Conrad, etc.), LED lighting, signal wires to
Servo4s, from track occupancy detectors and to/from CBUS



Track feed droppers.



DC traction feeder, DCC power Bus (booster output up to 3A),

twin-coil solenoid point motors



DCC power Bus (booster output up to 5A), DC Bus, twin-coil

solenoid point motors

Twin and earth

10A , 15A, 20A

DCC power Bus (booster output up to 10A), DC Bus

Stranded v solid wire

Copper wire is available as a single solid conductor or as a set of thinner strands twisted
together. To some extent, it is a matter of personal preference, although some factors have
to be considered.
Stranded wire, by its construction, is much more flexible and is really essential in situations
where the cable will be flexed (e.g. hand-held controls, or trailing plugs and sockets for
joining multiple baseboards) or subject to excessive vibration. In these situations, solid
conductors would suffer from stress fatigue and probable eventual failure. The thinner the
strands used in the cable, the more flexible it is.
That is not to say that stranded wire may not eventually suffer from stress fatigue (I have
replaced my multimeter leads three times due to broken wires inside the insulation or where
the wire meets the plug). Solid wire, specially twin and earth wire, is often used for power
buses under the baseboard where it is a permanent installation. Stranded wire can be used
here too, although many prefer the rigid, non sagging, nature of solid conductors.
Solid wires take longer to corrode than stranded wires (less surface area) and can be useful
for garden railways.

Skin effect?
DC current travels along the wire using the total cross sectional area of the copper.
When high frequencies travel along a conductor, they tend to travel close to the outer
surface of the conductor known as 'skin effect'. The higher the frequency, the thinner the
skin depth (how far into the conductor is capable of carrying the current).
This has led some to advocate the sole use of stranded cable for DCC signals, since they
have multiple surface areas. Of course, since multi-stranded wire do not insulate the
individual strands, this benefit is hard to realise.
Although DCC is not an AC waveform, it changes its logic state at the approximate
equivalent of 7KHz. According to the online calculator at
the skin effect depth for DCC signals is 0.779mm. This is over 1.5mm across the conductor,
so the only wires directly affected should be those with a smaller diameter. On the other
hand, as the DCC power bus is required to pass many amps, it will not be using any wires as
thin as that in the first place. The skin effect for CBUS messages, which operate at
125KHz is given as 0.184mm (or a diameter of 0.368mm. Again, this is greater than our
most likely wires in use.
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It can be argued, however, that the DCC and CBUS signals are square waves that generate
multiple harmonics of its basic frequency, hence making the problem worse than first
expected. However, over 98% of the current is able to flow within a layer that is four times
the skin depth, counteracting any potential problems.
Skin effect, therefore, is really only a problem when working at much higher frequencies
than those used in model railways.

Types of connection
The layout will have many connections between wires, between wires and devices and
between wires and various connectors. Users have employed and advocated a large range
of connection types, with some controversy being generated as a result.
The descriptions that follow explain what connection components are available.
Users can decide which of the following methods most suits their needs.

For many places, this is the most secure, most permanent,
most trouble-free connection, if done correctly.
You can expect many years of problem-free use from
soldered joints, assuming there was a good clean mechanical
joint and soldering was carried out efficiently. The picture
shows a dropper wire being wrapped round a power bus
before being soldered.
WAGO 222
These terminal blocks are designed for handling 240v domestic
lighting at 32A. They are intended for permanent installation in
homes, where a robust and reliable connection is essential.
They are not straight through connectors. They are available in strips
of 2, 3 or 5 lever connections, with all the sockets joined internally.
They are useful for power fanouts, with the main feed and the auxiliary
feeds sharing the block.
Their use requires no special tools, just strip the wires and insert their bare ends into the
holes before closing the levers. It is a very quick assembly process which is helpful when
used in awkward and hard to reach locations. Wago terminal blocks can accommodate up
to 2.5mm solid wires, although it also works with stranded wires.
Of course, not all connections lend themselves to these two methods, since they may have to
allow for devices to be plugged/unplugged or baseboards to be attached/detached on a
regular basis.
There, a more flexible approach is required.

Wire nuts
These are also known as cone connectors, thimble connectors or
Marrette connectors and are sometimes used as an alternative to
terminal blocks. They are plastic cones with a coiled metal insert.
They are specially effective for connecting stranded wires.
They are available in five sizes and are colour coded to indicate the

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gauge of wire they are intended for.

To install, just bare the wires, insert them into the cone and twist the cone. The wire-towire and the wire-to-insert contact make a reliable connection that can be readily undone by
untwisting the cone.

The most common non-soldered connections make use of terminal blocks (also known as
'chocolate blocks').
These are straight thorough connectors, with screws on either
side of each connection. They are often sold as strips of ten
and can be easily cut into smaller blocks with a knife.
There are holes between each connector, allowing easy screw
mounting to a baseboard. They are cheap and come in
different sizes, to provide 3A, 6A, 10A, 15A, 16A and 30A versions.
There are a couple of things to watch out for when using these blocks.
As Howard Watkins, MERG Publicity Manager, recently pointed out:
Some people prefer to solder the wire, especially if several wires are to go in the same
terminal block position. This should be avoided because solder is a soft metal and tends
to squeeze out from between the strands. As time progresses the joint can become loose
and the connection can become unreliable.

Another danger is not having every strand of wire securely held under the screw. If, for
example, three strands of a 16-strand wire ended up as stray unconnected wisps, you have
lost almost 20% of the connections current carrying capacity.
One way to prevent this is to use crimp ferrules.

Crimp ferrules
Where multi-strand wire is used with terminal blocks, consideration
should be given to the use of crimp ferrules. These are simply metal
tubes into which the bared end of a wire is inserted. The tube is then
crimped to tightly grip the wire, as shown in the bottom example.
The ferrule can then be inserted into the terminal block and screwed
down tightly. This provides a stronger, more resilient termination
than using bare wire alone.
The illustration shows both bare and insulated versions (the bare version is also useful for
chimneys on buildings or locos). The insulated version provides additional protection
against stray strands of wire causing shorts or increased resistance.

Terminal blocks
These chunky connecting blocks were developed for high
current connections in a range of industrial devices and
power supplies.
They comprise two rows of screws and are produced in
block from 3-way to 12-way.
Often referred to as 'barrier blocks' because of the protective
wall between each pair of screws.
They are available in ratings from 15A up to 45A and some
have a protective cover to prevent accidental shorting, spillages, etc.

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They are popular among some hobbyists due to their ease of use and their large contact
surfaces. Wires can be connected by baring the ends, curling the bare ends into hooks and
inserting under the screws. An alternative method, shown in the picture, is to terminate the
bare wire end in a crimped spade connector.
One way to help ensure a gas tight connection is to place a star washer between the
wire/spade and the head of the screw. As the screw is tightened, the star serrations bite into
both the wire/spade and the screw head. This cuts through any existing layer of oxide and
ensures a good contact.
This is particularly useful where the connections may be disturbed or altered, as the washer
ensures a good connection each time.
PCB terminal block
These blocks provide a simple way to connect wires to a printed
circuit board module and are commonly found on MERG kits and
other PCBs.
Each connection uses a pin to solder to the printed circuit board and a
screw terminal for connecting a wire. The bared end of a wire is
inserted into the hole and the top screw is tightened.
Despite their small size, they have large current carrying capacity, with some handling as
much as 57A. Even the smallest in the range can handle 6A.
They are available in different pitch widths (the distance between the pins) as the larger
current carrying versions uses wider pitch widths. Pitch widths range from the commonlyused 3.5mm and 5mm up to 10.16mm. Stripboard has a 2.5mm pitch and can
accommodate a 5mm pitch, although not on adjacent tracks.
The blocks are available in a range of sizes, from 2 way to 7 way and many types can be
interlocked to create custom widths.
PCB terminal blocks provide for the quick and easy removal or replacement of a module,
requiring only a screwdriver.
Many of these blocks use a 'rising clamp' method of securing the wire. As the screw is
tightened, the wire is gripped between two plates one fixed to the top of the insertion hole
and the other which rises as the screw is tightened. The two flat plates provide an even
contact over all of the wire's strands. This results in better contact with the wire and less
chance of stray wires causing problems.
Note, however, that with some blocks, there is no physical contact between the top and
bottom plates until the screw is tightened. This can sometimes lead to mistakes when
taking meter readings, when the meter prod is touched the electrically unconnected screw.

Crimp connectors
The pictures shows a male and a female connector.
They have a large surface area and make a tight fit when connected.
This ensures a reliable connection and they can be found in domestic
(boilers, hot tubs), car audio wiring (resistant to vibration) and
industrial machinery.
The bared end of a wire is inserted into the connector tube and the tube is then crimped to
tightly grip the bare wire. Although pliers and wire cutters are often used, crimping is best
done with a proper crimping tool. These connectors handle solid conductors and work at
up to 10A.
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PCB interconnect
As the picture shows, these are produced as header plugs and matching PCB sockets.
They are used on MERG kits, as jumpers on Servo4 modules and
as ICSP connectors on CBUS kits, etc. The sockets are available
in a range of sizes from 2 way to 25 way, and in single or double
rows. They can be cut or sawn to create any length of strip.
They have a 2.5mm pitch, making them ideal for use with homegrown projects built on stripboard.
The picture shows both types with ribbon cable soldered to them
and protected by heatshrink tubing.
This provides a very neat way to
achieve cable runs of multiple wires.
When only three pins/sockets are used this way, it also makes a
cheap alternative to commercial servo extension leads.
These connectors were designed for light duty and are only
suitable for running signal wires and low current devices.
Another PCB connection is the Molex plug and socket system.
As you can see, it designed such that the plug can only be inserted into the
socket one way. This polarisation prevents the accidental insertion of
power leads or output leads in the wrong polarity and is commonly used for
connecting power to PCBs.

DIN plugs and sockets have been around for a very long time and have been used for audio
connections, MIDI connections and the old AT computer keyboard cable. They are
available in 3-way, 5-way, 7-way and 8-way versions and are keyed so that
the plug can only be inserted one way (no accidental polarity reversals).
They are also available as mini-DIN versions as used on the mouse and
keyboard cables of older computers (known as PS/2).
Standard DIN connectors are cheap but only have a maximum rating of 2A.
The socket can be mounted to the baseboard and the plugs can be wired to
flying leads. An old keyboard can have its cable cut off and then you have
a ready wired DIN plug and cable.

D-type plugs and sockets were designed for use with computers and data communication
equipment. The various versions include the 9-pin and 25-pin (RS-232 serial ports), the 15pin (monitor VGA ports) and the 37-pin (RS-449 high speed serial interfaces). They are
rated as either 3A or 5A.
They can be found interconnecting model railway baseboards, due to
their large number of contacts. Indeed, the larger versions can wire
together two or more pins for a single connection increasing the
current carrying capacity and providing redundancy (if one
connection fails, there is still one or more others to carry the current).
However, the rear pins of the plugs and sockets can be difficult to
solder wires to, particularly if the wires are thick (7/0.2 seems to be
about the thickest that's usable).
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The pins are bunched very close together, requiring skill/patience to avoid shorting adjacent
pins (with solder blobs or stray strands of wire posing the greatest problems)
Alternatively, eBay sell a 2 metre female to female 9-pin serial cable for a couple of pounds.
Simply cut it in half and you have two ready made cables. For around the same cost, buy a
25-pin male to female cable, cut it in half, and you have two trailing leads for connecting
two baseboards. Make sure all the pins are wired and check for any wires crossing over.

Before HDMI emerged, most connections between DVD players, satellite boxes, TVs, etc.
used SCART cables and many are still in use. SCART connectors offer 21 pin connections,
although not all pins wired through in some cables.
They are low voltage low current connections and are not suitable
for carrying high currents. The large pin count makes them a
possibility for carrying multiple signal wires to and between
baseboards (for LEDs, servos, etc.).
Like the D-type cables, a SCART cable can be hand wired or you
can buy a ready-made cable and cut it in two.

Circular locking
If you want to ensure that you have a high-current connection that won't shake loose or drop
out, a screwed connection is available.
As the picture shows, the socket is designed for panel mounting,
although it could be mounted in a small case with a trailing lead if
required. The ends of the plug and the socket are threaded and can be
screwed together for a sound mechanical joint.
The picture shows a 3-pin 5A version, which might be considered for
taking power from power supply or controller to a layout.
Bulgin market 32A versions, varying from 2-pin to 10 pin.
These connectors are bulky but merit consideration for 'must work' connections.

An important issue when choosing connectors is their durability- measured in 'mating
cycles' (how many times you can plug and unplug the connection before good performance
is no longer guaranteed). If you have a home layout made up from several interconnected
boards, this may not be an issue, as you will only occasionally disconnect a board for
For a club that carries out a lot of exhibiting, it can be an important consideration.
It pays to check a particular dealer's product specification, as quality varies. D-sub
connectors can have mating cycles from as low as 50 to hundreds, DIN connectors vary
from 1,000 to 5,000 cycles, SCART connectors from 750 to 3,000 and Molex from 1,500 to

Some of the connectors described above allow for huge amounts of wires to be connected
together. With even the best of care, there is much scope for faults to develop.
If you find you need such large numbers of connections, you might wish to consider the
merits of the 2-wire CBUS interface.

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Maintenance aids
The greatest aid to maintaining a model railway layout is not a multimeter it is knowledge. To be
able to test a layouts' wiring, you have to know where wires are supposed to go and what conditions
should be expected on them. As you build a layout, more and more wires are run, more
components are added and configured. Unless this is approached in a methodical manner, faultfinding will be much more troublesome. Problems will start to occur long after you have forgotten
what you laid where and for what purpose.
The time spent in developing and sticking to a plan for rolling out a layout is more than repaid when
the layout has to be maintained.
MERG's Technical Bulletin LC01 provides details.

Colour coding
Imagine a single wire running through a rat's nest of cabling.
Consider the problem of tracing it along the length of a layout.
Life is much easier if you settle on a colouring scheme for wires
For example, every time you see a red wire, you know it carries
+12v, an orange wire carries +5v, a yellow wire carries the output
from a track occupancy detector, and so on.
There is no universally recognised 'standard' colour coding scheme,
although red and black are widely used for main +ve and -ve wires.
Digitrax have their own suggested wiring scheme, see:
For a home layout. The colour scheme is entirely up to you, as long
as you record it and stick to it.
For a club layout, where many different people will be working on a
layout and developing and maintaining it over a considerable
period, an agreed colour code needs to be developed and recognised
by all members.
Fortunately, wires are available in a range of colours.

Unfortunately, there is not an inexhaustible range of coloured wires available, so you are liable to
find many wires of the same colour running under a baseboard. Although it is useful to know what
it is used for (e.g. wires to Servo4 boards), it does not tell you where the wire originated from and
where it is heading. Attaching small labels to wires during installation can provide very valuable
information at a later date. For example, a label that says 'ACC84/3-Ser3/2' would let you know
that the wire ran from your fourth CANACC8, pin 3 to your third Sevo4 module, pin 2.
people prefer to use a numbering scheme for their labels, with a printed table explaining what a
particular wire number is used for. Others use a lettering system for labels while some prefer
adding coloured tape or short lengths of coloured shrink wrap to wires.
There is no standard for labelling; just use what makes sense to you.

Consider a layout that has many electronic modules, connectors, etc.
By the time a fault occurs, you will have long forgotten that output 7 of this module is connected to
input 5 of that other module. The only way is to manually trace it. Every time you have a fault,
you have to work out what goes where all over again.
Much better to spend a little time making up a simple diagram or chart that shows how modules,

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connectors, etc. are interconnected. That way, when you have a fault, you know exactly where to
go to make your tests.
Consider documenting a station throat as being served by number 5 Servo4 board, with points being
noted as 1,2,3,4.
If point 2 fails to operate due to no input signal, your chart tells you what drives
that particular board input. So, for example, you can put your meter across pin 5 of a CANACC8 or
across switch 7 on your control panel or whatever. There is no need to even trace the wire
initially. You can check whether the control output signal is being produced. A quick check of your
schematic tells you exactly what connects to what, no matter how far apart they may be. The
schematic can be further refined if the wire passes through several connecting blocks or plugs and

Clearly, documenting your layout pays dividends in the longer term.
To be useful, the documentation must always be readily accessible - in a folder and/or wall chart.
A typical folder might contain:
Tables, showing the colour coding and labelling of wires used on the layout.
Schematics showing the interconnection between modules and connectors.
Development history, detailing who added what when.
Fault history, so that recurring faults can be identified and dealt with.
CBUS details, listing the node numbers of each module, what events do what, etc.
DCC details, listing the CVs of locos, accessory decoders, etc.

Important note
Documentation is a chore and most people are reluctant to keep updating it. However, it
is important to recognise that documentation that has not been updated can sometimes
make things worse. The key is to make the documentation easily alterable. For
example, you don't want to have to redraw a diagram every time a change is made.
Those with computers have an obvious advantage, as lists, tables, etc. are more easily
updated and reprinted.

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Chapter 5
Voltage problems

Voltage Problems 78

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Voltage problems
In an ideal world, the only loads across your controller would be ones that you wanted, such
as locos, lighting, point motors and so on.
In practice, the layout wiring, connections, plugs and sockets, switches, etc. all add
unwanted additional resistance into the circuit.
Some of the power is lost in the bad connections, long wire runs, etc.
This chapter looks at what causes voltage drop problems.
This illustration shows just some likely causes of unwanted resistance in loco/track wiring.

These examples all happen and you may suffer from one or more of these problems.
Some are the result of poor installation (poor soldering, using wires that are too thin).
Some are the result of poor maintenance (dirty track, dirty loco pickups).
Some just happen over time (breaks in cables, corroded or loose connections, power
supplies that get overloaded with ever increasing numbers of locos being run).

If the unwanted resistance is very small compared to the wanted resistance, this causes little
change to the layout performance. All layouts have some voltage loss, although mostly too
small to be noticed.
However, if the unwanted resistance becomes excessive, too much of the supply voltage
appears across this resistance and reduces the voltage to loco, relay, point motor or
whatever. These effects are predictable and can be calculated using Ohm's Law.

Its Ohms Law time

If you don't know Ohm's Law, you really ought to get familiar with it, as it is the
cornerstone of many voltage, current and resistance calculations that we will come across.
Put briefly, electric current is the flow of electrons round a circuit. The electron flow is
measured in Amps (or mA thousands of an Amp). The force that moves the electrons
round the circuit is known as the voltage and is measured in Volts (or mV thousands of a
Volt). The physical properties of different materials act to resist the flow of current. This
is called Resistance and is measured in Ohms (or kohms thousands of ohms or Mohms
millions of ohms).

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There is a direct relationship between the voltage, the resistance and the resulting current
This is expressed in Ohms Law as three simple formulae:


- increased voltage results in increased current.

- increased resistance results in reduced current.
- increasing current through a fixed resistance results in an increased voltage
across that resistance.
- increasing the value of resistance, while maintaining the same value of
current through it, results in an increased voltage across that resistance.
- resistance is proportional to the current (i.e. increases) and inversely
proportional to the voltage (i.e. decreases).

On our model railway, therefore, voltage drop occurs when current flows through our wires,
our loads and any unwanted resistances. It obeys Ohm's Law, where the amount of voltage
drop is equal to the resistance times the current.

Some worked examples

Consider this illustration. It shows an accumulation of 3 ohms of unwanted resistance from
all the possible sources shown above. From this, we can calculate the expected voltage
losses for different locos.

The best case

Let's assume we have an 'N' gauge motor which runs at 250ma (0.25A) when supplied by
12V. In an ideal world, free from unwanted resistance and other effects, the resistance of
the motor must be:
= 12/ 0.25 = 48 ohms
Working backwards, to check our formula:
V = I x R = 0.25 x 48 = 12V
Now, if there is 3 ohms of additional resistance, the total resistance has risen to 51 ohms,
while the supplied voltage is still 12V.
The increased resistance results in less current:
I = V / R = 12 / 51 = 235mA (instead of 250mA)
The Voltage drop across the motor is now
V = I x R = 0.235 x 48 = 11.3V
The other 0.7V is lost across the unwanted 3 ohms of resistance.
Worse cases
The same calculations for an 'OO' gauge loco using 0.5A at 12V shows that the current
drops to 440mA, the voltage across the motor is reduced to 10.7V
For an 'O' gauge loco drawing 1A, the current is reduced to 800mA and the motor voltage is
reduced to only 9.6V

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The worst, worst case

Now, consider a US-style consist of ten 'O' gauge locos, with a total current draw of 10A.
The unwanted resistance is large in relation to the resistance of all the motors running in
The current in the circuit is reduced to a mere 2.8A and the loco motor has only 3.4V across
it. The other 8.6V is dropped across the unwanted resistance.
You won't get these exact results in practice as Ohms Law calculations are for DC
and doesn't take into account effects of inductance, back emf, etc. from motors.
However, it does give a fair representation of the dramatic effect of voltage
drops in some circumstances.
Voltage drop is not just an issue for loco motors. Solenoid point motors can be an
even bigger problem as they have very little resistance, even lower than loco
motors. The Peco solenoid measured at just over 5 ohms, while the old H & M
solenoid measured just over 2 ohms. With the MERG PD3 CDU kit supplying
a 20V kick, that results in current surges of 4A and 9A respectively. With such
low resistances, point motor coils are even more vulnerable to unwanted
Power and heat

Power is measured in Watts and can be calculated by multiplying voltage by current. So,
for example, if the N gauge loco took 0.25A when supplied by 12V, its wattage is
0.25 x 12 = 3W.
As we go up in gauge, with larger motors drawing more current, the wattage is also
With motors, most of the power is used in turning the motor. With an unwanted resistance,
the power will be dissipated as heat.
In the above example for an 'O' gauge loco, the voltage across the unwanted resistance was
2.4V and the current through it was 0.8A. That represents a power dissipation of
0.8 x 2.4 = 1.9W.
In the worst case example, the consist of 10 locos, the voltage across the unwanted
resistance was 8.6V and the current through it was 2.8A. That represents a power
dissipation of
8.6 x 2.8 = 24W,
generating more heat than many soldering irons!
Wire resistance
The current carrying capacity table shown earlier does not fully tell the whole story.
Even the best conductors have some resistance and the resulting voltage drop in the cable
can be calculated from its CSA (cross sectional area). The CSA can be expressed in mm 2.
The internet provides a number of calculators that let you see what voltage drop to expect
from different gauges over different lengths of wire runs. Many of these the AWG sizes but
you can get some conversion information at
For example, 7/0.2 means 7 strands of wire each 0.2mm diameter, This results in CSA of
7x(x0.2x0.2)/4 = 0.22mm2.
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The image shows a calculation for 24AWG, the nearest equivalent to 7/0.2 stranded wire.

Remember that a circuit uses two wires, one feed and one return. So, a 10ft layout would
have a 20ft run.
Some calculated results

A 10ft layout using 7/0.2 for N gauge (250mA) locos would suffer a drop of just
The same 10ft layout for OO, using 0.5A locos would suffer a 0.26V drop. If that
layout was 20ft long, a drop of around half a volt would result.
When an 'O' gauge loco at 1A is run on a 20ft layout, the voltage loss is just over 1V.
However, if a 5 ohm solenoid coil was operated by 20V over a 10ft cable, the drop
would be 4.11V. This could be reduced to 1.62V or 0.81V by using 16/02 stranded
wire or 1mm solid conductors respectively.
Our earlier example of a 10A consist running over a large 60ft layout would drop a
whopping 6V using 1mm twin and earth and even 2.5mm twin and earth would result
in a 2.4V loss.

Clearly, voltage drop in the layout wiring is less of an issue with smaller gauge locos,
although it still pays to use as thick a wire as you can afford (specially for solenoids and
other heavy current devices).
As the layouts get larger and the loco currents get larger, the problems of voltage drop
become an issue that needs attention.
The calculations for stranded wire assume that all strands are intact and correctly connected.
It is not uncommon for stray strands of wire to fan out as wisps and fail to be connected or
It is also common for wrongly-adjusted wire strippers to cut or nick some strands.
If, for example, a 7/0.2 wire had only two unconnected strands, the final resistance of the
wire has increased by a significant margin, having lost two-sevenths of its current carrying
Even a nick in a strand can lead to an eventual break in that strand, if placed under stress or

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Finally, note that these calculations are for voltage drop in the wire alone, while other
resistances such as the bad connections, etc. mentioned earlier may have to be added to the

Rail resistance
A track bus with multiple droppers may seem excessive when we might simply rely on the
nickel silver rails to carry the current. However, nickel silver is an alloy made from copper
(60%), nickel and zinc. The difficulty is that the resistance of nickel silver is nineteen
times greater than that of copper.
Since not all nickel silver alloys use the exact same proportions and not all rail sections have
the same cross sectional area, the final resistance is not precise although it is very
That is why a length of track has a corresponding length of copper wire running underneath,
with frequent connections between them. The poorer conductor (the rail) only carries
current over a small section of track to the loco, while the current is mainly carried by the
better-conducting copper track bus. The effect is to greatly reduce the voltage drop.
Track is sold as code 70 or code 100, etc..
The code number is the height of the rail expressed in thousands of an inch.
So, code 75 rail is 0.075 in height while code 100 is 0.1 in height.
Here are some rail types:
Code 40 Micro Engineering N and HOn3
Code 55 - Peco N, Micro Engineering N and HO
Code 60 Peco OO9
Code 70 - Micro Engineering N and HO, Shinohara N and HO and HOn3
Code 75 - Peco OO Finescale
Code 83 Peco HO, Atlas, Walthers/Shinohara HO, Micro Engineering HO
Code 100 - Peco OO, Atlas, Walthers/Shinohara HO, Micro Engineering HO
Code 148 - Micro Engineering O

The rails with the smallest height and the small cross sectional area present the greatest
The DCCWiki displays a chart of measured resistance of various brands of track.

Rail Resistance,

Equivalent Wire (AWG)

Atlas / Shinohara




Walthers / Shinohara




Atlas / Micro Engineering








Micro Engineering





And adds this note:

Note the difference between two brands of Code 83 rail. One has about 50% more
resistance. That can be explained by the rail profile, which has an effect on the cross
sectional area of the rail. The cross section of 27AWG wire is 0.102 mm2, 28AWG is 0.08

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From this table, we could calculate that an N gauge layout with a 20ft track run would have
a resistance of 40 x 0.116 = 4.64 ohms, resulting in just over 1V of voltage drop in the track.
A track bus using 1mm wire, on the other hand, would only drop 0.05V.
Now you know why lots of droppers are recommended!
You can never eliminate voltage drop entirely; you have to decide what amount of drop you
can live with. You may simply prefer to increase the supply voltage to compensate, after
considering whether there are any unacceptable overheating risks as a consequence.

Overload and short circuit protection

There are two dangers that need guarding against: with special protection circuitry.
short circuit protection

Imagine buying a controller with a 10A capability. You only run a single 1A
loco at the moment but are looking to the future. Now, if there is a short on the
cable, there is almost zero resistance and the maximum current possible will
flow. In the example, the current is not 1A but 10A. This produces 120W
which will manifest itself in heat that will destroy electronic components, melt
plastic and potentially causes fires. Speed controllers and power boosters have
systems that detect the surge in current and switch off the supply.
current overload protection

Short circuits produce a sudden surge in current and this is easily detected.
Not all current increases need be that dramatic. Running more and more locos
on a layout, switching on lighting and other devices, may incrementally
increase the current demand to a level greater than that for which the supply
was designed. A good controller/booster will allow the user to set the current
at which the circuit will cut off the power. In the above example, a user may
decide to set the 10A supply to trip at just 3A, as that is his/her current
maximum usage.

Protection devices

A fuse is simply a short length of wire that melts if too much current flows through it,
thus breaking the circuit. The fuse is disposable and needs replacing after it blows.
Circuit breaker
Like a fuse, a circuit breaker stops the flow of current when it exceeds its set rating.
They are thermal breakers, which means that the heating effect of the
current passing through it eventually bends an internal element that
switches off the power.
Some, like the one shown in the picture are automatically reset once
the element cools down again. These are available with trip ratings
of between 1A and 5A.

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An alternative is a thermal circuit breaker that needs to be manually

reset after it trips (like the ones in your house mains box).
The picture shows a panel mounting circuit breaker, with trip
ratings from 3A to 20A .
Many push to reset breakers can only be reset after a minimum
time has passed (e.g. one minute). This can be a good things, as it
forces you to look at the source of the problem.
Car bulb

Perhaps one of the oldest, and most controversial, protection methods is the use of a
12V 25W car tail light bulb.
A car bulbs is wired in series with the supply to a
track section and provides almost no resistance when
unlit. The locos run happily with their full voltage.
When a short occurs, the current increases rapidly,
causing the bulb to light. A lit bulb has a much
greater resistance than when unlit. This increased
resistance then limits the amount of current flowing
in the circuit, This increase occurs very rapidly,
around 4mS. When the short is removed, the bulb
cools down and its resistance lowers again.
Car bulbs are cheap and you may like the idea of an
immediate visual indication when a short occurs.
However, it is important to remember that they are not cutouts, only current limiters.
If a short occurs the current round the wire and the track is limited to a maximum of
2A, which still has potential for causing overheating damage.
If using car bulbs, choose their position carefully, as they are very hot when lit.

DCC protection
A DCC controller or booster has its own cutout circuitry which will cut off the power and
most check periodically to see whether the short is removed before restoring the power.
If the whole layout is fed from a single controller/booster, then a short will disable the entire
layout. Troubleshooting is then a problem, as the fault could be anywhere on the layout.
This is usually prevented by dividing the layout into power districts, as previously
Of course, that means that each power district would have to use a separate circuit breaker.
Now, when a short occurs, only the section affected will be cut off, with the rest of the
layout working normally.
Circuit breaker modules are available as standalone devices that are wired in series with the
wire from the bus to the section track. These include:

The PSX from DCC Supplies.. Handles up to 20A per block, with 1 to 4 blocks on a board.
The OnGuard! OG-CB, from DCC Specialties, rated at 4A .
The NCE EB1 single circuit breaker.
The MERG DC05 block cutout.
The MERG DCC District Cutout Kit 57

The MERG NB1B DCC booster has own internal cutout with 3.3A and 5A options as

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Wiring cutouts
For DC, one controller is allocated to every running loco. If a layout has many blocks,
there is still only one controller powering one loco in any one block. Given that controllers
have cutouts, a DC layout is already reasonably protected. If a short develops in a block,
that controller's cutout will remove the power from the offending block; the rest of the
blocks carry on normally, as all the block are electrically isolated from each other.
If a block is large, it may be sub-divided, with all sub-blocks still being wired to the one
controller. If each sub-block was fed via a circuit breaker or car bulb, the whole block still
stops working, but you can quickly identify the problem sub-block. This is an aid to
For DCC, with a single command station powering the entire layout, a short anywhere on
the layout cuts the power off from the entire layout. All locos stop running.
This can also be overcome by sub-dividing the layout into independent power districts, each
with their own booster. A short in one power district only stops running in that power
Alternatively, for smaller layouts, a single command station, with or without an added
booster, can feed power to power districts through a collection of DCC circuit breaker
modules or other protection devices.
While circuit breaker modules are more efficient, they are also much more expensive
compared to car bulbs. Since most shorts are caused by derailments at points and crossing,
it makes sense to cover the blocks that contain many points with circuit breakers. Other
less-frequently used blocks could be more
cheaply covered with car bulbs.
In the illustration above, three power
districts are fed from a single command
station/ booster combination. One is
protected by a commercial cutout, one from
a MERG district cutout, and one from a car
bulb. It is important to note that the bulb
may limit the current below the level where
the booster would be expected to cut out.
Most modern boosters may activate before
the car bulb illuminates.
In an ideal world, a DCC layout would be divided into many power districts, each supplied
via its own circuit breaker module. This approach may be unsuitable for financial reasons.
However, since car bulbs are substantially cheaper, they allow more sub-districts to be
individually protected.
A combination of circuit breakers for point-intensive districts and bulbs for more sparse
districts may be considered. Sometimes dogma has to be replaced by pragmatism. If we
can't have all that we want, we can at least get what we need.
Prudent operators may wish to test that all the protection features work,before an operating
session (particularly at exhibitions). This is usually achieved by placing a coin across one
section of track at a time.

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Chapter 6
Wiring points

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Wiring points
Before looking at optimising the performance of points, eliminating possible sources of poor
performance or shorts, it is best to remind ourselves of the names of the various parts that
make up a point (according to Other countries may give parts
different names (e.g. even calling it a turnout instead of a point) but using this illustration
ensures that the rest of the material is understood.

In most points, all or part of the closure rails remain fixed and stationary, while the point
blades (switch rails) are the moving parts that guide the loco and wagon wheels to the
required track.
Most magazines talk about 'frogs' and points are described as 'insulfrog' or 'electrofrog'.
Sometimes, they refer to the area shown in the illustration as the 'crossing V', while other
times it refers to the area that encompasses both the crossing V and the wing rails.

Point varieties
Commercial manufacturers offer points with many different constructions and wiring
It is common to find 'power routing' points. These are constructed so that power is always
connected to the direction set by the point. For example, a train in a siding would be
disconnected if the point was set to the main line and automatically reconnected when the
point is set back to the siding.
In many cases, all the point blades, closure rails and wing rails are bonded together by wires
under the trackwork (even the crossing V might be similarly bonded).
Also, some points have both point blades bonded together, while some have each point
blade bonded to its nearest stock rail. Some points have the points blades bonded to the
closure rails with wire, while others use rail joiners.
In most cases, commercially-produced points have plastic check rails.

If your pointwork runs happily for you, that's fine.

If you are experiencing electrical problems with your points, then you might wish to
consider the following alterations to your point wiring.
If you want to achieve the best future problem-free running with your points, you
might wish to implement some, or all, of the alterations that are outlined.
If you are planning a layout, you might want to consider the following pages before
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selecting your points.

Not all the following may apply to your points. If in doubt about how your points are
wired, use a multimeter to check your point setup.
A multimeter will soon tell you whether you need to consider making any alterations.

Point problems
The biggest problem experienced with points is shorting of the track power as the loco runs
through the point trackwork.
If you are using DC, this may not even be noticed, apart from an occasional hiccup of the
loco on the way through. That is because the loco's controller can handle the temporarily
increased current for a sufficient time for the loco's momentum to take it past the point of
the short. While this may seem to be acceptable, bear in mind that every time the short
occurs, the spark is pitting the surface of the trackwork. So, even if your loco does not
come to a complete halt on points, it may still be worth looking at improving the point's
With DCC, shorts are a bigger problem because the command station will close down when
it detects an unexpected current surge. Not only will the loco come to a stop the whole
layout may come to a stop, if it is controlled by a single command station.

Shorts at point blades

Consider the case shown in the illustration.
The point is set to straight-ahead, with the
upper point blade touching the upper stock
Both closure rails are bonded together
which results in the lower point blade
sitting only a small distance from the lower
stock rail but at the opposite potential.
In an ideal world of fine tolerances, this might not pose any threat.
However, with many locos having coarse scale wheels with wide wheel treads, there is a
possibility that the metal wheel will touch both the lower point blade and the lower stock
rail. This produces a short across the track bus. This effect can also be caused where a
wheel is out of gauge or has slack bearings. Another cause may be taking a loco round a
small radius curve, such that the back of a wheel flange touches the open point rail.
The solution is to cut the link that bonds the two point blades together.
Left this way, a point blade/closure rail combination will only be 'live' when it is touching
its own corresponding stock rail.

Dirt at point blade

It is commonly accepted that it is best not to solely rely on a good contact between the point
blade and the stock rail to provide electrical connectivity. While a new, out-of-the-box
point may work happily for a while, the
eventual build up of oxidisation and grime
on these points of contact could lead to
high resistance joints, or complete loss of
The solution is to have a permanent link
between each point rail and its
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neighbouring stock rail. Both point rails, and possibly their closure rails and wing rails, are
permanently powered similarly to their stock rails.
A couple of links of Kynar wire or similar fine wire should be soldered between the point
rails and their neighbouring stock rails.
As always, it is much easier to do this before a point is laid.
This modification ensures the best long-term running for both DC and DCC. Since the
point rails are always at the same polarity as their nearest stock rail, DCC shorts are
minimised and track pitting due to DC arcing across them is eliminated.

Shorts at frog
If you look at the previous illustration, you will see that there may now be a problem at the
'frog' area, depending on how a point's closure rails, wing rails and crossing V are currently
As shown, there is little space between these track components, which again provides the
possibility for shorts.
One solution from manufacturers is to manufacture that problem area
from plastic, preventing possible shorts. These are often referred to as
'insulfrog' points and an example is shown in this picture.
This avoids any wiring modifications and is a suitable solution for long
wheelbase locos that have pickup wheels that can span the dead gap, so
that at least one set of pickups is on live track at any one time.
It is more of a problem for short wheelbase locos, or longer locos where
one set of pickups is not functioning.
That is why many user prefer 'electrofrog' points, where the wing rails and the crossing V
are conductive. Also, plastic frogs are more prone to wear than their metal equivalents,
causing an eventual increase in derailments.

Wing rail shorts

Live frog components provide the most reliable point operation, but using electrofrog points
is not without its own problems.
The picture shows just how close the wing rails and the
crossing V are to each other and more importantly at
different polarities.
Also, the junction between a wing rail and a closure rail is
close to the other wing rail/closure junction.
Potential shorting can be overcome by breaking the electrical
connection between the closure rails and the wing rails.
This may require cutting the junction with a cut-off disc in a Dremel drill, or something
This picture shows a point that has gaps between the closure rails and the
wing rails. Other prefer to cut further back down the closure rail, to further
reduce any risk of shorts during derailments.
In some Peco points, these gaps may already be provided, with just wire
links under the trackwork between the wing rail and its closure rail., In that
case, the links should be cut.
Left this way, this would be a 'dead frog' point, which is little better than an
insulfrog point. Being metal, it allows the frog area to have its polarity switched as the
point is switched (see later).
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Shorts at crossing V
Another source of shorts is the tiny gap between the two halves of the crossing V on most
points. As the above pictures show, the two rails are chamfered down to create a fine point,
with almost no gap between them at the tip of the V.
The wide tread on some metal wheels are able to bridge the gap, causing shorts if both rails
of the V are powered (if they are powered then they will be at opposing polarities).
A number of solutions have been offered for this.
Applying a small touch of paint on one of the rails, at the tip of the V. Most
report that this wears away and is not a permanent solution.
Applying a small touch of glue, such as SuperGlue, to the same area. This
wears better than paint.
Both of the above are only semi-permanent remedies and both cover up a part
of the conductive surface of the rail. An alternative approach is to widen the
gap in between the two rails of the V. A cut-off disc fitted to a Dremel drill, or
similar, can be used to grind a small section off the inner edge of each rail of the
V. It need not be too wide or even too deep; simply enough to prevent wheel to
rail contact. The same effect can be had using a small round jewellers file to
gradually widen the gap. If required, the gap could be filled with epoxy then
Users have success without modifying the V at all. If the flangeway of the
points (the gap between the check rail and the stock rail) is too wide, it may
allow a loco's wheels to drift over the gap in the V. Gluing a thin plastic strip
to the check rail narrows the gap and prevents excessive loco sideways
movement. This solution is dependent on the points and locos in use.
An alternative approach does not modify the point's rails.
As shown in the illustration below, it treats all the frog components as a single condutive
unit. In other words, the crossing V rails, wing rails, and maybe even part of the closure
rails, are wired together. In some points, this may be how they are supplied as standard; if
not, they can be wired together with Kynar wire or other fine connecting wire.
This requires additional electrical switching as below.

Frog switching
The first step is to ensure that the V is isolated from the rails that feed out from it, using
insulated joiners. Similarly, the wing rails need to be isolated from the closure rails.
The illustration shows the crossing V, the wings rails, and a small part of the closure rails
are wired together.
Left that way it would be a 'dead frog'
point which is little better than an
insulfrog point, apart from the fact that
the metal frog will wear less.
Clearly, the frog area needs to be
powered and, since all parts of the frog
area are at the same polarity at any one
time, its polarity must always corresponds to the direction to which the point rails are
So, the frog area needs its own electrical feed whose polarity changes dependent on whether
the point is set or unset.
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Point switching can be achieved in a number of ways:

Using the changeover switches available on some point motors (Tortoise,
Hoffman, Cobalt, Fulgurex, Seep) , or purchased as point add-ons (Peco).
These are often regarded as not fully reliable in the longer term.
Using the Tam Valley Frog Joicer. This module works by detecting a short if a
loco enters when the frog is at the wrong polairty to match the direction of
travel. The surge in current is detected and the frog polarity is reversed.
These have a number of qualifications. They are expensive (currently 57 for a
module to handle 6 frogs); they cannot be located close to all 6 frogs
simultaneously, requiring wires to be run from the module to distant frogs; they
rely on a current spike to function (i.e. arcing and pitting have ocurred before
the frog is switched).
Using a changeover microswitch that is mechanically operated by the
movement of the point's tie bar. This keeps the switch close to the point and
independent of any other point wiring. Could be a little tricky to adjust for the
correct switching point. Also, a low operating force microswitch is preferable,
to prevent the back pressure from the microswitch moving the point blades
away from the stock rails.
Using a non-mechanical detection system such as attaching a small magnet to a
location on the point operating mechanism, such that it activates a Hall Effect
switch that controls a relay. An alternative might be a small shutter that breaks
an infrared beam detector. These are more finicky to set up but have the
advantage of placing no backlash effect on the point blades.
Using a relay with SPDT (single pole double throw) contacts. The relay could
be operated by a simple trackside or conrol panel switch, or by the output from
a CBUS module such as the CANACC8. For example, the signal that operates
a servo in a Servo4 board could also be wired to a relay to simultaneously
changes the polarity of the frog.
There are plenty of options and their relative merits are a matter of debate.
It all depends on what you already have, how efficiently you expect it to work (now and in
the future) and the lengths you are prepared to go to ensure trouble-free point operation.

Point feedback
Throwing a switch on your control panel, or clicking a button on a screen display, does not
ensure that your point has operated correctly. Any number of problems could prevent a
point from moving. There may have been a cable break, bad connections, a mechanical
failure, a motor coil burned out, or a chunk of ballast or other dirt stuck between the stock
rail and the point blade.
Ideally, the operator should be informed that a point movement has been successful, by
lighting a lamp on the control panel, or illuminating a part of a screen display. That
involves taking feedback from the point back to the operator. This could be via a length of
wire, or via a CBUS CANACE8C module.
If a point is fitted as supplied (with none of the above modifications), it can add a
microswitch that is operated by the movement of the point's tie bar; the output from the
microswitch is switched either high or low depending on the tie bar's position.
If a point has wiring for frog switching, then the most of the above wiring methods used for
frog switching could also be used as the feedback.

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These methods are suitable for DC or DCC, conventional wiring or CBU S.

Most of the time, your points work dependably. For more critical situations, such as at
exhibitions or for automated layouts, feedback is much more useful if not essential.
In most situations feedback from a single source (e.g. point motor switch, microswitch, Hall
Effect switch, infrared detector) will be perfectly adequate.
However, it has limitations. If the frog polarity has been successfully switched, without
the point blades moving, you will soon know about it as there will be a short when the loco
reaches the frog. The 'feedback' will take the form of the power being cut off from that
section/power district.
If the blades partially move, as with dirt blocking full movement, there is likely to be a
derailment with possible shorting once again.
In both cases, this can be prevented by having a system that detects the tie bar has moved
the point blades fully in either direction. At its simplest, this might mean having a detector
at either end of the tie bar one to ensure a fully open point and one to ensure a fully closed
point. Circuits can also be devised that will only power the frog when a tie bar is fully in
one direction. This results in a dead frog but prevents overall shutdown, and the operator is
notified of the problem.

Reverse Loops
Although not common on actual railways, reversing
loops are popular on many model railways.
As the illustration shows, if your track reverses back
on itself, you will have a short.
Solutions require that a 'dead' section be created in
the loop, using insulated joiners at both ends.
This unpowered section is often called the reversing
The only connection to the reversing section of track is through some switching system,
either manual or automatic. The switching system (see below) is fed from the track bus
and feeds out to the reversing section usually two wires in and two wires out.
Before looking at different switching approaches, it is important to ensure that the length of
the dead reversing section is longer than the longest train that will be on the loop. Anything
that has track pickups must be included in the train length. Apart from the loco, take into
account carriages with lighting, with sound, or with extra power pickups, or a train that has
a loco at each end.
All of the trains pickups must be sitting in the reversing section, otherwise there will still be
a short.
If a train has only a single loco, and no other pickups, it is possible to have a short reversing
However, that is only possible if you know that a loco will always be pulling the train and
never pushing it. Otherwise, where do you position the short dead section near the
entrance to the loop or near the exit. To play safe, and to allow for a range of different train
lengths, it is best to have a long reversing section.
Different switching approaches are adopted, depending on whether you are using DC or
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The usual way of handling reversing loops in DC is manual and uses these steps:
Make sure that the reversing section is powered to match the direction of the
point blades (otherwise you have a short).
Drive the train into the reversing section.
Stop the loco.
Change the point.
Reverse the mainline track power.
Start the loco again.
As you can see, this involves the operator to be in attendance and to carry out a sequence of
tasks in the correct order.
There are a number of methods of handling DC reversing loops.

This is the most common method of manually
switching the section polarity.
The picture shows the use of a DPDT (double-pole
double-throw) switch to reverse the polarity of the
reversing section. When the switch is thrown to the
left, the two middle tags are connected to the two
leftmost tags. When the switch is thrown to the
right, the middle tags connect to the rightmost tags.
By cross-wiring the outer tags, the polarity of the
output on the middle tags depends on the direction
that the switch is thrown.
The illustration shows the schematic representation of a DPDT
switch; this is how it will look in a circuit diagram. The
dotted line indicates that the two switches are always operated
at the same time,
Consider the case of a train entering the loop via the
'branching' track of the point and leaving the loop via the 'main' track of the point.
This illustration shows the point being set to branch. The switch is thrown such that the
polarity of the reversing section
matches that of the branching track.
The train can safely enter the reversing
section, since the rail polarities match.
The track where it exits the loop has a
polarity that does not match its adjacent
rails; this does not matter since they are
isolated from each other.
The train is run into the reversing
section and stopped.

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This illustration shows the point being

set to main. The switch is thrown in
the opposite direction from that above,
making the polarity of the reversing
section now match the main track of
the point.
At this point, the mainline track
polarity is reversed, as the loco is
entering the mainline in a different
direction from before.
The train can now be safely run out of the reversing loop into the main line.
The track where it originally entered the loop has a polarity that does not match its adjacent
rails; this does not matter since they are isolated from each other.
Manual operation is very simple to wire but relies on the operator carrying out the sequence

This can be improved on with the use of a DPDT relay to switch the reversing section,
instead of a switch. When the point is switched, the relay is also switched, eliminating
some manual operations and ensuring that the polarity of the reversing section always
matches that required. This eliminates the possibility of shorts caused by the operator
carrying out the sequence incorrectly.
The relay can be operated by the switch on the control panel, or by contacts on the point
motor. You must use a latching relay with solenoid points, as there is nothing to keep the
relay switched after voltage pulse is gone.

Automatic methods
Automating DC loops is possible, although complicated. The electronics has to detect
when the train is fully in the loop, possibly slowing the train to a halt before reversing the
track power to the reversing section. These are not commonly used but an example is the
MREV Track Polarity Controller by Azatrax. This method uses track detectors to know
when the train has sufficiently entered the reversing section.

Bridge rectifier
This method simplifies even further provided you are happy to have the train always run
round the loop in the same direction (always clockwise or always anti-clockwise).
Many reversing loops are hidden, so is often OK if loco only every goes round one way.
A bridge rectifier is just a single component that houses four diodes in a special formation
(the MERG Kit Locker sells a WOO5 bridge
rectifier rated at 1.5A)
If you prefer, you can use use four separate diodes
instead (the MERG Kit Locker sells a single
1N4001 diodes and 1N5401 diodes, rated at 1A
and 3A respectively)
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The picture shows a typical bridge rectifier and its equivalent seen as a schematic symbol in
a circuit diagram.
Bridge rectifiers come in all shapes and sizes, depending on their voltage handling and
current ratings.
The chief purpose of a bridge rectifier is to convert AC into DC. It has four leads. The
two marked with a ~ symbol are the input connections and the other two are the positive and
negative outputs.
However, a bridge rectifier can also accept a DC input. Because of the way the diodes are
wired, the + and wire will always provide a positive and negative polarity respectively
regardless of the polarity of the DC input.
This allows us to connect the reversing loop section such that it always has the same
polarity on its inner and outer tracks, regardless of the polarity of the incoming track and
This example assumes that the loco always enters from the 'main' track and exits from the
'branch' track after going round the loop.
The operator moves the point to 'main' (i.e. straight ahead),
The illustration shows the conditions when entering the loop. The feed track has its inner
rail is at negative and the outer rail is at positive. This is also the conditions fed to the
reversing section.

The train will run from the main line into the reversing section and carry on round the
section, even when the operator reverses the controller's output.
When the point is changed, the inner and outer rails of the feed track now match that of the
reversing track, so the the loco can carry on out of the section into the main line.
This allows three options;
The operator still stops the train in the reversing section, either for timetabling
reasons or to allow time to change the feed polarity and move the point.
The changing of the feed track polarity is wired to automatically change the
point. Instead of six steps, the operator only has to change the track polarity at
the correct time (when the train is fully in the reversing section).
Using automation modules that do the job for you. Automatic methods involve
electronic modules to control the points and the main line polarity, normally
through computer interfacing and track detectors (such as the one marked as X
in the illustration).
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With DCC, there is still a need to have the reversing section isolated and connected to
power in accordance with the direction of the point. The problem with shorts is still
prevented by having an isolated section but there are operational differences.
With DC, locos are dependent on the polarity of the rails. Reversing a track's polarity
results in the loco changing direction.
This is not the case with DCC. The loco direction is controlled by sending commands to
go forward or in reverse. Once given that command, the loco keeps going in that direction,
even when the track polarity is reversed.
This is handy for reverse loops. The loco drives forward into the loop, drives round the loop
and is still going forward as it exits the loop all without any change of the incoming track's
polarity. Of course, you still need to change the polarity of the reversing section track once
the train is fully in, to prevent shorts.
Stopping the train in the reversing section is optional. You may want to stop the train for
timetabling reasons, or to give you time to change the polarity of the reversing section and
to move the point. However, if you want, you can allow the train to keep driving through
the loop as long as you change the section polarity and point direction before the loco exits
the loop.
As before, the polarity changeover can be achieved by a variety of means;

By manually throwing a DPDT switch.

By linking a DPDT switch to the point's tiebar.
By having a relay change the section polarity; the electronic signal that moves the point also
operates the relay.

The last two options simplify the activities of the operator.

Automatic methods
Like DC, special modules are available in DCC to automate the process. Indeed, there is a
greater variety of electronic modules available in DCC.
These circuits do not need track occupancy detectors. Instead, they work by detecting a
short when the loco bridges the gap between the reversing section and the point track, as the
loco leaves the section. Instead of closing down the track power, these circuits quickly
reverse the section polarity to remove the short. At the worst, there may be a slight jerk in
the loco movement.
These circuits may be built into a booster, such as the SPROG SBOOST DCC Booster, or
are available as stand-alone modules.
Standalone auto reversing units include

Digitrax AR1 DCC40 Auto Reversing Module (see picture)

Gaugemaster DCC40 Auto Reverse Module
Lenz LK200 Auto Reverse Loop Unit
Hornby R8238 DCC Reverse Loop Module
Bachmann E-Z Command Reversing Loop Module

All of these modules save you the job of switching the polarity of the
reversing section polarity. You still have to switch the point unless you use track
occupancy detectors to switch the points.
So, with a combination of an auto reversing unit and a track occupancy detectors operating
the point, the whole process can be automatic. The operator simply has to control the loco
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This formation is much more common on USA rail systems and is rarely found in Europe.
Like the reversing loop, it allows a train to enter a track configuration facing one direction
and exit facing the opposite direction. The wye
uses three points and a single isolated section (the
'stub end'). The train comes in to the isolated
section from one mainline point and reverses out
through the other mainline point. It is now back
on the main line but facing a different direction.
The wye uses more points than a reversing loop
and is less popular, although it may better match
the physical locations of some layouts. Like the
reversing loop, the stub end of the wye must be
long enough to accommodate your longest train.

The operator's sequence might be:

If necessary, switch point A and point B to allow the train to enter the stub track.
Move the train into the stub track through point A and point B.
Stop the loco.
Change the direction of point B and point C.
Reverse the polarity of the reversing section.
Move the loco out of the stub track into the main line through point B and point C.
Stop the loco.
Switch point A and point C.
Reverse the polarity of the track power.
Drive the loco along the main line through point C and point A.

The train is now travelling forwards, in the opposite direction to that when it approached the
wye. It is possible to have the power to the isolated section reversed by a DPDT switch or
relay linked to the point operation. Nevertheless, operating a wye is a detailed process that
needs to be carried out in the correct order which is maybe another reason why it is less
popular then reversing loops.

Once again, operations are
somewhat simplified when using
DCC. The illustration shows an
auto reversing module ensuring
that the stub track is always kept
at the correct polarity to prevent
continuous shorts.
You still have to switch points,
unless automated with track
occupancy detectors, etc.
Important note
The illustrations for reversing loops and wyes ignore any consideration on frog or point
rail wiring or switching. This is to make the diagrams more clear. Consideration has
still to given to how you wire the points themselves, as discussed earlier.
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Chapter 7
Point motors and servos

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Point motors and servos

All layouts have points; some have a few points while others have scores of points.
Over the years, many different approaches to operating points have been used.
They all have one thing in common, the need to move the point's sliding tie bar back and
forth to change the point's routing.
Some operators are happy to just lean over the layout and flick the point by hand, although
this becomes more troublesome on larger layouts with points dispersed across greater
distances. The need to move distant points led to a range of mechanical solutions, ranging
from simple push/pull dowel rods to wire in cable systems, often connecting to lever frames.
However, since this book is about model railway electronics, we will concentrate on their
contribution to point operations. The available options are:

Memory wire
Stall motors

Memory wire
Memory wire has an interesting property it shrinks when heated and restores to its original
length as it cools again. It is heated by passing current through it (around 200mA
depending on the wire gauge used) and shortens by about 5%. So, for a 4mm movement,
we would need a length of 80mm (a 1/2 movement would need 10).
We could use levers to get greater movement, at the expense of pulling power.
This illustration, taken from the MERG Technical Bulletin G19/1, shows how memory wire
can be used to operate a point.

Power connections are made to each end of the memory wire, normally using bolts with
washers, crimps or terminal blocks. You can't solder directly to memory wire, as the
excessive heat will result in the wire losing its special properties.
When sufficient current passes through the memory wire, it shrinks and pulls the lever
rightwards. In so doing, it moves the point's tie bar. When the current is withdrawn, the
wire slowly restores to its original length and the spring ensures that the lever moves back to
the right. The shrink time takes around 1 sec and the restore time is around 1-3 secs.
The wire's power is generally fed from a constant current source (e.g. an LM317), as
excessive current leads to overheating and shortens the life of the wire. Power to the wire
can be fed through switches, power transistors or Darlington arrays (e.g. the 2003A).
It is not a very popular method, as it needs constant current to keep a point set in the
operated mode, and it takes up a lot of space under the baseboard.
See MERG Technical Bulletins G19/1 and G19/2 for further reading on memory wire.

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Solenoid-operated points was by far the most common system in use for many years, and is
still popular today due to its simplicity.
A solenoid was described in the first chapter as a wire coil that acted as an electromagnet to
exert a pull on a metal rod.
We can use two such coils, slightly spaced apart,
with a common moveable metal rod.
If coil A is supplied with current, it pulls the rod
deeper leftwards into its coil. Supplying current
to coil B produces a pull in the opposite direction.
In this example, an operating pin is attached to the rod and it too slides left or right. As it
does so, it moves the point's tie bar.
The illustration shows the simplest possible method of
operating a couple of point motors.
Each point motor has two coils and each coil is connected
across the power supply when its push button is pressed. It
is common practice to join two ends of the coils together,
requiring only three wires to to be connected to each point
Push-buttons are used instead of switches, as the coils would
overheat and burn out if power was applied for too long.
Although this systems works, solenoid point motors are more
commonly used with capacitive discharge (CDU) systems. They avoid burnouts and
provide a more reliable performance.

This basic CDU circuit rectifies a 15V AC supply and uses it to charge up a high value
capacitor. The connections from the point motors (apart from those that are commoned) are
wired to studs on a control panel. The positive end of the capacitor is wired to a floating
lead with a probe on the end (an 'electric pencil'). When the probe is touched to a stud, the
capacitor provides a short duration burst of high current into that particular coil. This
ensures that the solenoid snaps over successfully. The capacitor's charge is soon exhausted
and so cannot provide a damaging continuous current. The resistor limits the current
coming from the supply, if the probe is kept on the stud for too long.
The capacitor then needs to be recharged and this is done through the resistor, ready for the
next operation. The charging delay is usually between 0.5 sec and 1 sec. This delay slows
up setting up routes of multiple points. You only need one CDU circuit, no matter how
many points you have on your layout.
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While operation by push buttons produces a neat control panel,

the sparking across the switch contacts and the high current
surges they handle can lead to short life and unreliable operation.
For this reason, manufacturers have produced 'passing contact
The switch has a lever that can rest in three positions in the
middle and at each end of the travel. The lever is connected to
the power supply. As it is moved between the middle position
and any of the outer positions, it rubs against a contact that is connected to one of the
solenoid coils. As long as the operator pushed the lever all the way, the contact is only
momentary and enough to discharge the capacitor through the coil.
Passing contact switches are useful in replicating a signal box lever frames, but are not
suitable for operator's control panels.
Over the years, this basic system was improved upon by using power transistors (highpower devices acting like switches) to direct current through solenoid coils. This allowed
ordinary pushbuttons and switches on control panels to be used, letting the transistor do all
the heavy switching. It also allowed other devices to switch the points (any electronic
device such as train detectors, logic circuits and computers).
A further improvement is using more sophisticated electronics to recharge the capacitor
more quickly.

Solenoid point motors

Firstly, get used to the fact that solenoids are described as point 'motors' when they don't
actually contain any motors. Later, as we shall see, there are point-operating devices that
do use motors but all the main brands of solenoids are described as motors (or sometimes
as 'point machines'). Solenoid motors are all pretty much alike in the way they provide
linear motion. The main differences, apart from price, are:

Some also include changeover switches, so that when the point is moved the switch can
set the point's frog polarity (more on this later), light panel LEDs, etc.
Some are designed to clip onto the underneath of the point, making installation easier,
assuming you buy the same brand of point and solenoid.

The images show two Hornby solenoids that have different
styles for mounting. They operate on 12V DC or 15V AC and
are recommended to be switched with Hornby passing contact
The first is the R8014 standard point motor. You can clearly
see the two coils. The four metal lugs are designed to be
plugged into the underside of their points; a rectangular slot is cut in the baseboard to allow
the point motor to fit. Alternatively, they can be mounted above the baseboard and hidden
in a Hornby trackside hut that includes an extension arm to move the point.
If fitted below the baseboard, an extending rod transmits the mechanical movement from the
solenoid to the point's tie bar.
The second image shows their R8243 surface mounted point
motor. This is designed to connect directly to a Hornby point.
Neither model includes a changeover switch.
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This solenoid operates from 12V to 25V, AC or DC.
They make two models; the basic PM-2 and the PM-1 which
is physically identical but has a built-in switch. However,
the switch uses a sliding metal washer to rub against the
tracks of a PCB (printed circuit board) which limits its useful
working life.
As the image shows, it has a very simple design and is
expected to
be screwed underneath the baseboard, as
shown in the illustration. The operating
pin protrudes through a hole/slot in the
baseboard and slides the tie bar.
The Seep point motor can also be fitted
above the baseboard, if
preferred, as shown in the second
The motor has to held above the
baseboard using spacers, to allow
room for an extension arm to
slide back and forth.
The basic Atlas point motor has its coils encased,
with just the three connection points visible.
It has a slim profile but, unlike other point motors,
only has a flimsy plastic operating rod.
The second image is of the Atlas Deluxe
Undertable Switch Machine.
It has a similar mechanism but embeds a DPDT
(double pole-double throw) relay for use in frog
wiring, panel lights, etc.

Like Hornby, Peco manufacture solenoids that plug directly
underneath their own brand of point, resting in a slot cut out of
the baseboard.
The image shows the basic PL10 model, operating on 16v AC.
Peco also sell a PL-9, which is a plastic mounting plate to
make it easy to fit the solenoid above or under the baseboard.
If fitted under the baseboard, they recommend the PL10E,
which is identical to the PL-10 but has a longer operating rod.
The other item sold for the PL-10 is the PL-13 accessory
switch. It fits under the PL-10 and is operated by the lower part of the solenoid's operating
rod. It provides a single changeover switch. Again, it uses a sliding metal washer contact
with possible long term problems.
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If you need two changeover switches, or simply more reliable

switches, they sell the PL-15 accessory switch, as shown in this

This image shows the PL-11

model, which is designed to
snap on to the side of a Peco point. Due to its smaller size,
the use of a CDU is recommended to ensure positive point

Non-solenoid point motors

Although a proven generally reliable system, the solenoid/CDU combination suffers from a
number of problems:

The long runs of wire between the switches and the solenoids requires heavy gauge wire
to avoid voltage drops, due to the heavy current they have to carry.
The fast operation of the solenoid armature produces annoying noisy thumps and clicks.
The fierce operation of the points can loosen and damage point parts.
The fierce operation of the solenoid's armature can hit the end so hard that it slightly
rebounds, resulting in the point blades not lying flat against the stock rails.
The movement of the point blades is too fast to look realistic.
Most solenoid point motors have no adjustment the armature simply travels from one
extreme to the other. The user has to employ mechanical
corrections to make the required point travel match the
solenoid's actual travel. This usually involves fitting an
omega loop between the solenoid and the point's tie bar, to
absorb any unwanted movement (the shape of the loop
allows it to compress or stretch). It may also involve fitting
levers to adjust between the difference in tie bar throw and
solenoid throw.

Most of these problems are solved by using motor-driven mechanisms.

They have the following advantages:
They don't rely on short bursts of heavy current, so wiring is less crucial.
They are much quieter when moving the point blades.
There is no thump at the end of travel, so less wear on point parts.
They produce a more definitive end stop, with no bounce back.
The slow movement of the point blades is much more realistic.
In some cases, you can set the end points, eliminating the need for omega loops.
If your point has an over-centre spring fitted, so that the blades snap to either side once they
pass the mid position, this should be removed to allow the smooth movement that motorised
mechanisms provide.
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The Fulgurex point motor is not the most popular
seller but we start with this one because you can
clearly see how it works (the other brands have their
mechanisms encased in plastic).
A DC motor drives a worm and worm gear to
produce a linear movement.
A rod to operate the point's tie bar can either be
attached vertically to the moving bar (for under the
baseboard mounting) or horizontally to the moving
bar (for above board mounting). The motor runs on 10V-14V DC at around 200mA.
There are two layers of switches on each side of the motor. The bottom layer is used to
switch off the motor power when the bar reaches the end of its movement. The two upper
sets of changeovers are available for frog switching, lighting LEDs, etc. It is fairly large
at 85mm x 50mm.
This is the Hoffman MWA02-S Point Machine.
It works on 16V at a fairly high current of 1A.
It has built-in limit switches that cut off power to the
motor when the operating lever reaches the ends of its
travel. The operating wire rests on on a moveable cam
that allows the lengths of travel to be adjusted.
It also contains an internal changeover microswitch.
It is substantially smaller at 68mm x 24mm.
Like the Hoffman, the Conrad point motor works on 16V at
This motor moves faster than other motorised mechanisms
but is still slower and quieter than solenoids.
Part 219999-62 is the basic mechanism and Part 219998-62
includes a changeover switch (using copper brush contacts
which are not as reliable as microswitches in the longer

The Tortoise switch machine works different from the others
above, as its motor is continuously powered. It is known as a
'stall motor' because it stalls at the end of each throw, avoiding
the need for cut-off switches.
An unloaded tortoise draws 4mA while running, rising to around
15mA at stall. The constant current means that there is
constant tension between the point blades and the stock rails.
It is intended for mounting under the baseboard and is quite
large at 60mm x 55mm x 85mm.
It has two built-in changeover switches.
MERG Technical Bulletin A06/2/2/2 cover the Tortoise in more detail.
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Servos have become very popular in model railways in the last few years.
Servos are available in a large range of sizes, for industrial/military uses such as automatic
machine tools and satellite tracking to domestic hobby uses such as autofocus cameras and
radio controlled planes and cars.
It is the smaller, lighter servos that are common in model aircraft that are now found in
railway layouts. Apart from their use in operating points, they can be found in semaphore
signals, crossing gates and barriers, uncouplers, cranes, and a variety of lineside animations
(moving people, animals, cars, aerials, radar heads, guns, etc.).
Solenoid mechanisms and most motorised mechanisms only move an operating rod between
two fixed positions. This leaves the user to make mechanical adjustments to ensure that the
point motor movement is accurately reflected in the required movement of the point's tie
With servos, this task is eliminated. A servo can be made to stop at any position in its
mechanical range it does not have to go from absolute end to end. So, the servo can be
made to move the point tie bar by the exact amount needed each time.
Not only can you decide where its end stop points are you can decide what speed you
want to move the point blades (from super-slow to the snap speed of a solenoid).
As the illustration shows, a servo is a plastic box with
some mounting lugs, an output shaft that partially rotates.
Apart from a connecting cable, there is nothing more on
the outside.
Think of a servo as a motor that turns an output shaft
(called a 'horn') through about 180 degrees (see later).
With appropriate external electronics, the horn can be
rotated to a precise point in that rotation.


Readily available from many sources.

Cheaper than point motors.
High torque.
Accurate repeatable positioning.
Can provide a fast movement like a solenoid, or can provide a slow smooth
movement, which is more realistic and more gentle on point parts.
Speed can be varied for each direction (e.g. to mimic a semaphore signal arm).
Adjustments are electronic or computer based, rather than mechanical. So, point
settings can be carried out remotely from the point.
Unlike a solenoid that is either fully one direction or the other, servos can be
rotated to many different positions (e.g. for a turntable, or flying a flag at halfmast).
No annoying thump as with solenoids.
Works for all gauges
Works with DC, DCC, CBUS, etc.

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Normal point motors can be fitted straight from the box. Servos need
additional mounting arrangements and additional control circuitry.
Unlike solenoids (with fixed distance movements) or Tortoise-like motors (with
microswitches to set end stops) servos need to have a source of electrical pulses
to determine their positions. Hence the need for extra electronics.
Servos dont come with mounts for baseboards, unlike devices designed for
model railway use. Modellers have to make their own mounting brackets, or
buy commercial mounts that often cost more than the servo.
Requires a little more technical expertise to construct and set up.
Most servos work at around 5V, which is not a common power output from loco
controllers hence the need for extra electronics.
Cheaper servos wear out after only 25 hours of use (on the other hand, that is
30,000 point operations based on 3 seconds per point movement).

Choosing a servo
With such a variety to choose from, its best to look at their specifications.
This image shows some of the smaller servos that are available. In most cases the middle
two servos are employed for most tasks.

Servo specifications cover these factors:

A measure of the turning power of a servo. It measures the amount of 'push' or 'pull' that
the servo can handle before the motor stalls. Torque is measured in ounces*inch or
kilograms*centimetre. Consider a servo that is rated at 2kg*cm, and has a horn with a
hole drilled through it that is exactly 1cm distance from the horn centre. The servo would
stall if it had move a mass of 2kg at that point; any mass less than 2kg can be moved by the
servo. If the hole in the horn had a distance of 2cms, it would stall at 1kg.
It makes sense the further out from the centre of the motor, the less able the motor is at
handling mass. The horns that are supplied with servos have a number of holes at different
distances out from the centre (see the earlier drawing). These allow operating rods,

cables, etc. to be attached to them.

Servos are available in a wide range of operating torques. For example, the DYS0206 has a
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torque of, while the mighty Multiplex RHINO digi 4 has
For comparison, the smallest servo in the photograph has a torque of, while the
largest has a torque of For operating lightweight fittings (e.g. signals or crossing
gates) even the least-endowed servo will have no problem.
If you intend to keep using centre-sprung points, a little extra torque is required, compared
to other points.

Operating speed
Retailers describe the servos speed (or transit time, or servo turn rate) as the time the servo
takes to rotate a certain amount. Thus, the Protech B305s speed is quoted as taking 0.2
seconds to rotate 60 degrees (0.25sec/60) and the tiny DYS0206 has a performance of 0.12s
to rotate 60. Servo speed is important when used to fly a model aeroplane but even the
slowest operating speed is fast enough for model railway applications.

Again, this is very important for model aircraft but not normally a significant factor for
railway modelling.

This is less of an issue for operating points, as there is usually sufficient space under the
baseboard. Smaller servos might prove useful inside small buildings and structures (e.g.
people moving inside a signal box, or where a point has to be operated from above the
baseboard). The most commonly used servos are significantly smaller than point motors.

Case size

Possible uses


60mm x 51mm x 28mm

Robots, heavy work. Mostly non railway


38mm x 35mm x 19mm

Heavy work on layout


28mm x 25mm 16mm

Medium / light work


22mm x 16mm 10mm

Light work, small places


20mm 15mm x 11mm

Linear (sliding door, semaphores)

The construction of the servo and the materials used have an effect on how smooth and
reliable the servo operates. Compared to model aircraft and boats, servos in model railways
would not likely suffer the same amount of constant use during a session. While an aircraft
operator is constantly altering servo settings (i.e. many thousands of changes) during a
flight, points or signals will probably enact much fewer changes in a session. Nevertheless,
reliability can be enhanced by purchasing servos that offer improved construction such as
higher-quality motors, double ball races, long life bearings or long life motor brushes.
The higher quality servos are designed for sudden acceleration and fast sequences of
Servos with metal gears and metal output shafts have the most strength, handle the highest
torque and are used where heavy or jarring loads are being handled. However, the gradual
wearing away of the metal results in accuracy being slowly lost over time.
Nylon gears are cheaper, suffer much less wear but are less durable in adverse conditions,
being prone to snap the shaft or a gear wheel when over-worked.
Karbonite gears are stronger and even more long-wearing than nylon gears and are found in
servos such as the Hitec HS-6965.
For most railway applications, the cheaper nylon geared-servos are quite sufficient.

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Here is a typical advert, providing specification details of a commonly used servo:

Analogue / digital
Servos are available both as analogue (by far the most common) and digital versions. Both
use the same motors, gears, etc. The difference is in the electronics inside the servo. The
analogue servo checks its position 50 times per second and adjusts the rotation if required.
The digital servo checks and adjusts 300 times per second. This results in faster operating
speeds and a more constant torque. Digital versions are more expensive and provide no
real added benefit for the tasks performed in model railways.

Most servos have three wires exiting the casing and
terminating in a 3-pin socket connector as shown in the image.
The wires are colour-coded and their uses are:
Wire Colour





Ground (OV)

Yellow or

Signal input

Draws anything from 10mA to over 1A, depending on how
powerful the servo is (read each servos specification)
Common connection for both the supply and the input
The incoming signal to the servo, to set the servos position.
The input can be fed from transistors, ICs (both TTL and
CMOS), PICs, etc.

Most servos seem to use red, black and white wires but this varies between manufacturers.
Also, most servos use the same order of wires on the connector with the red wire in the
middle. Again, this is not always the case, so check before connecting.
The socket has square holes spaced 2.5mm apart, to accommodate PCB header plugs.
These are available from MERG, Rapid, Farnell, etc. They can be purchased as 3-way

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single row PCB header plugs but is more economic to buy a 36-way strip and cut it into
twelve 3-way pieces.
The socket is not polarised, so the plug can easily be inserted the wrong way round. It is up to you
to ensure that the plug is wired to match the servo socket and is inserted the correct way round.

Control signals to the servo

Assume for the moment that the three wires from the plug are connected to some electronic
device that is capable of controlling the servo (more on servo controllers later).
The servo, in addition to its motor and gearbox, has a small printed circuit board with its
own electronics, including some noise suppression. The internal electronics translate the
state of the incoming signals into the rotational position of the output shaft.
The servo operates on an input signal of 5 volts.

Low signal, also known as logic 0, is 0 volts

High signal, also known as logic 1, is +5V

The ground wire (usually the black wire) is held at zero volts. The red wire supplies the
power to the servo and is always held at +5V. In fact, various servos can operate over a
range of supply voltages from 3V to over 7V, depending upon the model. However, its best
to work on a standard of a +5V supply, since this is a voltage that all servos can expect to
operate at.
The remaining wire sends +5V pules from the controlling electronics to the servo. Many
people place a 10k resistor in series with the lead to the signal input,
to limit the signal current into the servo.
The input signal sits at low level and is taken high for a certain period
of time before being returned to low. This looks a square wave pulse
as shown in the illustration.

Timing and rotation

The control of the servo depends on this simple rule:
The width of the input pulse to the servo determines where
the output shaft rotates to.
So a particular pulse width should always result in the same
movement of the servo horn.
All servos are designed so that a pulse width of 1.5ms rotates the
output shaft to a mid position.
For the purpose of the illustration, a pulse of width 1ms (a
millisecond a thousand of one second) makes the output shaft
rotate to its most counter-clockwise position and a pulse width
of 2ms rotates the shaft fully clockwise.
This relationship between pulse width and rotational position is
shown in the diagram.
This supposes that the servo has a 180-degree maximum
rotation. In practice, servos can be found with maximums that
vary from around 90 to 180 degrees.
Some servos allow an input pulse to be as short as 0.75ms and
as long as 2.25ms.

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While all servos of a particular make and model are identical, the range of available rotation and
the pulse width required for that range could vary between different models. Modellers might
consider sticking to one model for identical operations (such as points), or ensuring that
replacement/additional servos have the same specification as those currently in use.

Other, physical, alterations to the servo are possible to obtain continual rotation with no
ends stops. This is not normally needed for our purposes (if you need a rotating motor
buy a motor!) but interested readers can find details on this via Google.
Normally, pulses should be sent to the servo 50 times per
second (i.e. every 20ms) to keep the shaft in any fixed
So, for example, to keep the shaft in mid-position, pulses
of 1.5ms duration would be sent every 20ms. Many experiments using different servos has
shown that while desirable, this is not strictly necessary.
Where a servo is under strain, such as supporting a weight or acting against a spring,
repeated pulses are required to ensure that the load does not move the shaft from its chosen
position. In other situations, such as centre-sprung points, a few pulses are sufficient to
move the blades, which are then kept, in place by the spring. Also, light loads such as
signals and swing gates do not require constant refreshing, as the friction in the servo gears
is sufficient to maintain position.
Where a stream of pulses is used, the pulses do not have to be at the exact 20ms rate.
Anywhere between 15ms and 40ms works quite happily.
Repeating the pulses too frequently (e.g. 10ms) may cause servo jitter/chatter, produce a
buzzing sound, or make uncontrolled movements. Repeating too infrequently (e.g. 70ms)
may cause the servo to shut off and the shaft might lose its rotational position.
Also, the pulses do not have to be repeated at exactly the same rate. So, there could be a
25ms between some pulses and 35ms at another point in time.
This is because the length of the pulse is the most significant characteristic of the input

How a servo works inside

This raises two questions:
How does the servo motor know when it has reached its required position?
How does the servo automatically maintain its position, assuming a regular
pulse stream?
The answers lie in the internal workings of the servo.
The image shows a servo with its upper casing removed.
On the left is the output shaft and this is rotated via nylon gears
to a motor whose shaft can just be seen on the right of the servo.
Inside the case, there is a small potentiometer (variable resistor)
connected to the output shaft. As the shaft rotates, the
potentiometers value is altered and the resulting change is fed
back into the servos circuitry.
This allows the circuitry to act as a closed loop. It knows

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what value should be fed back from the resistor for any given incoming pulse width. If
both values correctly match, the motor is not energised since the servo is already in the
correct rotational position.
If the value of the requested position (given by the pulse width) doesnt match the current
actual position (given by the value from the variable resistor), the motor is turned in the
appropriate direction until the two values match. At that stage, the motor stops drawing

More technical explanation

The servos circuitry uses a pulse width comparator. It compares the width of the incoming
pulse with a pulse from a one-shot timer whose period is set by the potentiometer value.
The difference signal feeds a flip-flop circuit whose outputs determine the motor direction
and drive an H-bridge circuit to provide the high current to supply the motor
The in-built feedback mechanism will handle any external force that tries to alter its
position. So, if a heavy load begins to turn a servo from its designated position, the
movement is detected and the motor is re-energised to bring the shaft back to the chosen
position. Just try turning a horn with your fingers when the servo is being sent positional

Servo accuracy
To be really useful, you have to be able to depend on the accuracy and repeatability of the
servo's rotation for any given pulse width, it must always rotate to the same position every
However, tiny overshoot adjustments must be minimised, otherwise the servo would be
continually drawing current as it makes tiny jittering movements back and forth.
For most servos, therefore, there is a trade-off between absolute resolution and ignoring tiny
insignificant signal changes (known as the 'deadband').
Lets look at an example.
A servo's incoming signal can vary from 1ms to 2ms a difference of 1ms, or
1000s (microseconds). There are no occasions when you would require the
servo to take 1,000 steps to get from one end of travel to the other. For the sake
of the example, let's say we are happy with using 50 different steps (still quite a
lot). That means the width of the incoming signal would change by 20s
(1,000s divided by 50 steps) to move to the next step. If the servo had a
deadband value of 10s, it would ignore all pulse width changes of 10s or less
resulting in greatly reduced unwanted small movements, less current draw and
less overheating of the servo motor and its electronic components.
In practice, servo deadbands vary between 1s and 8s.
In precision military and scientific applications very high specification servos are used with
a very narrow deadband and this allows for greater resolution for the servos.
In a hobby situation, where the incoming signal cannot be guaranteed to be stable, or where
cheaper servos are in use, a wider deadband allows for greater stability at the cost of
If we look at a servo with a 90 maximum rotation and a 2s deadband, the resolution that is
available would be 90 x 2 / 1000 = 0.18, which is more than sufficient for all model
railway activities.

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Servo problems
Servo systems are generally very dependable but, like all electronic and mechanical
systems, there are potential problems that may need addressed.

The servo's deadband prevents unwanted servo movement for tiny pulse width changes.
But there are other problems that might prevent the servo reaching its deadband area.
Sticky / blocked points if the servo cannot move the point blades to the required
position, due to debris on the track or a gummy tie bar, the servo will carry on trying
to finish its task. The servo motor will buzz as it tries to reach its final stopping
Incorrect alignment the mechanical linkage between the servo's horn and the tie bar
are improperly aligned, preventing the servo from reaching its final destination.
Incorrect settings the mechanical arrangements are fine but the servo has been
given an incorrect final stopping point and is trying to move the tie bar beyond the
stock rail.
Poor power regulation the glitches in the power supply to the servo, or its
controller, or both, affect the voltages fed to the servo's internal comparator circuit.
A servo only consumes a few mA when stationary but this can rise to 500mA when
rotating, depending on the servo size and model.
Interference pickup of unwanted signals (noisy loco motor, DCC messages, CBUS
messages, etc. ) appear to the servo's signal wire input as movement instructions.
These problems can be resolved by ensuring that the points are kept clean and clear, the
mechanical link between servo and tie bar are aligned properly, the servo is correctly
configured and that the power and signal wires are routed to avoid interference.

It is well-known that most servos produce a 'kick' (an unwanted movement) when they are
first powered up. This is a feature of their internal electronics and is cleared in almost all
cases by soldering a 10k resistor between the servo's signal wire and the +5V supply line.
In some cases, it only effective if wired across the signal line and the 0V line.
Configuration of the control electronics can also minimise this effect.

Unlike the kick, which only happens during power up, servo twitching occurs during the
running session.
This is almost always a result of external interference and can tackled by careful routing of
layout wires, or placing a capacitor between the signal wire signal and 0v to shunt away any
high frequency spikes on the signal wire.
Alternatively, the problem could be tackled at the servo controller end. If the servo needs to
keep pressure on, it requires the constant repetition of the incoming pulses. Otherwise, the
servo controller could be organised to stop sending pulses after a few seconds.
Although this looks like a long list of problems, in practice they are all either avoidable or
are usually easily remedied.

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Fitting servos
The illustration shows the key elements for fitting servos.
Usually, the lever (called a horn) and fitting screw is
supplied with the servo. Often, a selection of horn types
is supplied. The horn has multiple holes drilled in it. The
choice of horn, and the way it is used, allows a servo to
provide either a rotational or linear motion.
There are mounting lugs lips on the side of servos; larger
servos have four holes, two each short side and the smaller
servos provide a single hole at each end. Some retailers
also supply rubber grommets. These fit in the holes to
provide a degree of suspension, which is useful in
vibrating environments such as model aircraft.. They are
often left unfitted to ensure accurate repeatable positioning of the servo horn.
There are two problems facing modellers:
Mounting servos to baseboards, inside buildings, etc.
Fitting operating arms, cables, etc.

Commercial mounts
These images show a range of the mounting brackets that are available from dealers.

Top row:

Small plastic mounts (eBay)

Solid one-piece plastic mount (SLEC Ltd) plastic version from Conrad
Plywood self-assembly bracket (J Perkins)
Bottom row: Aluminium bracket (Active Robots)
Plastic self-assembly bracket, with two microswitches (MERG)
Servo1 PCB that acts as a mounting bracket as well as providing
the control electronics (MERG)
The images, which are not to scale, show that a variety of materials have been used in their
Unfortunately, in most cases, the cost of the brackets exceed the cost of the servos
themselves, although the MERG version is cheapest and provides additional facilities.
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Home brew mounts

The relatively high cost of commercial mounts has led to hobbyists developing their own
cheaper alternatives.
Modellers will provide endless alternative means of fitting servos and using them to operate
devices. These images show three such approaches.

The servo on the left is screwed onto two small wooden cubes of the type that you buy as a
bag's worth in a craft shop. The blocks are then glued to the underside of the baseboard.
The middle servo uses a piece of aluminium angle that you can buy in DIY stores. Two
holes are drilled in the side and the servo is held in place by plastic ties. Two other screws
hold the angle piece to the baseboard
The servo on the right uses L-shaped plastic brackets that you buy in DIY stores for fixing
shelves and cabinets. A slot is cut in one side and the servo sits in the recess and two screws
hold the servo to the bracket. The plastic bracket can then be screwed to a block for fixing
to the baseboard (screwed or glued).
All three methods allow the mount to be fabricated before fitting to the layout.

Attaching points to the servo

You can still use a servo to operate a point using the traditional indirect methods such wire
in tube, omega loops, cranks and levers. In fact, this might be the best way for points that
are not easily directly accessible through the baseboard.
For most servo users, however, the servo operates the points using a length of piano wire.
There are two ways to achieve this:

This is the most simple method and is shown in these
images. The piano wire is connected to the servo horn,
bending the wire through the horn holes (some even securing
it with additional wire binding and enclosing with epoxy).
The piano wire passes
through a slot in the
baseboard and protrudes
through a hole in the points tie-bar. It needs no other
mechanical linkage; as the servo rotates, the piano wire
slides the tie bar.
This method works happily in many situations but has some limitations.
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Consider this illustration showing the direct movement of

the point tie bar with servo rotation. As you can see, the
servo is capable of a much greater range of rotation than
that being used to move the tie bar.
In fact, as the piano wire length is increased, the servo will
rotate less and less to achieve the same amount of lateral
movement of the point.
This has two effects:

Although the servo can complete its arc of travel using

many different step (e.g. 256 steps) the tie bar is moved
end to end with very few steps (e.g. 8). This greatly
affects the movement resolution, as a slow motion point
change would finish in just 8 steps, resulting in a more jerky movement.
Small changes in servo rotation result in large swings at the end of the piano wire. This
turns small unwanted kicks into potentially large and destructive jolts of the tie bar, unless
stringent steps are taken to minimise start-up kicks, interference, etc.

This method is safer and more realistic.
Looking again at these two homebrew mounts,
we can see that they also have long piano wire
actuators but the fulcrum is not at the servo
end, it is near to the tie bar.
So we have the opposite effect of direct linkage.
A large rotation of the servo results in a smaller
lateral movement of the tie bar.
Thus, we have the horn rotating almost from end to end. The many steps to move the point
provide smooth slow motion. Also, any 'kicks' have no effect, since the servo works at its
extremes anyway.
There must be a small hole at the fulcrum no wiggle room.
The pivot method is the most configurable, with plenty of options for
tweaking the movement of the wire actuator.
The piano wire can be inserted in any hole in the horn arm, providing
different amounts of leverage. You can also set the distance from the
horn to the tie bar and the position of fulcrum. Finally, you have the
ability to change the servo's end stop positions in software.
The image on the left shows how the Tortoise
point motor using a sliding fulcrum to adjust
the amount of leverage.
Moving accessories
Servos are commonly used for point control but can be used for a
wide range of lineside accessories, such as crossing gates, sliding
doors, cranes, semaphore signals, uncouplers, grade brakes, etc.
The image on the right shows a model crane epoxied to a plastic
tube that is run through a hole in the baseboard and is a push fit on
to a servos output shaft.
Servo use is only limited by your ingenuity.
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Controlling servos
To control a servo, we need a source of pulses as described earlier. The circuit is called a
'servo controller' and can be built from transistors, 555 timer chips, flip-flop ICs or PICs.
The circuits can be controlled from mimic boards or from computers.
They can be built from scratch, from MERG kits and from commercial control boards.

A basic homebrew controller

The circuit below is ideal if you want to experiment with servos without committing too
much cash. The only costs are a cheap NE555 IC, a handful of components and a single
servo. It is a tried and tested circuit.

The 555 chip is a timer IC which is just what is needed for creating timing pulses.
Servos expect to receive regular pulses on their 'Signal' wire (the other two wires on the
servo are for our 5V power). The pulses on the signal wire should vary in duration between
1ms and 2ms and be repeated every 20ms.
The 390k resistor and the 150nF capacitor are used to control the time between pulses,
while these same capacitors are used in conjunction with the two resistors and 10k
potentiometer to control the length of the pulses. So, varying the resistance of the
potentiometer controls the servo arm's rotation.
The circuit works from a standard 12V DC supply and uses a 7805 voltage regulator to
bring the voltage down to 5V for the chip and the servo.
For more details on 555 timers, read John Matthew's article in the MERG Winter 2006/7
Journal. Another very simple servo circuit is printed in the Elektor magazine Jul/Aug 2008
edition. This circuit uses a 7400 IC.
Although simple, its uses include:

A cheap introduction to playing with servos.

A module to test servos before fitting them on a layout.
Manual control of aerials, radar heads, guns (great for kids).
When you need to move to intermediate positions (e.g. a flag at half mast)
Mounting a cam on the arm, so you can scan a hidden area of the layout.
An asymmetric turntable for smaller gauges (the pivot point is near one end rather than the
Any manual control for occasional use.

For many purposes, a more comprehensive controller is required.

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So, what are the requirements for a model railway servo controller:
1. Easily operated by switches (control panel)
2. Easily operated from other railway modules (e.g. track detectors)
3. Easily operated by a computer
4. Easy to set a servo's endpoints (the limit of travel in each direction)
5. Easy to set the speed of servo rotation, preferably with each end point being able to
be set independent of the other (e.g. able to move fast in one direction but slow in the
other direction).
The first three requirements are usually met by having a
controller that has a separate input pin for each servo.
Pulling the pin to 0v makes the servo rotate in one
direction, while pulling the pin up to +5V makes the
servo rotate in the opposite direction. By operating from
a simply change of voltage level, the servo controller
input can be attached to anything that produces that
voltage change. In most cases, this would be a simple
on/off switch in the control panel, as shown in the
illustration. Otherwise, any circuit that switches logic
level (between +5V and 0V) can be attached to the servo controller input pin.
The fourth requirement, setting the end points, is either accomplished by a computer
software application, or by using switches / pushbuttons on the servo controller board.
The last requirement, altering the speed of servo travel, is provided by some controllers,
while others simply switch at a set speed.

Commercial controllers
The benefits of these boards are that they are supplied ready-built and tested.
There are three categories of servo controller:
Industrial / military / scientific / medical High specification, high price,
modules that are not covered here.
Hobbyist robot builders.
Model railway controllers.

Model Railway Controllers

These three models are specifically designed for the model railway market.

Viessmann 5268 Servo-Control

This servo controller uses a supply of 10V to 16V, AC or DC
and converts it down to 5V to operate the servo.
Unfortunately, it only operates a single servo.
This is fine if you only want to have the odd feature here and
there on your layout (e.g. a signal or a crane).
It is too bulky and is not cost-effective if you want to operate
dozens of points.
The end stops are set using two separate adjusters.
There is no control over servo speed.
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Conrad Train Module 73726

This controller is a little better, as it handles two servos.

It uses a supply 7V to 24V, AC or DC and converts it down
to 5V to operate the servo.
Like the Viessmann, it is really only suitable for occasional
servo use on a layout.
There is no control over servo speed.

Heathcote Dual Servo Motor Controller

It uses a supply of 9V to 16V, AC or DC.
It also only handles two servos, limiting its
appeal for point operations.
The endstops are set using two pushbuttons.
Seven different speeds can be set, using another
The sockets that can be seen at the back of the
board are for connecting a remote setting box that
replicates the boards pushbuttons. This saves you having to adjust point servos while
crouching under a baseboard.
It has an interesting sequence facility, allowing you to control one servo from another. This
can be used for crossing gates, as the second servo will only start to move when the first has
finished rotating.
Tam Valley

The image shows the Tam Valley Octopus II model.

It uses a supply of 7V to 18V, DC only.
The rows of pins along the bottom are for connecting 8
The rows of pins on the left are for connecting 8 toggle
switches, or digital inputs.
There is no control over servo speed.
It provides automated endpoint adjustments. You turn
the rotary switch (the white one in the image) to the
servo you want to set, then press the pushbutton above
it. The controller automatically finds the end points for you.

Robot servo controllers

A larger range of servo controllers has been developed for designers of robots.
They are more comprehensive and more complicated.
Some of the earlier controllers we looked at handled too few servos to be useful on a large
layout. Robot controllers, on the other hand, can handle up to 48 servos from the one
module. However, this is not as great an advantage as might be initially considered, since it
would mean having a central servo controller with many extension leads snaking all over
the layout to reach each servo.
The biggest drawback for most robot controllers is that they do not have a simple on/off
switch approach to moving servos, relying instead on computer serial or USB port
connections or special microprocessor signals.
Although they often provide extra facilities beyond simple servo switching, they require a
degree of programming knowledge.
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Here is a list of some robot servo controllers.

Here, for example, is the Lynxmotion SSC-32 controller

It can handle 32 servos and supports servos that can rotate a
full 180. Its resolution is an impressive 1s (0.09) it can
rotate a servo's horn in steps of only 0.09.
It is operated via a computer serial cable

MERG controllers
MERG members have developed a number of controller options. One of these, the Servo4,
is available in kit form and another, the Servo1 is sold as a PCB and pre-programmed chip.

Servo 4
This image shows an assembled Servo 4 kit.
It uses a supply of 12V DC or 9V AC.
There are four servo connections at the top of the
board. The four left-most connections in the
lower screw connector block are the inputs that
control the servos.
They are held at +5V internally but can be brought
to 0v when they are wired to switches that are
connected to the module's 0v line (the fifth
connection). These switches would most likely
be on a mimic board or control panel.
This module allows both a servo's endpoints and
speed to be set, via the serial connector, using
MERG's software
utility (free to
You can program the board directly, if your computer has a serial
port, or through a USB-to-serial adaptor if your computer only
has a USB socket.
If you prefer, you can plug MERG's setting box into the serial
connector, instead of using a computer.
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This image is of the Servo4R, which is similar in
most ways to the Servo4 module above except that
it adds four relays to the board.
It uses a 12V DC supply.
These are used for point frog switching, etc.
This is a member's modification and is not available
as a kit or as a PCB, although the schematic
diagram, parts list, PCB layout, etc. are available on
the MERG website. Like the Servo4, it is set up via
the serial connector.

This image shows a module that is a combination of a CBUS board and a servo driver
It only works with other CBUS modules, where it controls up
to 8 servos.
This is a member's design and is not available as a kit or as a
PCB, although the schematic diagram, parts list, PCB layout,
etc. are available on the MERG website.
If preferred, an existing CANAC8 module can be converted to
do the same functions. The module is programmed over the
CBUS cable and both endstops and servo speed can be
configured. There is no provision for relay switching.
The CBUS system is covered in a later chapter.

Like the Viessmann 5268 Servo-Control module
looked at earlier, this design from MERG member
Trevor Stockill only operates a single servo.
However, it has a number of additional features.
The PCB has a rectangular slot with holes either side,
as shown in this image. This allows a servo to be be
screwed or bolted to the PCB, which has holes in
each corner for mounting on a baseboard. This saves
the expense of a separate mount.
It has two output connections that change state at end of the servos' rotation ideal for
It has another connection for operating a relay ideal for frog switching.
The servo's endstops are set with a pot and pushbutton.
Unlike the Viessmann or Conrad controller, the Servo1 lets you choose the servo's speed
(using a single pushbutton).
It operates on either 5V or 12V DC.
It uses surface mount components (some as tiny as a grain of rice) which requires good
soldering skills and good eyesight/large magnifier.
It is not available as a full kit, but the PCB and a pre-programmed PIC chip are available.

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Installing a servo
This depends on the exact nature of the installation where it sits (above board, under
board), the method of actuation (piano wire, levers, wire-in-tube), etc.
Lets assume for this explanation, that we have servo screwed on a mount, wired to a
controller for under baseboard operation using piano wire.
Before screwing the mount to the baseboard:
1. Use the servo controller to rotate the servo to its mid-position.
2. Fit the servo horn so that the hole being used for the piano wire lines up with this mid
3. Move the point tie bar by hand to mid position between both stock rails. Secure in that
position with a piece of card/balsa/ foam.
4. Slip the piano wire through the hole in the baseboard from underneath and gently insert into
the hole in the point's tie bar.
5. Move the servo and its mount to a position where there is no side pressure on the piano wire
(i.e. the entire servo/wire/tie bar are in alignment).

6. Screw the mount to the baseboard.
7. Adjust both servo endpoints using the servo controller (this may be using pushbuttons,
switches or software depending on the controller being used).

Configuring the Servo4 module

The Servo4 controller is MERG's most popular kit and the software used to configure the
servos can be downloaded from the MERG website (MERG Software Download Pages).
When installed on your computer and run, it shows the following menu screen:

You choose which servo to configure by clicking in the Servo Select options.
The two left-hand sliders set the endstop and servo speed when the controller's chosen input
goes high. The two right-hand sliders set the endstop and speed when the input goes low.
As you move the 'ON' and 'OFF' sliders, the servo position is instantly altered. Also, you
can click the Test arrows to check that the servo swings are satisfactory before selecting
another servo to configure. When finished, clicking the Write data to board saves all the
settings and the connection cable can be removed.

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Chapter 8
Scenic lighting

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Scenic lighting
So far, we have concentrated on the technology that makes the layout run.
Now, lets have a look at some features that can enhance the look and feel of a layout.
Many layouts look good and run well but still seem to lack some sense of life.
This can be partly caused by the lack of movement the only things moving being the
trains. The previous chapter on servos opens up possibilities to bring other movement on
your layout people, doors, crossing, semaphores, etc.
This chapter looks at lighting your layout, to provide that lived-in look.
Lighting is often overlooked in otherwise excellent layouts. Yet it mostly easy to add to a
layout, whether under construction or already existing.

These are just some of the lineside features that could be illuminated to good effect;
Street lamps
Traffic lights
Station lights
Yard lights
Crossing lights
Semaphore signal lamps
Lamps on buffer stops
Buildings and factories
Flickering fires / welding flashes
Neon signs
Flashing beacons in police cars/ambulances/fire engine/breakdown trucks
Vehicle headlights
Night scenes / sunset behind the mountains / skyline
These lights would certainly add appeal to trains:
Loco cab lights. headlights, Mars lights, ditch lights
Guards van / caboose lights
Steam loco fire box
Coach lighting
To these could be added cinemas, concerts, roadworks, crash scenes, searchlights, and so on
limited only by your imagination.
Clearly, having the layout looking more like a Xmas tree would not be helpful, but the
judicious use of lighting can greatly enhance a layout.
Many of the features require little electronic knowledge and you can buy ready built units
for some of the more complicated lighting features.
If you are willing to build your own circuits, you can make substantial savings and build
lighting features that perfectly match your layout's character.
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Filament bulbs
Before the coming of LEDs, all layout lighting used tiny incandescent
bulbs. These are just much smaller, lower voltage, versions of the
house light bulbs in common use.
Sufficient current is passed through the bulb's wire filament to heat it to
the point where it gives off light.
The bulbs are available in two sizes, known as 'Grain of wheat' and 'Grain of rice'.
Grain of wheat bulbs are 3mm in diameter, while grain of rice bulbs are 1.8mm in diameter,
with some as small as 1.4mm. They produce a natural light but can be purchased with
coloured glass bulbs or lenses.
They are available in 3V, 6V and 12V versions.
They work on AC or DC and typical bulb currents are:
Grain of wheat bulbs
12V at 50mA or 80mA
6V at 50mA or 60mA
3V at 120mA
Grain of rice bulbs
12V at 30ma

Series and parallel wiring

Since 12V is a common supply on a layout, a 12V bulb can simply be wired across the 12V.
You can fit as many 12V bulb across the supply as you want, subject only to the supply and
the wiring being able to cope with the current demands.
If you use 6V bulbs,you can wire two in series across the 12V supply, giving each bulb the
6V it needs. Similarly, you can wire four 3V bulbs in series across the 12V supply.

If you only want to light a single bulb, and it has a lower voltage
rating than the supply, you have to put a resistor in series with the
bulb to lower the current through the bulb.
Take, for example. Using a 6V 50mA bulb on a 12V supply.
The value of the resistor can be calculated as:
where V is the 6V we want to drop across the resistor (leaving 6V for the bulb) and I is
50mA. So the value of the resistance would be:
R=V/I = 6/0.05 = 120 ohms
That works fine where a single bulb is being lit in a single location. If you want to have
multiple bulbs lighting a building
or a station platform, then you
would not use multiple bulbs in
If we look at wiring four 3V
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120mA bulbs as in the illustration, then 120mA is flowing through each resistor/bulb
combination. The total current draw is 480mA (nearly half an Amp) and the power
consumption is almost 6W. Wire a dozen inside a mainline station and you have used up
18W more power than many soldering irons.
Compare that with the earlier example of wiring four bulbs in series across the 12V supply.
The current drawn is 120mA (the same current flows through each bulb) and the power
consumption is a smaller 1.4W.
Since filament lamps heat their elements to produce light, around 90% of the power
consumed by the bulb is dissipated as heat a clear fire risk. So, you have to be careful
that you don't fit too many into a closed location (e.g. inside a building) without adequate
Some users deliberately run their bulbs at less than their quoted voltage rating. This results
in less heat, a warmer glow and an extended life.
Here is a comparison of incandescent bulbs to LEDs:
A more natural white light
Colour more suited to lamps of period layouts,
Very thin leads great for positioning, compared to stiff leads on LEDs
More expensive
More fragile
Run hot
Consume too much power

Light Emitting Diodes

LEDs have been mentioned a few times in previous chapters, since we have all come across
them in many different domestic devices.
They have many advantages over using filament bulbs:
Longer life
Consumes far less current (some as low as 3mA)
Run cool
Available in many colours
More robust
Available in high intensity versions
Rapid switching on and off does not decrease their life.
To make best use of them in a layout, we should look at how they work and how they can be
The symbol for a LED is shown in the illustration. It looks similar to the symbol of
a diode because it acts like a diode it passes current in one direction only. In
addition, it emits light when an appropriate amount of current passes through it.
Inside the epoxy resin case, there is a small piece of semiconductor material that
emits photon energy. This is called 'electroluminescence' and consumes very little
power and generates very little heat, compared to filament bulbs.
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LED types
LEDs are available in a range of sizes, colours, shapes and features.

This images shows some of the types you are likely to use.
They are not shown to scale. The last image on the right, for example, is the smallest of all.
They are produced in diameters of 1.8mm, 3mm, 5mm. 8mm and10mm

From left to right:

Standard, triangular, square, cylindrical, rectangular, lighthouse, sub-miniature, PCB mount,
tri-colour, surface mount.
Most of the ones shown are known as 'through hole' LEDs, as they are intended to be
mounted on some kind of panel (in our case, a mimic panel). Others, like the one with
three LEDs and the one on the far right, are intended for mounting on a PCB.
This image shows a LED strip which can be
bought by the metre or in 5m rolls. It runs on
12V and can be cut into smaller lengths.

A LED's colour comes from the semiconductor material used, not from additional filters or a
coloured epoxy casing.
The colours include red, pink, orange, yellow, amber. Green, blue, white and warm white.
They are available in versions known as diffused (a frosty casing that results in a wider
viewing angle) or clear encapsulation (produces a viewing narrower angle but a more
intense brightness).
Bi-colour LED
This is just two different-coloured LEDs built into the one
casing, wired in reverse of each other. It has only two connecting
leads. If you connect the power one way, the top LED lights. If
you reverse the power, the lower LED lights. To the user, the
LED seems to change between the two colours.
Tri-colour LED
This also has two differently-coloured LEDs inside a single casing but
this time they are not wired in reverse. It has three wires, with two of
them commoned to the negative lead of the supply. Connecting any
one of the remaining LED leads to the positive supply lights that
particular LED giving two possible colours. Now, if the positive
supply is connected to both leads, the colour mix produces a third
colour. The most common combination is red and green LEDs that
produces a yellow colour when both are lit at the same time.

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The brightness of LEDs is measured in millicandelas (mcd), being one-thousandth of a
candela, so higher values of mcd mean brighter output.
As mentioned, LEDs can be designed for different viewing angles, depending on whether
you want a spotlight effect of a general illumination effect. Viewing angles can vary from
15 degrees to 120 degrees
The unit of measure commonly used to describe LED intensity is the 'mcd' the
millicandela. 000 millicandela equals 1 candela.
Here are some typical specifications taken from suppliers material.

Max voltage

Max current

Viewing angle



3.2V 3.8V



10,000 mcd





6,000 mcd


1.8V 2.2V



5.000 mcd





4.000 mcd





100,000 mcd

The 'max voltage' is known as the 'forward voltage drop' and is the voltage across the LED when it
is running with its maximum current, providing its maximum brightness and specified colour.

It is important to recognise that these are examples, intended to stress that the specifications
vary between different manufacturers and different products. For example, while one LED
might use a 3.8V potential across it to illuminate, that might be enough blow a different
LED. If in doubt, error on the side of caution or, even better , read the specification.
Surface Mount LEDs
These LEDs are very small and are useful for signals, traffic lights, lamps and lanterns, etc.
They are available in a range of sizes, with their code describing their dimensions.
LEDs in the smaller range are described in thousands of an inch. Take, for example, the
0402 LED. The 04 indicates that it is 0.04 long (i.e. 40 thou) and the 02 indicates that it
is 0.02 (i.e. 20 thou) wide. This equates to a tiny 1mm x 0.5mm.
Confusingly, the 3000 and 5000 ranges describe the measurements in mm.
So, for example, a 3528 LED measures 3.528mm x 2.8mm.
Here are some of the more common surface mount LED types:




0.04 x 0.02





0.06 x 0.03



3.5 x 2.8


0.08 x 0.05




0.12 x 0.06


5.6 x 3

Other LEDs
Apart from those already mentioned, LEDs are available that produce infrared or ultra-violet
There is even a LED with a built-in flasher, so that it flashes on and off at a rate of around
2Hz when powered. No need to build electronic circuits to flash your LEDs, unless you
need a different rate of flash.
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Wiring LEDs
A LED has two leads, called the anode and the cathode.
The cathode lead is the shortest and goes to the negative side of a supply.
The epoxy casing often has a flat edge along the cathode side.
The anode connects to the positive side of the supply.
If you are using a pre-used LED, the leads will have been cut. If your
LED does not have a flattened surface, you can always look inside the
LED, as shown in the illustration. The larger, wedge-shaped, piece is the
cathode. If all else fails, you can just use the trial and error method it
will only illuminate when wired the correct way round.
Surface mount LEDs
have various possible
markings to identify
the cathode as shown.
LEDs are current driven devices, which means that their brightness level increases as the
current through it increases, with two provisos:

A LED will only start to illuminate after it reaches certain critical voltage level.
A LED cannot be given more than its maximum rated current without affecting its
performance and eventually destroying it.

From the earlier table of typical LEDs, we can see that they work from voltages that are not
common on model layouts. So, we have to reduce the voltage by placing a resistor in series
with the LED.

Resistor calculations
To work out the required resistance, you need to know:

The voltage of your supply

The forward voltage drop of the LED
The maximum current of the LED

Consider the example shown in the illustration.

It uses a 12V supply and the LED needs a maximum voltage across it of 3V. That means the
resistor must drop 9V across it. Since we know the maximum current of the LED, we can
calculate the resistor value by Ohms Law thus:
R = V/I R=9/0.02 R= 450 ohms.
Since you can't buy a 450 ohm resistor, you would always choose the nearest higher value
of resistor in the preferred series (to avoid excessive current). You would use a 470 ohm
resistor in this example.
If you are technical, the formula is
R = (VS-VF) / IF
where R is the resistance being calculated, VS is the supply voltage, VF is the forward
voltage of the LED and IF is the maximum LED current.
If you are not technical, you can use an on-line calculator to do the sums for you. Look, for
instance, at
These calculations are based on running the LED at its maximum specification. In practice,
LEDs can often be run at much lower current levels (as low as 5mA) and still produce
satisfactory illumination.
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LEDs in series
LEDs can easily be wired in series, as
shown in the illustration.
The same current flows through all the
LEDs and the resistor, but the LEDs may have different forward voltages and this has to be
taken into account when calculating the resistor value.
The formula for LEDs in series is:
R = (VS-(VF1 + VF2 + VF3)) / IF
As an example, let's look at wiring four LEDs to a 12V supply.
All four LEDs run at 25mA but have different forward voltages of 3.5V, 2.2V , 2V and 3.8V.
The calculation is
R = (12 (2.5 + 2.2 + 2 + 3.8)) / 0.025
R = (12 10.5) / 0.025
R = 1.5 / 0.025
R = 60 ohms

Therefore a 62 ohm or 68 ohm resistor would be used.

Parallel LEDs
Wiring LEDs in parallel should be avoided.
This graph shows how the current through a LED changes
with increasing voltage.
If you placed a variable voltage supply across a LED and
slowly increased the voltage from zero, for some time
nothing would happen.
Then, suddenly, current would start to flow at an ever
increasing rate for very small voltage increases.
The point at which this occurs depends on the
characteristics of the LED. It is about 1.7V in the example
but can vary between LEDs of different colour and even
within the same batch of LEDs.
The problem with a bunch of LEDs in parallel is that they will all have different voltages at
which current starts to flow. If you set the voltage sufficiently high to ensure that the LED
with the highest characteristic voltage passes current, then the others are passing too much
current. The LED with the lowest characteristic voltage then passes most current and
finally dies. This results in the LED with the next lowest characteristic voltage passing
even more current and so on.
On the other hand, if you set the supply
voltage to a level that is correct for the LED
with the lowest characteristic voltage, it
illuminates but the rest don't.
If you need to have LEDs close to each other,
simply wire them in series. If there is not
enough voltage to handle a couple of LEDs, then use a separate resistor in each LED, to
match the individual LEDs, as in the right hand diagram.
The left hand diagram should be avoided.

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Fading LEDs
If you look at the earlier graph, you will see that eventually very small voltages increases
result in large current increases.
This makes altering LED brightnesses very difficult simply by using voltage changes. So,
for example, you could not dim a LED by placing it in series with a variable resistor.
In the chapter on loco controllers, we looked at pulse width modulation as a means of
controlling the current through a motor. The same principle can be used to control LED
brightness. Firstly, the resistor value is calculated for the required maximum brightness.
Then power to a LED, or a string of LEDs in series, is delivered as a succession of on/off
pulses. If the pulse period is long, with hardly any off time, the lamp illuminates brightly.
Conversely, if the on period is short, with long periods off, the LED will be dim.
In other words, altering the pulse width changes the LED brightness. The rate at which the
pules repeat has to be fast enough to prevent the LED simply flashing on and off.
The device that sends the pulses can be built from a simple 555 IC or a PIC chip. It can be a
commercial dimmer (see Microminiatures) , or a complex DMX controller that handles all
kinds of devices such as fog machines and moving lights.
Even at its simplest, the ability to simulate dusk, dawn, sunsets, etc., opens up ways to bring
interesting effects to a layout.

LEDs on AC
Some loco controllers provide a 15V AC socket for running accessories and this could be
used to illuminate LEDS, with some precautions.
The diagram shows a single LED connected to an AC
supply, with the usual dropper resistor to set the current
level. The problem with AC in this case is:
It is not always at a constant level
It reverses polarity
In chapter 1, we showed a AC supply as a sine wave,
constantly changing both its amplitude and direction.
Now the LED is a diode, so it will ignore voltages that swing in the opposite direction to its
conducting polarity. That means that the LED is not lit for half the time when it is forward
biased. It is turning on and off at the frequency of the mains supply (e.g. 50Hz in the UK).
Some users can detect the flicker.
Even when the supply is connected during the correct polarity, the amplitude is always
changing. If we set the resistor value to switch on during the highest point in the voltage
swing, it will not be illuminated for the rest of the half-cycle. If we lower the resistance
value, the LED stays illuminated longer but we risk reaching currents at the peak which will
destroy the LED. In short, we cannot achieve the optimum LED brightness with AC.
The diagram on the previous page shows a diode wired in
series with the supply. This is fitted to prevent excessive
reverse polarity voltage damaging the LED, as the diode
can tolerate a much higher reverse voltage than a LED.
This diagram shows an alternative approach, using a diode (e.g. a 1N4001) being connected
across the LED but in reverse polarity.
The diode and resistor then absorb the power when the voltage is reversed.

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This diagram takes the idea a little further

by wiring two sets of series LEDs, such
that one set illuminates during one half
cycle of the sine wave and the other set
illuminates on the opposite half cycle.
Another factor to bear in mind with a 15V AC supply, is that the value is stated as an RMS
value (see chapter 1). The peak value is 1.4 times higher, so during the 'on' half cycle, there
is actually a peak voltage of 21V being supplied.
This must be factored into the calculation for the resistor value, otherwise the LEDs will be
The other approach is to take the AC supply, turn it into a DC supply using a bridge rectifier,
then smooth it with a capacitor, before using it to power LEDs (look at the section on power
supplies in Chapter 1).

Constant current supplies

Since LEDs are current-driven devices, and we know the current we want for
any particular LED or set of LEDs, we can build a simple circuit that always
provides that exact amount of current.
The circuit uses a 'constant current regulator' and a widely used example is the
LM317, which is a simple 3-wire device.
As the diagram below shows, it is inserted in series with one or more LEDs,
and has its 'Out' and 'Adjust' leads connected across the resistor.

There is a very simple equation for calculating the resistor value:

R = 1.25 / LED current

So, for example, if the required LED(s) current was 25mA, the equation is:
R = 1.25 / 0.025
R = 50 ohms

The resistor value is not dependent on the voltage of the supply.

However, you do have to ensure that the supply voltage is sufficient to handle all the LED
forward voltages, plus an allowance of 3V for losses in the regulator.
If the above circuit used a 12V DC supply and the LEDs each had 2.2V forward voltage,
then the circuit could handle four LEDs in series.
If you wanted to use multiple strings of LEDs, the following circuit is required, with each
string having its own limiting resistor. The LM317 regulates the current to total current
draw from each string. So, if the upper series used 25mA and the lower series used 20mA,
the value of the resistor for the LM317 would be selected to provide 45mA.

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The specification for the LM317 regulator states that it can handle up to 1.5A, with an input
voltage between 3V to 40V.
If you use this circuit with a much higher input voltage than that required by the regulator
and LEDs, the excess voltage is dropped across the regulator.
Also, if you use the circuit to control high-power LEDs, or many strings of LEDs, the
current through the regulator will be high.
In both these cases, you would have to ensure that the LM317 did not overheat.
Fitting a heatsink to the regulator, or bolting the regulator to a metal chassis (suitably
insulated) helps prevent overheating.

Fitting LEDs
Once you start using lights on a layout, you find all sorts of uses for them.
These are only some suggestions on how to use them. You will find your own uses and your
own ingenious ways to fit them.

LED holders
The images show two different methods of attaching LEDs to control panels.
The one on the left is popped into a hole drilled in the
panel, the nut is fitted from the rear and the LED is
inserted so that is appears on the panel. The other image
is of a simpler plastic holder that is a push fit into a hole
in the panel. It is a matter of taste, although many prefer
the less intrusive look of the simpler holder.
Panels lights can be used for:

Indicating that the panel is powered.

Confirmation of which direction a point is switched.
Reporting back track occupancy information (see later chapter).
Indicating which blocks / sections are switched.

LED mounts
Apart from control panels / mimic panels, LED holders are not required.
In many cases, the LEDs are hidden from direct view, illuminating
buildings, etc.
The images shows a couple of approaches to attaching LEDs.
These are known as 'LED mounts' and the LED is plugged into a holder
that is connected to the rest of the layout wiring.
You can, of course, solder wires directly to the wires of the LEDs.
Bear in mind that LEDs are heat sensitive and avoid applying the soldering iron for more
than about 3 secs when soldering.
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Also, don't bend the LED's leads too close (say 3mm) to the case, to avoid damage.
Finally, don't forget that you can buy LEDs pre-mounted on strips with self-adhesive
backing. They can be used in long runs, or cut into groups of three LEDs and pressed
against a surface to hold it in position. Then, you run a 12V supply to it.
Attaching Lights
Before placing lights all over your layout, it is best to have a plan.
That plan should cover what switches, cables, fuses/cutouts, you might need. You might
want to be able to switch different areas of light separate from others.
It should cover working out the current loads for different groups of lights and ensuring that
the supply can meet your needs and there is no significant voltage drop in cables making
long runs.
There is no 'correct' way to attach lights, as circumstances can be different in different parts
of your layout.
A variety of methods have been used to attach lights to parts of the layout, depending on the
space available, ease of access, etc. These include soldering to existing devices (e.g.
relays), using a hot glue gun, double-sided tape, staples, homebrew brackets, choc blocks,
terminal strips, tag strips, and so on.

Lights in buildings
While street lights, signal lamps, etc. add to a layout's appeal, it is the illumination of
buildings and structures that most gives the impression of life going on.
It is particularly impressive when the house/overhead lights are dimmed and the glow and
twinkle of the lights are most evident.
The first task is to decide how a structure receives the power. This is almost always through
a hole drilled in the baseboard. If the structure is removable (e.g. for protection during
transporting to exhibitions), then a plug and socket arrangement will be most likely.
If the structure is permanently attached to the baseboard, the light can be permanently wired
in. Remember, however, to allow for future access to the lights for future maintenance.
This is most important when using filament bulbs with shorter lives. A removable back or
lift-off roof is the most likely approach.
Sound structure
When you add lights to a building, the light should only be visible in the areas you want
people to see. You have to ensure that the building's structure meet this need. Plastic kits
and some cardboard kits are often sufficiently translucent to make the building look like a
lampshade. Even home-built structures can allow light to leak from joints and seams.
This is easily checked by placing a light in the building and viewing it in a darkened room.
If the walls and/or roof glow then you can either paint the interior walls/roof with black
paint, or line them with extra card (leaving holes for the windows). Any gaps in joints can
be covered with card or taped over.
The placing of lights should reflect their use in real life. So, you might expect all the lights
in a factory/restaurant/car showroom to be illuminated but not all the windows in a block of
flats. The lobby, hallways and stairways of a hotel would be illuminated but not every

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room. You could use soft white, yellow or amber lights for period layouts and cool white
for modern layouts.
If you have built a kit, it probably included glazing sheets. Often, they are transparent and
some of the windows have to be rendered translucent while other are blocked off with
card/tape. The Wills pack of plastic windows is supplied in a clear plastic 'blister' pack and
you cut pieces from the packaging to glaze their windows.
If you have built your own structures, you can create windows from various materials. A
popular option is the clear acetate sheets that are sold for overhead projectors or for
laminating machines. To make them translucent,
they can be lightly sanded with a fine grade grit
paper. Alternatively, the light can be diffused by
covering the window material with masking tape or
3M Invisible Tape, depending on the degree of
dimming you want.
The picture shows a range of other materials that
could be put to use. The 'frosty' sheet and the red
plastic sheet at the top of the picture were recovered
from the packaging of domestic goods. The orange
and yellow crinkly sheets are sweet wrappers and
the yellow sheet in the lower right-hand corner is from a plastic folder for storing files. On
the right, you can see a piece of clear plastic with its corner sanded to make it translucent.
Care is required when fitting multiple lights in a structure, specially if you use particularly
high brightness lights. You may have to fit card partitions between floors or between
sections of a floor, to prevent light seeping into unwanted areas.
If a single light can illuminate a number of windows, that's good.
Otherwise, you can fit lights to a single window or group of
windows,by fitting a container over the window(s), as in the
illustration. The box, usually cardboard, prevents light seepage
and helps focus on the window.
The drawing on the left shows a LED being mounted at the rear
of the box and this may be satisfactory where the window
glazing is quite dense; otherwise the LED would be seen as a
separate entity. The drawing on the right shows a LED mounted
above the window and shining down on the rear wall. The LED
is out of sight and all you see is the illumination of the real panel
(which should be made from white or reflective material).
You can widen and diffuse the narrow beam of light from a LED by gently
filing down its dome end and polishing the flattened surface with toothpaste.

Another little touch is to cut out the silhouette of a person and stand it between the window
glazing and the rear wall, casting a shadow. Don't place the cutout directly on the window
glazing as this reduces the effect.

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Remember, not all windows in all building should have the same degree of brightness just
as in real life. For added realism, you can place curtains or blinds on the windows. In
industrial situations, some windows may be boarded up or covered in corrugated iron sheets.
Interior details
To provide additional realism, you can allow people to look into certain parts of a building
and see its contents. This may be a room in a home, a shop front, a car dealership, a
loading bay interior, a loco workshop, etc.
In these cases, the window glazing is clear and you have to take extra care to provide
sufficient even illumination, without the lights being visible.
The visible contents are up to the individual modeller. You can print images, or cut them
from magazines, and glue them to the inside walls of the room. You can go further, by
adding internal details such as furniture or machinery.
Exterior details
Buildings often have exterior lights in addition to interior lights. Domestic
buildings may have porch lights and industrial buildings often have lights under
canopies and arches, or over entrances.
Commercial buildings may have lights over their signs or even neon signs.
Business signs are easy to make if you have a computer but functioning
miniature neon signs are best purchased (e.g. see Express Models).
Express Models also sell a multi-LED strip that looks like a fluorescent panel.
Other effects
Static lighting can be augmented by lighting that conveys a feeling of activity.
For example, commercial, MERG kits and homebrew circuits are available that simulate the
flashing of a welding operation. They switch LEDs on and off in random bursts to achieve
this effect. This can be used in various situations loco shop, car repair shop, fabrication
plant, roadside repairs, construction sites, and so on.
Another strategy to convey real life, is to have timers that switch various lights on an off in
a random pattern not too quickly of course.
There are also circuits that allow a LED to slowly increase then decrease its brightness
effective when built into a lighthouse.

Lineside lights
Lighting should not be confined to buildings.
There are lots of lineside situations where
lighting can be effective. Consider station
platform lighting, yard lights, lights in crossing
gates and barriers, lamps in buffer stops, etc.
While platform lamps and yard lights are
available commercially, you may consider it
worthwhile fabricating your own.
This image shows a factory building and a
semaphore signal. The building's top floor is
permanently illuminated and you can just see a
welding operation starting on the ground floor.
The 'welder' is made from a MERG Twinkler

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kit supported by extra brightness LEDs. The image shows a commercial semaphore signal
with two modifications;

The arm is operated by a servo.

It uses a bi-colour LED for illuminating the lamp.

The image on the right shows how the LED is inserted

into a hole drilled in the body of the signal. The two
connections to the LED are soldered to short lengths of
Kynar wire (very thin wire that can easily be hidden)
which are fed through the base of the signal.
The LED is a red/green bi-polar type. When fed with its
voltage in one direction, the green light illuminates;
reversing the voltage illuminates the red light.
The reversal of the LED's polarity could be achieved by
a relay, logic chips or a PIC chip.
In the example shown, a PIC chip was chosen to provide
a delay before switching, to allow the semaphore arm to

Scenic lighting
There are many occasions when you come across lights, other than in buildings or railways.
Examples include street lamps, traffic lights, vehicles headlights, flashing beacons in police
cars/ambulances/fire engine/breakdown trucks. Model railway versions can be purchased
or built from simple circuits.
A variation on the welding flashes mentioned earlier is to achieve the flickering effect of an
open fire. It uses much the same circuit but with different timings and different coloured
For the ambitious, there is also the option to install 'mood lighting' on your layout.
Imagine your scenic background being illuminated to simulate different parts of the day and
/or different weather conditions.
Different coloureds lights and different light levels could be used to convey mood (bright
sunlight, the glow of a sunset, cold or snowy conditions, moonlight, etc.).
It requires multiple lights whose light patterns must overlap, otherwise you simply get a row
of light 'spots'). The lights could be hidden behind buildings or walls and angled to shine
on to the layout background. If preferred, lights could be hidden behind a valance that skirts
the top of the background. An even better approach is to have hills/mountains/low relief
buildings set back slightly from the background board; the lights fit in the space and the
resultant light appears to come from behind the hills.
The effect can be stunning but requires a lot of lights and
electronic controls.
If you want more than one effect, you would have to fit
separate rows of lights for each effect an amber row for
sunsets, a blue row for cold mornings, etc.
Fortunately, the LED strips mentioned earlier are
available in 5m strips at a relatively moderate price.

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Commercial lamps
The images below show a range of commercially-available lamps (they are not to scale).
They include gas lamps and electric lamps, old lamps and modern. They are available as
wall lamps, street lamps, platform lamps, yard lamps, etc. Most use LEDs but some are
still produced using grain of wheat bulbs.

Manufacturers include Busch, Viessmann, Brawa and unknown brands available on eBay.
Double check before you buy, because some street lights, such as those from Faller and
Ratio, are dummies. They are cheap but contain no bulbs or LEDs.

Homebrew lamps
Some of the commercial lamps are quite intricate and would take a lot of effort to replicate.
However, they are quite expensive and it is quite easy to make some other types yourself.
The image on the right is of a commercial lamp using a
filament bulb. The image on the left is a partly-made
lamp using an LED. It is cheaper than the commercial
version, uses a longer lasting lamp and its construction
is quite straightforward.
The pole is a thin copper tube, which also acts as one of
the conductors to the LED. The other conductor is a
length of fine Kynar wire that is threaded down inside
the tube. One lead from the LED is soldered directly
on to the mast, with the other being soldered to the
Kynar wire.
The mast is made from copper wire, or paper clips.
Ornate swirls are associated with period lamps, while
modern lamps are more plain.
Similarly, you may select a yellow, white or ultra-white
LED, depending on the period in which the layout is
A washer is glued to LED to appear as a lampshade; the top of the LED would be painted to
prevent unwanted light being seen above the lamp.
The lamp is left unfinished to make it easier to see how it is constructed.
A hole would be drilled in the baseboard and the copper tube would be inserted and secured
in the hole. The wire and the copper tube protruding under the baseboard would be wired to
the lighting circuit.

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This image shows a wall light made from an LED.

Again, a washer is glued to the LED and the LED area above
the washer is painted to exclude light.
The wires from the LED are bent as shown in the sketch, to
represent the lamp's bracket.
Two tiny holes are drilled in the wall of the
building and the two wires are inserted into the
After soldering the two wires to the leads of the
lighting circuit, the wires can be secured in
place behind the building wall. A simple bend
of the LED's leads will stop the lamp from
moving but you can always use glue or a glue
gun if you prefer.
For very small lamps, or for smaller railway gauges, you could consider using surface
mount LEDs. These are very small indeed (e.g. x 1.6mm from Bromsgrove Models).
They are also suitable for fabricating railway lamps for wagons and coaches, buffer stops,
guard's lamps, etc. Their extra small size allows them to be fitted into seriously small
spaces that other lamps could not use.

Fibre optics
Fibre optic filaments are used to transmit light over distances as, for example, in carrying
data over telephone phone lines. The light source is attached at one end of the fibre strands
and the light bounces along the strands.
The separation of light source from the eventual point of light is very useful for railway
modellers, as it allows lights to be fitted where filament bulbs or even LEDs cannot be
Example uses of fibre optic lighting include:
Headlights in small gauge vehicles.
Headlights in locos.
Guards' lanterns.
Miners' helmets.
Fluorescent tubes.
As one light source can handle multiple individual strands, it is ideal for places where many
small lights are required. How about a star-lit sky, or the the city lights of a background
Fibre optics are produced in glass and plastic we would use the polymer-based versions.
These are sold either in single strands or as multi-strand cables.
You can buy single strands in different diameters ranging from 10mil to 120mil (e.g.
0.25mm to 3mm), depending on how much light you want to shift and how much space is
available. You can also buy mulit-strand versions, where 32 or 64 strands are contained
within a single covering.
While any light source can be used, ultrabright white LEDs are commonly preferred.

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Unlike bulbs and LEDs, a single fibre optic strand does not project much of a beam of light;
its light is meant to looked at, not used for illuminating other things (unless you use a
bundle of strands).
At the LED end
The strand(s) to be used should be prepared prior to fitting. The ends should be flat for
maximum light transmission. A scalpel will normally cut a length of fibre strand neatly. If
not, the end can be gently rub on a piece of wet and dry paper, fine grit paper or emery
board. You can take it further by polishing the end by rubbing it with toothpaste.
The strand(s) should be fitted close to the LED's body.
If using a single LED, a hole the same diameter as the
strand can be drilled through the LED's epoxy casing
(as deep as possible without damaging the LED
Ensure that the hole is drilled as close to the centre of
the dome as possible; alignment is more important
than proximity.
The strand is inserted into the hole and secured using
any plastic-friendly glues. This includes a glue gun, epoxy, silicone glue, polyurethane
glues but not Super Glue or any Cyanoacrylate (CA) as these will attack the plastic of the
A multi-strand cable can be attached to the LED by covering both with a length of tape or,
better still, a length of heat shrink tubing. If using heat shrink tubing, make sure you avoid
overheating the fibre strands inside, as this will degrade their light transmitting properties.
You can make your own multi-strand fibre cables, using as many strands as you need. You
would bundle them together using a suitable diameter length of heat shrink tubing. Then
you would cut and polish for best effect before encasing the bundle ends with the LED in a
larger diameter length of heat shrink tubing.
At the light end
Single strands are so thin that they can be easily routed in most layouts. The LED can be
located under the baseboard or in a lineside structure. The strand can be routed through a
hole in the baseboard or structure and is flexible. It can bent to a radius of around 9mm
radius for thinner strands or 20mm for thicker strands, although over-bending may result in
some loss of light. Because they are so thin, they can be routed above the baseboard; under
grass, roadways, track (there are no mutual interference problems). Strands can be painted
with no ill effects on the fibre strands.
Fibre optic strands do not a very wide viewing angle you have to be looking directly at the
end of the strand.
This can be improved by shaping the end of the strand.
The first drawing shows creating a 'bell end', by briefly touching the
end of the strand against the stalk of a soldering iron and gently
pushing into the strand. The end now offers an improved viewing
If you heat the end of the strand and then, before it cools, flatten it
with any tool. This produces a disc-like illuminated surface that can
be viewed side-on instead of the usual end-on. See the second drawing.
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Other effects
The light zig-zags along the fibre strand, bouncing off the smooth wall surfaces. If you
scratch the strand surface, you will lose some of the light.
This can be a problem but is also an opportunity.
If you scrape the outer surface of a length of fibre strand, using wet-and-dry or fine grit
paper, you create an illuminated length that looks very much like a fluorescent tube. If you
want to take it further, you can light the strand from a LED that is driven by 'twinkler'
circuit, and you get the effect of a flickering fluorescent light. The same approach can be
used to create neon signs, using coloured LEDs.
How about making your own sign? Take a piece of plastic sheet, drill holes where you
want the lights to be and insert strands into each hole. The sign can be your own design,
using as many strands as are required from a multi-strand source. Even better, you could
animate the sign by having two or more sets of LED-fed strands and switching between
Lastly, for those with the eyesight and necessary skills, how about lighting figures on your
layout? Station staff holding lanterns, miners' helmets, etc. are possible.
Once more, your imagination can add to the effects listed above.

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Chapter 9
Train lighting

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Train lighting
Now that we have our stations, streets, factories, houses, etc., all lit, we can turn our
attention to our rolling stock.
Locos with headlights and tail lights could be a good starting point. Then, imagine the
effect of a glow from the cab of a steam loco, or coaches illuminating their passengers and
internal details.
This chapter looks at how this can be implemented both in DC and DCC layouts.
Of course, it is not quite as simple as scenic lighting, since the objects we want to illuminate
keep moving. There are other restrictions such as avoiding excessive current draw, space
restrictions, difficulty of fitting, and so on. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort.

Choice of lights
There are three types of light that we can use for train lighting.
1.5V lamps
These are marketed as 'Grain of rice' bulbs and are available from Rapid Electronics (part
number 41-0186) or from many model railway stores such as Kytes Lights. They light at
a lower voltage than LEDs but consume a higher current (15mA) compared to many
LEDs. They also produce heat and have a shorter life. They are small, at only 1.4mm
diameter and, being incandescent, they are non-polarised (they can be fitted either way
Generally, they are being sidelined in favour of LEDs. The examples used later all
assume using LEDs.
Single LEDs
Single LEDs are mostly used where a single light is required, such as a loco's headlight or
a train's tail light. They require a higher voltage before they illuminate around 2V for
yellow LEDs and 3V for white LEDs. They are more robust than grain of wheat bulbs,
and produce usable light at currents as low as 5mA and sometimes even 2mA (well below
the figures given as their maximum ratings).
LED strips
LED strips are purchased as a long continuous strip or roll of LEDs, with an adhesive
backing. This makes them ideal for lighting coaches with a long LED strip; it saves
wiring lots of individual LEDs and the strip can have its backing strip removed and be
pressed on to the coach ceiling.
You can choose which LED spacing suits your project best. The strip/roll is available with
either 60 or 120 LEDs per metre length.
Although continuous, the strip consists of a chain of individual sets of three LEDs with
their own dropper resistor. Each section has its own solder pads, so you can cut off a
group of three, a group of six, or whatever length you require.
You only require a single pair of wires to connect to a chain of any length.
LED strips rated at 12V, and the current consumption for a group of three LEDs is 20mA.
They start to illuminate at 8.5V and provide adequate illumination at 9V, where they only
consume 5mA per group of three LEDs. This means that a LED strip can be supplied by a
9V voltage regulator or even a PP3 battery.
At the time of writing, a 600-LED 5m roll cost 5. This makes home-brewed lighting a
much cheaper option than commercial products.
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Lighting features
The circuits for train lighting should meet some, or all, of these requirements.
Constant brightness
The intensity of the light(s) should remain constant regardless of the loco's speed or load.
This is easily achieved on DCC systems because the track voltage level remains
unchanged at all times. With DC, the track voltage varies from 0V up to 12V or more. At
the lower levels (between 0V and around 3V) there is insufficient voltage to illuminate the
LEDs and special approaches need to be adopted.
The track voltage that is at a sufficiently high level to power the LED(s) may still be
interrupted due to dirt on the track, the wheels or the pickups, or due to crossing a point's
frog. This affects both DC and DCC systems. The circuit should maintain current to the
lights during any track power interruptions.
Directional lighting
The use of headlights and rear lights varies with the era, the company and the country.
For example, with double-ended diesels, there may be a white light at the end moving
forward and a red light at the trailing end. This is easily achieved in DC and with DCC
decoders that implement directional lighting.
Locomotives, in particular, may have various lights and lighting effects. These might
include a flickering glow in the firebox of steam loco, flashing ditch lights, a rotary
beacon, a gyra light, single and double pulse strobe lights, Mars lights and headlight
Constant brightness lighting is fine, but we may not always want the lights to be
constantly illuminated. When coaches or wagons are out of service and sitting in a siding,
we don't want them to have any working lights.
With DC, its a bit easier, as the lights will only be lit if they rolling stock is sitting in a
section of track that is powered. So, with block control, removing the power from a
siding, etc. automatically switches off any lights. Otherwise, other means have to be used.
With DCC, some of the lights can be switched on and off through instructions issued by
the command station.
For lights that are not controlled by decoders, there is a similar problem of how to switch
them on and off.
Small size
Some of the circuits use very few components and these can usually be tucked away out of
sight. In other cases, particularly where onboard power storage is used, space is an issue
in the smaller gauges.

Powering the lights

There are two ways to supply power to train lighting:
Power on-board
Power from the track

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Power on-board
The idea of using battery power to run trains has been around for a long time and is still a
common feature in cheaper 'toy' trains. Some modellers with garden railways also use
battery power to run their locos. These use re-chargeable NiMh battery packs.
We can install batteries in our locos and rolling stock, dedicated to powering lights.
This provides reliable, flicker-free lighting. On the other hand, batteries need replacing or
recharging and are bulky.
Here is a very simple homebrew circuit
comprising a PP3 9V battery, a switch and a
length of LED strip. Using an alkaline battery
with a capacity of 550mAh, lighting a LED
strip that uses 10mA gives a theoretical 55
hours of continuous running before needing
replacing (120 hours if using a lithium version).
This is the basis of many commercial offerings.
For example, Layouts4u's coach lighting kit comprises a LED strip (white or amber), a coin
cell battery and holder and a miniature slide switch.
For more details, see:
T&M Models provide LED strips, a switched battery box and either AA or AAA
rechargeable batteries.
For more details, see:
The 'O' Gauge Coach Lighting kit from First Class Trains comprises a white LED strip
(Standard or Bright), a switch and a battery holder for AA NiMh rechargeable batteries.
For more details, see:
All the above products use a switch to control the lights, which can be inconvenient. The
need to replace or wait while batteries recharge is also a nuisance. This results in onboard
power only being used where track-powered lights is impossible or inconvenient (e.g. with
plastic tracks or unpowered tracks).

Power from the track

Most model railways run their locos from power picked up from the track rails.
This same power connection can be used to light loco and rolling stock.
Every loco has its own track pickups and these can also be used to provide lighting within or
on the locomotive body.
Coaches and wagons do not have their own power pickups and therefore the power for
lighting has to obtained in one of two ways:
Getting power from the loco, using connectors between the loco and the first coach,
between the first and second coach, and so on.
Getting power directly into each coach or wagon by fitting it with its own track
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Fitting your own pickups to coaches can be a bit of a challenge to some and they prefer to
utilise the power that is already present in the loco.
The image shows a range of miniature connectors that can be used to connect between the
loco and items of rolling stock. With the two-wire version, you
solder the socket's two wires to the loco pickups and the socket
exits from the rear of the loco. The two wires from the plug are
used to wire up lighting circuits in the coach. If desired, this can
be repeated to connect each coach in a train.
The downside is having to plug and unplug the connectors every time you couple or
uncouple a coach from a train. If you run trains of fixed length, this is not a problem.
Although very small, the connectors are nevertheless visible, particularly when used with
smaller scales.
For more details, see:


Home made
The micro-connectors are relatively expensive
and a home-brewed version is shown in this
It uses PCB interconnect headers and sockets.
You can just see a four-pin socket mounted on
the side of the coach.
In this example, it is used to take track power
from the loco's pickups into a coach which
contains a DCC decoder and stay-alive capacitor,
as these are too large to be hidden in the open-cab loco. The motor output from the decoder
is then fed back to the loco's motor.
The header and sockets can be bought as strips and cut into the sizes needed a 2-pin
version would be less conspicuous.
For details of the connectors, see:
The socket is Order Code 1577754 and the header is Order Code 1577743.

Electric couplers
In an effort to hide the electrical connection, Viessmann has built connectors into its own
couplers. The image shows their 2-pole electric couplers and these are available from:
Gaugemaster also sell a four-pole version.
Unfortunately, they are fairly expensive and may not match an
existing coupling/uncoupling system on a layout.
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Using additional pickups

You don't have to depend on loco power and external connectors for coach lighting, if you
fit your own track pick-ups to the coach or wagon you want to illuminate.
If your coach's wheels are plastic, you will have to replace them with metal wheels. These
must be mounted on an axle that insulates the metal wheels from each other, to prevent a
short across the track.
Often the axle is metal but the wheel at both ends are insulated from the axle. Other wheel
sets have only one wheel insulated from the axle.
You can buy these ready made or can convert your own axles.
After replacing the plastic wheels, the coach's wheels
are 'live' and we can pick up power from them.
The illustration shows one approach to this but
enthusiasts will adopt a method that best suits their
situation. In this example, two lengths of phosphorbronze wire (maybe 28swg) are held in tension against
the inner disc of the wheels. This has to be a balance
between getting a reliable contact and avoiding
excessive friction.
Suitable wire for this can be obtained from suppliers
such as:

If you prefer, you can use phosphor bronze strips instead of wire.
Wipers introduce extra rolling friction and this will increase with every coach that is
similarly wired.
To minimise friction, another method is to use coiled springs as
shown in the image.
This relies on the metal axle being electrically connected to
one of the wheels.
These are the DCCconcepts 'Flickerfree pickup springs' and
are available in N and OO/HO from

Since there is much more surface contact between the phosphor bronze spring and the metal
axle, a more reliable pickup is obtained with much reduced friction. You need less tension
as there is always one part of the spring likely to be touching the axle at any one moment.
To fit the spring, you have to remove one of the wheels, slide on the coil and then refit the
wheel to exact gauge. You repeat this with the other wheelset, ensuring that it is refitted to
the chassis such that both springs wires are connecting to opposite track rails.
The great benefit of fitting coach pickups is that they are hidden, unlike the system of
connecting plugs and sockets.
On the other hand, being separate from the loco's power, the lights will illuminate whether
or not the coach is attached to a train.
Although there are similarities, there are also some differences between lighting on DC and
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DCC systems. Therefore, they are considered separately. In each case, the reference to
track pickups includes whichever method you use to get the power from the track to the
coach or wagon.

DC Track pickup
This first lighting circuit is very simple, using only three small
components. The items cost pennies and will fit into small spaces.
It uses two LEDs, wired in inverse parallel with each other. This
ensures that one of the LEDs will light as long as the loco is
travelling in either direction.
This would be ideal to illuminate a loco's firebox using two red or
amber LEDs, or simply to illuminate a cab's interior.
The diagram shows a 1k resistor and this can be altered to suit the
LED you are using. Being very simple, it has some limitations:

It needs around 3V and higher to illuminate

The LEDs brightness will vary with the loco speed.
When the train stops, the lights will go out.
The LEDs will flicker as the power suffers temporary interruptions.

Later circuits show how to improve this.

This circuit takes us a little further
forward. It provides directional loco
lights for double-ended diesel locos,
with either one or two white lights at
the end that is moving forward and a
red light at the trailing end.
In this case, separate resistors are used
with each LED, as the white and red
LEDs will have different minimum
working voltages.
When the track pickup that connects to all four/six LEDs is negative with respect to the
other pickup, the red LED on the left hand side and the white LED(s) on the right hand side
illuminate. When the track polarity is reversed, the other two/three LEDs illuminate.

Constant brightness lamps

The problem of varying lamp brightness can be partially overcome with this circuit from
MERG member Chris Stanforth. It
ensures a constant brightness from
the two LEDs, as long as the output
from the bridge rectifier is between
3V and 15V. It uses a handful of
cheap, easily obtained, components
and the addition of the bridge
rectifier ensures that the LEDs
illuminate whether the loco is
moving forwards or in reverse.
It also work with DCC power, where the LEDs will be lit even when the loco is stationary.

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DCC track pickup

With DCC, the track is always powered.
This is a potential constant source of power for lighting both lineside and on rolling stock.
For example, why run a long cable just to illuminate a single semaphore lamp, isolated
cottage, or buffer stop lamp, when you can just tap into the nearby DCC traction bus?
This circuit connects to the track and permanently illuminates a
LED. As the chapter on DCC pointed out, the track voltage
polarity is constantly reversing.
When the track that connects to the resistor is negative with
respect to the other pickup, the LED will illuminate. When the
track polarity is reversed, a diode (e.g. a 1N4001) may be fitted
in inverse parallel across the LED. This protects the LED from
any excessive reverse polarity voltages.
While useful for the occasional remote light, the DCC bus should not be used as the main
power supply for all your lineside lighting use a dedicated power supply.
This approach can be used for lighting locos and rolling stock, by using track pickups
instead of direct connections. Since the LED only uses DCC power for half the time
(during alternate half cycles), its light is dimmer than when fed by a DC supply.

LED strips with DCC

As mentioned earlier, LED strips are purchased as a long continuous strip or roll of LEDs,
with an adhesive backing. The strip/roll is available with either 60 or 120 LEDs per metre
length. You can choose which LED spacing suits your project best.
The strips are rated as working on 12V. At this voltage, the strip consumes 20mA for every
group of three LEDs. In practice, most strips first illuminate at around 8.5V and provide
adequate illumination at 9V, taking only 5mA per group of three LEDs.
This circuit uses only two or three
components and is capable of
driving a strip of up to 600 LEDs,
although you will more likely be
using a strip of 3,6,9, or depending
on the size of the coach.
The DCC is fed through a bridge
rectifier so that both cycles of the waveform are used. This is fed to a 7809 voltage
regulator, which ensures that its output is always at 9V.
To minimise flicker, a capacitor (4700uF 16V) can be wired across the regulator's output.
If your coach is large enough, you might consider
connecting two of these capacitors in
parallel, to provide even more stable
Here is the pinout of the regulator.
Note that the metal tab with the fixing hole
is actually connected to the Ground pin, so
be careful the tab does not touch other

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Using an LM317
The LM317 is a three-pin device that can be used as a voltage regulator but can also be used
as a 'constant current source'.
Here is the Wikipedia definition of constant current source:
a circuit element where the current through it is independent of the
voltage across it
This circuit uses the LM317 as a constant current source to feed a chain of LEDs wired in

Since the same current flows through each LED, all the LEDs in the chain should have
identical characteristics (don't mix LEDs that work on 5mA with LEDs that need 25mA).
The maximum number of LEDs in the chain depends on three factors:

The DCC voltage from your command station.

The voltage drop in the LM317. The output can be expected to be 3V lower than its
input voltage.
The forward voltage drop of the LEDs used. Different coloured LEDs usually have
different voltage levels before they illuminate (e.g. yellow LEDs are usually 2V, while
white LEDs are usually 3V)

So long as the output voltage from the LM317 is sufficient to illuminate

the series of LEDs, there is no need for a series dropper resistor. A 1A
100PIV bridge rectifier is sufficient. The LM317T is a larger tabbed
device (like the 7809) while the smaller LM317L is rated at 100mA,
which is more than sufficient for our needs.
The value of R1 is calculated as 1.25 / current required; here are some examples:
for 10mA, the resistance is 1.25/.01 = 125 ohms
for 20mA, R = 1.25/.02 = 75 ohms
for 5mA R = 1.25/.005 = 250 ohms
If you prefer, you can always use this calculator:
After calculating, you would use the nearest resistor value. In the above examples, the most
likely choices are 120 ohms, 68 ohms or 75 ohms, and 240 ohms or 270 ohms.
The current you choose to feed to the LEDs need not be their maximum rated current. For
example, many 20mA rated LEDs illuminate quite brightly at 5mA.
To minimise flickering, a large value capacitor (4700uF or better) can be used. R2 is a 100
ohm W resistor. When you first place this circuit across the track, there would be a surge
of high current to charge the capacitor and this would trip command station overload
detector it would see it as a short. The resistor ensures that the capacitor is charged more
slowly. The diode allows the current to flow unimpeded from the capacitor to the LM317.
We charge the capacitor gently but discharge it quickly.
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Rechargeable batteries
If you have the space in your coaches to store three rechargeable Nickel-Metal Hydride
NimH cells, then you can combine on-board storage with track power. This will provide a
light source that is completely flicker-free and will illuminate your coach for hours, even
when track power is removed.
As before, the DCC track supply is fed through a bridge rectifier to obtain a DC supply.
This is used to keep the three rechargeable batteries fully charged during normal running.
The 100 ohm resistor prevents current surges during initial charging and provides trickle
charging of the cells. At 1.2V per cell, the set of batteries can then supply 3.6V.

The batteries' positive connection is fed into the input of an LE33 chip. This is a 3-pin
voltage regulator that provides a stable 3.3V output. With most voltage regulators a few
volts are lost between their inputs and outputs. That would normally mean that an input
voltage of 5V or 6V would be required to ensure a stable 3.3V output. However, the LE33
is a 'very low dropout voltage regulator'. As the description suggests, very little voltage is
lost across this regulator. So, three cells (3.6V) are sufficient and saves having to use extra
batteries as would be required with a normal voltage regulator.
Here is the pinout of the regulator, viewed from underneath.
It has a maximum 100mA rating which is more than enough for our needs.
The values of the dropper resistors depends on what LEDs you use.
White LEDs operate from 3V upwards and you will probably find that
they can be directly connected across the LE33 output without any dropper
resistors. Yellow LEDs will need in the region of a 100 ohm resistor, depending on the
brightness you require. You can connect as many LEDs across the LE33 output as you
require, subject to the 100mA maximum current draw. In practice, this could be 20 or more
LEDs running at 3mA to 5mA.
You can use AA or AA rechargeable cells. The AA cells are larger but have a greater storage
capacity. This is measured in maH (mA per hour), with AA cells starting from 1700mAh
upwards and AAA starting from 600mAh upwards. So, for example, a 1000mAh cell
would provide up to 50 hours of light at 20mA.
An alternative is to use the battery packs for cordless phones. They
are smaller (e.g. 50x32x11mm) but have less capacity (400mAh
Even smaller (e.g. 22x16x14) are backup batteries
and these, although around 150mAh and 200mAH,
should prove more than sufficient for most purposes.

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Commercial options
If you don't want to try constructing your own DIY circuits, you can always purchase
commercial products.
Some are simple plug-and-play units, where the loco or coach has already been fitted with
pickups and connectors. Like the Dapol 156 and Mk3 coach units, described here:

Some are designed for specific models and the kit supplies the necessary track pickups.

Some are general-purpose, leaving it you to find a source of track power.

This image shows the 'Flickerfree' module from DCC Concepts.

It provides a set of coiled spring pickups and uses a super

capacitor (a very high value storage capacitor) to ensure longrunning, flicker-free lighting.
For more details, see:

Mounting the lights

The actual steps in fitting lights will depend on your particular loco, coach or wagon.
These are just some general suggestions.
Don't make any lights too bright, even though you can it will not look realistic.
Make sure that light does not escape through thin plastic walls or joints. If
necessary, paint the inside of the body, or line the inside with a printed coach interior,
such as:
Aluminium silver foil self adhesive tape can be stuck to the ceiling of coaches, prior
to fitting LEDs, to achieve maximum even reflection.
Sometimes it can be more effective to hide the LEDs on the coach floor and bounce
the light off the ceiling.
Consider using 30AWG Kynar wire to wire the LEDs and connectors, as it is very thin and

comes in a range of colours.

There are some situations where even Kynar wire is awkward to use, for fear of the
soldering iron melting plastic or the difficulty in making connections to tiny surface mount
LEDs. In these instances, consider using conductive silver paint. It is available from Rapid
Electronics, Maplin, Farnell, etc. It comes in a small bottle but a little goes a long way.

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Using a DCC decoder

The circuits covered so far are easy and cheap to build but they all suffer from the same
deficiency switchability.
The lights are either only lit when the train is moving or they are often permanently lit.
This is not realistic, since not all locos and coaches are constantly illuminated.
Of course, we could lean over and throw switches on the locos/coaches, or we could
introduce automatic light switching using reed switches, Hall Effect switches and the like.
Neither of these is particularly satisfactory.
That is where using a DCC decoder offers advantages. We, as controllers, can switch lights
on and off using our command station or handheld.
That involves sending specific instructions to the decoders.
The chapter on DCC included an
illustration of a DCC decoder. For clarity,
it only included the motor, headlight and
rear light wiring.
Here it is again, stripped of the motor
As a minimum, a decoder will have two
function outputs, as shown. Often,
manufacturers provide additional function
In this example, the decoder provides three
additional function outputs. Each of these
can be connected to a light or light strip.
The blue wire is the common return wire for all function outputs.
These additional outputs can be used to provide any effect you require such as a firebox
glow, hazard lights, ditch lights, beacons, etc.
The output voltage of a function connection is approximately the DCC track voltage level.
There is usually a current limit for each individual function output often 100mA.
There is also a total current limit that the decoder can handle (e.g. 500mA or 1A). This can
be found in your decoder specification, but you would not expect to approach this limit
since LEDs consume so little current.
Programming the lights
Your DCC controller will have buttons marked as 'f0', 'f1', etc.
You want to be able to press one of these buttons, knowing that it will switch a particular
decoder output. Deciding which button should switch output and then setting it up is known
as 'function mapping'.
There are three ways to do this:
You can look up the manual for your particular decoder, work out what you want and
then use your controller to program the decoder. This can be a fiddly and errorprone process.
You can us an on-line calculator to work out the values for you. Have a look at:
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This image shows an extract

from the calculator and you tick
the boxes to match the function
number to the wire to be
switched. It then displays the
values that you need to enter into
the appropriate CVs in your
This image shows an alteration
being made such that f1 switches
the violet (purple) output and f2
switches the green output.
As you can see, the values to be
entered for CV35 and CV36
have been altered as a

You can use Decoder Pro. Like

the above calculator, it lets you
match functions to outputs.
However, it is more intelligent. It only
shows the white and yellow options
because the decoder being programmed
does not have any other function outputs.
Even more useful, you don't have to
calculate or remember any values; they
are all hidden from view.
In addition, your decoder may have other
facilities than can be set, such as directional lights, headlight dimming, flashing, flickering,
etc. Read your manual, or see if Decoder Pro offers you those options.

Coach decoders
Using the decoder's function outputs gives you control over the loco's lights both internal
cab lights and externally lamps.
That still leaves coaches and wagons to be made switchable.
Of course, you could extend the wires from the function outputs into the train's coaches,
using the plugs and socket previously mentioned.
Alternatively, you can fit track pickups to a coach and install a separate DCC decoder into
the coach. You would simply use the function outputs for controlling the lights in the
coach, ignoring the loco outputs. The decoder would have its own unique address, separate
from the loco and this allows the coach to be used on a loco with no other modifications.
DCC accessory decoders can also be used in coaches. Although larger and more expensive
than most DCC motor decoders, they can carry out activities that are not readily suited to
loco decoders.

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Using accessory decoders

The accessory decoder is really intended for use at the lineside, where it can operate points,
signals, etc. Consequently, they are designed for higher currents and are on large PCBs.
These can still be used inside coaches, if you have enough room to fit them.
The big advantage of using these decoders is the larger range of outputs and/or features.
The Tam Valley LEDecoder only has three outputs but can handle a bi-colour LED and
flickering effects.
For more details, see:
The ESU LokPilot Fx v4.0 has six function outputs with a maximum current of 250mA per
For more details, see:
If you fancy building your own, have a look at:
The MERG Kit 53 is a DCC accessory decoder with 8 steady state outputs

Special features
Why stop at just lights? Accessory decoders can be used to operate any animation in your
coach or wagon that you can think of space permitting.
You can now consider modelling:
A maintenance or track-laying crane.
A guard waving his lantern (another LED?) from the guard's van.
On-board uncouplers.
A moving pantograph or trolley pole.
Sliding carriage doors.
A remote-operated smoke or steam unit.
And so on and so on.
We know from a previous chapter that we can animate things using servos and some
accessory decoders are able to also control servos.
Check out:

controls one servo and one relay

controls four servos and four stall motors

The Zimo MX82V controls four servos and four LEDs
If you are working in larger scales, the commonly used servos such as the Tower Pro SG90
could be installed.

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For smaller scales, the tiny Spektrum linear servos can be used.
These come in standard throw, as in this image, and in long
throw (just under 1).
For more details, see:

Another feature that can be controlled via DCC are the smoke units and steam units
marketed by Seuthe. These are available from:

They have a handy chart detailing all models and their current requirements

Includes great advice from Harvey Godber on installing and using these units.
There is also a lot of information on smoke units at:

Power for additional devices

The voltage level from decoder function outputs are just a little less than the DCC voltage
and this is sufficient for anything we want to switch. In fact, we will have to reduce the
voltage for connecting servos and LEDs.
The bigger issue is the current limit from any one function output often a 100mA
maximum. Since the Seuthe Smoke Unit uses 149mA at between 11V and 16V, and the
Seuthe Steam Generator needs 130mA at between 10V and16V, we cannot drive these
directly from a decoder output.
Instead, we use the decoder output to operate a transistor switch and/or a relay, which in
turn supplies power to the device (see the chapter on interfacing).
This circuit gives an idea of how to interface a Seuthe
smoke unit. A 12V low current relay is connected between
a decoder output and the blue wire which is always positive
Suitable relays are widely available, such as those from
Rapid Electronics (part number 60-2410 or 60-4662), or the
BT 47W/6H relay from MERG.
Don't forget to fit a protection diode, such as a 1N4148
across the relay coil.
The decoder has its own circuitry that converts the incoming DCC into a DC supply. This
must not be used to power any high-current devices.
Use the bridge rectifier, with the voltage regulator if necessary, described earlier in this

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Chapter 10
Adding sound

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Adding sound
Many layouts are miniature masterpieces, yet still seem to lack something. That something
is often the extra authenticity that comes from movement (other than trains), lighting and
Mostly, a model railway is a visual experience, watching trains travelling through scenic
layouts. We can add to the effect by animating lineside and scenic features using motors
and servos. We can further improve the layout further with the careful use of scenic and
train lighting.
This chapter looks at improving a layout by stimulating another of your senses that of
hearing. Noise is all around us, yet most layouts produce only the sound of electric motors
and points operating. This can be corrected, as everything we hear in real life can be
reproduced on your layout. This is a much wider area than may initially be thought and this
chapter is really an introduction to the subject.
Layout sounds can be divided into two broad categories.
Train-related sounds

These are associated with the direct running of the railway and include:

Hissing and chuffing

Diesel engines
Horns and whistles
Wheels squealing round tight corners
Station announcements

Some of these sounds are more easily created using DCC sound decoders, while others can
be easily created for both DC and DCC layouts.
Scenic-related sounds

These sounds add to the general feel of the layout and might include:

Factories and mills

Quarries and mines

All of these can be created for both DC and DCC layouts.

Sound Types
General sound categories include:
Man-made sounds (e.g. guns, machinery)
Natural sounds (e.g. water, thunder, rain)
Ambient/Environmental/Atmospheric sounds
This involves the combination of various sounds to create the overall effect.
For example, a rural scene might combine the sound of a brook with bird and/or animal
sounds, while an urban scene might mix traffic noise with general population hubbub.
Likewise, a fairground needs not only organ sounds but the sounds of children and
laughter while a factory complex will mix a variety of mechanical sounds.
Incidental (i.e. one-off) sounds, such as:
Gunshots, foghorns, dogs barking, crossing bells, station announcements
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Sound in perspective
Before we start, we must bear in mind the importance of 'getting it right'.
The indiscriminate addition of sounds can easily produce a horrendous
cacophony which seriously detracts from the experience.
Just because you can reproduce the sound of everything on a layout does
not mean that they all have to be played, at the same volume, at the same time.
The coherence principle rests on the maxim that less is more i.e. adding too many
unnecessary sounds impedes the users appreciation of the main content. This situation can
be avoided by a few simple rules.
Layout sounds should be:
The sounds should add to the layout, not detract from it. A layout may offer a range
of possible sources of sound. However, it is likely that balancing some of the most
predominant sources would suffice. Even then, common sense should prevail. For
example, it is unlikely that you will hear factory sounds on a day that church bells ring.
In the words of Joe Meek (1960s record producer)
If it sounds right, it IS right!
The sounds chosen must reflect the nature of the layout. While layouts may have
some elements in common (e.g. vehicles, people, stations, etc.), the dominant sounds
must be those most sympathetic to the layout's character. Rural, urban and industrial
layouts all have different characters, as do different periods in time. Better to choose
the sounds that most characterise the layout than trying to include every possible
sound. The sounds chosen should be both harmonious and proportionate.
Your layout is a miniature of a much larger area. The baseboard may only be a few
feet deep but that will represent quite a scaled distance. The addition of low relief
building and detailed backdrops add another layer of perceived depth. The smaller the
scale you model in, the greater the scale distance between the front of the baseboard
and the rear details.
It follows, therefore, that sounds from the rear of the layout should be quieter than
those closer to the front. Otherwise, the overall perception is jarred.
The sounds should provide the impression of depth to a layout. This supposes
different volume levels for different distances (see later).
Overall though, we are discussing background sounds, so a subdued sound level
should apply even to sounds from the front of the layout.
Above all, layout sound should be under the control of the operator, who can decide
what is played and when. Lots of noise might be perfect for the visits from children
and grandchildren but be most unwelcome at exhibitions or during late at night/early
morning sessions.
Firstly, then, is the ability to disable all sound at the flick of a switch or the click of a
mouse. You may also wish to make individual sounds switchable (e.g. disabling
diesel sounds and enabling steam sounds).
After that, there are decisions regarding timing of sounds.
For example, running water is expected to make a continuous sound, while incidental
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sounds such as bird or animal sounds would only occur at irregular intervals.
Other sound effects, such as whistles and wheel squeals, would only be triggered by
events such as a loco entering a specific section of track.
This chapter looks at the following areas:

Deciding which sounds are appropriate and which reproduction system to adopt.
Finding and using layout audio clips.
Sound players.
Speakers and their placement.
Triggering of sounds.

Sound options
There are different methods available for adding sound to your layout.
There two different categories;
Trackside sound, on the baseboard
Sound modules in locos

Trackside layout sound

A number of different approaches have been adopted, both for commercial and homebrew
sound systems. The main approaches are shown below, on a typical layout.

As the name suggests, the layout uses a single audio player and a single loudspeaker placed
in the middle of the layout. This has the benefit of simplicity and cheapness (although
some expensive commercial systems also use this method).

The downside to this method is that it does not deceive the listener, whose ears detect
sounds in stereo. With this system, all sounds are detected as being in the middle, even
although the church, factory, etc., may be situated at the extremities of the layout. While
this method might work for small layouts, the difference between expectations and reality
worsens as the layout becomes larger. It is not very effective in large layouts as the sound
does not appear to come from specific objects or buildings.

With this system, there is still a single source of all sounds but there are individual

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loudspeakers situated at each sound location and these are switched on and off to make the
sound come from specific areas of the layout. In this way, the sounds are heard from their
correct positions on the layout.

The downside in this method is the need to direct the audio from the player to the correct
loudspeaker at the correct time, using either manual or electronic switching.
Also, only a single sound can be produced at any one time. This reduces the richness of the
overall effect. It also prevents continuous sounds (e.g. rivers) from being played.

This system uses a separate sound player and loudspeaker for each location. This allows
sounds to be heard from their expected locations and also allows multiple sounds to be
played at the same time if necessary. So, a waterfall will have its own sound module, with
another module producing sound for the sawmill, and so on. The speakers for these
modules are located in, or next to, the supposed source of the original sound.

The modules can be left to play continuously, for background sounds such as with a
waterfall or station hubbub. Alternatively, they can be wired to only play when triggered by
train-on-track detectors. For example, the sound of a loco whistle/horn or wheel squeals
could be produced when a train enters a particular section of track.
They could also be under operator control, switched on/off by MERG CBUS output
modules (e.g. CANACC8) or controlled by switches on a control panel.
It can also save on all the extras switch wiring needed with distributed systems.
The downside is the extra expense of providing more players, although this not need be

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Sound basics
Before moving on, it may be useful to recap on some basic sound concepts.
Sound is produced and carried by the rapid variation of the pressure of the air surrounding
the object that is creating the sound.
Consider the loudspeaker inside your TV or HiFi. The speaker cone vibrates in sympathy
with the audio content. As the cone vibrates, the air next to it
is alternately compressed and rarefied. This constant change
of air pressure sets up sound pressure waves, which travel
through the air until they reach the listener's eardrum.
The air does not actually travel between the speaker and the
ear. As the air next to the speaker cone moves back and forth,
it passes on this movement to the air next to it - and so on. It is similar to the water in a pool
when a stone is dropped in it. The waves move
outwards but the water does not travel outwards.
The knock-on effects of the variations diminish
as the sound waves travel outwards, resulting in
sound becoming quieter the further away the
listener is from the source.
As this illustration shows, the audio source has a
sound intensity I at distance r from the sound
source. If we look at twice the distance (i.e. 2r),
the area at r2 has to influence four times the area as that at distance r.
Similarly, at distance 3r, it has to influence an area that is nine times larger.
This effect is known as the Inverse Square Law.
This chart shows just how quickly
sounds diminish with distance.
In model railways, this is sometimes
considered as 'scale sound'. Although a
layout may be physically small, it
represents a much larger area
(depending on the scale e.g. 76 times
greater in OO and 220 times greater in
Clearly, then, sounds at the rear of a
layout should not be heard at the same amplitude as those at the front of the layout.
Also, if you are standing at one end of a long layout, you should hardly hear sounds from
the other end of the layout.
In addition, we have to remember that the dominant impression of a layout should be the
movement of the trains, not the sound from various features. Even the loudest sound
should not detract from the layout.
In the words of Jim 'Enginears' Wells (of Fantasonics)
"your audience should feel like they want to lean in to hear the sound better"

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Commercial sound systems

There are quite a few commercial systems that are specifically designed to produce sounds
for model railway layouts. They are generally well specified but expensive.
This image shows a module from the HQ series of
modules produced by ITTC (available from Bromsgrove
Models). They are designed for fitting in local
situations, with each module producing a different
sound. The sounds vary from US loco sounds to
lineside sounds such as a construction site, a sawmill,
thunder, church bells, and much more.
The module is connected to power, a speaker and a connection for external switching.
This image shows the 'Master Blaster' from Model
Sounds. It is a combined sound module and
loudspeaker in the one case.
It has a built-in battery, making it fully portable it
could be installed in a lineside building or fitted inside a
coach or wagon (probably from 'O' gauge upwards).
It runs for three hours on a charge and can be recharged from a computer's USB port or from
a battery charger.
It uses a MicroSD memory card to store the sounds and the different cards can be swapped
in to get different sounds (purchased separately).
For details see:
An example of a centralised sound module is the Steam Whistle and Two Tone Horn
model EXH/TTW from Express Models.
It stores the sound of a whistle and a two tone horn and the sounds are played by pressing a
push button (although this could be replaced by relay contacts, a reed relay, etc.).
This image shows another centralised sound system
the Model Rectifier Corporation Symphony 77.
The system is powered by an AC adapter and
comprises two loudspeakers and a handheld controller
The speakers do not provide stereo sound. Instead,
one speaker one set of sounds (e.g. steam chuff/diesel
rumble, brakes, crossing gate, etc.) and the other
speakers produces a different set of sounds (e.g. diesel
horn/steam whistle, air release, uncoupling, etc.).
In all, over 25 different sounds can be produced by the
operator choosing options on the controller.
Despite the variety of sounds, the sounds cannot be located next to all the objects that are
supposed to be making the sounds.
Also, there is no provision for automatically triggering a sound.
It is available from US suppliers, Amazon or eBay.
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This is an example of a centralised sound module with

additional facilities. It is the Pricom Dream Player.
At the top of the board is a row of inputs and there is a
row of outputs along the bottom.
This allows a very flexible set of options. For example,
an input can be triggered that plays a sound and also
changes the state of one of the outputs. For example, a
change on one input could play a warning alarm while
crossing gates close.
The sounds are stored in SD memory cards (see left of
image) and therefore are changeable.
Although very flexible, its big downside that it has only one audio output (see right of
image); this makes it less suitable to cover a large area of a layout.
For details see:
An even more versatile, and more
expensive, sound module is the
RLW 4400 SLITE Animation Board
from Republic Locomotive Works.
It has two audio outputs that can be
used independently or used in
stereo. The sounds are stored in a
micro SD memory card.
It also has 12 input channels and 16
output channels and can be
programmed by a computer through
the serial port to carry out sequences
of operations.
The program sequence is stored in
the SD card.
The board has its own
microprocessor that can run through
a pre-programmed set of sounds and
output switching.
The module provides facilities such as PWM (pulse width modulation) for dimming LEDs
or setting the speed of motors, A/D convertors to read analogue changes such as light levels,
and more. It is not currently marketed in the UK.
The top-of-the-price-range trackside sound system is the Surroundtrax DSP-80.
It is a distributed sound system, as it places six
speakers around the layout.
Each channel can produce sound independently of
the others.
Although it is a trackside system, it aims to provide
the sounds of locos as they move round the layout.
It requires additional track block sensors, one for each speaker. As a loco enters a track
block, the main module is informed and sound is directed to that speaker. Cleverly, as the
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loco moves from one block to another, the sound in their allocated speakers cross-fade (the
volume declines in one speaker while increasing in the other). This provides a smooth
stereo-type sound transition.
Unfortunately, six speakers may not be sufficient for larger layouts.
It uses DCC technology, but without fitting sound decoders in each loco. This may be an
advantage for those with large numbers of locos, or limited skills in fitting decoders.
On the other hand, it does not provide the large variety of options that are available in loco
sound decoders. Also, it is limited to loco sounds only, with no lineside or other effects.
It is a very expensive system and further details are at:

In the UK, it is sold by DCC Supplies

Limitations of commercial options

Most commercial modules only play built-in sounds with no provision for the user to alter
or add their own. The Trax DHM-12 and the Express Models EXX/TTW each have two
preset sounds, while the Quasar SG01M module provides 4 preset sounds. The HQ series
modules produce only a single preset sound.
The Master Blaster module uses memory cards, each storing a different sound. These can
be purchased separately, although only one can be installed and used at a time.
Others, such as the Symphony 77, provide more sounds but have to be manually operated;
there is no provision for automatic triggering (e.g. from track detectors, relays, CBUS, etc.).
The Symphony 77 has 25 unalterable sounds.
The top of the range SoundTrax DS-P80 only works with Digitrax block detectors and
transponder equipped locos.

DIY sound systems

Despite their considerable prices, commercial modules have practical limitations.
However, there are a number of devices that are easily obtainable, are considerably cheaper
and can provide more flexible and user-alterable sound players.
Here are five different devices, of varying complexities, all requiring little or no alteration.

Option 1 - Talking cards

Lets begin with the simplest and cheapest
sound player that can be used straight out of the
box. Although not of the greatest audio quality
it is available for around 2 from eBay.
It is intended for incorporating into greetings
cards, so that personal recorded messages can
be included (Merry Xmas Gran, from little
Timmy in Australia)
It is complete and ready to use, as it has its own
built in batteries, microphone, speaker and
operating pushbuttons.
It may be supplied bare as shown in this photograph or be enclosed in a plastic case.
The boards are available with slightly differing layouts e.g. some have two batteries and
some have three.
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It is extremely simple to use. Just press the record button and

hold the mike close to the source of the audio. This may be a
sound clip being played through a computers loudspeaker or be
the spoken word (e.g. for a station announcement). The
recording limit is 10 seconds.
To play back the recording, simply hold down the play button.
Although cheap and simple, this module can be surprisingly
Possible modifications
A likely modification is to remove the on board batteries and replace them with a
78L05 5V regulator so that the
module can run from a standard
12V supply.
I also unsolder the record button
after making the recording, to
prevent it being accidentally
pressed later. It can always be
re-connected later if you want to
alter the recording.
It is likely that you will want to
operate the module from a
distance and this would normally require two wires for the power and two wires for
the play switch. This can be reduced to just three connecting wires, as shown in the
image. In my module, one of the two play connections has to be taken to +5V to
play the sound (the orange wire in the image). This wire can be taken to any device
that can provide a switchable +5V (e.g. a switch, relay contacts, output from atrainon-track detector or a MERG CBUS CANACC8). I included a 1K resistor in series
with the orange wire to limit the switching current.
If you have an old loudspeaker lying around, you will probably find that it is a good
replacement for the tiny speaker that comes with the card.
It should also be possible to remove the microphone and record directly from the
computers Audio Out socket. This is likely to improve the audio quality but I did
not pursue the circuit for this.
Wiring a regulator
All five modules operate from either 3.3V or 5V supplies, so these
notes on converting to use with a 12V supply apply to all options.
Since they all consume relatively little current, they can use the 100mA
style regulators (the ones that look like transistors) instead of the larger
regulators (the ones with metal tabs). They have three connecting
leads, as shown in the illustration. The 12V is wired to the regulators
In pin and the regulated voltage of 3.3V or 5V is available from the
Out Pin. The third pin is shown as Gnd, also referred to as the COM (common) pin.
This is wired to the 0V line of the incoming voltage and also acts as the 0V of the regulated
output.The 78L33 is used for a +3.3V output and a 78L05 is used for a +5V output. Both
have the same size and shape and identified by the printing on them.

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Capacitors with values of 330nF and 100nf are fitted across the input and output pins, as
shown in the diagram. They are used to
smooth the incoming supply and to prevent
any possible internal oscillation.
These values are non-critical and some
circuits omit them altogether. However,
given their small cost, they are best fitted.

Option 2 MP3 player

Many cheap MP3 players are flooding the market and can be purchased on eBay for around
2. Although designed for playing music on the move, they make great little sound players
for a layout.
They store the sounds on a microSD memory card that is inserted into a slot in the player.
These cards can be bought separately for around 2 and can store long sound samples. The
sounds can be of higher quality and this player can handle stereo sounds,
The player has a built-in battery that can be recharged from any USB socket (often the one
on your computer). The same USB lead is used to copy MP3 sound files from the computer
into the players memory,
The player is intended to be used with headphones so an external audio amplifier needs to
be connected to the players audio out socket.
The steps for this module are:
Find, or create, a suitable sound file in MP3 format.
Insert the microSD card into the player.
Connect the players output to an amplifier.
Connect the supplied USB cable between the player and the computers USB
Copy the sound file into the memory card.
Remove the cable.
Operate the power switch to hear the sound being played.
If you are happy to use the internal battery, then the player can be used as is, without any
Possible modifications
Having to regularly recharge the modules
internal battery can be a nuisance.
Fortunately, it can be easily replaced with
a +5V regulator, allowing the player to be
powered from a standard 12V supply. Two
small screws secure the players outer
casing. Then, the internal battery can be
unsoldered. A 5V regulator circuit can
then be wired to the players power
connections as shown below.
You can wire your own switch in place of the one fitted to the player, to allow you to
operate the player from a distance (see the image below).

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You can also keep the switch in the ON position and switch the power to the player.
The circuit below shows a transistor, type BC557, being used to act like a switch.
When its base connection is taken to 0V, current is allowed to flow between the
emitter and collector connections and the MP3 player is powered. The transistors
base can be taken to 0V with a switch, as shown in the diagram. Alternatively, the
switch can be replaced with any other device whose output can switch between +5V

and 0V (e.g. relay contacts, the output from a CANACC8, the output from a track
occupancy detector, etc.).

Option 3 - The ISD1820

This device is readily available on eBay for
just over 3. It has a built-in microphone,
built-in amplifier and is supplied along with a
loudspeaker. The basic version is just 33mm
x 42mm.
It needs a power supply of between 3V and
5V, so the 78L05 5V regulator circuit described earlier would allow it to be run from a
standard 12V supply.
The module has three buttons. Holding down the red button allows a recording to be made
using the microphone. The recording limit is 10 seconds.
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The module also has two black buttons, marked as 'single-pass' and 'jog', or 'PLAYE' and
'PLAYL'. PLAYE stands for edge-activated and even the shortest press of the 'single-pass'
button results in the entire recording being played back. PLAYL stands for levelactivated and the 'jog' button only plays back the recording for as long as the button is held
Possible modifications

The black playback buttons are handy for testing the module but it is likely that you will
want to operate the module from some external triggering device. Fortunately, there is a
row of pins on the board that replicate the job of the buttons. So, for example, taking the
REC pin high is the same as pressing the REC button. Raising the PLAYE pin to 5v is the
same as pressing the 'single pass' or PLAYE button. Similarly, raising the PLAYL pin to 5v
is the same as pressing the 'jog' or PLAYL button. So the PLAYE or PLAYL pins can be
wired to switches, relay contacts, the output from a CANACC8, the output from a track
occupancy detector, etc.
The microphone that is on board the module (shown in the top right corner of the module in
the photograph) produces reasonable results for the price but there is scope for replacing the
mike with a better quality model or with a connection to the audio output from a computer.

Option 4 - The WTV020-SD

This is another sound player that plays sounds stored on a
microSD memory card. It supports up to a 1GB max microSD
card so can play long sound files.
It is readily available on eBay for just over 3.
It has a built-in amplifier but needs a loudspeaker. Alternatively, it
can be connected to an external amplifier.
It is about the size of a postage stamp and requires few other
components, as can be seen from this diagram.

It is a 16 pin module, although most pins are not used in our circuit..
The LED and its resistor are optional. The LED flashes while a sound is playing and would
not normally be needed except perhaps for test purposes. The module would normally be
mounted under the baseboard or inside a building, so the LED would not be visible.
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The module works from a power supply of between 2.5V and 3.6V, so a 78L33 3.3V
regulator circuit described earlier would allow it to be run from a standard 12V supply.

Preparing the audio files

This and the next module require the preparation of the audio clips prior to them being
installed in the module.
With the WTV020, the audio clips have to be stored in the memory card in ad4 format (4-bit
adaptive PCM), with a sampling rate of 32KHz. Files should be saved as 0000.ad4,
0001.ad4, etc.
This is easier than it sounds, as there is free software that converts audio files into the
required format. The process uses two software packages that are free and easily available.
After obtaining, or creating, your required audio file, carry out these two steps.
Step 1 - Convert the file to a sampling rate of 32khz
The most poplar software for this is the free open source application called 'Audacity',
which is downloadable from

When you use the program to open an audio file, the audio track appears in the main
window. The current sampling rate of the file is displayed in bottom-right corner. If it
needs to be altered (i.e. it is not currently 32000) then 32000 can be selected from the drop
down box. The example shows that the file has an 8KHz sampling rate.

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After selecting 32000, the File/Export menu option is chosen to save the file in the new
sampling rate.
Although it takes a little effort to learn this technique, it is well worth it, as you can also use
this software to edit the audio (convert from MP3 to WAV, mix two or more audio files,
remove noise, add echo, introduce fading in/out, etc.).
Step 2 Convert the file to ad4 format
The conversion software is called USBRecorder and is downloadable from
The software has a single window that looks like this:

The left-hand pane lets you select a folder to view. From here, you select the file you want
to convert.
The example shows that the wheelsqueal4.wav file is already using a 32KHz sampling rate,
so an ad4 file version can be created by simply clicking on the 'Encode' button. The newly
encoded file would be called whealsqueal4.ad4 and can then be renamed 0000.ad4.
Installing the audio clip
Now that you have the audio file stored in your computer in the correct format, you need a
way to copy the file into your memory card. If you already own a digital camera, MP3
player or phone that uses a microSD card, then you are probably familiar with copying files
between the device and your PC (probably using the computer's USB port). You simply,
take out your existing microSD card from the device and insert the card you will use with
the sound module. After copying the file to the memory card, you replace the original card
in the device.
An alternative is to use a memory card reader (about 1 on eBay) to copy the file into the
microSD memory card.

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So, the steps are:

Prepare the audio file as described above

Copy the audio file onto the microSD memory card.
Insert the microSD card into the WTV020 player.
Connect a loudspeaker to the players pins 4 and 5, or
connect to an external amplifier using pins 2 and 8.
Connect to a 3.3V power supply (see the diagram).
Press to play, press to stop.

Option 5 - The WT588

This is the most expensive module (around 6 from eBay) but also the most versatile.
Multiple configurations are possible, with the example showing four different inputs,
allowing it to play four different audio tracks.
It has its own built in memory (no need for a memory card) and built in amplifier (although
you have to supply your own speaker).
The image shows one of these modules mounted on a
piece of stripboard. In the top left of the board, above
the crystal, is a miniature USB socket ( a Mini-B socket).
This is used to transfer the audio clips from your
computer into the module.
The pin numbering starts from the pin nearest the crystal.
Pins 14 and 22 connect to the 0V and 5V respectively.
Pins 9 and 10 can be connected to an 8 ohm/0.5W
speaker. Alternatively, pins 8 and 14 can be used to connect the module to an external

The WTV020 module supports audio files in WAV format and sampling rates of either
6KHz, 8KHz, 10KHz, 12KHz, 14KHz, 16KHz, 18KHz or 20KHz.

Linking sounds to switches

The module can store multiple sounds and so has to be told which sound(s) to play when a
particular key is pressed.
This is achieved with yet another piece of free software and it can be downloaded from:
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From this menu, choose 'WTD588d VoiceChip Setup'

When run, you may wish to change the default language to English.
The application has a single screen, as shown in the illustration.

When first run, both main panels will be empty.

Right-clicking in the left panel allows you to load your audio files.
It will refuse to load an improperly formatted audio file, displaying an appropriate error
message (e.g. Sampling rate can not be greater than 22000 or Inappropriate sampling
The narrow middle column corresponds to the possible key presses.
In the example, one sound is attached to a keypress. If required, multiple audio files can be
attached to a single keypress and they will be played in succession. The program also lets
you insert pauses between the playing of a set audio clips, when initiated from a single
keypress. Imagine a station making four different announcements, depending on which
train arrives (maybe using RFID or CBUS?)
DIY Comparisons
DIY sound players are of varying complexity, quality, length of audio, price, etc. This table
gives a broad comparison of the different types.
As always, it is a matter of choice and ability but think of the possibilities!
Greeting card

MP3 player




10 secs


20 secs



Audio source













Some models



Play time

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Sound sources
Some commercial sound systems are supplied complete with their own embedded sound(s). Often,
their audio content cannot be altered, although some allow additional sounds to be purchased.
Apart from the expense, the available sounds can be limiting.
Others sound players, including DIY versions, need to have suitable sound files installed in them.
In these cases, you have to find your own sound files, usually from the Internet.
The most likely options are for commercial (but royalty-free sites) and public domain and free
download sites.
Here are some commercial pay per sound sites: - royalty-free files
Here are some free download sites:

Making your own

For those who have the time, the resources and the skills, home-recorded sound files from real
world locations can provide unique layout sounds. Visiting specific locations (e.g. station
announcements at a particular station, sounds from a local factory, etc.) can bring even greater
authenticity to a layout.
Even very basic recording techniques can produce useful results, while additional recording and
editing skills can further enhance the files. This could include adding echo, compression, file
conversion, volume adjustment, noise elimination, panning, cropping, looping, fading up/down.

This is really beyond the scope of this book but a useful website on this subject is:

Once you have your audio files, downloaded or recorded, you have to to decide whether the
sound is played as a one-off (e.g. a train whistle) or is played as a continuous loop (e.g.
running water or city background hubub).
If you are creating continuous loops, leave breaks in the sound, or have variations in
volume; this relieves the listener from a constant barrage of sound.
Alterations to a sound file require the use of a computer and audio editing software.
There are many such applications available and the most commonly used free software is
called 'Audacity' and it can be downloaded for free from:
It has an impressive list of features for a piece of free software.
The site even provides manuals and tutorials on how to use the software.
Check out:

For general discussion on matters relating to sound on your layout, you can join a well-used
Yahoo Group:
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Synthetic sound
For best results, use the actual recordings of the sounds you want to play on your layout.
This is specially true for complex sounds comprising multiple sources (e.g. street scenes,
football crowds and so on).
Fortunately, some of the more common railway sounds are less complex. That means that
we can create an electronic approximation to the real sound the result sound like the real
thing. Such sounds are the hiss of steam, whistles and horns.
For these, you will find a number of circuits available on the Internet. For example:

Audio players
An audio system comprises three parts:
The audio file to be played
An audio player
A loudspeaker
The player is an important part of the system, in terms of audio reproduction (e.g. quality,
mono/stereo), facilities (e.g. looping, maximum length of audio clip supported) and method
of operation (e.g. handheld controller, switches).
Most, but not all, players have built-in amplifiers. Some use internal batteries, some use
power packs and some get their power from another device (e.g. phone or PC).

Types of speaker
The task of the loudspeaker is to translate audio signals into sound waves. Therefore, larger
speakers are able to influence more of the surrounding air than smaller speakers. Of
course, large speakers are not always practical on layouts. Fortunately, we don't need high
volume levels on our layouts so small speakers are adequate in most situations unless we are
going for high-quality reproduction. You may also consider using a larger speaker for
reproducing the lower frequency rumbles.
Bear in mind that even a poorish quality clip will sound better on a better speaker, while a
high quality clip will suffer when played on a cheap speaker. That said, experience shows
that perfectly satisfactory results can be achieved with the many small speakers purchased
from eBay. These range from speakers a few inches in diameter to the tiny speakers that
are sold as spares for games consoles,
mobile phones, laptops and toys.
The picture shows a 38mm speaker, a pair
of replacement speakers for a Dell laptop
and a replacement speaker for NDS Lite
games machine.
For the budget conscious, you can also
recover speakers from discarded radios,
televisions, etc.
Speakers for mounting inside trains are discussed later.

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Apart from size, there are two main considerations when buying or reusing a speaker its
impedance and its rated wattage.
The speaker coil commonly has an impedance of 4 ohms or 8 ohms. Impedance is the
'resistance' of a device when used in non-DC circuits; in these cases the inherent inductance
and capacitance of the speaker coil has an additional inhibiting effect.
Speakers also have a wattage rating. This is not a measure of the power it normally
consumes; it is a measure of the maximum audio power it can handle without producing
distortion to the audio or damage to itself.
The maximum transfer of power to the speaker occurs when the speaker impedance matches
the output impedance of the audio module/amplifier. Using a lower impedance speaker than
that specified will usually result in poor audio reproduction and often destruction of the
speaker. You can use a speaker with a higher impedance than specified, This will cause no
damage but is likely to result in a reduced audio level.

Wiring speakers
Connecting a single speaker to an amplifier or sound module is straightforward, with only
two wires to connect them. There may be times when you want to connect extra speakers
to a single module (e.g. to spread the sound of thunder or traffic over a large area). Or, you
may have some speakers whose impedance do not match the requirements of the module.
This illustration shows various ways to
connect speakers.
The images on the left show two 8 ohm
speakers wired in parallel to present a 4ohm
impedance to the amplifier. If required, you
could even wire two sets of 4 ohm speakers
as shown. The upper pair and lower pair are
both wired in parallel, resulting in 2 ohms
each. The pairs are then wired in series, to
present a final 4 ohm impedance to the
Similarly, the images on the right show
combinations for 8 ohm systems.
You must not end up with a final impedance that is less than the specified load.

The diagrams above show that many, but not all, speakers have positive and negative
markings on them, or red and black leads.
A speaker should be connected with its positive lead to the amplifier's positive output
terminal and negative lead to the negative terminal.
In practice, the ear is not sensitive to the absolute phase of an audio output. Connecting a
conventional speaker in reverse has no impact on how we hear the sound.
However, things change when we connect two or more speakers to the same audio output.
If one speaker is wired differently from another, they are said to be 'out of phase'. This
means that at any one given moment, one speaker will be 'pushing' the air while the other is
'pulling' the air. If you were positioned mid-way between the two speakers. The sound
would be completely cancelled out in theory. In practice, the effect is less less drastic
although noticeable, particularly at lower frequencies.
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Mounting speakers
You may want to consider these suggestions before placing speakers on
your layout.
A loudspeaker works by using a cone shape to vibrate the air. So, you
have to ensure that there is no impediment to this free movement.
Firstly, don't just screw the speaker to a flat surface, such as the wall of
a building or the underside of the baseboard.
This illustration shows the building being used as the speaker enclosure.
This method will weaken and muffle the sound. We also want to avoid
unwanted vibrations only the speaker should be producing the sounds.
Instead, make a hole in the baseboard/building wall and mount the loudspeaker
as shown in this illustration. This way, the material supporting the speaker acts
as a baffle board. A baffle board has two purposes:
It increases the volume and clarity. The air is no longer trapped
between the cone and the surface it is mounted on and the pressure
variations are not absorbed by the material.
It prevents unwanted interference from the air vibrating at the rear
of the cone. Remember that when the cone is 'pushing' air at the front it is
'pulling' air at the rear. We don't want the out-of-phase sound waves from the
rear interfering with the wanted sound waves, partially cancelling or distorting
them or arriving slightly later to produce unintended echo effects.
The hole in the board should be as large as possible, to allow the maximum effect of the
speaker on the air, and should be no less than two thirds of the speaker size.
It is best not to screw or bolt the speaker directly to the material, as this can lead to the
problems associated with sound transference, such as absorption and unwanted resonance.
The speaker can be insulated from the baffle material using doubled-sided foam tape, or a
glue gun or silicone sealant.
These illustrations shows the speaker mounted
in its own enclosure then secured to the side or
floor of the building.
Although these may be the only options in some
circumstances, they are not the ideal mounting
method, as the air is confined in the building
and sound is only heard by transference through
the building walls and roof.
A better method is shown in this illustration. The speaker is
mounted on the rear wall of the building, out of sight. The foam
mounting minimises sound transference to the building structure
and the hole in the rear wall ensures free movement of air.
This is preferable to having speakers pointed directly at the
listeners. The sound is being reflected off other buildings or
bouncing back off the backscene towards the listener, a situation
that often exists in real life. It's a bit like when you first hear a fire
engine or the chimes of an ice cream van in the distance. You can
hear the sound but can't initially work out where it is coming from. You may identify the
general direction but can only pinpoint an exact source when it is closer to you.
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An alternative, where the situation allows, is to

mount speakers under the baseboard as shown in this
illustration. You can position the speaker hole
behind objects such as trees, bushes, walls, hills and
buildings. It is best to cover the hole with a grill or
piece of cloth, to prevent junk from falling into it.
If the hole has to be in a less hidden position, it can
be covered with a material that allows air to pass
through it such as lichen.
Lastly, it helps to use the largest size of speakers possible, subject to the physical restrictions
on a layout. This improves the fidelity of the sound, particularly for low-frequency
sounds such as thunder, machine rumble and diesel engines.

Sound switching
A variety of methods are available, depending on the effect that is required.
In addition, some sound modules only play as long as an input is held low/high, while others
will play an entire sound clip when an input pulse is detected.
Permanent sounds
Some sound modules can be set up permanently plays sounds on a loop, perfect for running
water, country sounds, etc. These modules run continuously when connected to power.
Random sounds
The sound module can be operated from a circuit that sends out randomly spaced pulses to
start the module playing. This is useful for the sound of birds, dogs, saws, car horns, etc.
Pulsing circuits are easily found on the Internet and the modules can run unattended.
Timed sounds
The sound module is operated from a timer circuit that runs on its own. This can be useful
for any 'scale time' sounds such as a town clock, church bells, etc.
Triggered sounds
This is probably the most useful approach. The sound modules are operated by an event on
the layout. For example, a Hector detector located at a tight bend could detect a train and
initiate a 'wheel screeching' sound. Similarly, a DC or DCC train-on-track detector could
initiate a station announcement when a train enters a station. If you don't want certain trains
(e.g. goods trains) to initiate the announcement, then you could use a reed relay under the
track as the detector and only fit magnets to the train that should trigger announcements.
Synchronised sounds
This approach allows a trigger to synchronise sound to other events on the layout. So, for
example, a signal to a Servo4 board to operate a crossing barrier could also start the sound
of crossing bells. Similarly, the flash from a welder (LED) could be accompanied by a
'frazzling' sound, or a flash of lightning could be followed by a roll of thunder.
Manual operation
The simplest approach is to have a manually-operated switch that powers or initiates a
sound. Some users may wish to have control over every individual sound, while others may
find it an unnecessary intrusion into the running of their layouts. Even automatic sound
systems may benefit from the occasional manually-operated sound. For example, kids may
like to press a button that starts all the fairground attractions light/moving while the sound of
fairground organ is played.

Of course, you may also consider having a single master switch that disables all
audio on the layout (very useful for those late night sessions).

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On board train sounds

The previous pages covered trackside sound but it is increasing common to also add sound
modules inside the loco.
There are two types of on board sound module:
Self-contained units that work on DC or DCC.
DCC decoders that specially designed for handling sound

Self contained modules

This image shows the Trax Controls DHM-12 and DHM-24
Two-Tone Diesel Horn Modules, working on 12v and 24v
respectively. Its size is 110mm x 60mm and it is intended for
fitting inside O gauge and larger locos.
The row of small preset controls allow the pitch and duration of
each tone to adjusted separately.
For onboard use, it can be triggered by having reed relay switch mounted under the loco; the
switch is operated by a magnet set in the track.
For lineside use, it can be triggered by a pushbutton or by a reed relay embedded in the track
that is operated by a magnet mounted under a passing loco.
The SWM-1 module is the Steam Whistle equivalent.
Trax Controls also produce steam and diesel sound modules that reproduce the sound of the
locos in motion. The sound content and volume alters as the voltage to the track increases.
In the steam module, the sound varies from a hiss while stationary to a chuff repetition that
increases with increasing track voltage.
For more details, see:
Quasar Electronics produce the SG01M module.
At 30mm x 16mm, it can be fitted into smaller gauge locos, maybe in the tender or a wagon.
Like the DHM-12 above, it needs
a separate power supply.
It produces three different sounds
and these are triggered by fitting
reed relay switches under the
Magnets can be fitted round the
track, wherever a sound should be
Careful positioning of the reed
relays and magnets is necessary, if
you wish to use all three sounds.
It is very simply wired, as shown
in this illustration.
It uses a tiny 1 microamp standby current and under a milliamp when producing sounds.
Being so economical, the battery could be left installed for long periods.
For more details, see:

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Mr Rails produce the MistyMK2 sound module, as shown

in this image.
There are two versions, for OO and O scale. They use the
same 50mm x 29mm board, with the O gauge version
using a larger speaker.
It uses a 9v battery which has to be fitted somewhere on
the train.
Like the DHM-12 module, it senses the voltage level
coming from the track and produces a chuffing rate that matches it. It has a control for
adjusting the voltage/chuffing rate for the particular loco it is fitted to.
For more details, see:

DCC sound
If your layout is DC only, then the above sound modules are the types you have to use to
achieve on board sound.
These boards can also be used with DCC systems but the modules designed solely for DCC
working, although more expensive, are considerably more versatile and configurable.
At its simplest, a DCC sound decoder is a small board with sophisticated electronics that has
two wires that are connected to the loco's power pickups, and two wires that connect to a
small loudspeaker.
At the other end of the range, some decoders can handle 8 simultaneous sound channels,
multiple speakers, etc.
Because it is DCC, the decoder's sounds can be triggered by lineside events (e.g. track
occupancy detectors), manually from the operator's handheld controller, or through a
computer program.
See the chapter on DCC for details on how the system works.
Sound decoders are available in a variety of formats.
Some are sold pre-fitted in locos, so the user has nothing to do but learn how to
use it.
Some handle sound only and a separate loco decoder is
needed for the motor's speed and direction control. The
image shows an MRC sound decoder, available in steam
and diesel versions. The user has to fit and wire the
decoder, or have it professionally done. Since it is a standalone unit, it need
not be fitted in the loco along with the loco decoder; it could be fitted in the
loco's tender or first coach.
Some combine handling sound and controlling the loco's motor (Digitrax,
Zimo, etc.).
Some are designed as a drop-in to particular
loco chassis, as in this MRC module for a dropin to a Kato chassis.
Some are designed as plug-ins to loco decoders (e.g. the Digitrax Soundbug
plugs into the Digitrax DH165 series decoders).
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This is the MyLocoSound DCC Steam Decoder

Apart from handling sound, it handles a couple of function outputs. It also has option to fit
a stay-alive capacitor. This is a storage capacitor that powers the sound module during any
short interruptions in power from the track (e.g. dirty track, navigating frogs, etc.). It is
used to prevent the sound from dropping out during these interruptions.
For more details see:
This image is the LokSound 4.0 from ESU
It can store up to 276 secs of sound and can play eight
different sounds simultaneously through its eight audio
You can purchase an (expensive) add-on, the
LokProgrammer, that allows you to change the sounds
stored in the decoder.
Apart from handling sound, the loco motor and various
function outputs, it has the ability to drive four servos.
This allows additional possibilities such as a rescue
crane, a guard waving a flag or a lamp, and so on.
It provides for the addition of a
PowerPack, a stay-alive of 2 secs.
As with all DCC decoders, values are
stored in configuration variables
This table shows part of the CV list
for steam. There is another table for
diesel and one for electric locos.
For more details, see:

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Speakers for locos

Large, quality speakers can give a rich sound that spans the frequency range from highpitched whistles to the deep grumbling of diesels.
However, unless you are working in larger gauges, speaker size is a considerable factor
given the limited amount of space inside most locos.
Smaller speakers suffer from two main performance limitations:
Frequency range
Their small size means that they never produce full deep bass sounds although
some models are better than others.
Audio output
They produce limited audio power output without distortion although is that really
a problem? Their output is more than sufficient in most situations.
What's available?
Speakers are available from major model railway suppliers such as ESU,
SoundTraxx, Zimo and TCS.
The image shows a tiny 'Sugar Cube' speaker.
Speakers are also available on eBay at much lower prices, although you
would be best to buy just one try it before buying in any quantity.
Many commercial speakers for model railways are variants on the types
that are used in laptops, tablets, MP3 players and cellphones.
Here are just some example speakers:




Frequency range

ESU Sugar Cube


8 Ohms


ESU 50331


4 Ohms


Zimo MicroCube


8 Ohms


Zimo Sugar Cube


8 Ohms



Zimo SugarLump


8 Ohms


More bass

Zimo LS20R


8 Ohms


SoundTraxx 810053


8 Ohms



SoundTraxx 810089


8 Ohms



SoundTraxx Mega Bass


8 Ohms




20mm, 28mm

8 Ohms


The above table details some of the smaller speakers, with varying power handling
capacities. There also have differences in the frequency ranges they can handle (it is
difficult to find frequency range data from some manufacturers).
The SoundTraxx Mega Bass speaker is intended for reproducing mainly low frequency
sounds, with its larger 39.5x19.5mm speaker covering the wider range of 550Hz-12KHz.
Larger gauges
The range for larger gauges is greater, with circular, oval and rectangular shapes, larger
power handling and increased size.
For example, the Zimo LSFRS5 is a large 50mm 8 Ohm speaker but can handle 5W at
150Hz -20KHz. Note that to fully utilise larger speakers ( e.g. greater than 3W) you will
probably need a large-scale decoder.
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Mounting speakers
This is always a problem, particularly in smaller gauges.
While speakers are more easily fitted in coaches or wagons, this loses some of the
authenticity of the sound (sounds come from locos not rolling stock). However, in extreme
cases, this may be an only option.
From OO upwards, life is a little easier, as there is often room to squeeze in a speaker, e.g.
inside the cab of a diesel or inside the boiler of a steam loco.
Some of the smaller speakers, e..g. the Sugar Cubes, are already mounted in their own
enclosures to maximum sound output.
Some notes on mounting Sugar Cube speakers can be found at:

Fitting two speakers , where space is available, will result in increased volume.

Loco sounds
There is a huge range of authentic recorded loco sounds available in DCC sound decoders.
For example, check out the YouChoos website:

This company provides sound decoders with steam sounds from GWR, LMS, LNER,
SECR, LSWR, SR and BR standard sources. Its diesel selections include shunters, locos,
and DMUs. It also has a selection of electric loco sounds.
Many other DCC sound decoder manufacturers offer similar products.
If you still can't find what you want, Howes Models offer a service that replaces the existing
sound files on ESU LOKSOUND decoders with our own sound recordings .

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Chapter 11
Track occupancy detectors

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Track occupancy detectors

Detecting the presence of a train has been a useful facility on many model railways,
although perhaps still under-used.
This chapter looks at different methods of detecting track occupancy and compares their
relative merits. The chapter covers nine different methods and MERG currently sells
components or kits for six of these (using reed switches, Hall Effect switches, current
detection kits, infra-red and RFID modules).
Others technologies exist, utilising radio transceivers or even GPS systems.
Track occupancy detectors are often called 'TOTIs' train-on-track-indicators.

Track occupancy detectors uses

Hobbyists will have different uses for detectors, including a mix of some of those below.
Improving look/feel
A train enters a siding and the yard light comes on.
Track side animations.
On-screen timetable announcements.
On-screen train descriptions.
Sound effects (station announcements, whistles, bells).
Improving functionality
Feedback to mimic panel (the image shows part of an
exhibition layout with TOTI modules lighting LEDS
as a loco travels round a loop).
Automatic crossing gates and barriers.
Automatic signalling.
Reverse loops.
Collision prevention.
Improving control
Detecting train lengths.
Detecting direction of travel.
Detecting a wagon that becomes detached from a train.
Selective switching of points.
This list is by no means exhaustive. You can no doubt add many more possible uses, as the
only limit is our imagination.
While many of these features can be implemented by all users, some require the use of

Levels of detection
Not all detectors are interchangeable, as they work and operate differently.
Firstly, there is a distinction between 'spot detection' and 'stretch detection'.
The detector's output is only changed when a train passes the
Spot detection

The output reverts to its original state when the train leaves the
detectable area (although sometime you can add a delay before
switching back). This method, therefore is momentary and relies on
movement past the detector. This method is useful for triggering

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events (sounds, CBUS notifications, etc.)

Stretch detection

The detector's output is changed when a train sits in any part of a

track section. The output only reverts back to its original state once
the train (usually the loco or a specially adapted coach) vacates the
entire track section.
This method, therefore, does not rely on movement but on
This method is useful for stationary information (knowing a hidden
siding is occupied, maintaining a signal at green while the train
passes, etc.)

Another distinction is between 'Occupancy' and 'Identification'.


The operator, or computer, knows that a track section is occupied by

'something'. This is not as bad as it sounds and this method is still
very useful and is the most widely used.


The operator, or computer, knows not only that a track section is

occupied; the details of the train are made available (allowing for
station announcements, different train whistles, selective action for
point operations, etc.)

Starting at the beginning

The chapter looks at the different methods, starting with the simplest and ending with the
most complex. Hopefully, readers at all levels will get something out of it.
So, lets start with a detector that even the newest beginner can tackle.

Microswitches are available in a range of sizes, current handling
abilities and switch contacts arrangements.
As the image shows, all have a plunger that operates the switch.
This is often supplemented by a lever that operates the plunger.
As it provides greater leverage, it needs less effort to operate the
Some levers are a simple strip of metal, while other have rollers (see the photo) to reduce
any friction against the lever.
Some microswitches are simple ON/OFF devices and have two tags that are shorted when
the lever is pressed. This simple action, known as single-pole single-throw (SPST) is
similar to a push-button - the switch is designed to release again when the pressure is
removed from the lever.
The microswitch shown in the image is a single-pole double throw type (SPDT). It has
three tags with the lower tag shorting to one of the upper tags when the lever is pressed and
shorting instead to the other tag when the lever is released.
An alternative is the 'leaf switch'. It is much smaller and need very little
operating force. It is designed for low current switching and can be use
for indicating point positions, when mounted close to the point's tie bar.
Its main weakness is that is open to the elements.
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Basic use
We all know that if we take a power supply and wire it across a bulb, the bulb lights. We
also know that we can wire a switch in series with one of the wires, so that we can switch
the lamp on and off.
Let's start from there.
The illustration shows the simplest form of train
detector possible.
The lever of the microswitch protrudes from between
the buffers of a siding. When the loco reaches the
end of the siding, the lever is pressed and the lamp
lights. So simple, so basic, yet so handy when you
have hidden sidings.
The next step might be to replace the filament lamp
with an LED and dropper resistor.
If we now use two microswitches and add in a relay and a resistor, we have a cheap
alternative to a rolling road, or even a very basic DC shuttle system.
Microswitches are positioned at each end of a section of track. The
image shows that I added an extension to the microswitch operating arm,
using a piece of tin taken from a beans can.
The relay is a 3-pole double-throw type. Two change-over switches are
used to switch the polarity of the controller power to the track, while the
other is used a single switch to the relay. The relay is available from
The circuit relies on the 'hysteresis effect'. This means that the relay
takes a certain current to move the switch assembly but, once activated,
requires a lesser current to hold the relay switched. In my own circuit,
my 12v relay needs 15mA to operates the relay contacts but they will stay operated until
the current drop below 5mA.

The value of the resistor depends on the relay's operating voltage and its internal resistance.
In my case, a 220 ohm resistor was used.
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The sequence of events is:

When power is applied, the relay is not operated and the power is switched as
shown in the illustration.
The loco moves rightwards until it presses against and switches microswitch Y.
This creates a path from the relay's +ve supply, through the relay, through
microswitch Y to 0V. The relay operates.
This results in two activities. The relay switches the two changeover contacts
S1 and S2, resulting in the loco power to the track being reversed. It also
switches S3, which connects the relay to 0V through resistor R.
When the loco starts moving leftwards, microswitch Y is released but the relay
remains held operated as there is sufficient current being supplied through
resistor R to hold in the relay.
When the loco reaches the end of the track, it operates microswitch X. This
shorts across the relay, making it drop out (there is no short to 0V due to the
presence of resistor R).
The relay releases all the switches and the wiring reverts back to that shown in
the illustration. The process starts all over again.
Place a loco on the track and connect the power to watch the loco traverse up and down the
track at a speed determined by the controller. This allows it to warm up locos, instead of
using an expensive rolling road.
It can even act as basic shuttle, although there is no pause at each end before changing
Again, this is not the most sophisticated project but, given the small component count, it
makes a good starter project.
Cheap, easily obtained, simple. Good for beginner's projects.
Easily fitted to an existing layout.
No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.
Unaffected by light
No modifications to locos or rolling stock.
Limited use, due the way the detector can only be placed at the ends of track sections
(although experiments have been made with the microswitch being under the
baseboard with the operating lever being operated by trains passing over them).
Here is an alternative approach that uses a 555 chip in 'bistable' mode. That means that it
happily stays in either one of two possible states i.e. with its output pin 3 or low.
A microswitch, or leaf switch, is mounted at each end of the track and one of these will
bring pin 2 down to 0V when the loco pushes it. The other microswitch brings pin4 low
when the loco pushes it. When pin 2 goes low, it makes pin3 goes high. Pin 4 going low
makes pin 3 go low. The output from the chip is taken to a transistor that switches the relay
on and off, as the loco reaches on end of the track then the other.

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Reed switches
This was one of the most popular early detectors used for model railways.
Its is covered in the MERG Technical Bulletin A7/1.
Two strips of metal are held in a sealed glass tube.
When a magnet is positioned nearby, one of the strips is
attracted by the magnetic field and bends; in so doing it makes contact with the other strip.
They are in common use in burglar alarm systems and a range of industrial applications
such as in wind turbines, mines, and as fluid level switches. Their airtight situation makes
the contacts immune from external problems such as dampness. Also, there is no danger of
sparking hazards in potentially combustible areas. This means that they are made in large
quantities and easily available from a range of suppliers.
The image shows part on exhibition layout. A reed switch is embedded under the track of
the siding. A loco pulls a wagon that is fitted with a magnet. When the wagon passes over
the reed switch, the switch operates and lights the yard lamp (on the right); it also sends
back a pulse to a PIC that controls the overall sequence. The PIC makes the train stop and
activates a series of servos that opens a door, rotates a crane, moves a lorry, etc.

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Cheap, easily available.

Easily fitted.
No modifications required to locos or rolling stock.
No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.
Unaffected by light.
Good for garden layouts, due to their waterproof construction.
Can have conditional trains, with some fitted with magnets and others not. So, for
example, points may only move to let goods trains enter a shunting yard; while the
express train (not fitted with a magnet) cannot activate the point.

Each piece of rolling stock requires its own magnet.
Only produces a momentary pulse output, so will probably require additional
circuitry (such as latches or delays) in most circumstances unless the pulse is used
to send event information back to computers.

Hall effect switches

Hall Effect switches are widely used in the automobile industry and most
cars have many such switches (transmission sensors, ignition sensors,
gearstick position sensors, etc.). More details are available from Technical
Bulletin A7/2, on the MERG website.
Like reed switches, Hall Effect devices are switched by the presence of a
magnetic field. Unlike reed devices, they need
power to operate.
They are simple, 3-pin devices, with two of the pins connecting to a
power supply (typically between 4.5V and 24V). The third pin is
the output pin that changes state when the device detects the
presence of a changing magnetic flux.
With output currents of 10mA upwards, their outputs can be directly
connected to LEDs, via the usual voltage drop resistors. These devices are open collector,
which means that they need a load between the collector and the positive supply.
These switches are available from the MERG Kit Locker.
An interesting feature of Hall Effect switches is that they can differentiate between a
magnet's North and South Poles, unlike reed switches. The output changes when a North
pole passes the flat side of the device, or when a South pole passes the chamfered side. So,
a North pole passing the chamfered side creates no change in output. Similarly, nothing
happens when a South pole passes the flat side.

Latching types
A variation on these switches is the 'latching' switch, available for about 40p each from
eBay. It is still a 3-pin device but it behaves like a toggle switch (a bistable).
It needs to use both the North and South poles of a magnet to switch states. As the
illustration shows, a North pole makes the output go high. However, when the magnet is
removed, the output remains high (unlike the normal Hall Effect switch which reverts back
to its previous state).

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When a South pole now passes the switch, its output

goes low and stays low until switched again by a
passing North pole.
The MERG Technical Bulletin A7/4 suggests a use for a
latching switch involving putting magnets at both end
of a train, The front magnet would be mounted with its
North face pointing towards the Hall Effect switch,
while the rear magnet mounted to present its South
face. As the train passes the switch, its output goes high and stays high until the end of the
train passes. Paul King cleverly shows how a normal Hall Effect switch can act like a
latching type, at the expense of an extra magnet being placed behind the switch. Although
requiring an extra magnet for each switch, it has the additional benefit of increasing the
range over which the switch operates. Of course, this extra benefit is only available when
used in latching mode.
No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.
No modifications required to locos or rolling stock.
Unaffected by light.
Small component count.
Clean ONs/OFFs (they use internal Schmitt triggers).
Can be used as a latching sensor
Possible problems in positioning magnets and detector switches.
Needs a powerful magnet, as the detector has only a small sensing distance (around
Only a momentary pulse output, unless using latching type.

Light dependent resistors (LDRs), as you might expect from the name, are devices whose
resistance changes with the amount of light that falls on them.
They are two-wire devices and can be wired either way round.
In their 'normal' state (i.e. in darkness) they have a very high value of
resistance, usually measured in Millions of Ohms. As the amount of light
shining on them increases, their resistance progressively lowers to a low
point measured in hundred of Ohms.
This output is different from the other detectors which are either fully ON
or fully OFF. The output resistance can be at any value within its range, depending on the
amount of light shining on it. This characteristic could be used to improve the lighting on a
layout. If the layout is operated in a subdued light, the lights inside the buildings could be
dimmed a little to prevent an unrealistic glare. If the layout, however, was then operated in
a brightly-lit room, the lights could be brought up to full illumination.
In most cases, though, LDRs are used to detect the presence of objects passing along the
LDRs are usually mounted under the track with the light sensitive area located between the
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The normal ambient light in the railway room results in the LDR having a relatively low
As the loco/wagon/coach passes over that section of track, it lowers the amount of light that
reaches the LDR and the LDR resistance increases. This change of resistance is used to
sense the event and trigger some activity.
The diagram shows a typical circuit diagram for boosting an
LDR's output. The 1k resistor and the 10k variable resistor
are used to tweak the light level at which the LED will
illuminate. These can be replaced by a single resistor once
the required value for a particular LDR and light
surroundings is determined.
Mostly any NPN transistor will do in this circuit, including
the BC547B that is available from the MERG Kit Locker.
MERG Technical Bulletin T33_25 describes another
interface using a LM358 dual op-amp IC.I
If you Google for 'LDR circuit' you will find a wide range of
different circuits using different transistors and ICs.
Works for locos or wagons/coaches.
No modifications required to locos or rolling stock.
No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.
Sensitive to ambient light changes (e.g. at exhibitions).
May require careful shielding to minimise unwanted switching from peripheral light
changes (e.g. as you stretch across your layout).
Only a momentary pulse output.
Not a clean switch between on and off, unless using additional circuitry.

Infrared detectors
Infrared (IR) waves sit between microwaves and visible light in the electromagnetic
Humans radiate some infrared energy and this is utilised by the motion detectors that are
used in burglar alarms and automatic security lights. Almost every member will have a TV
that control with remote that uses infrared..
In the modelling world, if we use a source of infrared emissions in conjunction with an
infrared detector, we can detect the presence of locos and/or rolling stock as they pass by.
There are two methods of detection:
The IR is bounced off the rolling stock.
An IR beam link is broken when rolling stock passes through it.
In the first configuration, the emitter radiates the IR, which reflects off the undercarriage of
any passing rolling stock. This reflected IR is detected by the IR diode, which allows
current to flow and generates a voltage pulse.
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The illustration shows the radiation from an infrared transmitter bouncing off the
undercarriage of a wagon and reflecting back to an infrared receiver.
The emitter and the detector diode are available as separate components.
They can also be bought with both enclosed in a single case and these are
ideal for mounting under the track.
In the second configuration, we use a separate IR emitting diode and IR
receiver diode.
This allows us to mount the two devices above the baseboard. They are spaced apart, such
that the emitter points directly at the detector across a railway track.
The illustration shows two possible mounting methods.
On the right of the illustration, the two devices are placed directly opposite each other
across the track. In the example, there are three items passing the detector. Since there are
gaps between each item, it would result in the beam being broken three times and three
output pulses being generated. Mounted this way, it could act as a counter of how many
items were in a particular train.

However, most users would prefer an output that stays set for the duration of the passing of
the entire train, no matter how many items were attached.
The left hand of the illustration shows the two devices set at a diagonal across the track.
The gaps between items of rolling stock are no longer detected. This results in the output
being set when the first item passes and only being reset after the last item passes.

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IR detector types
The three types shown in the
illustration provide different levels
of sensitivity. The basic
photodiode can be improved by
using a phototransistor, which acts
like a photodiode and amplifying
transistor in one device. The
Darlington phototransistor provide
even greater levels of sensitivity
with the extra high gain provided by the two transistors.

Many IR phototransistors can be sensitive to light in the visible spectrum and it may be
necessary to shield the detector to minimise unwanted effects from ambient room lighting.
This may involve placing the detector in a lineside building or hiding it in a bush. Often,
the detector is mounted inside a piece of tubing that is opaque (don't forget to seal or paint
the back of the tube).
Line-of-sight mounting, particularly if the detector is shielded or at a distance, requires
accurate alignment for reliable results.
Some users recommend using multiple LED emitters, to increase the usable range of the

The MERG 'Hector' (Kit 72) is an infrared detector kit.
The two LEDs on the left of the board are the detector
and the emitter. Although mounted on the board in this
example, they can be mounted off-board and wired
taken back to the board (e.g. for above-board
Detected IR changes result in the indicator LED (the one in the middle of the board)
illuminating. The board also provides a variety of logic level outputs that can directly drive
colour signal lights or interface to CBUS/other logic circuits. It can detect a piece of white
paper at around 2.
Can work over a long distance.
Can be mounted under track or trackside.
Low power requirements.
Can detect entire trains, or act as a stock counter.
No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.
No modifications required to locos or rolling stock.
Output is digital (clean ON/OFFs).
Can be a little affected by ambient light.
May need shielding.
May need careful alignment.
Relatively expensive.
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Shuttle using infrared detectors

This circuit employs the same 555 bistable chip as used in the previous shuttle circuit that
used microswitches as detectors.

The microswitches are replaced with two infrared emitters/detectors, one at each end of the
When the loco moves over one of the detectors, its output goes low and the output is wired
back to the 555 chip where it triggers a change of output state.
The output can be wired directly to a relay if it is a low current type, or it can be used to
switch a transistor on and off.

Barcode readers
We have all watched or used barcode scanners when our groceries are swiped across a
supermarket checkout. The technology is widely used and bar code labels can be found on
most goods.
At its simplest, a bar code is a series of black bars on a white background, the width and
spacing of the bars representing different characters. The bar code reader bounces light off
the label as it passes and detects the changes in in the amount of light that is reflected back.
In the model railway world, the reflected data is more
than just an indication of occupancy; it can send back
detailed information on every loco, coach or wagon
that has a label fitted (see the photo for an example).
Free software is available that can print barcodes on to
sticky labels.
However, this system is not widely used, mainly due
to the complexities of integrating it into a model
railway control system.
Commercial barcode readers have USB interfaces,
requiring computer software to decode the barcodes and act on the data found.
Where multiple readers are to be used, as in most layouts, ways have to be found to
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interface them all to a computer. While not insurmountable, it requires hardware and
software expertise not widely available.
Alternative options include:
Hack a USB interfaced scanner to get at the TTL
Use a home-made infrared detector as discussed
Buy a barcode scanner wand that already has a TTL
output. The image shows one sold for under 10 on eBay.
The output from these readers still has to be decoded to extract the data. This could be
achieved via the computer's software or by feeding the TTL output into a PIC whose output
pins would feed other logic (or a CBUS CANACE8C).
Until this system is available into a reliable kit that can be implemented by most hobbyists,
it remains mostly for those who relish a challenge.

No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.

Returns detailed info.
Can be used to take selective action (e.g. moving points, train whistles)
Can be used for on-screen announcements.


Requires rolling stock to be labelled.

Needs reader under every spot to be detected.
Not easily integrated.
Expensive option.
Relies on keeping labels clean and unsmudged.
The greater the detailed required, the longer the printed label. This may present problems
with smaller gauges.

Ultrasonic detectors
Ultrasonics are acoustic frequencies (i.e. they work by vibrating air) that are higher than
those audible to the human ear.
An ultrasonic detection system can therefore be thought of as a loudspeaker and a
microphone, tweaked to only operate within a small range of ultrasonic frequencies.
The products marketed by Parsonics range from operating frequencies of 14.6KHz to
420KHz and can operate at distances up to 150 feet.
Ultrasonic detectors are used in car parking sensors, burglar alarms, range finding, process
control, etc.
The most commonly used systems operate at around 40KHz.
The units can purchased separately, as shown in the image, and they are
marked as TX (transmitter) and RX (receiver). Other transducers can be
used as either transmitters or receivers (known as 'transceivers').
Like infrared systems, they can be used facing each (e.g. beam breaking) or
mounted to detect reflections.
Many circuits are available for providing the 40KHz transmission and for the detection of
the ultrasonic waves. They all tend to have many components.

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Another option is to use the HC-SR04 module, as

shown in the image. This module can be picked up for
around 2.50 on eBay and consists of a PCB with both
transmitter and receiver modules mounted on it, along
with much of the required circuitry already mounted.
Apart from the power connections, it has only two other
pins. One pin, when pulsed low by a PIC, sends out a
short ultrasonic burst. The other pin changes state if it
detects an echo being returned (i.e. something is within
its reflective range). I can adjust the PIC to switch anywhere between 1 and 24.
If necessary, you can even check the time it took for the echo to return to calculate how far
away an object is (as used by car parking sensors).
The problem with the cheaper ultrasonic receivers, apart from reduced range, is the wide
angle of detection (some 15o in either direction). While this might be useful to see if there
is any movement in an entire marshalling yard or group of hidden tracks/sidings, it limits its
use to short distances in situations where tracks are closely laid (i.e. most layouts apart from
larger gauges and garden layouts).

No modifications to track/power/etc. are required.

Can operate over long distances.
Unaffected by light.
Low current consumption.


Needs additional circuitry (either lots of components or a PIC)

Large; problems in hiding on layouts.
Wide detection spread, particularly at longer distances.
Not recommended for continued operation at high temperatures.
Not recommended for continued operation at high humidity.
Subject to vibration.

Current Detection systems

Previously discussed detection systems were 'spot detectors' they only triggered when a
loco or wagon passed a specific point in the track. When the loco/wagon moved beyond
that point, the detector reverted to its previous state (unless a delay was added to the output).
This momentary or extended change in output is often sufficient to carry out a required task
such as changing a signal or sending a pulse back to a computer or a PIC.
There are many occasions, however, when you want the output to stay changed as long as a
section of track is occupied, only reverting back to its original state when the track is
Consider, for example, a hidden siding in a tunnel or in a building. The train may have
passed beyond a detector but still be occupying the track. You can avoid running a train into
an occupied hidden section by relying on your memory or your jottings. Better still is to
have an indication that all operators can see, using lights on a control panel or on a
computer screen.

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On a layout, we could simply use street/yard lamps to indicate track occupancy. This same
output can be sent back to computers for use in automation software.
To achieve this, the detector must activate when a train is sitting in any part of a track
section, not just adjacent to a spot detector.
Current detectors work by sensing even a small current being drawn from a section of track,
through a loco or adapted wagon/coach sitting on that section.
Since we need to detect occupancy on different sections of track, it follows that the layout
has to incorporate track sections that are isolated from each other the biggest drawback
with current detectors.

The above diagram illustrates a controller feeding one of its outputs to a common rail,
while the other output is fed to each individual track section by passing through a TOTI
This is not the same as a block control system. In our example, all the
sections are powered all the time.
Three types of current detectors are sold by MERG
TOTI-4 and TOTI-12 diode drop based.
DTC8 transformer based.
PMP7 diode drop module for a single section.

How current detectors work

There are two methods that are widely used.

Diode Drop Detector

A diode, when a current is passed
through it, develops a voltage
across itself. This voltage
remains almost unchanged over a
range of different current levels,
from small to large.
As the illustration shows, a
varying voltage source Vs (e.g. a
loco controller) can produce
varying current draws through a load, while the voltage across the diode, Vd, remains
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almost constant at 0.7V.

If we place two diodes in parallel, then a voltage drop of +0.7V or -0.7V can be detected
across them when a load is present to complete the circuit. This positive or negative
voltage depends on whether the controller is moving the loco forward or in reverse.
In practice, the load is usually a loco that is sitting in a particular track
section. However, a load can be rolling stock fitted with resistors on their
axles, as in the image.
The loco or rolling stock does not need to be moving to be detected; it could
be be stationary in a siding and still be detected.
The current required to allow this detection is so small that it will not cause
the loco to move or overheat, but is still sufficient to generate a 0.7V voltage across the
diode combination.
The block diagram below shows the four main stages that the
MERG TOTI board (Kit 62) uses to process the output from
the diode combination.
The lines shown in purple indicate the initial detection of
current produced by a loco occupying the track section. The
voltage developed across the diodes is passed to a chip that
has four separate parts.
One part of the IC produces an output if a positive voltage across the diodes is detected,
with another part producing an output if a negative voltage is detected.
The third part of the IC provides a delay before reverting back to a previous state, once a

voltage drop is no longer detected, while the fourth part interfaces the module to the outside
The necessity to handle both positive-going and negative-going voltage means that the
module needs a dual supply of +5V and -5V (available as MERG Kits 64 and 65).
The TOT-4 and TOTI-12 modules work with both DC and DCC systems.

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Transformer Block Detector

MERG's DTC8 module (Kit 56)
also detects the flow of current
but only works with DCC
systems, unlike the TOTI-4 and
TOTI-12 modules which work
happily with either DC or DCC.
Again, the output from the controller passes through the detector module. This time, instead
of passing through diodes, the current passes through a transformer's primary winding on
the detector module. If the track is occupied, a current flows through the transformer
secondary and is detected.
Unlike the diode drop version, the module's circuitry is isolated from the track circuitry and
there is no voltage drop caused by its use.
Current detection systems require no additional
circuitry and can interface directly to mimic
panel LEDS, servos boards, CBUS modules,

Detects any occupancy on an entire section

of track.
Does not rely on movement.
Can detect rolling stock.
Unaffected by light.


Need to create track sections.

Requires modification to rolling stock.
TOTI modules needs a split supply.
TOTI modules slightly reduce the track voltage, due to the voltage drop across the diodes.

Summary of features
Hall LDRs Infrared Barcode Ultrasonic Current RFID
switches switches Effect

Affected by light

Must modify loco

Modify rolling stock

Must modify track

Computer 'essential'

Stretch detection


Detect stationary train

Good immunity

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Some of these are characteristics are definite (e.g. either train modifications
are required, or they are not).
Others are relative to each other (e.g. an RFID reader can cost over 20, while
a reed switch can cost 30p, but is 6.60 for a Hector kit cheap or expensive?).
Others are indicative (a barcode reader may only be susceptible to ambient
light under certain conditions).
The table is a quick guide only; refer to specific pages and product specifications for greater

Interfacing detectors
Many of the detectors simply produce a change of voltage when activated and may require
additional circuitry to be usefully deployed.
Some examples of interfaces
Direct connection

Controls devices by direct wiring to them (e.g. switching a solenoid point)

Delay circuits

Introducing a pause before reverting to previous state (e.g. keeping crossing

gates open while train passes)

Latched circuits

Short pulse switches an add-on's output to stay switched, until unswitched by

another pulse (usually from a different detector).


Providing control of semi/fully automated layouts via serial or USB ports.


Controlling devices by direct wiring to them (e.g. operating multiple devices,

LEDs servos, etc. - including delays, latching and conditional operations).


Providing control of semi/fully automated layouts via a CAN_SB or CANRS


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Chapter 12

RFID 202

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Radio-frequency identification is probably the most complex and most expensive of the
various detection systems. It also offers the greatest possibilities, particularly when used for
automation of layouts and other computer-controlled activities.
The system is covered in MERG Technical Bulletins A39/1 and A39/2.

RFID is not a beginner's project, requiring some electronics and

computing expertise.

How it works
Locos, coaches or wagons are fitted with 'tags'. Each tag is a little transmitter that has its
own unique code (ID).
A RFID reader module (a little radio transmitter/receiver) is placed under, or to the side of,
the track. When the tag passes close to the reader it transmits its ID.
The reader receives this ID and lights a LED to indicate successful reception.
In this way, it acts as momentary track occupancy detector.

More usefully, the module passes the ID out for processing

via a serial port, for processing by a computer
via a PIC, for local/special activities
The reader may consist of two parts. There is a module that is used to read and decode the
tag's ID and there is a separate circuit that interfaces the reader to a computer. Both these
modules, and the tags, are available from the MERG online Kit Locker.

How it can be used

When linked to the programming power of a computer, the RFID system can be used for
everything from a simple block detector system to hugely complex automated system.
Below are the most common model railway applications as provided by RFID users:
Control operations
Move points; e.g. trigger point routing for express/shunter.
Detect wagons coming detached, if last wagon is tagged.

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Detect a loco's DCC address, in order to control it (e.g. assigning the engine to a
Generate switch lists (handling instructions) for operators of fiddle yards, goods
yards, etc.
Determine an item's location by looking back to the last reader it passed.
Calculate the length of the train, if all rolling stock is tagged.
Know when train has passed (tag in last wagon/coach).
Maintain stock lists
Spot if a new loco has same DCC address as one on the track.
Compile sidings contents (hump yards).
Generate a list of cars on the train.
Scan a manifest upon coming in/out of a yard.
Generate a list of discrepancies (cars not on the train that should be; cars on the train
that shouldn't be).
Ascertain the location of missing cars between operating sessions.
Sign in and sign out locos at club layouts/exhibitions.
Trigger sound effects
Station announcements
The fiddle yard one speaks out the destination of the approaching trains.
Whistles / bells.
Trigger screen announcements
On-screen timetable updates. Readers can pass information onto the fiddle
yard/goods yard operators as to which trains are approaching them.
On-screen display of loco picture/info and train info that describes the train that has
just passed over a detector.

The tags used in the MERG kits conform to the EM4102
specification, which is the low frequency band operating at 125KHz.
Tags are available in a range of outlines, including key fobs,
wristbands, stickers and cards.
The most commonly used for our purposes are either discs (available
in 20mm and 30mm) or glass tags (available through MERG in
12mm and 34mm lengths).
These are known as 'passive' tags, which means that they do not need a power supply to
operate (very handy no need for track pickups or batteries).
As the tag passes over the reader, the little coil (look inside the
glass tag) passes power from the electromagnetic field generated
by the reader to the circuit inside the tag. When charged up, the
tag transmits its ID.
Every tag that is manufactured has a different ID number. Don't worry, we won't run out of
numbers any time soon, as there are 100 billion possible tag numbers!

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Tag positioning
Since we are working with low power levels, the tag needs to be as close to the reader as
The larger tags can harvest more power and therefore work over a greater range which is
OK when you are working with 00 upwards. However, it takes a bit of ingenuity to fit a
30mm or 34mm tag in N gauge or smaller.
In most cases, the reader is mounted under the track (see later).
For smaller gauges, it is common to fit the tags as low as possible under the loco/ wagon/
coach This ensures that it is as close to the reader as possible. It also minimises any losses
caused by the presence of metal (e.g. weights placed in wagons).
A glass tag is normally positioned from end to end along the length of the loco or wagon.
Alternative positions include:
Mounting the tag vertically, where undercarriage space is restricted.
Mounting the tag across the buffers, with the reader standing vertical to the track.
Mounting the tag on/under the roof of the coach, with the reader on an overhead
The larger tags and discs, due to their increased range, are often placed inside a coach or
wagon's body (particularly if there is no metal floor on its chassis).
Lastly, it should be noted that if two tags are located too close to each other, neither will be
read by the reader.

A number of 125KHz RFID readers are available commercially. The two that are used and
sold by MERG are made by ID-Innovations and are the:
Smaller (26 x 25 mm x 7 mm - approx 1" square by
1/4" thick)
Smaller working read range (12cm+)
Uses 30mA at 5V (4.6V min, 5.4V max)
Larger (40 x 40 mm x 9 mm - approx 1.6" square by
1/3" thick).
Greater working read range (16cm+)
Uses 50mA at 5V (4.6V min, 5.4V max)
The advertised working ranges are over-optimistic due to
the usual obstructions and reflections in railway layouts.
Both modules are cased in black plastic, with the connecting pins under the body.
The picture shows an ID-12 mounted on the MERG reader PCB (Kit 31).
Both these models have an internal aerial, with pins for connecting an external aerial.
Another model, the ID-2 has no internal aerial and is not used in MERG projects as external
aerials tend to be bulky and therefore prone to picking up tags from adjacent tracks.
The ID-12 and ID-20 readers are both 11-pin devices and the circuit diagram shows the
minimum connections used in the MERG reader PCB (viewed from underneath the reader).
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When a tag is passed near the reader, the

LED will light and the decoded ID will be
sent out on pin 9. Pin 9 can also be used to
sound a beeper, although the beeper should
be driven by an added transistor.
To use the reader with a higher supply
voltage, a 5V voltage regulator would have to
be included in the circuit.
Note that no dropper resistor is required in
series with the LED.
Pins 3 and 4 are used if an external aerial is
to be connected.
Pin 8 is the same decoded output as on pin 9,
only inverted.

Connection to your computer

The output from the above circuit can be fed directly into a PIC, with no other circuitry inbetween.
Of course, you then have to know how to write PIC programs to read the data being fed in.
More common is that the output is fed into a computer, using its serial port or USB port.
MERG Kit 30 includes a module that converts TTL level output from pin 9 to the RS232
signal expected by a computer's serial port.
The picture shows a typical setup for a single reader.

The reader (Kit 31) feeds its ID data into the MERG serial output module. The output from
the serial output module is connected to a serial cable. If your computer does not have a
serial port, a serial to USB converter cable can be used, as shown in the picture. How the
computer uses the processed ID is looked at later.

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Reader positioning
As with tags, the positioning of readers has a marked effect on performance. There is a
trade-off between sensitivity and selectivity. On the one hand, we want the best sensitivity
possible. On the other hand, we don't want to pick up signals from tags on adjacent tracks.
For example, using 34mm tags increases the effective range but also increases the
possibility of triggering neighbouring readers that are insufficiently spaced apart.
Ideally, the reader should be mounted under the baseboard, out of sight.
Depending on the thickness/density of the baseboard material, this may not be possible.
Other alternatives include mounting it immediately under the track (removing some of the
baseboard material), at the side of the track, or above the
track in certain circumstances.
The picture shows an extreme case where the sleepers have
been removed so that the reader can be as close to the
rolling stock as possible.
User experience suggests that each reader should be
allocated at least a 6 square area to itself preferably
Other approaches include:
Mounting readers slightly offset from the centre,
with two adjacent tracks, to maximise the separation
of the readers.
Placing shielding materiel round the reader, to minimise unwanted pickup.
If you are using DDC on your layout, it would be advisable to minimise potential
interference between DCC wiring and reader cabling. This could be aided by careful
routing of the cables.
Also, as the reader connections are 3-wire (+5V, 0V and data), it is possible to use a
screened single pair cable for the connections. 7/0.2mm screened wire can be used here.

Reading speed
Clearly, there is a trade off between the speed of the tag, the distance between the tag and
the reader, the efficiency of the tag (usually its size) and the sensitivity of the reader used
(e.g. ID-12 or ID-20).
The reader takes about 400mS to process a single read, so the reader has to be allowed that
amount of time before having another tag passed over it. This determines the maximum
reading speed for any given setup.
If the tag is whisked past the reader too quickly, it may not be read properly.
There is no such thing as reading tags 'too slowly'.
Leaving a tag stationary over a reader, or moving it slowly across a reader, does not
result in continuous readings. A tag has to leave the reading zone and re-enter again
before it will be read again.
If tags in rolling stock are not spaced sufficiently apart, both tags may be in the
reading zone at the same time, preventing any being read successfully.
Six inches to 8 inches has been suggested as a suitable distance between tags in
different items of rolling stock. However, this might vary depending on the size of
the tags and the efficiency of the reader. The 12mm tags used with the ID-12, for
example, present a smaller reading zone than 34mm tags with an ID-20 reader.

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So far, we have looked at connecting a single reader. In practice, a layout will require
multiple readers and we can't allocate a separate serial port for every reader.
The answer is to use a 'concentrator'. This module accepts the input from eight different
readers and produces a single serial output.
The data from individual readers are still able to be uniquely identified and processed (see
Kit 33a is MERG's complete concentrator kit or Kit 33b can be purchased to upgrade an
existing serial output board into a concentrator module.
The MERG concentrator has a serial output and connects to a computer via its serial port, or
USB port is a serial-to-USB converter adaptor is used.
When you need more than eight readers, you can wire extra concentrators to other
serial/USB ports on your computer. The MERG concentrator kit includes 'bank jumpers'
that allow multiple concentrators to be used with each being individually recognised by the
Clearly, for large layouts, there will be many readers and concentrators, resulting in extra
cables between the layout and the computer and added complications in the computer
software that handles them. Also, of course, you will eventually run out of computer ports.
Another approach, if you are a CBUS user, is to feed the outputs from the concentrators into
the single CBUS cable.
A possible such interface option is the CANRP164,
which allows reader output to be fed into the
CBUS system.
There is no kit or PCB in the Kit Locker for this
module but Bob Vetterlein placed the
documentation for this module in the 'Files' section
in Yahoo.
See the can_rpc folder in the 'Files' area of the
MERGCBUS Yahoo group.
Finally, in cooperation with the Rocrail team,
Peter Giling has developed a range of hardware
kits and PCBs that match the MERG CBUS
specification. It includes an 8-channel interface
between RFID reader modules and CBUS.
It is known as the CAN-GC4 mergCBUS 8
Channel RFID and more details are available at:
The cables that connect the readers to the concentrators can be of a considerable length,
providing a little care is taken with routing the cables away from power and DCC cables.
A quoted maximum "guarantee" limit of 15m has been stretched in practice to two or three
times that distance which is more than enough for even the largest of layouts.

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Reader output
The final output from a reader is a stream of RS232 serial data in ASCII format and this can
be read by any terminal program. The terminal program has to be set to read at 9600
Baud, 8 data bits, no parity and 1 stop bit to match the format of the reader's output.
Older versions of Windows provided an application called 'HyperTerminal'.
This handy utility was dropped in more recent versions such as Vista or Windows 7,
although you can install HyperTerminal on these newer versions if you have a valid CD of
Windows XP. There are full details available on the internet if you Google it.
Instead, I use a free application called PuTTY.exe. You can download it at

The output format

Each time a tag is read, the reader module sends out 16 ASCII characters out on the RS232
connection. In fact, the actual ID is made up of only 40 bits (ONs and OFFs) but is
packaged in a way that allows easy transmission and reception. Apart from the first and
last byte, the contents of all the other bytes have an effect on the screen content.

Reader ID





1 byte

5 bytes (40 bits)

2 bytes (16 bits)

1 byte

1 byte

1 byte

'smiley face'

10 characters

2 characters

Carriage return

Line feed


Start of text

The ID shown as ASCII


Check shown as
ASCII text

Go back to start
of line (0Dh)

Go to new
line (0Ah)

End of Text

The STX byte informs the terminal program that a string of data is ready to be processed.
The 5 bytes of the reader ID are converted into 10 readable ASCII text characters.
All the ASCII characters are in the range 0 to 9 or A to F. Why? Because these are
the values for hex notation. It makes for simple conversion from bit patterns to hex
characters. The 40 bits of the ID are split into ten groups of four bits ( four OFFs
and/or ONs). So, for example, if a group was 0011, then that represents the value 3
and the ASCII character '3' is transmitted. If the a group was 1011, that represents B in
hex and the ASCII character 'B' is transmitted.
The illustration shows the construction of a typical ID.

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The STX is displayed as a 'smiley' face, while the ETX is displayed as a heart shape.
In practice, using HyperTerminal, the effect of the CR and LF result in the ETX character
appearing at the start of the next line, as shown in the next illustration.

The checksum is generated by adding together all the values of the reader ID and sending
this value as the checksum bytes. The terminal program also creates a checksum from the
receiver ID. If both checksums are identical (it is called the XOR checksum method) then
the terminal program knows that the ID has been received correctly, with no alteration due
to interference, etc.
The CR and LF bytes are used to ensure that the next ID read appears on the following line
on the monitor screen.
Finally, an ETX byte is sent to let the terminal program know that this is the end of that
This illustration shows the output as seen on the PuTTY
screen. Note that it ignores the STX, CR, LF and ETX
characters and only displays the 10 ID characters and the 2
checksum characters.

Concentrator output
The above illustrations and screenshots show the output from a single reader.
Where multiple readers are in use, the output has to indicate not only the tag ID but the
reader that is sending the ID.
This is achieved by amendments to the ID string.
A concentrator can handle 8 readers and it recognise input 1 as
'A', input 2 as 'B', up to input 8 as 'H'
The STX character is then replaced by the appropriate letter.
So, for example, if tag FE4000FF7637 was read from input 4,
the beginning of the string is changed from STX
FE4000FF7637 to DFE4000FF7637.
The ETX character at the end of the string is replaced by the > character.
Now every character has an impact on the screen display; all the characters are printable,
with the exception of the carriage return and line feed.

Many existing layout control applications already support RFID input. These include
RocRail, JMRI, Tcc and SSI. Users can use existing scripts, or create their own scripts, to
handle a variety of tasks, including visual display updates, point switching, etc..
MERG members have also produced applications that are available for download from the
MERG website. Phil Herbert describes his Train Announcer program in the Winter 2010

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Mark Riddoch has written two programs.

One uses tag inputs to display different pages from a PowerPoint slide show (great for
impressing visitors at exhibitions). The other is an Excel application based around the
concept of providing a timetable sequence to a fiddle yard operator. The RFID readers are
used to feed information to the operator as to the train movements.
Although the most expensive and complex of systems, RFID offers the greatest scope for
layout control; scan previous Journals and the MERG website for plenty of discussion and

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Chapter 13
Digital Command Control

Digital Command Control 212

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DCC - Digital Command Control

Chapter 2 on Loco Controllers covered the basics of DCC.
Let's start with a quick recap before we look deeper.

How does DCC work

Unlike DC, which varies the voltage to the track to control motor speed, DCC has the track
powered at full voltage all of the time. Altering the voltage to the electric motors takes
place within each individual loco. This is achieved by fitting a little circuit board, called a
'DCC decoder', between the motor connections and the loco's wheel pickups.
A DC controller only sends out the power to the track. A DCC controller, called a
'Command Station', also sends out the power. Additionally, it sends out commands to the
various decoders that are connected to the track Usually the decoders are fitted to the locos
but others can be fitted at the trackside, to control points, lights, signals, etc.

The illustration shows three locos on the same section of track, being operated from a single
command station. They could be actually anywhere on the layout, since all the track is
regarded as a single piece.
Each loco is fitted with its own decoder, each with a unique identifying address (1, 2 and 3
in the example). Decoders only respond to messages that are sent to its unique address,
ignoring all other messages. When a message is received that matches its address, the
instruction from the command station is acted upon. The message could be to go faster, go
slower, stop, reverse, etc.
In the example, the operator wants loco 3 to drive forward at half speed, so he/she selects
loco 3 on the command station and turns the speed control to half way forward. The
command station converts those movements of the speed control into an electronic message
that is sent out along the track. Although the message is received by all the loco decoders,
only the decoder with address 3 acts on the message.
A similar process takes place when the operator wants to move a point or accessory. The
accessory decoder for that device also has its own unique address.
In the example, the command station has a set of function buttons and pressing function 2
operates a semaphore signal.
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With accessory decoders, the message is not picked up from the loco's wheels and pickups.
The decoder is permanently wired across the track near where it is to be used. Although the
decoder will be receiving messages via the track, it may require additional power for
running the accessories it is attached to.
Its also worth repeating some of the benefits of using DCC

Simplified wiring: no complex block/section control with switches and/or relays;

fewer wires, fewer faults.
Simplified working: multiple locos on same track section; consists.
Improved running: PWM; fewer problems with voltage drop.
Motor tuning: set the min/max voltage, acceleration/deceleration rate .
More than loco motors: point, signals, lights, sound.
Computer control easier: control locos; don't have to worry about block switching.
Comparison of DC and DCC systems
With DC

With DCC

Track voltage

Varies from 0V to max (12V?).

Always at max voltage.

Power availability

Only on sections that are


All track powered at all times.

Multiple trains on
same track at the
same time


No, unless you want a track
occupancy system, or a very large

Need to split track

into blocks

Yes, for anything but the

simplest layout.

Multiple operators

Entire layout controlled by a single

Each operator needs own power command station. Each operator has
their own CAB controller that links to
the command station.

Run consists

Only with some difficulty.


PWM running

Depends on controller used.


Changes to loco


Need to fit encoder in each loco.

Voltage drops

Can be a problem.

Less of a problem.

Handles bemf

Depends on the controller used. Depends on the decoder used.

Motor tuning



Points and

Need separate wiring.

Can use DCC accessory decoders.

Computer control

Generally complicated.


Locos run straight

from the box


Needs to be given a unique number.

For a working DCC system, as we have seen, we need a command station to send out the
commands and a decoder that will act on these commands.
So, let's start by looking at decoders in some more detail.
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DCC decoders
Locos draw different amounts of current depending on their size.
An N gauge motor may only consume a quarter of an Amp, while
large scale motors may consume a number of Amps.
Accordingly, DCC decoders are produced with different current
handling capabilities, at different prices.
For example, the Lenz Silver Mini decoder only handles 0.5A,
while the Lenz Gold Maxi decoder handles 3A.
Remember to choose a decoder that can handle the loco's stall
current, not just its running current.
As expected, the decoders that handle larger currents are
also bigger in size. The Lenz Silver Mini is only 1mm x
9mm. The Lenz Gold Maxi, shown in the bottom image,
is 70mm x 28mm.
A basic loco decoder is able to control the speed and
direction of the motor. Most also have function outputs connections to switch lights on
headlights or lights in the cabin.

Wiring decoders to locos

You can buy locos with decoders already installed in them. There is nothing inside the loco
that you need to touch, although you might want to tweak the decoder to maximise
performance (this is carried out externally - see later).
DC locos can be converted to DCC working by installing a decoder.
If you are wary about tackling the conversion, or have a difficult installation (e.g. a loco
with a non-isolated frame), you can use a fitting service to do the job for you. Of course,
this adds more expense to the conversion.
These illustrations show what is involved in upgrading a DC loco to DCC.

The left hand drawing shows a DC loco with the power from the track being wired directly
to the motor. The right hand drawing shows the track power only reaching the motor
through the electronics on board the decoder. This is the electronics that controls the motor
speed and direction.

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There are three types of decoder connection, and you can see two of the images at the top of
the previous page.
Wired You have to solder the wires yourself.
Plug The end of the decoder has connection pins that plug into a
Harness Like the plug version, only with a wire extension (as in
this image).

Installing Wired Decoders

If you can solder, you can fit your own decoders. There are only a few things to watch out for:

Finding space inside a loco body can be a problem, especially for smaller gauges.
While there is often sufficient room inside a large diesel, an N gauge 0-4-0 poses a bigger
challenge. Fortunately, smaller gauge locos use motors that draw less current and can use
the smaller decoders. In extreme cases, the decoder can be fitted inside the loco's coal
tender or a following coach/wagon.
Some, specially older, locos had a split chassis. The left and right hand sides of the
chassis were isolated from each other, but were used to carry current from the wheels to
the motor.
Ensuring isolation from chassis. This direct connection between wheel/chassis/motor tag
has to be interrupted to allow the decoder to be wired in. A quick test with a multimeter
will determine whether your loco uses a split chassis and requires alterations to isolate the
motor from the chassis.
Following colour codes
The wires that emerge from a decoder follow an agreed code, as laid out in the NMRA
Recommended Practice RP9.1.1.
This means that whichever decoder you buy, you should be confident that the main
connections are identical with other decoders.
The four main wires, available on all decoders, are:

Goes to the loco's power pickup from the right hand track rail, when in
forward travel.


Goes to the loco's power pickup from the left hand track rail, when in
forward travel.


Goes to the motor's positive brush.


Goes to the motor's negative brush.

The image shows a decoder wired to a Kato chassis.

In some loco's, the motor is fitted in a chassis in such
a way that the orange and grey leads need to be
reversed, otherwise the loco would run backwards.
Alternatively, the decoder's CV can be altered, as
discussed later.
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Take great care to avoid the red and black wires shorting to the orange
or grey wires, as this will almost certainly blow the decoder's main chip.

The other decoder wires may include:


Goes to the forward headlight.


Goes to the rear headlight.


This is always positive and is the common return for the lights and any
other functions. Not provided on a 6-pin socket; available on 8-pin


Provides an extra function output (if the decoder supports it). Not
provided on a 6-pin socket; available on 8-pin sockets.

Here is the wiring diagram for a decoder that provides basic motor and headlight functions.

Plug-and-play decoders
The decoders that have pins or harnesses are used in 'DCC Ready'
A DCC ready loco is one that has the wires from the track pickups,
the motor and the lights all connected to a socket. The illustrations
show the two most popular socket types the 6-pin and the 8-pin.
The 6-pin socket is designed for N gauge motors and is rated at
500mA continuous (750mA peak).
The 8-pin socket is rated at 1.5A continuous (3A peak).
Not all decoders match this specification, so check before buying.

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In DC mode, a 'dummy plug' sits in the socket, as shown in the following diagram.

This allows the loco to function as a normal DC loco. If you trace the wires, you will see
that the motor and lights are simply wired in parallel across the track pickups.
For conversion to DCC running, the dummy plug is removed and the decoder's pins or
harness is plugged directly into the socket.
The loco is now a DCC loco, with no soldering involved.
You will have noticed that the 6-pin socket has no blue or green connections.
Since the blue wire is used as a common return for the headlights, this method is not
available. Instead, the lights are taken to the track pickups. That's OK for DC, but for DCC
they only work on half wave. This reduces the light's brightness which some overcome by
reducing the value of the LED's series resistor.
This illustration shows how a 6-pin decoder interfaces with the loco wiring .

The DCC power from the track pickups are connected to a bridge rectifier in the decoder,
which provides a DC voltage for the decoder's circuitry. The decoder shown has circuitry
for controlling the loco speed and direction, along with additional circuitry to switch
An 8-pin version would use its blue connection to carry a positive voltage across from the
decoder into the socket, where it would act as a common return for the two headlights.
DCC sockets and dummy plugs are available as separate items for purchase. You can buy
a socket and wire it yourself, to create a DCC Ready loco. That way, you can use the loco
on a DCC layout or a DC layout by simply swapping the decoder and the dummy plug.
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You can never guarantee that a loco will always get the power it needs from the track,
without any losses whatsoever. Problems caused by dirty track, dirty wheels, dirty
pickups, insulfrogs, short wheelbases, etc. can lead to power glitches. In extreme cases, the
loco just comes to a halt. Temporary power dropouts can lead to the loco lurching or a
sound decoder's sound dropping out or starting to repeat from the beginning.
Gradually, more decoders provide for the additional of an on-board power store. This stores
power during normal running and powers the decoder and loco during short track power
glitches. A common demonstration shows a loco running over a length of track that is
covered with an insulating material. Check out:
to see an N gauge loco fitted with a TCS stay-alive running over an 18section of
unpowered track.
A heavy OO gauge 16-wheeled diesel, with its large wheels and multiple power pickups can
span across dirty track sections or a point frog. On the other hand, an light N gauge 0-4-0
with its much shorter wheelbase, smaller wheels and fewer pickups would benefit the most
from fitting stay-alives.
Commercial versions

In some cases, the stay-alives are sold as optional

extras, while others are sold as a matched pair.
The image shows a Lenz Gold Mini fitted with its
optional stay alive, known as a 'Power 1'. An
effective, although expensive, combination.
Alternatives are the TCS KAT24 mentioned above
and the DCC concepts DCC-S4SAP 4 Function 8-Pin S Series Decoder With Stay Alive"
available from Bear in mind that commercial stay-alives have different
storage abilities, with some providing much shorter support; check before you buy.
Zimo decoders allow you to buy and add your own capacitors, rather than having users tied
to branded storage products.

If you have the experience, the skills and the confidence, you can make and fit your own
stay-alives and save money. The website at:

provides details on how to tackle a range of different manufacturers' decoders.

A Google search for dcc decoder hacking also provides details on this.
Remember, this will almost certainly invalidate your decoder warranty.
There is a bit of a predicament here; the smaller
locos are the ones to most benefit from stayalives, yet they are the ones with the least space
to house them.
While it is usually possible to install a decoder
inside a small loco's body, the stay-alives are
much larger.
The image shows a decoder and stay-alive
installed inside a coach, with wire links between the coach and the loco.
This works but means that the coach must always be attached to the loco.

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Accessory decoders
Accessory decoders also connect across the track and get their instructions from the
command station (e.g. put a light on, switch a point, move a semaphore arm). Some
accessory decoder outputs can handle lights or Tortoise motors directly, using the power
derived from the DCC on the track. For more power-hungry devices (e.g. solenoid motors),
the decoder would need a separate power supply.
This image shows the MERG Steady State
Accessory Decoder kit that has 8 outputs. These
outputs can control low power devices such as
LEDs and Tortoise-type point motors (when used
in pairs).
Examples of commercial versions are the DC10
and DC20 from CML Electronics, the Lenz LS100, the Zimo MX82E, the Digitrax DS64,
the ESU SwitchPilot 4.
Other accessory decoders are designed to control servos. For
example, the ESU SwitchPilot Servo module and the Team
Digital SMC4 module both control up to 4 servos.
The LDT TT-DEC-B kit is specifically designed for controlling
a turntable.
CML sell the MSC Scenery Animator, shown in this image. It
can control a mix of devices including motors, servos and
lights. It also supports creating sequences and 'flicker' effects.
All the accessory decoders have one thing in common- they all are controlled by the
messages issued from the DCC command station.

Wiring for DCC

Chapter 3 explained that DC layouts split the track into multiple sections/blocks using lots
of cuts in the track. Each section has to be individually powered using switches (or
sometimes relays).
The chapter also explained that for a one-operator
DCC layout running a few trains, there was no
need for track sections. The layout could be
reasonably large and complex and still be run with
a simple wiring scheme. That scheme involved
running power round the entire layout, to every bit
of track, allowing locos to go anywhere on layout
without any section switching.
This illustration shows how a simple DCC layout
operates. The whole layout is controlled by a
single command station. Its output is permanently
wired to every piece of track on the layout.
The locos get their power and operating
instructions from the track.
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Commercial command stations

Command stations are also called DCC controllers, DCC control units and DCC throttles by
various manufacturers.
They are available from many manufacturers including Digitrax, ESU, Hornby, Lenz, NCE,
Viessmann and Zimo. These offer a range of facilities and cover a wide price range
At the lower end of the price range is the Hornby Digital
Select, shown in this image. It is an entry level command
station and comes with a separate power supply that
provides 1A to the track. Locos are selected using the
keypad and speed is controlled using the central knob. The
direction of the loco is selected by pressing one of the
arrow keys on the keypad. It provides basic functions such
as setting a locos' unique address, its acceleration and
deceleration. It can control up to 10 locos simultaneously, although the 1A maximum
clearly limits the number (without extra power being added).
A similar product is the Digitrax Zephyr Starter Set, with a maximum output of 3A.
At the other end of the price range is the ESU ECOS
50200. It can control up to 16384 locos
simultaneously, as well as 2048 points. It has a 7
colour touch screen display and the operator can use
it like a mimic panel.. The user's layout is displayed
on the 800x 480 pixel screen and points can be
changed by touching them with a stylus.
Without any additions, it only provides 4A, which is
not a lot at the price being asked.
The Viessmann Commander uses a similar approach with the user's layout displayed on a 7
800x480 pixel colour touch screen, and 1.5A continuous current without a booster. The The
ESU supports operating shuttles, while the Commander supports full automation if required.
Both of the above expect the user to operate from wherever the command station is sited.
For those who prefer the flexibility of moving
around a layout while operating, manufacturers
provide handheld controllers. These may plug into
an existing command station or be matched with a
less glamorous box containing the power unit.
The image shows an example of this the Lenz Start
Set 100, which has an output of 5A.
Other similar products include the modestly-named
Digitrax Super Empire Builder and the Super Chief, both working at 5A. The NCE Power
Pro 10A Large Scale Set, as the name suggests, is intended for O Gauge and above.
For even more flexibility, some command stations get round the restrictions of having a
handheld tied to the layout by a cable by providing wireless communication between the
handset and the power unit. The operator is free to move anywhere round the layout
without having to find a socket to plug in the hand controller. Example are the Digitrax
SCFXD8 8A system which uses infra-red communication (perhaps not the best choice for a
link) and the soon to be released Zimo MX 12A system based on a radio link.

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MERG command station

MERG has two kits that provide a cheaper alternative to the commercial offerings.
The image on the right shows the CANCMD kit. This
command station module provides up to 1A but can be
connected to a booster for extra power. It connects to MERG's
CBUS system (see the next chapter), which allows it to be
controlled either by a suitable handheld controller or by a
computer. It provides the power and the instruction messages
to the track.
This image shows the CANCAB kit,
a handheld controller that connects to the CANCMD.
It can control up to 32 locos simultaneously, along with points
and accessories.
Locos are selected using the keypad and speed is controlled using
the thumb-operated knob on the top-left of the case. The
direction of the loco is selected by pressing a button and LEDs
indicate the current loco direction.
Pressing the STOP button once, stops the loco that is currently
being controlled. Pressing the button a second time stops all
locos on the layout.

Multiple operators
There may be circumstances when you want more than one person to be operating a layout.
Examples are club layouts, large home layouts, or the grandkids coming round.
Fortunately, many command stations allow you to connect more than one hand controller.
The illustration shows three operators sharing a command station. One is using the
command station controls, while the others use a wired throttle and a wireless throttle.

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Although there are multiple operators, there is still only a single DCC command station
which controls the entire layout. The operators press their buttons, etc. and these actions
are sent as messages to the command station. The command station translates these
messages into the instructions that are sent to the track.
The connection between the handheld controls and the command station is known as the
'CAB Bus' or 'Throttle Bus'. The way the bus is wired is often specific to a particular
commercial DCC system, as there is no NMRA standard for CAB buses. Most
manufacturer's modules are not interchangeable (e.g. CabBus/NCE, LocoNet/DigitTrax).
Some use Expressnet (e.g. Lenz, Atlas, ZTC, Hornby, Roco although they call theirs
To allow the maximum flexibility of operation, it is common to wire the CAB Bus round the
edges of a layout, with sockets at strategic points. The operator can then plug a handheld
controller into the nearest socket, while moving round the layout.
CAB cables commonly terminate in an RJ12/RJ25 plug or a RJ45
plug. The RJ25 plug, shown on the left looks like a plug you find on
the end of a telephone, but it is different. The wires are straightthrough (no inversions) and it has six contacts. These are found on
Lenz, Hornby, NCE, XpressNet/Loconet Atlas, Roco, etc. handhelds.
The RJ45 plug is the type used for Cat 5 Ethernet cabling. It uses
duplicate connections for increased reliability. Used by MRC, Gaugemaster, etc, handsets.
Although not shown in the illustration, the CAB bus can also be used as a means of
controlling a layout using a computer or a control panel.

Handling high currents

As your layout grows, you may find that the 1A or 3A command station you own is not
sufficient to meet the current demands of your expanding fleet of locos and accessories.
If you are working in larger gauges, or running multiple locos, you can expand the
capabilities of your existing command station by adding a 'power booster', sometimes also
known as a 'power station'. Many command stations provide for this improvement.

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The illustration shows that the booster provides the track power and requires a beefed-up
power supply to provide the higher amperage. The booster also receives the messages from
the command station and send them out on the track.
In all other respects, the setup runs as before.
Locos still move freely throughout the layout without any block or block switches.
A power booster unit is usually housed in a plain case, as can be seen in the earlier image of
the Lenz Starter 111 Set. Digitrax sell 5A and 8A boosters,
while NCE have a 10A version.
The image shows the MERG NB1B Booster, which can provide
an output of 5A or 10A depending upon the components that are
used. It connects to the MERG CANCMD command station.

Large scale DCC

When we look at really big layouts, the ones with many large
power-hungry locos running at the same time, they need even more power than a 10A
booster can handle.
The answer is to use extra boosters. Unfortunately, its not that easy, as multiple boosters
can't be wired in parallel with each other.
The answer still lies in using multiple boosters but with each booster providing power to a
part of the layout.
For the first time, we have to break the layout up into independently powered blocks, known
as 'power districts'.

This is different from DC block working in a number of important respects;

All pieces of track are still powered at all times.
There is still a single command station that controls the entire layout. The
instructions from the command station are fed to all boosters and from them to all
power districts.
Locos can still move freely between districts, without the need for switches or relays.
It makes sense to separate a layout into distinct work areas (e.g. goods depot, marshalling
yard, mainline station, etc.) with an operator in charge of the loco operations within each
work area. Since each work area can expect heavy traffic, it is allocated its own power
booster. That way, power districts match the main activities of the layout and the command
station and its wiring does not have to carry the total current of the entire layout. Power
districts result in more complex wiring. On the other hand, having separate identifiable
sections can help help in tracing layout faults.

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Here is a possible configuration for a large layout.

In this example, the layout's DCC accessories require too much power to connect them to the track.
In such a case, a separate cable can be taken from a booster and fed directly to the accessory
modules. This is known as an 'Accessory Bus'.
Bear in mind that power districts are not required for most layouts although there is still a case for
creating independent track sections for feedback purposes (see the chapter on track occupancy

Handling shorts
Despite our best efforts, short circuits are a common occurrence on model railways, mostly
caused by loco derailments. Short circuit protection is an absolute must to protect the
layout and to avoid the serious risk of fire.
You may have wondered why we bothered to have multiple power boosters instead of one
giant power booster. We could, of course, build a 50A booster, instead of using five 10A
power districts. Now, consider what would happen if there was a short with a booster
running at 20V. Power, you will know by now, is voltage times current. So the power that
would be dissipated in event of a short would be:
P = 50 x 20 = 1kW

In other words, a short would produce the same heating effect as a single-bar electric fire!
No wonder, then, that command stations and boosters provide:
Short circuit protection closing down the power when an excessive
current is detected.
Thermal protection closing down the power when the components
inside the command station or booster are detected as overheating.
Most cutouts spring into effect after about 50mS. They then test every 0.5
secs to see whether the short is removed and power can be restored.
The image shows the NCE EB1 circuit breaker.
Chapter 5 looked in detail at DC and DCC overload protection.

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Setting up decoders
A decoder is supplied with some default settings. For example, the unique address is
always set to 3. If you want to run other DCC locos on your layout then the decoders have
to be given new addresses. This is called 'programming the decoder'.
Apart from addresses, decoders can store all kinds of details regarding the loco's
performance minimum and maximum motor voltage, acceleration, deceleration, lights,
and much more. All these performance factors are stored inside the decoder and can be
altered by the user. These values are known as CVs (Configuration Variables). This
illustration shows some of the internal workings of a decoder.

The loco's motor, lights, functions, etc. are all controlled by a microprocessor on the
decoder. The chip contains a number of separate memory locations, each one able to store
details of the way that particular loco is configured.
They are called 'variables' because they are alterable and may well be different for different
locos (each decoder would certainly have to store a different address). By altering the
values stored in the CVs, you can tweak each loco for maximum performance.

Programming hardware
Most command stations can program the contents of
a decoder, although it can often be a laborious
process requiring multiple button presses and some
knowledge of all the CV numbers and their options.
Command stations may have two outputs, with a
separate output for Service Mode programming (see
A popular alternative is to use the SPROG DCC
decoder programmer, as shown in this image.
You connect a power supply and the track to the
terminal block and use a USB cable to connect the
unit to a computer.
For more details on the SPROG, check out:
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Wiring for programming

There are three ways that you can connect your programmer and decoder.

Ops Mode
This is often referred to POM (Programming on the Main).
The output of the command station or programmer is fed to the main layout track.
This means that a loco can be anywhere on the layout and still be programmed.
Even better, the alterations can be carried out while the loco is moving. So, you can check
the effects of altering loco parameters (e.g. max speed, matching locos for consists,
adjusting sound levels, etc.).
This mode works by specifically sending the new data to a specified loco address.
An example Ops Mode instruction could be considered as
Loco 7, change your acceleration momentum to 109
All the decoders in other locos should ignore the instruction and carry on as before.

The programming hardware, the decoder and the software must all
support Ops Mode for this to work. Older command stations (Lenz
Compact, Atlas Commander, Digitrax UT4 Throttle) and older decoders
may not support POM. Check before using POM. Unless you are
absolutely sure, consider Service Mode programming.
A couple of other limitations:

You cannot read and examine the existing stored CV values while in Ops Mode; you
need to be in Service Mode.
Some systems don't allow you change the unique address while in Ops Mode.

Service Mode
The output of the command station or programmer is fed to a length of 'programming track'
that is electrically isolated from the rest of the layout. This could be an unused siding, a
length of track in the fiddle yard, or even a piece of track sitting on your workbench. The
programming track must not connect to the layout track in any way.
An example Service Mode instruction could be considered as
Change your acceleration momentum to 109.
This is called 'broadcast programming', as the instruction is not specific to any one decoder
address. Since no loco address is specified, all locos on a programming track would have
their decoder CVs programmed at the same time.
Your command station may have separate outputs for the main layout and for a
programming track.
Although this mode loses the benefit of altering CVs while the loco is in motion, it provides
other benefits:
You are guaranteed not to program other decoders by mistake.
You can change the decoder's address.
You can read existing CVs values stored in the decoder. You can only read one
decoder at a time, so disconnect the sound decoder to read the loco decoder
and vice versa.
You can reset a decoder back to its factory defaults (see manuals) if you get
totally muddled or get unexpected results.
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Test Rig
Some users prefer to use a 'test rig' for their decoders. This is a board with all the
connections to a spare motor, lights, DCC power etc. The decoder is either plugged in or
wired to these connections. It has similar benefits to working on a programming track.
However, the decoder can be programmed and tested before fitting it into a loco. That way,
you know everything works prior to the fitting.
The image shows a commercial tester, the NCE DTK
Decoder Tester, available from Bromsgrove Models,
Digitrains, etc. It has connections for both wired and
plugin decoders, plus connection to the DCC power (via
the track) and a connection for an external test motor.
Once wired up, it can test for motor control including
direction, plus four functions. The ESU 51900 is
similar but has a motor mounted on the board.
If preferred, a homebuilt version is easily made up from a piece of stripboard, some LEDs
with resistors, and various connectors.

Programming software
You can download a very useful software application called 'DecoderPro' which makes the
process of setting up a decoder much more user friendly. DecoderPro works with
Windows, Linux, Macintosh (OS 8.6 through 9.2 and MacOS X), and OS/2
For a detailed tour and guide to DecoderPro, check out:

or look at tutorial videos at:

The examples that follow are from DecoderPro.

Decoder standards
Before looking at programming a decoder, we should be aware of the standards expected
from a decoder. The NMRA (National Model Railroad Association) presents itself as the
lead body on helping to set standards with the model railway industry.
In fact, the NMRA produce both 'Standards' and 'Recommended Practices' in relation to
many electrical and electronic issues including DCC decoders.
Standards are mandatory, if a manufacturer want to claim NMRA compliance for their
products. For example Standard S-9.1 describes the electrical standards for DCC (e.g.
pulse amplitude, length, etc.) while S-9.2 describes how instruction packets are coded.
For a mine of information, check out:

Recommended Practices cover decoder abilities but, as the title implies, not all its proposals
are mandatory.
NMRA do have a 'Baseline' standard for compliance, covering issues such as basic speed
and direction, the need to offer up to 127 unique addresses, etc. All manufacturers have to
meet this baseline to be able to describe their products as meeting NMRA conformance.
The 'Extended Packet Format' (RP-9.2.1) covers additional features such as offering more
than 127 addresses, functions, accessories, consists, etc. Since these are not mandatory, the
list of facilities offered in a decoder varies between manufacturers and individual models.
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Decoder CVs
Here is a sobering thought - decoders CVs are so useful that there are hundreds of them!
The NMRA standard CV definitions go up to 512, including some for future expansion.
The Lenz Gold Mini, for example, stores 128 CV values.
Inside the decoder, the CV values are stored as a long table containing CV numbers and the
values they are currently storing.
The hard way
This image shows only part of the long list of CVs, being viewed on a DecoderPro screen.

This screen can be used to alter the contents of any of the CVs as long as:
you know what each CV number is used for
you know the effect of any value you change.
Over a period of time, with regular usage, you might start to recognise the main CVs and
their likely settings. Fortunately, there is an easier way.
The easy way
This chapter does not include a tutorial on using DecoderPro, as there is a lot of material
already available on that subject, including the links provided earlier.
However, a number of screenshots from that package are shown to demonstrate some of
main CVs that hobbyists alter or tweak.
So, if there are hundreds of possible CVs, how do you know which ones are usable with
your particular decoder?
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There are two ways to go:

Look up the tables provided in the manual that come with the decoder. This will list
the CVs supported by your decoder. The hard way.
Let DecoderPro interrogate your decoder, find out what make and model it is, and only
show you the CVs that you can view and alter. The easy way.

Here is a screenshot of a decoder, using the 'Basic' tab.

You will notice that all the entries are in plain descriptive English; there is no mention of
CV numbers. They are hidden from the user, so there is no need to know the CV that
tweaks each parameter.
In fact, two of the CV locations (CV8 and CV7) store the make and model of the decoder.
When DecoderPro reads these CVs, it knows what that particular decoder is capable of and
only shows you its variables.
In the example, CV8's stored value is 99, which mean that it was made by Lenz, while the
value of 51 in CV7 means that it is a 4th generation model that is capable of handling BEMF.
But you don't need to know this, as Decoderpro figures it out for you.
CV1 stores the current unique address of the decoder. This is the one that is factory set to 3
when purchased and needs to be altered when using multiple locos.
You may have noticed that some CVs have a numeric value, while others are simply storing
'On' or 'Off'. Each CV can store a byte of data, which means values between 0 and 255.
That is a waste for on/off values, so some CVs split the byte up into 8 separate bits. Each
bit can then store a 1 for On and a 0 for Off. Again, this is all invisible to you.
In the above example, CV1 CV7 and CV8 store values, while CV29 uses individual bits.
CV29, bit 0 is handy if you have wired your decoder's motor wires incorrectly and the loco
goes in reverse when you want it to go forward. You can either dismantle the loco and
rewire the motor or alter bit 0 so that the error is corrected in the decoder's electronics.
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If you want the loco to be able to run on DC layouts as well as DCC tracks, you set CV29,
bit 2 to Yes.
Here is DecoderPro's 'Basic Speed Control' screen:

CV2 sets the loco's minimum working voltage, so it stores a byte of data. The motor is
supplied with this voltage as soon as the operator advances the speed control to the very first
notch. There is no need to turn the speed knob part way round, just to get the loco moving.
CV5 sets the loco's maximum voltage that will be supplied to the motor. So, for example, a
shunter will be prevented from racing round the yard.
The screenshot of DecoderPro's 'Motor' screen shows three options.

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CV3 sets the acceleration momentum. If you suddenly jerk the speed control higher, the
loco will not take off like a bullet. Instead, it will gradually accelerate until it reaches the
speed set by the command station. The rate of acceleration is controlled by the value stored
in CV3 and may be different for different trains. For example, a small 0-4-0 pulling a long
rake of coal wagons would be set to a slower than normal rate of acceleration.
CV4 sets the deceleration rate. Trains jerking to a halt is not very realistic, so CV4 lets
you set the rate at which the train comes to a halt. Even if you suddenly reduce the
controller's speed to zero, the train will slowly brake to a halt. Again, the value set will
depend on the loco is an express train or a shunter.
CV5 sets the BEMF repetition rate for maximum performance for that loco. See the
chapter on Loco Controllers to remind you of how BEMF works. This option will not be
present if your decoder does not support BEMF.
Here is a screenshot of DecoderPro's 'Speed Table' screen.

It is used for ultimate control over the speed of the loco for different setting of the command
station's speed control. It is mostly used to match the performance of multiple locos, to
allow smooth-running consists.
As you alter CV values, they are temporarily stored by the software. When you are
finished altering values and setting, you write all the changes away to the decoder.
Remember, these are only samples to give you an idea of the process. Read the tutorials for
more details.

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The remainder of this chapter is for those who are curious about the inner
workings of DCC. It is not required to use DCC, but gives an insight into
the way messages are constructed and handled.

Inside a DCC packet

A DCC command station sends both power and decoder instructions to the track both at
the same time.
The power is delivered as a continuous repetition of pulses, as shown in the illustration.

First it swings positive then negative, in what is described as 'bipolar DC'. This is passed
through a bridge rectifier in the decoder to obtain the DC power that the decoder, motor and
lights use.
The decoder's specification calls for a minimum swing of 7V in each direction and a
maximum of 22V. Here is a table of common voltages.
Common DCC track voltages, by gauge


Large scale





Since the voltage is constantly changing polarity, we can slightly alter the length of time it
remains at at any one polarity. In other words, we can alter the pulse width to introduce
digital information on the signal.
In the above illustration, we can see that a shorter pulse represents a '1' logic while a longer
pulse represents a '0' logic.
A 1 bit last 58usecs (microseconds) positive and 58usecs negative a total of 116usces.
A 0 bit last 100usecs positive and 100usecs negative a total of 200usces although this
can be increased to 9900usecs under certain circumstances.
This is the approximate equivalent to a 7KHz signal.
The command station's instructions to change speed, direction, etc. are encoded into a
stream of 1 and 0 bits to send out with the DCC signal.
It is possible to run a single DC loco on a DCC layout, although not part of the
official DCC specification. You set the command station to an address of zero and
moving the speed control results in the 0 bit being stretched so that it appears more
like a DC signal.

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This image is an example of an actual DCC signal, as captured by an oscilloscope and

shown unedited.
This is the signal that is sent out of the command station and this is what is received and
processed by the DCC decoder.

And here is the same image, edited so that the positive and negative transitions are more
clearly identifiable.

Although it looks a bit of mess, it contains the DCC instructions, packaged in a way that
does not get in the way of supplying the power to the decoder and motor.

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This illustration shows how a baseline DCC packet is made up.

Both positive and negative transitions are used to provide power. From a packet point of
view, the same information appears in both the positive and negative transitions. That is
why the bottom section of the illustration is ignored.
The DCC packet is made up of several different parts:
The Preamble
This is a series of '1' bits that is used to alert decoders that a packet is about to be
transmitted, allowing the decoder to synchronis its timings with the incoming signal.
There is a degree of confusion on the number of bits required, with 10, 12 and 14 bits
being stated from different sources. The answer lies in the NMRA Standard S-9.2:
A digital decoder must not accept as valid, any preamble that has less than
10 complete one bits, or require for proper reception of a packet with more
than 12 complete one bits. A command station must send a minimum of 14
full preamble bits.

The Packet Start Bit

This tells the decoder that the preamble is ended and the message data is about to begin.
If the first bit of the message happened to be a '1' bit, the decoder would not know when
the preamble ended and the message began. To prevent this, the preamble is always
followed by a '0' start bit.
The Address Byte
This byte contains the address of the decoder that is to act on the instruction. All others
with different addresses will ignore the rest of the packet. If the address is one byte, it is
for decoders in the 1 to 127 range. For address above 127, there will be two address
The Data Start Bit
This informs the decoder that what follows is the instruction data.
The Data Byte
For simple instructions, there will only be a single byte of data, with two bytes being used
for more complex instructions.

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The Error Detection Byte

There is the possibility of the incoming message being corrupted by electrical interference
or interruption to the packet reception due to dirty track/pickups. To avoid acting on
corrupted signals, the command station finishes the transmission of the packet with an
error correction byte. This is a checksum on all the data sent in the packet. The decoder
calculates its own checksum on the incoming data. If the two checksums are identical, the
decoder knows that the packet is genuine; otherwise, it rejects the packet.
This illustration shows the actual message that was contained in the packet.

The Address Byte stored the eight bits 00000111. This is the binary number for 7, so the
message was for the loco that is fitted with a decoder with the address of 7.
The Data Byte breaks up its 8 bits into three distinct groups of bits.
The first two bits stores 01 which indicates that what follows is loco direction and loco
speed data. The next bit is a 1, indicating an instruction to go forward.
The remaining five bits are 11111, which indicates full speed (00000 being stop).

Handling errors
Not all the instruction packets arrive intact at the decoder end. Packets can get interrupted
by dirt on the track or poor wheel pickups. Packets contents can also get distorted due to
electrical interference. The error correction byte prevents incomplete or garbled messages
from being acted on but the packet is still lost.
In most circumstances, this is not a great problem, as the command station sends out the
packets are repeatedly. So, if there was only one loco on the layout, all the packets would
be directed at that decoder address. If there were three locos on the layout, each would
receive their own packets on a time-sharing basis.
Given the pulse widths specified in the NMRA documents, a command station could issue
up to 180 three-byte data packets per second. If there is only a single loco on the layout,
using a baseline working, it is capable of receiving 180 instruction messages per second.
When there are 10 locos operating on a layout, they could expect to receive up to 18
instructions per second.
If the decoders are using extended packet formats, up to 110 five-byte packets can be sent
every second.
Unless you are operating an extremely busy layout in a very harsh electrical environment,
the loss of packets should not pose any problems.
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Handling congestion
Although packet losses don't usually prevent decoders from eventually receiving their own
messages, the lost packets represent loss of 'bandwidth' every interrupted or corrupted
packet is one less useable time slot. The command station can only issue between about
100 and 180 messages per second and every lost packet reduces the number of valid
messages on the system.
Let us consider a bad case of congestion.
A layout is running 50 locos, each with an additional sound decoder.
The 100 decoders have to share the 110 packets per second, which mean that they might
expect an average of 1.1. packets per second. If a decoder loses one of its packets, it has to
wait about 2 seconds before receiving a duplicate message. For a speeding express, that
might mean the difference between stopping and crashing into buffers or points,
overshooting a platform, etc. This can be minimised using CV11, which is a packet timeout variable. This can be set to bring the loco to a halt if no commands are received after a
preset time. Such drastic occurrences are not likely to happen on most layouts but designers
have to consider the worst case.
There are a number of ways to combat congestion, with the main ones being queuing and
Once a decoder receives a command, it acts on and continues to act on that same instruction
until it is given a new command. In theory, therefore, a single command should suffice.
In practice, as we have seen, periodic repetition of the command ensures that the packet
arrives at the decoder.
At any one time, the command station is storing a list of all the packets that need to be sent
out periodically. If there are too many additional incoming requests to the command
station, there will not be sufficient time slots to send them all. The command station has to
form a queue to allow all the packets to be sent eventually.
When there is a queue, the command station has to decide the order in which the packets
will be sent out and this order could be constantly changing.
Decisions could include:
Placing new packets ahead of older packets in the queue, since it is likely that
the older packets have already been received by the decoder. This regards
responding to changes in the system as more important than the repetition of
older messages.
Placing packets controlling sound and/or functions ahead of speed and direction
messages. This recognises that the operator does not make rapid speed changes
in any given time period (human movement being slow compared to the speed
of the system).
If the system supports feedback, track occupancy sensors would be given a high priority, as
they affect a loco's speed and position.
Advanced consisting, also called Decoder Assisted Consist, saves packet bandwidth by
having a single command station packet controls all the locos in a consist.
With the use of congestion controls, several hundred locos can be run simultaneously
more than most operators could ever imagine

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Measuring DCC voltage

Checking for the presence of a DCC signal is easy enough. You can use a car light bulb, a
LED with a dropper resistor, or a multimeter set to the AC range. They will all tell you if
DCC is available at the point you test. If you use the multimeter, it will also tell you if you
are suffering from any voltage drop at any point, just by comparing the reading with that
leaving the command station.
Getting an accurate measure of the DCC voltage is a little more complex than you might
first imagine.
You can avoid any problems by using the
RRampMeter by DCC Specialities, available from
DCC supplies and Digitrains. Although expensive, it
has a 2% accuracy.
Just connect the two left-hand terminals to the point
to be tested, to get an accurate reading of the DCC voltage at that point. It is designed so
that these terminals can be held across the track, making for a quick check on voltage
presence and amplitude. It can be used as a hand-held tester or it can be permanently
installed in a control panel. It can also read current, as described later.
Expensive models aside, most multimeters are unable to accurately read DCC voltages.
Multimeter on DC range
To measure DC, you just place a multimeter's leads across the controller's output
However, DCC is more like AC, since it's polarity constantly switches (hence its
description of bipolar DC). So, every pulse of one polarity is followed by a pulse of the
opposite polarity cancelling each other out and producing no meter reading on DC.
The only exception to this is to set the command station to address 0. This places the
output in DC compatibility mode and provides a reading, although not too accurate.
Multimeter on AC range
Most digital multimeters are designed to read voltages that are derived from the mains
supply (i.e. either reading the mains voltage or the AC voltage output from a transformer).
They expect AC readings at 50Hz (UK, Australia, etc.) or 60Hz (USA, Canada, etc.) and
also expect the waveform to be a sine wave. The meter's electronics makes the necessary
'averaging' processing prior to displaying the reading based on these expectations.
DCC though, operates at a much higher rate (approx 7KHz) and is not a sine wave. The
meter cannot sample at a fast enough rate and this introduces readings that can be
anywhere between 10% and 40% different from the true voltage. These readings are, at
best, only a guide or can be used for comparison purposes.
Using a true RMS meter
A meter than can accurately report voltages on waveforms that are not sinusoidal is known
as a 'True RMS' meter. A commercial example is the Fluke 115 for industry or the
RRampMeter for model railways.
Unlike the cheaper average responding meters, true RMS meters can sample faster,
process better and produce much more accurate readings.
If you know someone with a True RMS meter or a RRampMeter, you can compare the
readings with your own meter, note the difference and use it in future meter readings.

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Measuring DCC current

Like voltage, getting an accurate reading of DCC current requires using a True RMS meter.
The illustration shows the RRampMeter connected
between the command station's output and the track.
Wired this way, it gives readings of both DCC voltage
and current (assuming that there is a load on the track
such as a loco to draw current). The meter can read
up to 28V and 10A.

DIY projects
The RRampMeter, sells for over 70 at the time of writing, which is around the same
starting price for industry's digital True-RMS meters.
If you are looking for a cheaper, homebuilt, alternative, try out the projects that are
explained on these websites:

A DCC 'sniffer'
If you are adventurous and feel the need to examine the DCC packets, have a look at:

The module shown connects to the track and plugs

into a computer's USB port.
The software description reads:
This software allows for a complete tracking of all
commands on the rails as well gives sophisticated
trigger features to capture only special events. Local
LEDs provide a quick overview of the status and the
actual DCC commands.

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Chapter 14

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An introduction to CBUS
Many excellent layouts would further benefit from improved efficiency and greater
functionality if it could successfully tackle a couple of problems:

The huge amount of wires and connectors used, particularly on layouts built using
multiple boards.
The lack of two-way communication, getting feedback from points, train detectors,
automating some features, even adding computer control.

The CBUS 2-wire layout control system was developed by MERG members Mike Bolton
and Gil Fuchs, to tackle these issues.
Lets start by looking at some the problems with traditional layout wiring.

The conventional way

These layouts have a central control panel that is used to activate points, switch lights etc.
This involves running wires from each switch and pushbutton to each point, light or
accessory. On a large layout, this results in masses of wires running under the baseboard.
Where multiple boards are used, this collection of wires has to be carried over between
baseboard sections, using multipole plugs and sockets.
The sheer number of wires and connections increases the complexity and fault liability of
the layout.

The DCC way

The previous chapter on DCC showed how points and accessories can be operated by
sending signals along with the DCC power. Accessory decoder modules connect across
the track and get their instructions from the command station.
This cuts down on wiring, with the accessory decoders only requiring power from the
layout's power bus when handling high-current devices.
In many respects, it is a 2-wire control system, although it is was really designed for oneway communication from the command station to the decoders.
Although the NMRA recognises the need for bi-direction working (see RP-9.3.1 and RP9.3.2), it is about the loco decoder sending information back to the command station.
Helpful though this is, it does not cater for a range of other needs such as a point or track
detector sending back information.
The other limitation is how the accessory decoders are controlled by the operator. While
some operators are happy to use buttons on a handheld controller, many would still prefer to
be able to operate the layout's points and accessories from a control panel.
They would also like feedback on track occupancy, etc. to be fed back to the control panel.
Another limitation of DCC is that all control passes through the command station and there
is no provision for local autonomous activities using the DCC bus.
What we need, then, is an accessory system that combines the benefits of a 2-wire system
with true 2-way communication, the ability to use mimic panels, the ability to have modules
talk to each other over the two wires without using any central intelligence, and the ability
to provide all this with or without the use of a computer.
This is what the CBUS system offers plus more.

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Imagine building a new layout consisting of four boards. With CBUS all you need do is run
four wires the length of the layout two for power and two for the control system. No
matter how many switches, button, lights, points, track occupancy detectors, accessories,
etc. you now add to the layout, you still only need those four wires. The accessory
connections between boards are always just these four wires not the scores of wires
associated with conventional wiring.
Like DCC, all accessories are linked via messages. These messages can be transmitted by
small modules that can be fitted anywhere on the layout. Indeed, you can have multiple
control panels if you like. You could have a mimic panel for a main station, one for a goods
yard, and so on. Or, if you prefer, you can control the entire layout from a single panel.
A message could be an instruction from a control panel switch to a point motor controller,
telling it to switch the point. A message could be from a track occupancy detector to a
light on a control panel, informing that a siding or loop is occupied.

This diagram shows some of the range of options that are provided for by the CBUS system.
Some of them give instructions, like the panel switches or the train sensors. Others act on
these instructions, like the range of point motor controllers, lights, relays, etc.
All these modules, and more, are produced as kits by MERG and you can choose which

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ones best meet your needs.

Lets look again at our imaginary four-board layout which is currently empty apart from a
power bus and a two-wire control bus both running the length of the layout.
If we lay track for a goods yard on one of the boards, we can install a CBUS output module
to control their points. The module is connected to the nearest point on the 2-wire bus, to
its power supply and to the point motors. This is called a 'consumer' module since it cannot
create any messages. It can only act on incoming messages.
To control the points, we need an input module that can send the instructions to the points
module. The input module is called a 'producer' module since it creates messages when its
switch inputs are altered. Like the output module, it connects to its power supply and to the
nearest point on the CBUS. It uses a set of switches as inputs (ideal for a control panel).
This illustration shows a basic minimum setup for a CBUS system.

When you throw a switch, the input module recognises the change and sends a message on
to the CBUS wires. It is picked up by the output module which translates it into a change
of output on the corresponding pin. So, for example, throwing a switch on the input
module's pin 3 might result in moving the point motor that is attached to pin 5 (or whatever
pin you choose) of the output module .
Two relatively inexpensive modules allow 8 switches to control 8 points.
The modules could be at opposite end of our layout, since they can connect anywhere along
the CBUS wiring.
As we extend our layout, we can add more switch modules and more point modules as
before. We could have 50 or 100 switches on a control panel operating 50 or 100 points
and all using the same two CBUS wires!
Another benefit of CBUS is the ability to get feedback from the layout. This illustration
shows an input module whose input pins are connected to track occupancy detectors.
When a train enters that section of track, an input pin's voltage is altered and this results in a
message being sent out onto the bus. On the control panel, this messages is received by the
output module which illuminates the corresponding LED on the mimic panel.

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Example layout
Here is an example of implementing CBUS on a typical layout. The layout has 28 servooperated points and is spread over several boards to allow long rural stretches of track.
The points are in four distinct groups. The fiddle yard has 6 points at one end and 5 at the
other end. Each station has 7 points and there is a small group of 3 points on the main line.
The lower illustration shows how the points could be operated by five CBUS output
modules (a typical output module having 8 outputs).
Since the points on the left side of the layout are fairly closely bunched, you could even use
two 8-output modules at that end.

If we were to examine the underside of this layout's baseboard, we would only see the loco's
power bus, layout power and the CBUS wiring. Four (or five) boards would be positioned
close to the groups of points.
If we decided to add extra points or features to the middle section of the layout at a later
date, we would only need to add another module to the CBUS.
The layout would also have a control panel attached to the same CBUS. It would contain
the switches and the modules that send out the control instructions to the board's output
modules. The panel can look and operate like a conventional hard wired system.

Advantages of CBUS
The many advantages of CBUS include:
A big reduction in wiring and connectors, with all the accessory modules
sharing the same power bus and the same 2-wire cotrol bus.
Fewer faults. With far fewer wires and connections (e.g. no multiplugs between
boards), there is much less to go wrong.
It supports feedback, You can get confirmation that points have moved, tracks
are occupied, etc.
It is easier to make changes and additions. Adding that extra railway station or
goods yard requires no baseboard wiring changes. Just add the modules to the
existing power and CBUS wires.
It is suitable for automation / computer control.
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Different levels of use

While CBUS offers a comprehensive range of facilities, you can use as much or as little of it
as you need. If you already have a fully functioning layout, you may want to use CBUS
output modules to add additional features. If you are planning a new layout, you may
decide to use a full implementation of CBUS across the entire layout. It is up to you.
Here are some suggestions for different levels of implementation:

Output modules to switch on lights in buildings.

Output modules to operate signals.
Output modules to operate animations (e.g. cranes, level crossings).
Feedback from track detectors to indicate occupation of hidden sidings.
Control of point motors.
Control of locos (CBUS includes modules to control DCC locos).
Computer automation of layout.

The first four suggestions can be added to any existing layout without any changes to its
existing wiring and control systems.

What is CBUS
CBUS is based on the widely used CAN Bus (Controller Area Network) system, adapted for
use with model railways.
The CAN bus was developed for cars in the 80's and found its way into many industrial,
medical and military pieces of equipment. Everything from a coffee machine to the Las
Vegas monorail works using the CAN bus, not forgetting Otis elevators, fork lifts, radar
stations, drones and CERN.
The CAN bus, with tens of millions of controllers sold each year, is a tried and tested
system. It is robust, reliable and resistant to external interference. After all, you would
expect nothing less from a chip that is controlling aircraft, cars, lifts and medical equipment.
Due its widespread use, the main interface chip is easily available and is cheap.
CBUS is based on the industry standard CAN bus, using its interface chips and basic
principles. In addition, it gives special consideration to how it can aid model railway

Benefits of CBUS

Low cost.
Not tied to any manufacturer.
Works with any scale or gauge.
Works with DC or DCC layouts (although loco control is DCC only).
Works with both small home layouts and large club layouts.
Operates on wiring lengths of up to 500 metres, enough for all but the most ambitious
garden layouts.
Provides manual, semi-automatic or automatic control of devices (see later).
Can be used on new layouts or integrated into existing layouts.
Available as a range of self build kits, with all parts and construction notes supplied.
Module construction only needs basic soldering skills.
Easily set up. No programming skills required (additional modules are available for those
who wish to have computer control of their layout).
Lots of support from MERG members.

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The CBUS cable

The pair of wires that carry the messages throughout the layout should be 'unshielded
twisted pair'. This simply means that the two wires should be twisted round each other to
prevent unwanted interference. There is no need to buy shielded cables that have foil
covering. In fact, you can make your own cable from any wires
as long as they are loosely twisted together as shown in the
image. Since the wires only carry messages, there is no need to use heavy gauge wires.
The speed of the system dictates that the maximum length of the bus is 500m, so it can
handle very large layouts.
The bus has to be 'terminated'. This involves fitting a resistor across the two wires.
Without this, there is a danger that signals will reach the end of the cable and reflect back
down the wire, interfering with the wanted signals. Depending on your age, you may
remember seeing 'ghousting' on your TV picture, which is an identical phenomenon.
Fitting a resistor allows for the signal to be absorbed and prevents reflected electromagnetic
waves from distorting the messages. The resistor is also required for proper CAN
arbitration to work (i.e. preventing two producer modules from sending messages at the
same time). A 68 ohm resistor is fine for small cable runs; for most layouts, fit a 180 ohm
resistor at each end of the bus.
The bus wires should run the length of the layout. It need not run in a straight line; it can
snake along to go where it is needed. Stubs are allowed; these are short stretches of cable
that run off from the main bus (e.g. to feed a board in a T-shaped layout). Stubs should not
exceed 3m in length.

Connecting the modules

Adding a CBUS module to a layout consists of a few steps:

Connect the module to its power supply.

Connect the module to the CBUS cable.
Connect the inputs (e.g. from track occupancy detectors) or outputs (e.g. to point controllers,
lights, etc.)
Configure the module the way you want it to operate (see later).

The connections can be soldered, or use connectors. Plugs and sockets can be used to allow
the quick replacement of a faulty unit (handy at exhibitions).
Once connected to the CBUS network, modules can be used in various configuration:

Between the layout's modules and a control panel.

Within the layout (e.g. the arrival at a station brings on the station lights)
Between baseboard panels (e.g. providing communication between multiple operators)
Between the layout and a computer.

You can use one of these, or all of them, depending what you want to do.

At its simplest, a layout using CBUS need only have one module that sends commands and
one module that acts on the commands.
However, the CBUS was devised to allow for huge expansion potential.
You can fit an unlimited number of consumer modules, if they are used in SLiM mode
(more later). Producer modules are limited to 110 nodes (the CBUS name for a producer
module) on a single segment (an unbroken stretch of CBUS cable). Since some modules
can handle 64 inputs and some can handle 64 outputs, a single segment can handle 3520
inputs and 3520 outputs. If that is still not enough, you can connect different segments

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using a bridge module, until you reach a maximum of 65,536 nodes on the system!
Depending on how they are configured, each node can produce up to 65,536 'events'
(different instructions). So, the system can handle 4.29 billion different instructions!

How CBUS works

CBUS modules either send messages or receive messages (although there is one module that
can both send and receive). Some modules only ever send messages on to the bus. They
are called producers since they produce messages when activated. An example might be a
module connected to track occupancy detectors. This small board may have inputs from,
say, eight track occupancy detectors. The message sent by the module would depend upon
which change is detected.
An even simpler example might be a bank of off/on switches used to control points, signals,
trackside lights etc. The group of switches could be held in a frame or could be mounted
on a mimic board/control panel. Throwing a switch produces a message that uniquely
identifies which switch was thrown and whether it was switched on or off. In these
examples, changing one of eight inputs to a module results in one of sixteen unique
messages being transmitted on the bus (one message when an input goes high and a separate
message when that input goes low).
Other modules are designed to only ever receive messages and to act upon them. These are
called consumer modules and examples include point actuation and LEDs on mimic
boards. So, for example, a message received by a modules might result in one of its output
lines being switched on or off. These output lines can be used to switch eight different point
motors. Another module can light up to 64 different LEDs depending upon the input
messages received.
The user does not need to know how the message is constructed and how it works in order
to use the system. The user simply throws a
few setup switches and the modules
electronics take care of everything.

A small example
The diagram shows a simple setup, with a
baseboard that has eight points and eight track
occupancy detectors. The control panel has
eight point switches and eight LEDs. Along
with power connections, the CBUS links the
control panel and baseboard and carries
messages between them. The baseboard
modules are connected to the users point
activation units and track occupancy
Assuming that the four modules have already
been set up (see later) their operation is
straightforward. So, if a train activates track
detector number 5, the producer module sends
out a unique message on the bus. The
consumer module on the control panel

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translates that message into switching on LED number 5. Similarly, throwing point switch
3 makes that producer module transmit a unique message over the bus that results in point
number 3 being activated.

CBUS Modules
Most CBUS modules use the same basic arrangement shown in this illustration.
It has three main parts:
The CBUS interface, known as a 'CAN

transceiver'. Every CBUS module needs

one of these so that it can send to, or receive
messages from, other modules connected to
the bus.
A PIC chip, which is like a small computer
that stores a program and data. Its
contents are programmable so that it has
multiple possible uses, depending on what the module is used for. This is the 'brains' of the
The Input/Output, which is the connection to the hardware devices. A producer module, for
instance, might have switch inputs, while a consumer module may have outputs for
controlling point motors.

MERG are constantly developing new modules, and providing new features to existing
modules. Using PICs is a benefit, as the program built into it can be updated; there is no
need to throw away a module when an improved version comes out.
Let us look at the range of CBUS modules that are available.

Eight input module

This is known as the CAN-ACE8C.
It has eight input connections. Each connection is normally held to +5V internally.
Bringing that connection down to 0V results in
a message being sent out on the CBUS.
Removing the 0V lets the connection revert
back to +5V and this results in a different
message being sent on to the CBUS. So, the
module can produce two different messages for
each connection one when a connection is at
+5V and one when it is at 0V.
Any device that can switch between a high and
0V voltage can be used as an input. The most common inputs are toggle switches,
microswitches and track occupancy detectors, although other electronic modules could also
act as inputs.
If this module is mounted in a small control panel (e.g. to control a small layout or a small
local goods yard in a larger layout), it would use switches to control points/lights on the
layout. If the module is mounted under the baseboard, it could be used to send back
information to a control panel, that a track section is occupied or to indicate the direction a
point is facing.

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Eight output module

The is known as the CAN-ACC8.
Apart from the connections for power and the CBUS cable, there are eight outputs that can
be switched between 0v and anywhere from +5v and +15V. The little white square is
actually a preset potentiometer that sets the voltage.
Being able to vary the output voltage means that it can
switch 5V relays or 12V relays, LEDs, lamps and even
small DC motors. Each output can handle a
maximum current of 500MA, although the sum of all
outputs must not exceed 1A. It is commonly used to
operate points and animated accessories (crossing
gates, semaphore signals, etc.) using servo motors.
The outputs can operate relays to switch point frogs.
Also used to remotely switch lights in buildings.

Simple example
This image shows how to connect a single input module (the CAN-ACE8C) to a single
output module (the CAN-ACC8), so that throwing a switch controls the LED.
For simplicity, it does not show the power connections.

The points to note are:

The CBUS has CANH and CANL wires, marked as H and L on the modules. The H
connection on a module should be taken to the H wire of the bus; similarly, the L
connection on all CBUS modules should be taken to the L wire of the CBUS.
A terminating resistor of 68 ohms has been wired across the CBUS.
The variable resistor has been rotated to produce a +5V output.
The switch is connected to input 4 of the input module, while the LED is connected to
output 1 of the output module. Input 1 does not have to control output 1 and so on. You
can decide which output will be switched by any particular input.

Four solenoid module

This is known as the CAN-ACC4.
It is specifically designed to handle
four solenoid-type point motors, such
as the Hornby, Peco, Atlas or Seep

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The module has a capacitive discharge unit (CDU) built in to the board and connects
directly to the point motors as shown in the illustration.
Each point is allocated two messages one to operate the point in one direction and another
to operate the point in the opposite direction.

Four point motor module

This is known as the CAN-ACC5. It is specifically designed to handle four motorised
point motors, such as the Tortoise,
Hoffman or Conrad types. The
illustration shows a Fulgurex point motor
being connected although not to scale.
The module's outputs consist of four sets
of two connections. Each point is
allocated two messages one to place a
voltage across the two connection (e.g. as
in the illustration) and another to reverse
the polarity of the connections.
The recommended maximum current is 1 amp total for continuous operation.

The three output modules shown above can be controlled by using two
unique messages for each output.
If you wish, you can have several, or all, of the outputs controlled by the
same pair of messages. This is useful for route switching, where one
command can move a set of points and another command resets the

Mimic panel modules

The eight input and eight output modules are ideal for mounting under baseboards, to
operate points and send back feedback. The benefit of the CBUS system is having small
local modules where you need them rather than having wires trailing all over your layout.
They are not very useful, however, when used on a control panel or mimic panel, unless you
have a very small layout or are using a number of small controls panels spread across the
For large panels, there is a need for modules that can handle larger numbers of switches or
Consider, for example, having a control panel with 50
switches and 50 LEDS. You would need 7 input
modules and 7 output modules built into the panelwhich would be very cumbersome.
So, MERG have a couple of modules that are
specifically for use in control panels.
This module is known as the CAN-ACE3.
It is a switch interface that can handle 128 toggle
switches or 64 pairs of push buttons.

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The module on the left is known as the CAN-LED. It can

handle 64 LEDs.
Using just one of each module in a control panel, you can
control up to 64 points/accessories and indicate feedback
from 64 devices.
The large sockets on the right of each module are provided
for the connections to the switches/pushbuttons/LEDs.

CAN-Relay 16
Although designed for control panels, the CANLED can be adapted for use on your layout, to
operate relays.
If you have a need for a large number of relays on
your layout, you can fit the 'CAN-LED to relay
driver interface'. As the name suggests, the CANLED board can be converted from operating 64
LEDs to operating 64 relays.
Each relay board can control up to 16 relays and
you can attach four boards to one CAN-LED.
So you can, if you wish, control 64 relays over a
single 2-wire connection.

The CAN-ACC8 module can switch eight outputs on and off and these outputs can be taken
to servo driver modules. MERG's Servo-4
modules handle four servos.
So, if your layout had multiple points in close
location to each other (e.g. station throat, fiddle
yard, goods, yard) you would need three modules
to control those eight points.
For such dense use of servos, there is an alternative
for CBUS users.
The image shows the CANSERVO8 module which
combines a CBUS interface with the control of up
to eight servos that plug into the connections
shown on the right of the module.
There is manual method (switches) of setting up
the CANSERVO8 module; each servo's settings
have to be set up using computer software (see
FLIM later).
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Computer Interface
The CBUS system was designed to able to be set up and used without the need for a
For those with computers and a bit of knowledge,
MERG have a kit known as the CAN-USB.
It connects to the CBUS and plugs into a USB port
on your computer.
With appropriate software, it can provide useful
new facilities such as:
Testing CBUS modules, to confirm whether they are functioning correctly. You
can send messages on to the CBUS from the computer and see whether an output
module responds as it should, Alternatively, you can check an input module by
examining its messages on the computer screen.
Controlling a layout. Using computer software (covered later), you can operate
points, accessories and even trains from a computer screen, using your mouse.
Setting up your modules, using the free configuration software for MERG members.
This saves fiddling with switches and
For those with older computers (ones with no USB sockets), MERG produce a kit for
plugging into a computer's serial port. It is known as the CAN-RS and is useful for setting
up modules, although a bit too slow for controlling larger layouts.

DCC Command Station

For many, the benefits of CBUS lie in controlling points and accessories, or getting
feedback from track detectors, etc.
For DCC users, the CBUS system extends into controlling locos using a couple of modules.
The image on the right shows the CAN-CMD module which is
a complete DCC command station.
It has connections for power, the CBUS and the layout track
(either directly or through a power booster).
It can be controlled via the CBUS in either of two ways:
Using a handheld controller.
Using computer software
For those who like to walk round their layout while controlling
their trains, MERG have a CAN_CAB kit.
The image shows a completed CAN-CAB module, with a cable to
connect to the CBUS. Pressing the buttons, or turning the speed
knob, results in instructions being sent to the command station
which are translated into control messages for the layout's locos.
An alternative, for those so-minded, is controlling the command
station via the computer. This would require a CAN-USB
computer interface module to be fitted.
Suitable software is looked at later.
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CBUS messages
So far, there has been a lot of talk about modules sending messages and receiving messages.
We do not need to know exactly how a message is made up in order to use the system.
We do, however, need to consider a few general points:
At the sending (i.e. producer) end
A message should be sent when something changes in an input module e.g. a
switch has been thrown or a button has been pressed. CBUS calls this an
The message should say which pin has changed e.g. pin 4 in our example.
The message should say how it has changed e.g. it has been changed to a high
or a low voltage.
So, part of the message might say
The fourth input connection has changed to low
The fourth input connection has changed to high
So far, so good. But a system might have a number of producer modules and each one of
them will have a input connection number 4. If they all sent out the same message, output
modules would not know which one they were supposed to act upon.
The message, therefore, also has to contain information about which module is sending the
This is achieved by giving each producer module its own unique number, known as a 'node

Consider the example in this diagram, if the producer module with the switch attached was
given a node number of 7. Throwing switch 4 from high to low would produce a message
with the following essential information:
Node 7s fourth input connection has changed to low
Every message now contains information on what has changed and what module sent the
The simplest way to allocate a module its unique number is by throwing the switches
highlighted in the illustration.
On the bus
When an event occurs in a producer module, it sends out a message without knowing
whether any consumer module will respond to it. It just sends the message anyway. This is

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known as 'fire and forget'. The producer module does not check for any acknowledgement
that its message has been received by another module.
There are a number of possible situations.

There may not even be any consumer modules attached to the bus. The messages are
being sent but no-one is listening.
There may be many consumer modules attached to bus. They will all receive the
message but none may be set up to act on the message.
A single module may receive the message and act upon it.
Several modules may receive and act on the same message.

CBUS messaging is not equivalent to sending a text message to a particular friend, where
that person's phone is the only one to receive the message. It is more like the Saturday
night Lottery broadcast. The results of the draw are broadcast to all who want to listen but
only a few will act on the message.
At the receiving (i.e. consumer) end
Since all producer modules have their distinctive node numbers, we can now distinguish
between messages. We may know, for example, that all the messages from node 5 come
from track occupancy detectors, while messages from nodes 4 and 6 come from switch
panels, and so on.
In such a case, we could use an output module to drive panel lights when it receives
messages from node 5, while using an output module for driving points motors when
messages are received from nodes 4 and switching lights in buildings when messages are
received from node 6.
The next step is to decide what each module should do, if anything, with an incoming
message. You have a lot of flexibility in how you configure your output modules.
This is achieved using the bank of switches shown in the earlier illustration.
The options include:

Ignoring a message. This will be the most common reaction, since most messages are
of no interest to the majority of consumer modules.
A consumer module's outputs all being dedicated to the same type of outputs all
LEDS or all point motors.
A consumer module (e.g. the 8 outputs of the CAN-ACC8) being used various purposes
some connections switching lights, others switching relays or point motors.
Different outputs of a consumer module being activated by the same message. This
allows a single switch on a control panel to change a group of outputs very useful for
setting up routes and signal aspects.

Setting up modules
For a basic 8-input producer module, the only setup needed is allocating a node number to
the module. At its simplest, you can throw a couple of switches and the job is done.
CBUS modules can be set up using switches or using a computer. Once set up, a module
acts in exactly the same way, regardless of what was used to configure it.
It is just two different ways to achieve the same end. Modules set up by switches and
modules set up by computer can be used happily on the same layout.
The default mode is called 'SLiM' (The Small Layout Model).
This method has the following advantages:
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It allows modules to be set up using switches no computer is required.

Modules can be configured and tested before fitting under the baseboard.

It also has a few disadvantages:

The setup process can be fiddly and error-prone, unless you really concentrate.
You have to carefully document what outputs are changed by which inputs, otherwise it will
cause serious inconvenience if you have to make changes later.
Replacing a faulty board is more time-consuming than with FLiM.
Reconfiguring the module means fiddling with switches while perched under a baseboard,
or removing the module for alteration.

The exact method of configuring SLiM CBUS modules is documented in each kit's
There are also excellent articles that cover practical implementations of CBUS.
For further reading on this, see
Experiments with CBUS by Howard Watkins
(MERG Journals for Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter 2008 and Spring 2009)
A Starter CBUS Project by Davy Dick
(MERG Journals for Summer, Autumn and Winter 2009).

The method using a computer for configuring modules is called 'FLiM' mode (The Full
Layout Model). This method has the following advantages:

You just fit and wire the modules, then all configuration takes place while sitting in
front of your computer.
The configuration software maintains a database of all the modules, what triggers
them and what their outputs do. No need to keep paper records.
Changes in your layout track plan or points routing are easily dealt with as the
software updates all the changed relationships for you.
It is quick and easy to replace a faulty module. Plug in the replacement module then
download the previous module's settings into it from the database.
Complicated configurations, such as the CAN-ACE3 and the CAN-LED are easier to
accomplish using software.
The CANSERVO8 module can only be configured via a computer. Future complex
modules may also require computer configuration.

FLiM also has a few disadvantages:

It needs a computer.
It needs a CAN-USB module.
The configuration process takes a bit of getting used to.

The FLiM setup

The illustration shows the setup for configuring modules.

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A CBUS-to-computer interface module, the CAN-USB, is plugged into the USB port of a
computer and connected to the CBUS cable.
The module to be configured is connected to the CBUS and to its power supply.
A consumer module can be switched between SLiM and FLiM modes by holding down the
pushbutton for about 8 seconds, until the yellow LED illuminates (indicating FLiM mode)
or the green LED illuminates (indicating SLiM mode).
The computer should have a software utility, called the FCU (FLiM Configuration Utility)
installed on it. The utility creates and maintains a 'configuration file' which stores the
configuration details for all CBUS modules on the layout's bus.
Unlike SLiM, which only allocated node numbers to producer modules, every module is
allocated a node number in FLiM mode. This is necessary so that the utility can identify
individual consumer modules for configuration.
Here is a typical configuration screen for a CAN-ACC8, eight output module.
Each of its eight outputs has been given a handy text description (Relay 1, etc.) and the
boxes shows what states the outputs can be switched to.

It shows that when the 'Switch 1' event in the producer node called 'Mini Switch Panel' is
activated, the Relay 1 output is switched; all the other outputs are unaffected by this
incoming message.
When many modules are connected to a layout, giving meaningful names to all the producer
modules and their events, plus all the modules and their outputs, makes later identification
and understanding much easier.
There is an excellent Guide, written by the utility's author Roger Healey, which explains the
process in great detail.

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You only use the computer during the setting up operation, or any subsequent additions or
alterations. It does not need to be permanently connected, unless you decide to
automate, or semi-automate your layout with other control software.
This chapter only provides an overview of the basics of CBUS.
CBUS is extensively covered in MERG's Technical Bulletins (there are 10 different
Technical Bulletins in the G32 list).
There are also many practical articles in back copies of the MERG Journal.
The MERG CBUS system is constantly evolving with new boards being added that offer
even more features and greater flexibility.
They begin as a member's idea, followed by a circuit diagram, followed by making a
PCB available. If the demand is sufficient, it will appear as a full kit of parts.
So watch this space!

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Chapter 15
An introduction to transistors,
ICs and PICs

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Transistors, ICs and PICs

These three semiconductors can be found in all but the simplest of household, industrial,
military and medical electronic objects and model railways.
This chapter is only an introduction to these components, as they are very wide in their
scope and there is a lot of detailed information out there. Fortunately, we can do a lot with
them without having to delve too deeply into their inner workings.
This chapter only hopes to give a flavour of these semiconductors, highlighting some of
their main features. All three types are fascinating, offering unlimited prospects for model

These are available in a range of shapes and sizes, using different materials and providing
different functions and different power handling capabilities.
They are generally used in two ways:
As an amplifier, to boost small audio or radio-frequency signals.
As an electronic switch, to control LEDs, relays, etc.
As the images show, they have three wire leads. In most transistors,
these are called the emitter, base and collector.
Although other types are used, we will examine the most common
types of transistor those known as PNP and NPN types.
The difference lies in their physical construction.
A PNP type has a layer of n-type semiconductor that is sandwiched
between two layers of p-type semiconductor.
The NPN type is more common nowadays and it has a layer of p-type semiconductor that is
sandwiched between two layers of n-type semiconductor.
The illustration shows the symbols for the
two types. It also shows how current flows
through them.
With a PNP type, the collector is taken to 0V
while the emitter is taken to the positive
supply. This is the reverse for NPN types;
the emitter is taken to 0V.
In both cases, the base connection can be thought of as a tap that regulates the amount of
current flowing between the other two connections (another type of transistor, the FET, even
calls the connections the 'source', the 'gate' and the 'drain').
The PNP transistor
Applying a voltage across the emitter and collector produces a current flow between
them. If you now gradually increase the voltage between the base and emitter, the
current flow will be reduced until it completely stops (known as 'cutoff').
Conversely, decreasing the voltage across the base/emitter junction, increases the
flow of current between the emitter and collector.

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The NPN transistor

Applying a voltage between the emitter and collector produces no current flow.
If you now gradually increase the voltage between the base and emitter, the current
flow will be increased until it reaches the maximum that is possible with that
transistor (see below).
Conversely, decreasing the voltage across the base/emitter junction, decreases the
flow of current between the emitter and collector until it eventually stops.

Gain and saturation

There is a direct relationship between the input current and the output current of a transistor
and this is called its 'gain'.
For example, a BC547 transistor (an NPN type) has a maximum current gain of 800. So, a
current of 1uA (one microamp) flowing from base to collector should result in a current
flow of 800uA from collector to emitter. Similarly, a 2uA base/emitter current should result
in a 1.6mA collector/emitter current and a 10uA base/emitter current should result in an
8mA collector/emitter current.
This current amplification cannot carry on indefinitely, as the BC547 can only handle a
maximum current of 100mA from collector to emitter.
Once the transistor reaches the 100mA flow, any further increase in base/emitter current has
no further effect on the output current. This stage is known as 'saturation'.
The larger power transistor shown in the above picture is a TIP122 and is an NPN type with
a gain of 1000 and a maximum current of 5A. So, a 1mA base/emitter current should result
in a maximum of 1A collector/emitter current. As with other power transistors, its collector
is bonded to a metal plate to allow a heat sink to be fitted to transfer away heat when high
currents are being drawn.
The arrows in the above illustration show the flow of 'conventional current' (see chapter 1)
which thought that current flowed from a positive potential to a negative potential. In fact,
actual current comprises a flow of electrons which is attracted to a positive potential (the
opposite of the directions shown in the arrows). As long as you are aware of the distinction,
you will not be puzzled when different diagrams and explanations describe current flow

Further reading
That was only a brief outline of the transistor's main characteristics. If you want to know
more about transistors, here are a few places to look:

Also, see Electric Circuit Basics 6 by John Matthews, in the Jan 2006 MERG Journal.

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Practical examples
Here are some example circuits which might further explain how transistors work.

Single LED
This circuit uses an NPN transistor, with its emitter taken to
0V and in this configuration acts as an electronic switch.
The 1k resistor limits the current through the LED (and also
through the collector-emitter junction). As shown, no
emitter/collector current will flow and the LED will be unlit.
If we now throw the switch, conventional current flows from
+12V through the 100k resistor and through the base-emitter
junction. The 100k resistor is used to limit the maximum
base-emitter current.
The smaller current through the base-emitter junction results
in a much greater current through the collector-emitter
junction and the LED will light.
This circuit is used to illuminate a much
brighter 100mA LED and uses a TIP122 power
NPN transistor. The 150 ohm resistor limits
the maximum collector current.
The output from a TOTI (Train On Track
Indicator) or other electronic module is
unlikely to be able to provide the larger current
requirements of this high-current LED.
This is solved by using a power transistor
switch like the one shown.
In this case, the output of the other device is
used to produce the TIP122's base-emitter current. Once again, the smaller base-emitter
current results in a much greater collector-emitter current.

Logic probe
Many modellers own multimeters, which are extremely useful tools for testing and faultfinding on layouts and on electronic modules. The ability to read different voltage levels
helps trace bad joints, etc.
But, when dealing with modules that work on digital inputs and outputs, you only want to
know whether a particular point in your circuit is at +5v or at 0v.
That is where a logic tester is handy.
This circuit works by connecting it to the +5v
and 0v of the module you are checking. Then
you touch any point in the circuit with the
probe. If +5v is on that point, a green LED
lights up. If there is 0v at that point, the red
LED lights up. All other voltages, or points
not connected to anything, either keep the
LEDs unlit or dimly lit.
The BC547 is an NPN type and current flows
from its collector to emitter when its base is at
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a higher voltage than its emitter. The BC557 is a PNP and allows current to flow from its
emitter to collector when its base is at a lower voltage than its emitter. That's why the red
LED lights on 0V while the green LED lights on 5V.

Some relays operate with a relatively small current. Others require a transistor to act as a
current amplifier to switch the relay. You
have to check the manufacturer's
In this circuit, the relay resistance is 250 ohms,
therefore requiring 48mA to operate it. The
BC547 provides the required current
As mentioned in a previous chapter, the diode
prevents an back EMF from damaging the
transistor when the relay is switched off.

Integrated Circuits
These are often simply referred to as 'ICs'.
As the description implies, it is a single electronic component that carries out a task that
would normally require multiple individual components. The semiconductor layers inside
the chip are created in such a way that they carry out the
functions of multiple transistors, diodes, capacitors, resistors, etc.
- all integrated within a single small casing.
With the advent of ICs, large boards jam packed with
components were replaced by much smaller, more efficient,
lower current, cheaper devices. Just how far this process has
gone can be demonstrated by the 'brains' of a humble Xbox 1
computer which uses 5 billion transistors all built in to a device the size of an After Eight
A simple IC may have only 6 pins to connect to the outside world, while complex ICs may
have 80 external pins.
There is a huge range of ICs and each one is designed to carry out a particular function or
set of functions. Their internal workings are pre-set at manufacture to carry out specific
tasks and these cannot be altered, although their performance can often be tweaked using
external components.
Examples include:
Voltage regulators to ensure a constant fixed supply voltage output,
regardless of most input voltage fluctuations and changing current demands.
Timers to create timed pulses for scale time clocks, control brightness of
LEDs, control servo movements, control loco motors using PWM (pulse
width modulation).
Amplifiers to boost the level of audio or radio signals, or act as current
amplifiers for switching or control purposes.
Convertors - to convert digital values to analogue values (and vice-versa), to
convert voltage levels into frequencies.
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Logic to implement simple switching decisions (e.g. the output only

changes to low when all its inputs are set to low) or more complex logic
operations (e.g. using only 4 input lines to change the output level of any one
of 16 output lines).
Display drivers to control bargraph displays, 7-segment LEDs and LCD
Remote control encoders/decoders to control toys, televisions, garage
openers, etc.
Memory chips to store data for later use (e.g. in digital cameras, audio
players, etc.) or to store applications while being run in computers.
Motor drivers to handle DC motors, stepper motors and servo motors.
All of these IC chips are connected to devices or components in the outside world.
Sometimes the components are connected in order to adjust performance (within the range
allowed by the IC). For example, the settings of a timing chip are set by the choice of
external timing components.
In other instances, the IC acts on external stimuli (e.g. a remote control encoder) or controls
other circuits (e.g. a voltage regulator).

Practical examples
Here are some typical examples of integrated circuits.
Voltage regulators
Chapter 1 looked at power supplies and voltage regulation. One of the
simplest ICs is the voltage regulator. It has only three pins. The one
shown in the illustration is a 7812, which means that it produce a steady
12V output, at up to 1.5A, even when the voltage at its input varies from
15V DC up to 35V DC. The 7812 has an
internal voltage loss of 2.5V, so needs a
minimum of 14.5V DC input to ensure a
smooth regulated output.

Its case, and common pin, are bonded to a

metal plate to which can be bolted a heat
sink. This is necessary when dropping large
voltages at high currents, to prevent the IC
When used in a circuit for this purpose, it
would also normally have smoothing
capacitors fitted.
The circuit is reproduced to demonstrate
that even a simple IC can be complex
inside. The 7812 has over 40 internal
'components', including 17 transistors.

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Flashing LED
This is a very well-known, well-used circuit and many
variations can be found on the Internet.
It uses a 555 timer IC. This chip can be used as a timer,
an oscillator or a pulse generator (as in this circuit).
Here, the output is a continuous stream of pulses that
make the LED flash.
The frequency at which the LED flashes is controlled by
the charging and discharging of the capacitor
The rate of charge/discharge is determined by the values
of the two resistors and the capacitor
Pin 3 goes high while the capacitor is being charged and
goes low when the capacitor is being discharged.
The 555 timer chip is also used to control the delays in a shuttle a loco that runs back and
forth along a section of track.
Apart from altering the frequency of the pules, the mark/space ratio (the time the pulse stays
compared to its off time) can be altered and this is used to good effect to control servo
motors, dim LEDs, etc.
For more details on 555 timers, read John Matthew's article in the Winter 2006/7 Journal,
or look at

Motor control
This diagram shows an L293D, an integrated circuit described as 'Quadruple Half-H
Drivers'. They are designed to be used in pairs, where they offer bidirectional control (i.e.
the outputs can be reversed handy for DC motors)..
Pins 1,2 3, 6 and 7 on the left side comprise one set of drivers and pins 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15
make up an identical set of drivers. It is designed to control high current devices including
inductive loads such as motors, stepper motors and relays.
In this circuit, it only requires few resistors to make it into an IC capable of independently
controlling two motors.

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Pin 16, marked in red, is taken to a +5V supply and the pins marked in black are taken to
0V. These supply the power for the IC. The illustrations shows a single motor being
Pin 9, marked as EN2, is the 'Enable' pin for the right-hand side of the chip. It is taken to
+5V to make these drivers active (taking the pin to 0V disables these drivers).
Pins 11 and 14, marked in blue, are taken to the DC motor. These outputs are capable of
handling motor currents up to 500mA (1.2A peak), so cover most locos.
Pins 10 and 15, marked in green, control the direction of the motor.
This table shows the motor logic.
Pins 15 and 10, labelled as DirB1 and DirB2, are held
high to +5V by the two resistors. The motor will not
move. Bringing either of these pins low to 0V will
make the motor rotate. The three-position centre-off
switch controls the motor direction, with the centre position bringing the motor to a halt.
The power for the motor is provided at Pin 8 and can be from +4.5V to +36V probably
+12V for model railways. Note that the power for the motor is independent of the supply to
the IC, making it able to cover a wide range of motors with differing voltage requirements.
If required, the input to Pin 8 can even be a PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) source. See
the chapter on Loco Controllers for a description of PWM.
The pins on the left hand side of the chip perform in exactly the same way if a second motor
is to be controlled.
While the above circuit uses a switch to control the motor, it can easily be controlled by
logic from other circuits (train detectors, PICs, computers, CBUS modules, etc.).
contains two identical sets of driver circuits.

While very useful, integrated circuits are dedicated to a single function, or set of functions.
This has led to the development of a range of 'microcontrollers' which, like ICs, combine a
lot of components into the chip, but allow the user to program its activities. This opens up
a whole new approach, since the same PIC chip (Peripheral Interface Controller) can be
employed to carry out many different actions depending on what program it contains.
The biggest seller of microcontrollers (with sales in billions of units) is Microchip
Technology Inc, who manufacture a large range under the heading of PICs.

How they work

PIC microcontrollers can be regarded as similar to a computer, as shown below.
They both have a CPU, the main brains of the system; they both have a memory area to
store the program being used; they both a smaller memory area to store data when the power
is removed; and they both have connections to the outside world.
Naturally, the computer system is much more sophisticated. Then again, all the parts that
you see on the PIC diagram are embedded inside the chip.
This arrangement makes PICs extremely flexible.

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There are other manufacturers who make microcontrollers, including Arduino, PicAXE,
AVR and Propellor. These, and the range of PICs, share the same advantages:

Low cost.
Easily programmed and reprogrammed.
Many can be programmed in situ (i.e. the chip remains in the module it is designed for).
Large body of support through documentation, source code, user groups, etc.

PICs look very similar to ICs. Many have the same

shapes, same number of pins, etc. However, they are
easily distinguished by the markings on their bodies.
For example, an L293D is an IC while a 12F675 is a
PICs are available in sizes from 6 pins to 144 pins, in
either QFN (Quad Flat No Leads), DIL or surface mount pin formats.
Despite their size and pin differences, they have common features such as inbuilt oscillators
and I/O (input output) pins to interface to external devices.
Beyond that, different PICs offer additional facilities such as:

Analogue to Digital Conversion.

The ability to read analogue values into a pin.
Useful for reading the voltage levels from potentiometers, heat sensors, light
sensors, etc. A circuit inside the PIC converts these analogue values into digital
equivalents that the PIC can process.


Digital to Analogue Conversion.

The ability to turn stored digital values into analogue equivalents that are sent
out of a PIC's pin
Useful for creating sound effects, playing sound samples (e.g. WAV files), etc.


Pulse Width Modulation.

The ability to generate pwm outputs on one or more of a PIC's output pins.
Useful for controlling motors, dimming LEDs, etc.


The ability to generate signals in regular time intervals.

Useful for data communications, counters, etc.

Some also provide a range of interfaces with commonly used communications systems, such
as CAN, USB, UART, Ethernet, etc.

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Programming a PIC
This is a whole new subject and whilst the actual steps will depend on the programmer and
hardware being used, a typical process is:
Write a program on a computer, using commercial software or free software such as

JAL (Just Another Language).

Turn the program into the form that the PIC will understand (usually called a compiled
'hex' file).
Connect the computer to a 'PIC programmer'
Connect the PIC programmer to the circuit board being used.
Insert the PIC into the circuit board.
Copy the hex file into the PIC.

Practical examples
Here are some typical examples of PIC microcontrollers for use with model railways.

Dual purpose flasher

Apart from the LED and its resistor, the PIC only
uses two other components.
All the decision making, timing and output
switching is done inside the PIC as it carries out
its stored program.
In fact, there are two separate programs stored
inside the PIC and the choice of which program
to run is determined by how pin 5 is wired.
Pin 5 can be wired either to +5V or 0V in this
When it is connected to +5V, the PIC detects that
Pin 5 is at a high level and runs a welder emulation program. This produces periods of
LED flashing followed by pauses. When pin 2 connects to a white or blue (or maybe both)
it simulates the arcing of a welding machine.
When pin 5 is connected to 0V, the PIC runs a program that emulates the pulsating lights
that you see on top of tall buildings and structures to act as aircraft warning lights. Unlike
the rapid on/off output provided with the welding program, the output slowly illuminates
and dims a red LED.

Traffic Lights
This circuit uses a larger PIC, as it needs
more output pins than are available on an 8pin PIC. Again, it uses only two
components, with all the timing, sequencing
and LED switching being carried out by the
single program stored inside the PIC.
It uses six pins as outputs, to provide a fourway traffic lights system.
These are covered in greater detail in the
chapter on 'Pocket Money Projects'.

Transistors, ICs and PICs 14

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Controlling 4 Servos
Here is a simplified version of the MERG Servo4 board that is used to control four servos
(used for operating points and various animations).
Its main features are:
It has four inputs that are
normally held high but can be
brought down to 0V using
switches, the output from a
track occupancy detector, a
CANBUS module, or any other
5V digital output.
Each input, when switched
between +5V and 0V, alters the
corresponding servo's rotation
(input 1 controls servo 1, etc.).
The PIC can be connected to a
computer, using the serial port
input connection.
The computer's software application can set the amounts of rotation (the 'endpoints')
for each servo.
The final settings can be stored in the PIC's internal memory.
This PIC, therefore, uses digital inputs, pulse width outputs and a serial interface.
For more information on PICs, just do a Google search for 'PIC tutorials' there are more
than you can read.
For information on the JAL programming language, a good starting point is this website:

Transistors, ICs and PICs 15

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Chapter 16

Interfacing 16

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What is interfacing
We use interfaces every day. We communicate with each other using speech, sign
language and the written word. We communicate with each other over distances using
interfaces such as the telephone, radio, texting, social networks, etc. We use interfaces
such as ATMs and credit card readers. We interface with our computers using keyboards,
touch screens, mice, monitors, etc. The computer input/output devices can use electronic
interfaces such as USB, Ethernet, wifi dongles, serial ports, HDMI, SATA ports, etc.
In the model railway world, we interface with our layouts using the switches, knobs, lights,
etc. on our control panels and also using our loco controller. The electronic interfaces may
use direct wiring, DCC, Cbus, Loconet, etc.
In all the above cases, interfaces enable communication between separate, usually
dissimilar, things. For example, human to computer, computer to printer, etc.

Electronic interfacing
From our point of view, interfacing has two main purposes:
Connecting input and output devices to an electronic module.
Connecting two electronic modules to each other.
You may have built some kits or bought some electronic modules. That raises questions
such as:
What things can I connect as inputs to my modules (e.g. switches, track
occupancy detectors, etc.)?
What things can I connect as outputs to my modules (e.g. relays. LEDs, etc.)?
Can I connect two modules to each other?
Can I connect modules to each other even if they work at different voltages?
If these things are possible, how do I do it?
This is a very wide-ranging area, as there are so many different circuits and devices but it is
still possible to look at the general approaches.
Apart from DC power to the track, most circuits interconnect using digital signals, not
analogue. A module's pin is either high or low. Many electronic circuits use a 5v power
supply (or a 12v supply reduced to 5v).
So their inputs and outputs are designed to work at 5V or 0V.
However, the auxiliary power from many controllers is either 15VAC or 12V DC.
Consequently, some modules are designed to run on 12V.
This chapter looks at connecting modules and devices of various kinds, so that they interact
with each other without any problems.
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Connecting inputs
In model railways, the inputs to our electronic circuits will mostly be expecting to detect
changing voltage levels. Sometimes the changes will be analogue and sometimes digital.
With a few exceptions (e.g. CBUS, DCC decoder) the voltage levels are compared to 0V.
So a 5V reading means that it is 5 volts more positive than the 0V supply line.
The task for the various input devices is to convert their changes into voltage changes at a
module's input. Sometimes this will involve converting from changes in light or magnetic
fields, or current, sound, temperature or pressure changes.

Switch inputs
This is probably the most common interface to an electronic device.
In the example shown in the illustration, the module's input is
detecting a change of voltage.
With the switch open, the input line is held by the 10K resistor
to a high voltage. The resistor is known as a 'pull-up resistor'
as it pulls the input up to the supply voltage under normal
When the switch is closed, the input line is taken down to 0V.
So the input switches between 0V and the supply voltage level.
In many circuits, this would mean switching between 0V and
Of course, the switch could be replaced by a push-button, a microswitch or even the
contacts from a relay.

Output to Input
This illustration shows the output of one module
connected directly to the input of another module.
This is common in digital circuits where the first
module's output switches between the supply voltage
and 0V, and the input of the second module operates on
the same voltage changes.
Where the two modules operate on different voltages,
special arrangements may be necessary to allow them to
interface without problems (see later).

Analogue input
Some circuits require an analogue voltage
as its input.
This illustration is a cut-down version of a
circuit that illuminates an LED for a set
period when the light at the LDR drops
below a set level.
The voltage at the junction of the LDR and
the resistor/variable resistor combination
changes with the light level.

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This analogue change of voltage is taken to the transistor the purple line shows the
transistor's analogue interface.
At a certain input voltage level, the transistor's output level will change from high to low.
This change is connected to the timer's input the red line shows the digital interface.
The variable resistor determines the voltage fed to the transistor and is used to set the level
at which the module switches the LED on and off.
The main interface here is the one between light level and voltage.
Another light-to-voltage interface is that of the
infrared detector.
The illustration shows the TCRT5000 Reflective
Optical Sensor. Its use in model railways is
explained in the chapter on 'Track Occupancy
The output voltage is a function of the distance
between itself and the object reflecting the infrared
The values of the two resistors are not critical , with different users having values between
100R and 1k and between 4k7 and 20K.

Magnetic inputs
In this case we are using magnetic fields to change voltage levels.
The simplest example is the reed switch which is just a
switch that operates when a magnet is placed close to it (see
the chapter on 'Track Occupancy Detectors').
It can be used in place of the switch or push button shown earlier.
It is essentially an interface between magnetic fields and a digital voltage output (the reed
switch is either made or released).
An electronic version (i.e. no physical movement) of
this is the Hall Effect switch. It produces a change
of voltage at its output when a magnet is placed
close to it.
Since the Hall Effect switch's output is quite small,
many Hall Effect sensors also contain a built-in high
gain amplifier.
They are available as either linear output (the output
voltage is directly proportional to the magnetic field)
or digital (the output is either high or low).
Some have 'open collector' outputs which mean that the output has to be provided with an
external load across which the voltage will develop.

Other inputs
Some devices can be directly connected to a module's input. These include pressure pads
(which act like switches) and temperature sensors.
Other devices require additional electronics to make them work. These include current
detectors, sound detectors and RFID sensors. All the components are mounted on its own
board and can be treated as an output device (see the earlier Output to Input diagram).
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Connecting output devices

Your electronic modules have outputs that are designed to control and operate devices on
your layout. These include control panel lights, motors, points, signals, gates, uncouplers,
sound, smoke, etc.
Since these devices may operate differently and have different voltage or current demands,
the module has to be able to cope with those requirements.

In most cases, the current capacity of an electronic module's output is capable of switching
an LED on and off - except for high-power LEDs which
are looked at next.
This illustration shows a LED being connected to a
module using a resistor to limit the current through the
LED. The actual value of the resistor used depends on
the voltage and current requirements of LED.
When the module's output goes low, there is a voltage
difference between the its output and the power supply.
This illuminates the LED.
When the module's output is set to high, there is a high
voltage on both ends of the LED and it will not
This circuit is an example of 'sinking output'. The load (LED and resistor) are provided
with a high voltage from the positive supply, while the output provides a path for the current
to flow to 0V. In effect, the module's output pin has 'sunk' to the level of 0V.

This illustration shows the LED being wired to 0V.

In this case, the LED will illuminate when the module's
output pin goes high.
When the output is low, there is no voltage difference
across the LED and it will not illuminate.
This circuit is an example of a 'sourcing output'. One
end of the LED is connected to the 0V of the supply.
When activated, the module's output pin rises to the
level of the +V supply.
The output pin is now the 'source' of the current flow
through the LED.
In most cases, a module will be able to work in either
mode, so both of the above connections are valid.
Some components, are capable of sinking higher currents than they can source but you are
unlikely to come across them.

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This illustration shows a module's output being connected

to two LEDs that are connected in series across the power
supply, along with their dropper resistors. The junction
between them is connected to the module's output.
When the output goes low, there is a voltage difference
between the output pin and the +ve supply.
The module sinks current through the green LED from the
supply. The green LED illuminates.
Since both ends of the red LED are at 0V, it stays unlit.
When the output goes high, there is a voltage difference
between the output pin and the 0V of the supply.
The module sources current through the red LED from the
supply. The red LED illuminates.
Since both ends of the green LED are at the same voltage
level, it stays unlit.
This circuit is useful in a number of applications:
Switching control panel LEDs from green to red when an error occurs.
Indicating which way a point is set
Changing lights for oncoming trains when it enters a section of track that is fitted
with an occupancy detector.

High power LEDs

As the chapter on 'Scenic Lighting' explained, LEDs specifications detail the maximum
current that the LEDs can operate on. In practice, most can still illuminate at well below the
maximum rating.
This means that normal LEDs can be connected most modules that have a digital (i.e. high
or low) output.
There are occasions when you might want a module to switch a high brightness LED.
As they need a higher current than most modules can supply, you need to use a transistor as
a 'driver' to interface a low current output module to a high current component.
These illustrations show two such circuits.

The one on the left uses a transistor as a switch for currents up to 100mA, the maximum that
the transistor can handle.
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The BC557 transistor is of a type known as a

'PNP transistor'. This means that when its base
('b' in the diagram) is brought down to 0V, it
switches on. This allows current to flow
through its emitter/collector pins and illuminate
the LED.
When the module's output goes high, the
transistor is switched off and no current flows
through the transistor. The LED is unlit.
If you intend to illuminate a very high power LED or a LED strip that contains multiple
LEDs, you need to use a transistor that can handle these larger currents.
The TIP122 is a 'NPN power transistor' which can
handle up to 5A. It works in the opposite way to
the BC557 circuit above. When its base ('b' in the
diagram) is brought high, it switches on. This
allows current to flow through its emitter/collector
pins and illuminate the LED or LED strip.
The illustration shows a single high-power LED in
the circuit but that could be replaced by a LED strip
with the dropper resistor removed (the LED strip has
its own inbuilt resistors).
For more details on how transistors work as switches, look at:

Bi-colour LEDs
An illustration on a previous page showed how to control two LEDs from a single input
line. If you want to have a single LED on your control panel or on your layout and still
control two colours from a single inout line, you can use a bi-colour LED.
As explained in the chapter on 'Scenic
Lighting', a bi-colour LED is just two
differently coloured LEDs built into the one
casing, wired in reverse of each other. It has
only two connecting leads. If you connect the
power one way, the upper LED lights. If you
reverse the power, the lower LED lights.
This circuit is an illustration of both sinking
and sourcing currents.
If the module's output goes high, the green
LED will illuminate, with the module sourcing
current to the LED via the lower resistor. The red LED will remain unlit as it has a high
voltage at both of its ends.
If the module's output goes low, the red LED will illuminate, with the module sinking
current to the LED via the upper resistor. The green LED will remain unlit as it has a low
voltage at both of its ends.
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Although electronics is continually developing, many enthusiasts still feel more comfortable
using relays for switching purposes.
Many relays operate on quite small currents and so
can be connected directly to the digital output of
most modules.
The illustration shows a single switch contact,
although they are available with multiple switches
and as changeover contacts.
As mentioned previously, the diode prevents any
back EMF from damaging the transistor when the
relay is switched off.
If there is any doubt about the above circuit, you can
check what the module's current handling capacity is
and compare it with that need to operate your relay.
If you are lucky, you will have the relay's specification
which will include its coil resistance, allowing you to
calculate the expected current for the supply voltage
you are using.
If you do not have this information, it is quite easy to
measure the relay's current using your multimeter set on its current range. The relay
inscription will usually tell you what voltage it is designed to operate on (e.g. a 5V relay or
a 12V relay).
So for example, if the relay is a 12V type you would connect a 12 supply and read the
current value from the multimeter.
If the value read is capable of being driven directly from the module's output, you would use
the circuit at the top of this page.
If you are in any doubt, or you think you are
operating too close to the module's maximum
rating, you would use a transistor switch to
operate the point.
Since the transistor and resistor are pretty cheap,
you may want to use this circuit anyway.
This would ensure that the addition of any
further circuits to the module's output would not
exceed its current rating.
You can also buy 'solid state' relays which work
like normal relays but have no moving parts. They can handle large currents and are
available for switching AC and DC.
The AC types can be used for switching main appliances on and off, which is not a normal
requirement in model railways. The DC types can be used for block switching, etc.

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Driving multiple devices

If you only have a single high-power LED or relay to control, a transistor or power
transistor is all you need.
If you have multiple LEDs, relays, etc. to control you can use a single component that has
eight entirely separately operated 'drivers' inside it.
This illustration shows five LEDs and three relays being controlled through this single
device. The ULN2803 is called a 'high-voltage, high-current Darlington transistor array'.

It has two rows of pins and pins 9 and 10 are connected to the power supply.
The other pins are arranged in pairs with the input pin facing across from the output pin.
So, pin1 is the input pin that controls output pin 18, pin 2 controls output pin 17 and so on.
The drivers have 'open collector' outputs. which means that they require a load to be
connected to their outputs to see the expected voltage changes.
The outputs are 'inverted', which means that each output pin is always at the opposite
polarity to its corresponding input pin.
When pin1 goes high, it makes pin 18 go low.
When pin 1 goes low, it makes pin 18 go high.
The same applies to all of the drivers. So when pin 8 goes high, it makes pin 11 go low, and
vice versa.
The outputs can handle up to 50V and an individual output is capable of handling up to
500mA. However, that does not mean that the ULN2803 can simultaneously drive all 8
outputs at 500mA, as it would overload and burn out the chip. In practice, you could drive
four outputs at 300mA each, or seven outputs at just under 200mA each.
Since the inputs to the ULN2803 can handle PWM inputs, you can still drive all eight
outputs at 500mA each if you drive all inputs with a duty cycle of just under 25%.
These are only limitations if all outputs are having to simultaneously control devices with
heavy current demands.
If you wanted to, you could connect inputs together, so that several outputs would operate
from a single input change. For example, if you connected pins 2 and 3 together, a single
input change would switch two relays on and off.
The chip has built-in back emf protection for inductive loads such as relays, so there is no
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need to fit external protection diodes.

The ULN2003 device is very similar to the ULN2803.
Since it only has seven sets of drivers, the chip has 16 pins
compared to the 18 pins used by the ULN2803.
Like its larger brother, the ULN2003 has its inputs pins
facing their corresponding output pins; a very hand layout
when designing circuit layouts.
So, pin1 controls output pin16, etc.
Its outputs are also inverted and it has similar voltage and
current handling capabilities to the ULN2803.
Although these chips have built-in back emf protection,
some manufacturers recommend using additional external
protection measures.

The following electronic circuits could be used for controlling your DC locos but you
probably already have a loco controller. Of course, if you are looking to automate your
layout, these circuits could be very useful.
The circuits are useful for all sorts of motor-driven features that you can add to your layout.
You may already have some features, such as a windmill, on your layout that would benefit
from being animated.
There are different needs for motorised features.

Some, such as a windmill, a water mill, or a screw conveyor rotate constantly in the one
direction and the motor is left to run unattended. The only consideration may be reducing
the voltage of the layout's power to that of the motor.
Some, such as a Ferris wheel or a Carousel /Merry-Go-Round, also rotate in one direction
but also stop from time to time. The motor may be controlled manually or using a timer.
Some, such as elevators/lifts, funicular railways, funfair pendulum/swinging chair rides also
stop from time to time but they also have to rotate the motor in both directions.

From some of the above examples, you will have noticed that a motor does not have to be
used only to rotate things. If the motor shaft is attached to a threaded rod, with a nut free to
move up and down the rod, the nut can be attached to all sorts of features to animate them.
This image shows the basic idea.
With this 14RPM motor fitted, the nut moves along at about one inch per minute.
You choose the motor speed that suits your planned feature.
The rod assembly could be under the baseboard, with a pin connecting the nut to the item to
be moved back and forth. In this way, we can have barge
slowly glide along a canal, as well as the elevators and
funicular railways already mentioned. This technique
allows to animate features horizontally, vertically or at any
This image shows an implementation of this technique,
complete with microswitch sensors.

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Motor speeds
There are three approaches to getting the speed you want from a motor:

Using gearing. This includes toothed gears (including built-in and external gearboxes), belts
and pulleys, etc. Even with these, you may still want to tweak the final speed.
Using a dropper. For motors with small to medium current requirements, a simple resistor
can be placed in series with the motor (see below).
Using a regulated supply. Droppers are not the most suitable for high current motors and a
power supply that can be set to the required motor voltage is preferable.

Constant rotation
If you are using a 12V motor and you have a 12V supply, you simply wire the motor to the
supply the correct way round, otherwise your watermill will be pushing water upstream!
Of course, you may not want to run the motor at full speed. As long as the motor is a low
current type, you can add a resistor in series with the motor.
Lets consider two examples:
Case 1
You have a 12V supply and a 3V motor that you want to run at full speed.
So, you want to drop 9v across the resistor and 3V across the motor.
Calculating the resistor to drop 12V down to your 3V motor depends on knowing the
current the motor takes when run under load at full speed.
Once you know the current requirements of the motor for your required speed, you can use
Ohm Law to calculate a working value for the resistor.
So, for example, if you knew that your motor took 20mA at full speed, the added resistance
would be R = V/I.
In our example, that would be 9/.02 = 450 ohms
470 ohms is the closest available value and could be used with no discernible effect on the
motor speed.
The power dropped in the resistor can be calculated thus:
W=I * V
= 0.2 * 9 = 0.18W
So, a 470 ohms with a rating of 1/4W or preferably
1/2W could be used.
If you don't know the motor's current at 3V, place your
multimeter (set to read current) in series with the
motor and across a 3V supply.
Case 2
You have a 12V supply and a 12V motor that you want to run at a slower than maximum
If you have a variable power supply, connect it to your motor and adjust the voltage until
you get the speed you want at its working load Read the voltage level that is used and then
connect your meter in series as shown above to read the current consumed at that voltage.
You now have the voltage and current that the motor should operate at.
Subtract the motor voltage from the supply voltage to find the voltage drop required across
the resistor and use Ohms Law to calculate the required resistance.
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High current motors

Case 1 above looked at running a 3V motor from a 12V supply. It took 20mA and so a
relatively low wattage resistor could be used as the voltage dropper.
Consider what would happen if the the motor current was 500mA instead of 20mA.
The voltage drop across the resistor would still be 9v and the power consumed by the
resistor would be W = I * V
= 0.5 * 9 = 4.5W
You can buy power resistors that can handle high currents,
including those that are aluminium-clad for bolting to heat
Switching the motor on an off is more of a problem, unless
you are using manual switches.
You could not normally connect the motor/resistor directly
to the output of a module, as they are usually not capable of
switching such high currents.
You could use a relay, as described earlier or you could use
a transistor as a switch, as in this example.

Controllable motors
To be fully controllable, a motor has to be be able to run both forward and reverse, able to
be be switched on and off, and also have its speed alterable.
Electronic circuits can be designed for these tasks. You can build a circuit using multiple
transistors, etc. However, there is no need as there are integrated circuits that combine
these features in a single chip. Indeed, some chips can handle two motors.
Two such examples are the L293D and the SN754410 'Quad Half H-Bridge Motor Driver'

The two chips have identical pin connections and work in exactly the same way. The only
real difference is that the L293D can handle 600mA continuously, while the SN754410 can
handle 1A continuously (both can handle double these currents for short periods).
The 'Quad' in the chip title indicate that the chip contains four identical drivers, each with
its own input pin and output pin. There are two such circuits on each side of the chip.
So, for example, taking pin 15 high makes output pin 14 go high, while taking pin 10 high
makes output pin 11 go high. So, the chip could be used to control four separate motors.

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This illustration shows a single motor being operate by its

own switch. Taking pin 15 high results in the output pin
14 going high. The motor turns.
Removing the +5V from pin 15 results in pin 14 going low.
The motor stops.
Although the diagram shows a switch, pin 15 could be
switched by a push-button, relay contacts or from the
output of another module.
Although they can be switched on and off separately, they
are unable to be reversed. That is where the 'H-Bridge'
mode in the chip's title can be utilised.
This illustration shows the operation of an H-bridge
circuit, using conventional switches.

When switches A and C are closed, the motor has a positive potential on its left hand
connection and 0v on it other connection. The motor will turn in one direction.
If we now open switches A and C, and close switches B and D, the voltage across the motor
is reversed and the motor turns in the opposite direction.
An H-bridge can be constructed from four power transistors or even relay contacts, each
carrying out the functions of the four switches in the above circuit. Better still, the L293D
(and the SN754410) can be wired to provide two separate H-bridge circuits.
If we switch pin 11 high and pin 14 low (see the L293D diagram) the motor will rotate in
one direction. Reversing the polarity of these two output pins will rotate the motor in the
opposite direction.
If pins 10 and 15 are both at a supply voltage or both at zero volts, there is no potential
difference across the motor and it will not rotate.
The table below summarises the options:
Pin 10

Pin 15




Rotate one direction



Rotate other direction



Motor stopped



Motor stopped

If required, an input pin can be fed with a PWM signal, to achieve speed control. For example, pin
15 could be taken high, while pin 10 is fed with a PWM input.
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Switching an H-bridge
As can be seen from the above table, we need two inputs to control an H-bridge circuit,
allowing us to have forward, reverse and stop.
This example circuit uses a SPDT CO switch to handle the inputs. It has three positions,
including a centre-off position.
When the switch is left in the middle position, neither pin has a high voltage and the motor
is stopped.
Throwing the switch to the left brings pin 15 high (pin 14 goes high) and the motor rotates.
Throwing the switch in the other direction, brings pin 10 high (pin 11 goes high) and the
motor rotates in the opposite direction.
Although a switch is shown, it could be replaced by relay contacts, a pair of pushbuttons, or
the outputs from other modules.
The other pins

Pin 16 is connected to the +5V supply.

Pins 4, 5, 12 and 13 are connected to the 0V of the supply.
Pin 8 is connected to the voltage supply for the motor, which may be different from the +5V
supply for the chip (e.g. it might be connected to +12V to run a 12V motor). It supports
from 4.5V to a maximum input of 36V.
Pin 9 is the 'Enable' pin for the right-hand drivers. This can be switched externally, where
bringing it down to 0V stops the left-hand drivers from working. If this is not needed, the
pin can be permanently connected to +5V.


Although the examples show the input and output pins on the right hand side of the
chip, the identical sets of pins are available on the left hand side inputs and outputs.
Make sure you buy the L293D and not the other variations of this chip, as the 'D'
indicates that the chip contains internal clamp diodes to allow it to work with
inductive loads.
If you need to switch even greater
currents, you can parallel the
inputs and outputs of both bridges,
as shown in this illustration. This
doubles the output handling
capacity of the L293D to 1.2A.
The blue lines show the inputs on
each side being connected
The green lines show the outputs
of each side being connected
The enable pins are also connected
together and taken to +5V, or to a
PWM signal if required.

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The chapter on 'Layout Sound' covered how to interface various sound modules.
Which just leaves the requirement to make a general sound that can be used as feedback that
an action has happened.
Examples are:
A confirmation beep when a button is pressed.
A warning tone for shorts, overheating, etc.
Placing a microswitch on buffers at the end of a hidden siding. The user slowly
runs the train forward until a beep is heard, indicating that the train has reached the
end of the track. The user then reverses a little to stop the tone.
A warning when you try to run a train in to a removable section that has not be
refitted properly.
You can use electromagnetic buzzers but piezo buzzers use less current and produce no
unwanted electromagnetic radiation.
A piezo buzzer is a thin piece of piezoelectric ceramic bonded to a disc. When subjected to
an alternating voltage, the material stretches and compresses, making the sound.
Some piezo buzzers are self driven and have their own built-in driver
circuits. A typical example will operate at 3V to 24V, with a current
consumption of around 15mA at 12V.
If your module's output can
handle that amount of current,
you can connect the buzzer
directly to the output pin.
When a DC voltage is applied
across it, it will emit a continuous high pitched tone.
If there is any doubt about your module's current
rating, you can use a transistor as a current switch, as
shown in this diagram.
The basic piezo buzzer is shown in this image. It is not self driven
and requires an external driving circuit to excite the piezoelectric
This circuit is a simple
oscillator that can be turned on
by raising its input pin 4 to the
positive supply. While pin 4
is held low, the circuit does not
The output from pin 3 can be taken to either a piezo
buzzer or to a loudspeaker.
With an 8 ohm speaker connected, the circuit draws
10mA at 5V while oscillating and 40mA at 12V.

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Smoke and steam effects can greatly add to the realism of a layout.
Smoke units are available from manufacturers such as Seuthe, Vollmer and LGB.
They can be fitted into steam locos or used in the chimneys of scenic buildings such
as houses, factories, pottery kilns, 'burning' buildings, campfires, etc.
These units are available in different sizes and different voltage/current requirements
but they all work on the same principle.
Their construction and use is simple. They consist of a small metal tube that is
sealed at the bottom and open at the top. There is a small heating element inside the
tube, with external leads that connect to your power supply.
The tube is filled with smoke oil and heated when power is applied to the element.
The oil is vaporised and rises from the tube where it condenses to produce visible
smoke or steam.

Different sizes
The length and diameter of the tube determines how much oil the smoke unit can hold and a
large range of sizes are available, to suit various uses.
The full Seuthe range is described here:

They recommend different units for HO, 0 and 1 gauges.

Some are designed to fit into locos that are designed to accommodate them.
Others are for you to fit in your own way.
For HO and 00 users, voltages range from 8V to 22V and current requirements ranging
from 70mA to 140mA. For O and 1 users, voltages range from 10V to 16V and current
requirements of 140mA.
For buildings, voltages range from 10V to 18V and current requirements of 50mA to
60mA. The Seuthe 117, shown in this illustration, is designed to fit in the chimney of a
Seuthe also sell the 500 series "Super" Smoke Units. These have a large reservoir tank
to keep the unit topped up, allowing for much longer periods of use.
This unit is designed to fit in a boat but is suitable for large scale buildings:

This website show how someone made their large scale smoke unit:

An this website shows how someone enlarge their reservoir for their loco:

Different oils
Unless you have a unit with a reservoir, you keep the oil level topped up by dripping oil into
the top of the unit with a pipette. Don't refill the container while it is still hot as this will
cause splatter.
The fluid used is a mixture of light oils and ammonium chloride ( to quicken the
vapourisation process).
Manufacturers of smoke units also sell smoke oils and Peter's Spares produce a range of
perfumed oils. Apart from producing smoke, they emit aromas such as Coal-Fired Steam,
Fireplace, Diesel Power, Lumber Mill, Wood Stove, Barbecue, Coffee and Cut Grass.
Check out:
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A Google check reveals many ways of producing your own smoke oils at much cheaper
prices. Suggestions include Paraffin Oil (Mineral Oil), Witch Hazel, Lamp Oil and
Propylene Glycol (as used in e-cigarettes).
This website describes using a glycerine mix with distilled water:

As always, these alternatives should be approached with caution and at your own risk.
While many enthusiasts claim great success over long periods, you should make your own
tests to be satisfied that they are safe to use. For example, vapourised paraffin (as
compared to burnt paraffin e.g. candle wax) can collect in your lungs and cannot be

Other issues
While smoke units can be a great asset to a layout, it is worth noting potential problems.
When the vapour condenses, it drops back down on to the loco, or the track, or
the scenery. The thin film of oil may attract dust and necessitate more
frequent cleaning.
Any oil spillages on to a loco body may eventually degrade its shell.
The units should always be fed by a voltage within its specified range. Too
high a voltage can overheat the unit and burn out its element, or melt/burn its
surroundings. Too low a voltage will not sufficiently vapourise the oil and the
unit will instead splatter out oil.
It is vital that the unit never be allowed to completely run dry. This will also
result in the element burning out and possible damage to its surroundings.

Fitting in Locos
Some locomotives come prepared to accommodate the installation of Seuthe steam
generators, including some Marklin, Fleischmann, Roco, Lilliput, Trix and Brawa models.
For these selected models, both DC and DCC, the installation is fairly simple.
For DC locos, the units leads can be wired directly across the power from the wheel
pickups. So, the unit with the lowest operating voltage is best, as it will not sufficiently
heat the oil until the track voltage reaches that voltage level. When the loco is stopped,
there is no voltage at the element and it will cool down and not produce smoke. In other
words, it cannot produce smoke while it is stationary. When the loco moves again, there
will be a delay before smoke appears as the heating element takes time to come up to
DCC locos, on the other hand, have power from the track at all times, even when stationary.
So, a unit in the 16V to 22V range would be most suitable. If the unit is wired directly
across the wheel pickups, it will be constantly vapourising oil which is not likely to be
required; it will also require much more frequent topping up.
If the unit is wired to an auxiliary pin of a DCC decoder, the smoke unit can be switched on
an off as required. The unit is wired across an auxiliary pin and the blue common positive
It is important that you confirm the current handling of your decoder's auxiliary
output can handle the current requirements of the smoke unit you purchase.

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Fitting in buildings
Given the options for larger oil containers, and the simple two wire heating element, smoke
units are easy to fit to layout buildings, etc.
At its simplest, you wire the heating element through a switch to your 12V supply.
You may consider wiring a timer output to
the element, so that the smoke was emitted
This timer circuit provides power to the
smoke unit heater element every so often,
depending on the values of the resistors and
large capacitor.
With the values shown, the timer's output pin
goes low for around 15 seconds every 3
This website provides a calculator, if you want different timings:
The 555 chip handles a maximum output of 200mA.
To prevent the chip overheating, it is best to use a transistor switch. In fact, this will be
essential for the units that draw more than 200mA.
The TIP126 is a PNP type power transistor. When its base goes low, it turns on providing a
supply to the smoke unit.
At exhibitions, you might consider having a detector (see chapter on detectors) that senses
the presence of visitors and switches on the smoke unit. During quiet periods, the smoke
unit is switched off.

Electromagnetic uncouplers
Kadee couplings are popular amongst a section of enthusiasts. To avoid having to manually
uncouple rolling stock with hooks and sticks, Kadee brought out under-track permanent
magnets. These sit under the sleepers so that the magnetic field opens the knuckles
Although this is a great improvement on manual uncoupling, it is far from perfect. It
involves some tricky shunting of the wagons back and forth to achieve uncoupling. In
addition, moving a train over the magnets may lead to accidental uncoupling of rolling
For easier use, Kadee brought out their HO
electromagnet uncoupler. This is fitted under the
baseboard, as shown in the picture (it also shows the
Seep EM1 version). You simply stop the train with the
couplings over the electromagnet, energise the decoupler
coil and pull the rest of the train away.
Kadee recommend a 16V DC supply of at least 3A to power their uncoupler. The Seep EM1
model takes 1A at 12V DC and 1.5A at 18V DC. They can both be operated by a simple
pushbutton of suitable current rating (check before you fit). Do not use a switch as it may
be left on by mistake and overheat until the coil is burn out. Kadee recommend a
maximum of two minutes continuous use, although users recommend a much shorter time.

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When connecting modules together, you cannot always guarantee a direct connection is
suitable i.e. connecting one module's output into another's input.
For one thing, they may be operating at
different voltage levels (interfacing 12V
modules to 5V modules, etc. is covered
A module's output may go high when
activated but the other module expects a low
voltage on its input.
The diagram shows how this problem is
The BC557 is wired as an 'inverter'. This
means that a positive voltage on its base
brings its collector down to 0V. Conversely, 0V on its base results in a positive voltage on
its collector. In other words, its output is always the opposite of its input.
In this way, two modules can be interfaced so that the correct outcome is achieved, at a cost
of a few pence.

Sometimes you want the output from a module to connect to multiple other modules and
devices (e.g. the output from a track occupancy detector connecting to relays, LEDs, timers,
etc.). This is know as a 'fanout' and you have to ensure that the total current requirements
of all the attached modules and devices does not exceed the available current output from
the module feeding them.

Voltage incompatibilities
Earlier pages demonstrated how to drive high current devices from modules with low
current outputs.
Another problem is interfacing devices that work at different voltage levels. Many digital
devices work with a 5V supply and others with a 12V supply. The aim is to safely connect
their inputs and outputs.
Connecting high voltage outputs to low voltage modules
This illustration shows a method of connecting a 12V output to a
module that expects a 5V input.
Two resistors are connected in series across the module's output
pin and 0V. Together they form a 'potential divider', with some
of the voltage being developed across each resistor. The voltage
across the lower resistor is taken to the next module.
The voltage across the lower resistor depends on the ratio of the
two resistances. So, for example, if they were both 10k than a
12V across them would drop 6V across each resistor. Using the
values shown, a 12V output from the module will produce 4.8V
across the lower resistor. This will work in may circumstances, although the input circuit
of the next module may have its own resistors.

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In addition, you may want to achieve electrical isolation, specially if you want a module to
interface with a high voltage devices such as mains-driven circuits.
In these cases, you can adopt the technique below.
Connecting low voltage outputs to high voltage modules
The input pin of a high voltage module may still switch with the +5V coming from a 5V
module's output. On the other hand, you may not want to risk any damage to the 5V
module by connecting it to a potentially higher voltage.
One popular solution is ensure that there is no electrical connection between module outputs
and inputs. Instead, it uses light as the link between the modules, using 'optocouplers'.

An optocoupler, sometimes called an opto-isolator or a photo-coupler, is essentially an
infrared LED and photo-transistor in one package.
The illustration shows the KB814 optocoupler.
It is a small four pin package, with two pins
connected to a source of infrared light and two pins
that connect to a photo-sensitive transistor.
When current passes through the LED, it emits
infra-red light which hits the base of the phototransistor and switches it on. Current can now conduct between its output pins.
Many optocouplers have a single LED inside its case, but the KB814 has two that are wired
opposite to each other. This allows this particular optocoupler to work with an AC input if
This ciruit shows the LED of an optocoupler being
connected to a module that works at 5V, while the phototransistor is connected to a module that works at 12V.
The only link between them is the infrared beam. This
provides a high degree of electrical isolation between
them, 5KV for the KB814.
With the 4K7 load resistor in the emitter, the output is
inverted a high at the LED results in a low at the output.
When the input to the LED is high, it will not emit light and the transistor will stay switched
off. This results in the photo-transistor's emitter going low.
When the input to the LED is low, it will emit light and the transistor will switched on,
bringing the photo-transistor's emitter high.
This circuit is known as a 'level shifter'. The input is either at 0V or +5V, while the output is
either 0V or +12V. This arrangement can be used to interface many voltage differences
(e.g. 12V to 5V, 5V to 18V, etc.).
This variation on the above circuit places the load resistor
in the photo-transistor's collector, to create a non-inverting
output. When the LED is switched high, the LED does not
emit and the photo-transistor is turned off. The output
from its collector also goes high.
Taking the LED's input low, makes it emit and the output
also goes low.
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Opto-isolator types
These devices are available in the following varieties:
DC input photo-transistor, with a single LED, such as the Sfh610-a2. The above
example circuits are of this type.
DC or AC input photo-couplers with two LEDs, such as the KB814. There is little
use for AC inputs in model railways but it is commonly used with DC inputs.
Photo-Darlington opto-couplers, such as the IS4N46. The specifications for all
opto-isolators include their 'transfer ratio'. This is the ratio of the current flowing
through the LED to the current flowing through the collector/emitter of the transistor.
These can vary widely, from as little as 10% (e.g. 20mA through the LED results in
only 2mA flowing through the transistor) up to 500%
(e.g. a 20mA through the LED results in 100mA
flowing through the transistor). For example the
KB814 can produce a maximum transfer ratio of 300%.
To achieve the highest transfer ratios, some optocouplers have a 'Darlington Pair' built in to them. A
second transistor boosts the current from the phototransistor to provide an increased transfer ratio. Where
even higher currents are required, further additional transistors can be connected to
the output to handle higher current loads.
Photo-SCRs, such as the H11C4. The SCR stands
for 'Silicon Controlled Rectifier'. When the LED is
powered, the diode conducts, allowing current to
pass between its anode and cathode. It is mostly
used to switch AC loads. It can be used to switch a
DC output but once the diode conducts it stays
conducting even after the LED is witched off. The
only way to stop the output from conducting is to cut
of its power.
Photo-TRIACs, such as the MOC3020. TRIAC
stands for 'Triode for Alternating Current' and it can
conduct current in both directions.
The photo-SCR and photo-TRIAC are included for
completeness. You are unlikely to come across them in
model railway circuits, although you may find TRIACs
(not photo-TRIACs) being used to operate points in some

All the above circuits are snippets; they are building blocks. You have to adapt to whatever
modules you are working with.
Don't forget to use the internet as a source of information about your specific modules.
specific modules already documented
For example, MERG members who want to connect CBUS units together can find details at:

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Chapter 17
Using computers

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Using computers
This chapter looks at how computers can benefit your layout, what is available, and how to
use it.
Most people have access to computers, generally
desktops and laptops. Along with mobile phones,
they are mostly used for browsing, email and social
However, computers can make a major
contribution to model railways. Some shy away
from computers in their modelling but there are
many levels at which computers can contribute to
your layout. These range from finding out how to
do things (e.g. lay track or build trees) up to implementing full-blown automated layouts.

Why use computers?

You don't have to install new software or change anything on your computer to get loads of
extra benefits.
If your computer is connected to the Internet, you already have access to:

Free goodies
Most model railway and electronics retailers

If you are comfortable about purchasing/downloading software and installing it on your

computer, you can have any (or all) of these:

Train simulators.
Track planners
Stock inventory
Layout control software
Automation software

A Google search for 'model railway' returned over 41 million results! There is certainly
plenty to keep you searching and reading for a long, long time. Getting more specific, a
search for 'model rail turntables' returned 760,000 results and 'laying model railway track'
returned 108.000 results
There are whole websites dedicated to bringing together model railway news, views and
product reviews. Examples of such sites are:
For free track layout suggestions, check out:
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Model railway enthusiasts are always happy to help newer members or members with
specific problems. There are websites that are dedicated to answering questions and each
Forum is worth a visit.
Examples are:

This is one of the sections from the website.

Other sections cover specific gauges, sales and wants, etc.

Examples of more specific Forums are:

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Freebies and savings

Constructing buildings from pre-printed card is very popular, although some kits are now
quite expensive. To the purchase, you have to add the cost of postage, unless you buy
them at an exhibition.
If you have Internet access, you can download the images and print them off yourself. This
is cheaper than paying postage and has the advantage that the buildings' images can be
printed again and again. One purchase can create multiple buildings.
Even better, a number of websites provide free downloads of building kits.
If you prefer constructing your own buildings and use brick paper, tile paper, etc., then you
can also download these textures, including free
The image shows a building that was constructed
from a free download from:
Other sites worth a look are: (accepts voluntary PayPal
donations) (also sells commercial card kits)
These websites mainly sell kits but have free samples.

Mail order suppliers

In the past, you ordered from a limited number of catalogues and, if the items you wanted
were not available locally, you had to send off cheques to the companies along with your
order form. That facility is still available, although you can now place telephone orders
using your credit/debit card.
With the expansion of the Internet, even small local model railway shops and electronic
suppliers are within your reach. provides a list of many local model railway shops.

If you subscribe to eBay you can access sellers from all around the world, which is ideal for
tracking spcecialist items, or for making significant savings.
You can order from UK sellers, or worldwide sellers, although be prepared to wait up to five
weeks for deliveries from Hong Kong, China, etc.
A search for 'OO' resulted in 20574 items being sold, with 'HO loco' displaying 3125 items
for sale. Overall, 480626 items for sale were found in the 'model train' category.
Some items are for immediate purchase, while others are on auction.
The next two pages provide a list of resources and suppliers that you can find on
the Internet. Please note that some smaller companies may come and go; its
difficult to keep such a list current.
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Sources of information, calculators

- Calculates resistor need for LEDs

- Identifies a resistor by its colour code ditto

- Loads of DCC-related how-to articles

- Build your own DCC modules

- Loads of electronic circuits for railways

- NMRA's basics on layout wiring

- Commonly Used Acronyms explained

- Speed and scale calculators

- Technical data archive - Loads of general electronic projects - Loads of general electronic projects - Loads of general electronic projects - Loads of PIC specifications, suggestions - Course on PICs - Information on a wide range of electronic devices - The Electronics Club

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General component suppliers

- Good range of motors - Modules for railways

- Mainly cables and connectors

Specialist component suppliers

- A distributor and manufacturer of robotics & electronics technology Suppliers of specialist adaptors and cables

- Suppliers of interface cards - Mainly aircraft but have a range of useful materials - Mainly Audio/Video but selection of cables, etc.

- Large range of LEDs - PIC-related - PICs and robotics - PIC-related

- Tools - Mainly PICs but a selection of electronic components - Robotics, servos, etc.
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Model railway software

The previous pages covered accessing a range of support, using just your computer and your
web browser. Now we will look at software that you have to install on your computer, to
get the benefits of their features. In most cases, the installation is easy and all you need is
some time to get familiar with the application and all its options.

Train simulators
Just a quick mention, since it is railway
related software of a sort. You don't
even need a layout for this, as it mainly
for fun.
Most packages have pre-determined
routes that you follow as the train's driver.
The image shows a screenshot from the
RealRailway Train Simulator.
Those that allow you to alter the trackwork, can provide the feel of a layout before
committing to a real track plan.
Examples are:
ArcRail Train Simulation (
RealRailway Train Simulator (
PC-Rail Simulations (
Rail Simulator fro Electronic Arts (

Although something to entertain you and the kids/grandkids, it does not make a serious
contribution to your layout. The software that follows does.

Track planners
When contemplating starting a new layout, modellers take many approaches.
Some have a plan of sorts in their heads and just start laying track.
Some draw a sketch on a postcard or a sheet of paper. Some are more organised and use
graph paper to judge lengths and the radius of each bend and point.
Clearly, making it up as you go along or working to a vague plan is a recipe for lots of
mistakes. In fact, even the more disciplined approach of using graph paper has it
Firstly, as you work through the planned layout, you will likely want to alter track positions,
locations of points, the radius of a curve, etc. To make the changes, you have to rub out
some the existing plan and start over. This can be a laborious and frustrating process,
particularly when working with flexitrack.
Sometimes the difficulty is visualising how the layout will look when it is finished.
This is where track planning software becomes useful. The time spent in installing the
software and learning how it works makes planning a layout an interesting and enjoyable
experience. Even better, it need not cost too much some programs are free.

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Some packages have basic (although useful) facilities while others are rich in their features.
The most useful facilities could include:
Works for any gauge.
Works with both set track and flexitrack.
Pre-defined track libraries for different manufacturers.
Handles transition curves (a curve of constantly changing radius).
Can print out layout sheets.
Can print out track templates.
Option to display a 3D view of the layout.
Option to add in lineside features, trees, etc.
This illustration shows a layout that has been designed using the 'Cadrail' package.

And this is the software displaying the same layout in 3D.

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Track planning packages

Here is a look at some of the packages that are available. Some are completely free, some
are commercial but allow free use on a limited basis and some are completely commercial.

The images you saw on the last page were made using this package.
It is available for download from:

It is a commercial package but allows free use with a maximum of 60 objects.

This stands for 'Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller' and is a freeware package that is
available from:
Here is a screenshot of the package in operation.

This is another commercial package that allows free use, this time a maximum of 50 objects.
It can be downloaded from:

Templot is intended primarily for modellers who wish to construct their own track.
It can handle slips, 3-way tandem turnouts, curved double-junctions and mixed-gauge
formations. It is free to download and use, with a request for donations.
It can be downloaded from:

It has its own user Forum.

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This is a fairly comprehensive package with benchwork, on-screen ruler, elevations and
even 'Post It' notes.
It is free and can be downloaded from:

It has its own Yahoo Group with over 5,000 members.

A commercial product that can be downloaded from:

Has useful features such a tool to design 3-rail trackwork, for combining narrow-gauge and
standard gauge track systems.

3rd PlanIt
A very well featured commercial package that can be downloaded from

It has facilities for adding terrain including foliage and viewing in 3D.
A special feature is the ability to design your own locos and run them on the track, as shown
in this screenshot.

It allows you to use the software without payment, with a restriction of no more than 100
objects and no ability to save the layout.

The Right Track

This is a freeware package that is available from:

This application provides templates not just for track but also bridges, turntables, buildings
and electrical controls.

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Stock inventory
It is not uncommon for railway modellers to amass countless locos and pieces of rolling
stock. When the cost of the trackwork, buildings, controls, etc. are added, the entire
collection can easily be a four or even a five figure sum.
That raises the question of how to protect these items in case of fire, flood, theft, damage in
transit, accidental damage, etc.
Household insurance policies don't fully cover collections of items and most will not cover
layouts in garages or sheds, or garden layouts. In addition, layouts taken to exhibitions or
stored in clubrooms are not included in household insurance policies.
Luckily, a number of insurance companies offer special policies for model railways.
To maintain proper coverage, an accurate and up-to-date record of all your model railway
items need to be recorded and lodged with the insurers.
A number of stock inventory systems are available for installation on your computer. You
enter the details of each item and they are stored in the application's database. This can be
a simple set of details, while the more advanced applications allow you to store additional
information including photographs, scanned documents (e.g. receipts) and videos.

CMS Stock
This is a fully-specified application that can be downloaded from:

or can be supplied on CD.

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It is a commercial product but you can download a free fully-functional one month trial
The program stores Locomotives, Carriages and Wagons separately with no limit on the
number of records. The program is also customisable, allowing you add your own extra
categories to the database.
Apart from creating a list for insurance purposes, the database can store valuable
information for day-to-day use, such as servicing or maintenance schedules, exhibition
dates, which locos have DCC decoders, what type of coupling is used, etc.

Track Those Trains

This program can be downloaded from

It is 'shareware', which means that it can be freely distributed and used for evaluation
purposes. Buying a license allows you to add unlimited records and adds printing,
exporting in PDF format, a backup function, and other features.
The program also allows you to attach multiple digital images, video clips and documents.

AP Railventory
This is a commercial program although you can download a 30 day trial version that is
limited to 50 items.
It is available for download only from

The database supports 26 categories including locomotives, rolling stock, track, buildings,
electronics, software and literature. There is no limit to the number of items.
You can include two images and unlimited text for each item.

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Control software
The previous pages looked at what you could achieve using only your computer, the Internet
and maybe a printer. These provide benefits that supported your model railway activities.
This next section looks at using your computer to control what actually happens on your

What is a computer controlled layout?

Computer-assisted systems can provide different levels of operating support.
There are three main operating modes:
Fully manual
The operator is in complete charge of all loco, point and accessory operations, using
a mouse or pad to interact with buttons and sliders on an on-screen control panel. It
is the responsibility of the operator to see where things are and what needs to happen
Partially automated
The computer software is left to run locos on the layout's main lines, with no
attention needed from the operator. The operator is responsible for, and manually
controls, locos in specific areas of the layout such as the shunting yard or fiddle yard.
Fully automated
The operator sets up a sequence of operations and the computer handles all the layout
activities, while the operator sit backs and watches. To work, the layout needs to
provide feedback to the computer, telling it when events have occurred (e.g. a train
has arrived at a station).
Well-written software allows the operator to switch between these different modes, with
fully automated running on some occasions (e.g. at an exhibition) and fully operator
controlled at other times. The operator can have both a normal physical control panel and
also a screen-based control panel (sometimes called a 'glass panel').
Although it is possible to design automatic controls for DC systems, DCC systems have an
advantage for computer control as they are already equipped with decoders in the locos.

What do you need?

The computer has to interface to the layout's electronics, so that it can control activities
(locos, points, accessories) on the layout. For this, it needs both hardware and software.
The hardware makes the physical link between the computer and the model
railway electronics (usually a DCC command station or a DCC booster).
The software provides the user with the ability to operate locos, points, etc.
using the computer monitor and an input device such as a mouse or a touch

There are two main ways that the computer can interface to your layout:

Through your existing DCC command stations

If your command station has a built-in USB port, then it can connect directly to your
computer's USB port. Examples of this type are the ESU Navigator and the Hornby Elite.
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The setup is as shown in this illustration.

The command station connects to power and to the track as normal. A USB cable is used to
connect the command station to the computer.
The control software (see examples of these later) is installed in the computer. The monitor
screen layout can be as simple as a replica of a handheld control, where you click on screen
buttons instead of pressing physical buttons.
Most packages allow you to go much further and create a replica of your layout on the
There are no physical alterations to the computer; nothing needs to be added or tweaked; the
case does not need to be opened. The only additional tasks are those of setting up and
configuring the software.
Proprietary interfaces
For their own reasons, manufactures often use their own interface methods.
To make these command stations work with a computer, you have to place an external
module between the command station and the computer. This module's purpose is to
translate the signals on the computer's USB port into signals that are understood by the
manufacturer's own particular interface.
Examples are Digitrax using a PR3 unit or a LocoBuffer-USB unit, NCE using the NCE
USB interface module, and Lenz or Atlas Commander using the Lenz LI-USB interface
The interface modules connect between the two ports and are usually powered from the
computer's USB port.

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Through an independent interface unit

The systems shown above use a command station that can be operated with or without
connection to a computer, allowing you to switch between these uses.
Another approach uses units that only work when controlled by a computer. They do not
have external knobs, buttons or sliders that you can touch and manipulate. They rely solely
on the instructions they receive from your computer.
Their main advantage is their relatively cheap price compared to standard command
Hornby's 'eLink'
This unit combines a USB connection to a
computer and a DCC booster. It has outputs
for the main layout track and for a separate
programming track
It is supplied with a 1A transformer, which is
sufficient for many smaller layouts, but can be
replaced with a 4A transformer if required.
SPROG modules
The first SPROG model was intended as a
programmer for DCC decoders. The SPROG 2 is
a combined USB interface and 1A DCC booster.
When it was recognised that it could also be used
for controlling layouts, a more powerful SPROG 3
version also became available. The SPROG3 looks
similar to the one in the picture but includes a 2.5A
DCC booster.
If you own a DCC booster but no command station, SPROG
have introduced the 's-Nano' which interfaces a computer's
USB port to any any DCC booster.
MERG Command Station
Like the others, this module connects to both power and the track.
Unlike the others, it can be connected to a handset to convert it into a conventional DCC
command station.
Its interface uses a variation of the
CANBUS system (CBUS), so has
to use a CBUS-to-USB interface
The CBUS system is explained in
a separate chapter.
It is supplied as a kit and its
ability to work from a handset or
from a computer makes this unit
very versatile.
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Control Software
Controlling layouts from a computer can be as simple or as complicated as you want.
This chapter cannot provide tutorials on all the software applications out there.
You need to choose the one that best suits your needs (and pocket) and be prepared to learn
how to use it and get the most from its facilities.
At its simplest, the computer
screen can look just like a
handheld DCC controller, as
shown in this illustration.
Once the program is running, you
select which loco you want from
the drop-down list near the
bottom of the screen, click on the
'Forward' or 'Reverse' button and
move the slider up and down to
adjust the loco speed.
This 'Throttle' facility is included
as part of 'Decoder Pro' .
The software is provided by the
JMRI (Java Model Railroad
Interface) Project group. This is
an informal open-source software group who describe their project as:
a jumping-off point for hobbyists who want to control their layouts from a computer
without having to create an entire system from scratch.

The software is constantly being developed by this large group of enthusiasts who cooperate to provide free access to their two main programs.
Their website explains that
JMRI can be used to automate parts of your layout, from simply controlling a crossing
gate to running trains in the background.

The Decoder Pro program is mainly used to make programming DCC decoders an easy task
and this is described in the chapter on DCC. The 'Throttle' facility is a useful addition for
those who do not want to go down the road of automation.
JMRI's other application is called 'PanelPro' and it is used for handling automated or semiautomated layouts, using two methods. You can choose to use either method, or even both
The 'Layout Editor' lets you draw your layout on your screen, as shown in this simple

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Once set up, the operator can control the layout's points and signals.
The 'Panel Editor' lets you create an on-screen representation of a normal control panel like the one
shown here.

It is an alternative approach to control locos, points, etc. from the screen or have them run
For automatic running you need feedback to the computer from sensors that tell the software when
events have completed (e.g. a train has arrived at a station). See the chapter on track occupancy
detectors for information on this.

JMRI software includes the ability to use iPhones, iPods and Android phones as handheld
remote throttles.
More information is available at:

The website provides a list of al the command stations and other hardware that it is able to
work with.

This another open source project that is free to download and use. It is also being
continually developed by enthusiasts.
It provides options for you to run the layout manually from your on-screen layout, or to
configure it to run automatically or semi-automatically.
As for JMRI, automatic running in Rocrail relies on feedback to the computer from sensors
that tell the software when events have completed (e.g. a train has arrived at a station). See
the chapter on track occupancy detectors for information on this.
More information is available at:

The website provides a list of al the command stations and other hardware that it is able to
work with.
Rocrail also has its own Forum where help and advice is available.

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Here is an example:

Hornby RailMaster
Hornby's RailMaster software works with the Hornby Elite DCC controller or the e-Link
DCC booster.
It can be purchased on its own or bundled with e-Link.
As the image shows, it uses the same approaches of drawing the layout on the screen and
providing on-screen control of locos if required.. The movement of locos, points,
uncouplers, etc. can be controlled either by your mouse or by using a computer with a touch
The points and accessories are controlled via DCC accessory decoders.
Automation can be achieved in two ways.
The software provides a programming option where you enter a list
of activities such as starting or stopping locos, operating points and
setting signals. These events are entered in the order that you want
them to occur and you have to enter the times at which each event
will happen. This may be a bit of a suck-it-and-see operation
where you amend the timings after running the program.
The alternative is to use the software's 'recording' option, where the software creates the list
of activities and includes the actual times you took to run the locos, etc.
While Hornby's timed list approach is simple to create, it has the serious drawback that it
cannot cope with unexpected events such as stalling or derailments. The program
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relentlessly progresses though its list of events, since it has no knowledge that a previous
event failed.
JMRI and Rocrail cope with mishaps by using feedback from track detectors. That way, it
knows that a loco failed to arrive at its intended destination and won't carry on until the
situation is rectified.
Hornby are aware of this shortcoming and they are likely to introduce a range of their own
detector modules, possibly including RFID. At the time of writing they are awaiting patents
before bringing them to the market.
Like the JMRI and Rocrail, Railmaster allows remote control of your layout using and
iphone, iPad tablet, and Apple and Android devices. The device communicates via WiFi
with your computer and you have to purchase their app.

This is another commercial product, created by Railroad & Co.
It is available in three versions, Bronze, Silver and Gold, with differing amounts of facilities
and prices ranging from around 100 to around 500. A comparison chart for the three
versions can be read at:

It claims to support the train detection systems of all leading manufacturers.

You can check whether the software is compatible with your hardware by looking at:

The program has several thousand users and has its own Forum.
They offer a free trial download with no restrictions for the first 30 days.

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SSI stands for Solid State Interlocking, since it provides full control of points and signalling and
these can be interlocked. The software provides prototypical operation and control. Routes can be
defined so that a series of points and signals can be set in one operation.
A range of drivers is provided, allowing it work with various pieces of hardware (e.g. the MERG
RPC, MERG CBUS, Lenz ExpressNet, Hornby Elite, and NCE DCC).

The software can be purchased from:

You can also download a fully functional 30 day trial.

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TCC (Train Control Centre) can drive three types of hardware interface module: CTI
modules, RPC modules and QTU modules available from QtuTrains.
It connects to your computer's serial port, or to your USB port using a serial-to-USB
More information is available at:

In its most complex form it could be used to control signals and points with full
interlocking, entry/exit route selection, automatic timetable running or fully automatic
operation. To do these more complex things you have to write a configuration script.


Although these programs can reduce a lot of the workload, the user will only get the best
from these systems by tweaking them to their own needs. This is achieved through writing
'scripts', small sections of computer instructions.
So, although of great help, computer-assisted layout operations still need you to learn a little
about programming.
Here is a line of JMRI code, expressed in their Jython language:
turnout.commandedState = CLOSED

which hopefully is self-explantory.

You may wish to dip your toe into this challenging and rewarding area of model railway
control. Many of the software programs are free and the only investment is some time.
But when you click on a button and move the slider and watch a loco slowly move off ... .

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Interfaces technical notes

First the good news
You do not need to know a lot about how computers work in order to use railway control
software. You only need to know how to install and run a computer program and connect
some cables/wires. In most cases, the software installs automatically or leads you through
the steps. Similarly, the hardware you buy will have installation notes.
How it all works can remain invisible to you if you want.
These next pages explain how serial and USB interfaces work.
It is included for two reasons:

To satisfy the curiosity of those who like to know how things work and want to learn more.
To help those who may be having problems with their setup.

The approach should be - read what you need skip what you know.
What is digital?
Almost all computer activities involve data communication of some sort. Communications
can take two forms: Analogue or Digital. This describes how the signal level changes
with time (usually the voltage level changes across two wires or between two points).

Data transmitted in analogue form has infinite potential variations. Examples include
sounds recorded on a cassette tape and AM radio transmissions. In the model railway
world, turning the knob on the DC controller results in voltages that can vary from
zero to 12 volts or more and every voltage level in between.

Digital signals can be in one of only a set number of possible states for each item of
data. For example, computer data consists purely of ones and zeroes, with nothing in
between. Either the wire carries the full voltage or no voltage. It is either high or
low, ON or OFF, 1 or 0. There are no intermediate levels. The ON, or HI, voltage
level depends on the system. It is 5 volts for many electronic devices and systems
(e.g. USB, PICs, many digital logic chips, CBUS) and 12 volts and above for others
(e.g. RS232 ports, DCC).
Examples of digital devices include printer cables, broadband connections, and DCC
and CBUS in the model railway world.

What are bits and bytes?

Most data is stored in multiples of a 'byte' a byte being a collection of eight data bits. At
any point in time, all bits could be at zero voltage, or all at high voltage, or any combination
of Highs and Lows. This provides 256 possible different combinations and explains why a
GIF image offers only 256 colours (one byte representing a screen pixel of a particular
colour) or why early sound cards only produced 256 sound levels.
Its also why some decoders offer a range of 256 CVs.
A byte can also be used to store alphanumeric characters or numbers between 0 and 255.
For larger numbers, bytes are grouped into multiples and handled in multiples.
Hence, we have 32-bit, 64-bit, 128-bit or even 256-bit graphics cards and Windows 7
handling data in 64-bit chunks at a time. CBUS uses events that are 32 bits. And not
forgetting CV 2-byte long addresses.
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All storage and speed measurements are stated in bytes, with a typical hard disk being 1TB
or a typical broadband modem speed being 10Mbps. The upper case B denotes the value is
in bytes, while the lower-case denotes bits. So, in the examples, the 1TB hard drive stores
1,099,511,627,776 bytes while the modem receives at ten million bits per second.
Note that when measuring weights, distances, transmission speeds, etc., kilo is a
magnitude of 1,000. However, in computing memory and data storage, a kilo is 1024;
this is due to the binary system used in computing ( 1 kilo = 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 =
1024). Similarly, Mega is 1024x1024 not 1000x1000.

How is data moved around?

There are two ways in which data can be transmitted: Parallel or Serial.
The parallel method uses multiple data lines, to transfer multiple data bits in parallel with
each other. The values on all the data lines are moved around at the same time.
Within a computer, most data is moved round in parallel format on the various internal
buses between the CPU and other chips. Older computers had parallel ports that were
used to connect external peripherals such as a printer.

This type of communication uses a single data line,
with only one data bit being transferred at a time,
as shown in the diagram. On a basic level, the
serial device waits for a group of eight incoming
bits to arrive and assembles them into a byte for
use. Similarly, a string of data from the device to
the PC is built up into byte-size chunks before
being used by the PC programs.
Modern computers pass data between computers and peripherals using one of a number of
different serial types of connection. Serial systems are used for keyboards, mice, memory
sticks, scanners, digital cameras, broadband routers and modems, local area networks, etc.
Example interfaces are the serial port. USB, Firewire, external SATA ports, Bluetooth,
IrDA, etc.
In model railway systems, DCC and CBUS use serial techniques.

What is a serial port?

The serial port is situated at the rear of older PCs. They are
generally 9-pin D-type connectors, although the specification
allows for 25-pin connectors. 9-pin to 25-pin adapter or
cables are available. The connector at the rear of the PC is
male (i.e. has pins) while the cable end is female (i.e. has
As the illustration shows, one of the pins ('signal ground') is
used as a common return for all connections on the port. The data signals are measured
with respect to this pin. One pin is used for transmitting data down the serial cable, while
another is used to receive data that has been sent to the computer. The other pins are used
for various signalling purposes.
The RS232 standard was designed to minimise interference on the wires carrying the data
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To aid this, the voltages carried are higher than the normal range for digital signals carried
inside the PC. The logic states inside the PC carry voltages typically no more than 5 volts.
With RS232, binary 0 is represented by a voltage of +3 to +15 volts and binary 1 is
represented by a voltage of -3 to -15 volts. Ideally, the signals would be +15v and -15v but
by specifying a positive and a negative range, allowance is made for signal losses along the
Voltages between +3 volts and -3 volts
cannot be converted to known values.
These indeterminate values may be
caused by interference spikes or may
be the result of losses of signal on the
line. They are shown shaded in the
The RS232 serial port uses values that swing both positive and negative of the common
ground wire. Other serial systems only use data that swings positive with respect to the
common ground (e.g. CBUS and USB).

Transmission Speeds
The speed of data transfer is measured in bits per second (bps). So, for example, if a device
had an output running at only 1bps, you could monitor the output every second and find
either a high or a low value. Of course, data is moved round at much faster rates than that.
The very early modem connections ran at just 110bps, later dial-up modems run at 56kbps,
while the latest USB3.1 offers a transfer rate of up to 10Gbps.
The maximum data rates for different interfaces are given in the table below.




Serial RS232








USB 3.1


When you connect two devices that operate at different speeds, the data can only be
transferred at the lowest data rate, as the slowest one will not be able to keep up with and
understand the fastest one. For example, if you use a USB-to-serial adaptor, the USB port
will be able to operate at many Mbps or even Gbps but the serial end of the adaptor can only
transfer data at at a maximum rate of 115kbps.
The MERG series of CBUS modules operate at 125kbps. So, the modules communicate
with each other at a data rate of 125kbps. However, if you use their CAN-to-serial adaptor
(the CAN_RS) the communication between the computer and the modules is limited to
115kbps. This should not cause any problems unless a layout has a huge amount of traffic
on the CBUS which could potentially result in loss of some data. This possible limitation
can be overcome if a CAN_USB computer interface is used, as this will communicate with
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the computer at the full CBUS speed of 125kbps.

Using the serial port with a serial device

There are two steps to connecting a serial device to a computer's serial port.
The first step is simple. Take a serial cable and plug one end into the computer and the
other end into the device! In our realm, this might be a serial SPROG, a CAN_RS module,
a Servo4 module, or a Lenz LI101F Computer Interface. Of course, the device will need to
have its own power supply connected.
The second step is to ensure that the necessary application software to control the device is
installed on the computer. This may be Decoder Pro, MERG's CAN_RS software, Servo
setting programs (Servoset or AltServo), etc.

Allocating a COM port

In most cases, when the software is run, it asks
which serial port is to be used with the
application, with some offering an enumerated
list to choose from. The computer supports a
number of different serial ports, often numbered
1 to 4 but could go higher.
The user can simply try selecting each port number in turn until the application works. In
well-written applications, entering the wrong port number simply results in an 'Invalid port
number' error message. The experienced user might wish to use Window's Device Manager
to examine which COM ports may already be in use.
One benefit of using a genuine serial port, compared to USB ports (or USB to serial
adapters) is its robustness. If the device temporarily loses power or the cable disconnects,
the system will begin working again as soon as the power/connection is restored. Such
glitches in USB-connected systems could prove more of a problem.

All new computers have USB ports, with up to six external ports being common.
USB (Universal Serial Bus) is designed to connect
external peripherals such as mice, keyboards, scanners,
digital cameras, printers, memory sticks, hard disks,
networking components, etc. to computers.
It has become the standard external connection method for
Windows, Macs and Linux. USB and RS232 ports both
send and receive data in serial format but the format of
each is different (in terms of speed, data format, etc.)

What does USB offer?

The advantages for model railway systems include:

Can handle full CBUS data rates, unlike RS232.

Never run out of interface ports, even with many devices attached.
Overcomes lack of serial ports on many modern computers, despite some devices still using serial
interfaces (e.g. Servo4, serial SPROG). Solved with USB to serial adapters.
Good noise immunity (see later)
USB ports can supply some power to externally connected devices.
Like RS232, you don't have to open the computer case to add extra devices.
USB devices can be hot swapped - fitted and removed without rebooting or reconfiguring the
computer. If a new device is plugged in while the computer is switched on, it may be configured
with no need to throw DIP switches, add/remove jumpers or determine IRQ settings or I/O

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USB Speeds
The table shows the maximum data rates for different USB versions, measured in millions
of bits per second. The actual data rate is usually lower, due to protocol overhead.
USB Standard


Max Data Rate

USB 1.1

Low Speed


USB 1.1

Full Speed



Hi Speed





USB 3.1



The early USB standard, USB 1.1, is only found in the very earliest computers with USB.
Most computers have either USB 2.0 or USB 3.
The lower rate of 1.5Mbps was intended for slow devices such as keyboards and mice,
while Hi Speed USB, SuperSpeed and SuperSpeed+ are designed for for quick data
transfers on external drives, quick copying, and for playing video.
For our purposes, even the slowest implementation of USB has a faster maximum data rate
than CBUS. So, all computers with USB ports, even old computers, should run CBUS quite

USB Cables
Unlike the multi-wiring of 9/25 pin serial ports, USB 1.1 and USB 2 cables are light and
flexible containing only four wires. They have two wires for power (+5 volts and ground)
and a pair of wires to carry the data. There may be a fifth connection at the computer end,
wired to a protective shield around the USB cable. USB 1.1 and USB 2 use a twisted pair
for the data wires, to reduce noise and crosstalk. To achieve its higher data rates, USB 3.0
cables use two pairs of shielded data wires.
The maximum length of a standard USB 1.1 and 2 cable is 5.0 metres (16.4 ft).
The USB 3 standard only requires that the cable meet its electrical specification, although a
cable that uses AWG26 copper wires is limited to 3m (9.8 ft).
With most electronics, the voltage readings are taken with respect to ground (e.g. 5v higher
than ground). USB uses 'differential signalling' instead. The receiving device reads the
difference between the two signals wires D- and D+ and ignores the wires' voltages with
respect to ground. This increases the system's noise immunity and minimises problems of
unwanted electrical interference.

Can the 5m length be increased?

While some enthusiasts have a computer dedicated to their model railway operations, others
may have their computers installed some distance from their layouts.
USB cables of 5m in length are readily available but care should be taken with 'USB
Extension Cables'. Extension cables have a plug on one end and a socket on the other and
one or more can be used to increase the cable length between the computer and the
controlled device. Consequently, these cables can be used to exceed the cable length
restrictions for USB. However, the length restriction exists for a good reason it
encompasses the permissible round-trip time delay of USB signals. If the computer's
commands are not answered by the connected USB device within the allotted time, the
computer treats the command as being lost. A safe way to increase cable runs is to use hubs
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(see later).

USB Connections
A variety of plug types are used on the end
of USB cables and the ones most likely to
be used with model railway electronics are
shown in the illustration.
The USB specification describes two main
These plugs and sockets are called Type-A (sometimes just 'USB-A') and are always used at the
controlling 'host' end usually the computer.
These plugs and sockets (Type-B or USB-B) are always used at an attached device.
The image on the preceding page shows a USB-B socket in use on a CAN-USB module and the
same socket can be found on the Lenz USB interface module, etc.

So, in most cases, USB cables have a Type-A plug at one end and a Type-B at the other.
The table shows the wiring for each pin in USB 1 and USB2
connectors. The illustration shows the connections on the plugs.
The wiring on the sockets are reversed, so that the +5v on the socket
connects to the +5v on the plug, and so on.
As the illustrations show, the connectors have power pads that are
longer than the data pads. This ensures that the device is powered up before data signals are
USB 3 connectors have the same four connection pads as earlier versions but have
additional contacts recessed into them.
These additional contacts provide the extra data lines for the SuperSpeed signals.

Smaller USB connectors are available. These are known as Micro USB and the older Mini
USB and were introduced for connecting small devices such as PDAs, mobile phones and
digital cameras. They are not common on model railway devices.
Are they all compatible?

All USB systems maintain backwards compatibility. This means that older specification
devices still work on newer ports. So, a USB 2.0 device can be work with a USB 1.1 port,
but only at USB 1.1 speed. A USB 3 device will connect to either older port (USB1.1 or
USB2) but will only perform at the data rate of that port.
Mechanically, they will all connect although, because of its extra connections, the USB 3
plugs and port sockets are deeper than earlier types.

Power from USB?

The computer's USB ports can provide power to any low-power devices that connect to
it., eliminating the need for the external device to have its own power supply.
Low-power devices (such as a mouse or a keyboard) can draw their power directly from
the bus. High-power devices (such as printers and scanners) have their own power
supplies and draw minimal power from the bus.
USB 1.1 and USB 2 ports are capable of providing a maximum of 500mA at 5v, while
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USB 3 ports can provide up to 900mA. These figures are for the total of all devices
connecting to a USB port. If the power requirements of device, or a collection of
devices, exceeds the port's limit, the computer will turn off the port.
So don't be tempted to use the USB port to power modules, relays, LEDs, desk fans,
drinks warmer pads, etc.

What are USB hubs?

USB uses a master/slave implementation. The computer host is the master controlling
all bus traffic. This is achieved by having a host controller that handles a 'root hub'.
All devices connect to the computer through a root hub. Some computers now have
two controller and two root hubs. With all the functions (controlling power, enabling
and disabling ports, etc.) being handled inside the computer, external slave I/O devices
are simplified and cheaper to make.
Microsoft has a utility called USBView that can be downloaded from its website. This
provides information on the hubs in use on your computer.

In the example shown, the computer has two host controllers and two root hubs. Two of the
ports are used for connecting to memory cards readers built in to the computer, while the
other root hub has two input devices (USB mouse and USB keyboard in this example)
attached externally.
External hubs

As computer users, we are more familiar with external hubs.

They come in a range of shapes but they all have multiple input
USB ports and a single lead to connect the hub unit to one of the
computer's USB ports. A hub therefore connects a group of
devices to a single connection point.
So, for example, a laptop with only two USB ports can be expanded to allow the connection
of multiple USB devices (e.g. external mouse, keyboard, CAN_USB3 module and a
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SPROG) all at the same time.

External hubs are of two types:

Bus-powered hubs use the power supplied from the computer's USB port to supply their internal
electronics. With a permitted maximum of 500mA, a hub often uses 100mA, leaving 100mA to
each of its four downstream devices.

Self-powered hubs have their own mains power supply and can supply 500mA to each of its
downstream devices. This allows further hubs to be connected downstream (see next).

Like USB ports, hubs are built to standard USB 1.1, 2.0 o r 3 specifications.
Devices connected to a USB 1.1 hub will only operate at USB 1.1 rates.
On an USB 2.0 controller, standards can be mixed; a connected USB 1.1 device can operate
at USB1.1 speeds while a USB 2 device can operate simultaneously at USB 2 speed.
When purchasing a hub, make sure that you check their speed.
Cheaper hubs only operate at USB1.1 speeds.

Using external hubs

External hubs are employed for two reasons:
To connect multiple devices
If the handful of USB ports on a computer
are insufficient, hubs allow additional
devices to be connected. In fact, up to 127
devices can connect to a single USB port if
hubs are used to expand the system.
The diagram shows a PC with two USB ports. Port 1 connects directly to a hub and this
has four outlets connected to typical USB devices.
If you have greater connections needs, you can replace one of the attached devices with
another hub. This will provide further connection ports. In this case, however, the original
hub will have to be a powered type, as an unpowered hub would be unable to handle the
anticipated extra power requirements.
In fact, USB supports a tired network of hubs cascaded up to five levels, providing for a
maximum of 127 devices attached at any one time. As expected, the port's bandwidth has
to be shared between all the devices connected to it.
To overcome distance limitations
In the example, all the cables attaching devices to Port 1 are shown as short 1m lengths.
Due to timing restrictions, an individual USB cable cannot be longer than 5m. In the
example, Port 2, connects to a hub over a 5m cable and the hub's connection to the device is
a further 5m in length. The 10m coverage should be sufficient for most people's needs.
However, the USB 2.0 specification allows up to five hubs to be connected in a long tiered
daisy chain. If 5m cables are used between each connection, the maximum distance can be
extended to 30m (although why would you want to operate your layout from a computer
sited almost 100ft away?).

USB is marketed as being 'hot-swappable', with USB devices able be added and removed at
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any time. This is not strictly true, otherwise Windows would not need to provide a 'Safely
Remove Hardware' facility! The problem arises with the use of external storage devices.
To prevent constant access to a hard drive, for example, software will not write data to it
continually. Instead it will store some data in its cache (a chunk of memory) and only send
the data in chunks. If the user removes a drive before all its data is successfully stored, the
file on the drive can be corrupted.
This is not a problem for model railway electronics which do not handle such large blocks
of data to requires caching, so for example MERG's CAN_USB module can be
inserted/removed without any problems.

What about Device Drivers?

There are many hardware devices that can connect to a computer and the computer has to be
able to communicate with devices that have completely different methods of passing data.
A device driver is a small piece of software that provides a properly functioning interface to
a particular piece of computer equipment. The equipment might be external such as a
printer, plotter, digital camera or monitor or it might be an internal such as a graphics card.
Take, for example, connecting a printer to a computer. There are a huge range of printers,
past and present, of different types (inkjet, laser, plotters, etc.). Even printers using the
same basic technology may provide different facilities and employ different methods to
achieve the same results. and offering different facilities. Since it is not practical to write a
separate version of a word-processing package to interface to each available model of
printer, the solution lies in placing a piece of conversion software between the wordprocessing package and the computers printer port. This is called the device driver.
When the user prints a document, the material is processed by the driver software and sent
to the printer in the specific format required by that particular printer model.
That explains why many products are packaged along with CDs containing their own device
drivers. Microsoft Windows includes many commonly-used drivers along with its
operating system. However, unusual devices, including those for model railways, are not
included in Windows and have to be installed by the user.
The illustration shows a MERG CAN_USB3
module attached to a computer's USB port.
A number of applications can communicate
with this module, either working as a 'sniffer'
allowing the user to view messages coming
in from the module (e.g. track occupancy
information) or sending messages to the
module to operate devices on the CAN bus.
FTDI, the company that manufacture the UM245R USB interface module used on the
CAN_USB3 module, provide an appropriate royalty-free driver (VCOM or VCP- Virtual
COM Port) from their website. It is packaged as the 'Combined Driver Model'. This driver
emulates a standard PC serial port, saving program writers from the many complications of
handling USB communications.
When a user sends a message using the application software, the following things happen:

The software writes a CAN bus message to the serial port.

The VCOM driver intercepts this and translates it into a message for the USB port.
The USB port sends the message to the CAN_USB3 module.
The CAB_USB3 modules translates the message into a CAN bus message.

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The original CANbus message remains the same throughout the process; it is only the way
the message is packaged that changes with each step.
Although it looks a bit over-complicated, it is the easiest way to do things, as many existing
applications are written for serial ports. In addition, routines for reading/writing with serial
ports are provided in a number of programming languages.

Installing a device driver

There are a number of ways that a device driver can be installed
If Windows recognises the device, one of these happens:

Windows automatically installs the specific associated driver from its own collection that
was stored on the hard drive during the installation of the operating system.
Windows automatically installs a generic driver (one that is common to many similar
devices) from its collection.

In these cases, a message might pop up to inform the user that the device is successfully
If Windows does not already have the driver, it gives the user three options:

Windows will search the Internet for the driver, then install it.
Windows will search the computer, or CD/DVD drive, looking for a folder that might have
the driver stored there. If it finds it, Windows installs it.
The user can tell Windows which folder to find the driver.

This may result the user being given the choice from a small menu of drivers and the user
must select the one that exactly matches the device.
There are variations on this procedure. Some manufacturers specify that their driver should
be installed prior to installing their device. Others place an auto-run, menu-driven
installation routine on their CD. In some cases, the computer has to be-booted after
installing a driver. Windows may prompt for a re-boot, or it may be stipulated in the
device's manual.
Depending on the specific computer architecture, drivers can be 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, or 64-bit. This
corresponds directly to the architecture of the operating system for which those drivers were
developed. For example, in 16-bit Windows 3.11, most drivers were 16-bit, while most drivers for
32-bit Windows XP are 32-bit. Modern 64-bit Linux and Windows versions have required hardware
vendors to provide newer 64-bit drivers for their devices.

Using a USB device with a USB port

Having read all the above, there is not much to say about this. Just plug the USB device
into a USB port and, assuming that any necessary device driver is present, the device (and
its controlling software) is ready to use. Examples here are memory sticks, Bluetooth and
WiFi dongles, mice and keyboards not forgetting the CAN_USB3 module.

Using a serial device with a USB port

At one time, all older computers had serial ports. While serial
devices (e.g. the Servo4 and CAN_RS modules) are easily used
with serial ports, they cannot be used with modern USB ports.
This is solved with the use of a 'USB to serial adapter'. It does
what it says on the tin; it is a piece of hardware (often built into a
cable) with one end plugging into the computer's USB socket and
the other end plugging into a serial device. The adapter's hardware
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carries out the conversion between USB and serial formats.

The illustration shows the steps involved in using a serial device (e.g. Servo4 module) on a
modern computer that only has USB ports.
The module's control software writes to a serial port but, since the computer has no serial
ports, the drivers and adapters are used to transport the data to USB and then back to serial
before connecting to a serial device.

COM ports
When software is run that accesses a serial (or in our case a virtual COM port), it asks which
serial port is to be used with the application.
Although we are using a USB port for the external connection, the software still has to be
allocated a serial port number to associate with the virtual driver.
Once a COM port is allocated, the process shown in the above illustration is established.
The illustration below shows the entries in Device Manager after connecting a CAN_BUS module.

In this example, COM3 has been automatically allocated to the module and this value is the
one to enter into any application software when prompted for the COM port number.

It cannot be assumed that the COM port allocated will be the same each time the device is
plugged in. So, for example, if another device is already allocated to COM3, it will use the
next available COM port. With a computer dedicated to layout control, such changes are
less likely.
HyperTerminal can also be used to determine the COM port of a newly added USB device.
Just check the available ports before adding the device and any new COM port added after
inserting the device is listed. Hyperterminal is not available in Windows 7 but it can be
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copied across from an existing XP computer; Google for details.

USB Problems
As mentioned before. the serial port is a robust, if slow, communication mechanism. For
example, if a serially-connected device temporarily lost power or had its serial cable
temporarily disconnected, the port, the software and the modules would all work as normal
as soon as the cable/power was restored. This without any additional action by the user.
With USB, on the other hand, the loss of power or cable disconnection affects a USB
connection badly. In both cases, the voltage from the device's pull-up resistors would be
removed and the hub would detect this and disable the port. The usual remedy is to unplug
and re-insert the USB cable, so that the device is detected and configured once again. As a
consequence, the application software usually has to be restarted.
When a USB device is enabled, its driver software is located and loaded into memory.
When that same device is unplugged, its port is freed and its driver is unloaded from
However, the computer stills stores information about that device and its connection in the
Windows Registry (use regedit to look under the 'Enum' key in the
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE folder but don't alter anything unless you know what you are
The illustration shows a computer's USB enumerations, as viewed by USBDeview, a
freeware utility that improves on Microsoft's USBview and on Device Manager. While
Microsoft's USBview utility only allows viewing of port information, USBDeview has
options to disable and/or uninstall device allocations (when run using Administrator righ ts).

Note that only three devices are currently connected ( a mouse, keyboard and memory card
reader). All other entries describe devices that were previously connected to various ports.
Hub #003 is actually Hub 1, Hub #004 is actually Hub 2, while Hub #005 is an external

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Chapter 18
Assembling a tool kit

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Assembling a tool kit

You may already have a selection of tools that you use for building your layout and some of
these will also be of use in working with electronics.
Those new to electronics often ask about which tools they should buy. This chapter looks
at the wide range of tools that are available. Which ones you buy will depend on your
needs and your budget!
Investing in the correct tools will make life easier, safer, and also more enjoyable.
Although you can sometimes get by with a minimal selection, it is best to always have the
correct tool for the job. A screwdriver is for tightening and loosening screws; it should not
be used as a chisel or a scaper. Similarly, don't be tempted to use the tip of your soldering
iron as a lever to pull components off a board.

A minimum starter set

As a guide, everyone's toolkit should include:
A soldering iron and solder
A pair of pliers
A selection of screwdrivers
Wire strippers

These, and other tools, will be looked at later.

In the meantime, take care over the quality of the tools you buy. The very cheap tools and
kits of tools can cause both frustration and damage. If you buy a set of screwdrivers from a
discount store, you may well find that they are made of inferior materials such as white
metal and will distort during use. Their lifespan will be much shorter than a quality product.
Even worse, they may chew the head of the screw that you are trying to extract, requiring it
to be drilled out to remove it.
You may consider buying an off-the-shelf toolkit. These usually come in their own case
and, if chosen carefully, can be a good starting point. However, it is a case of 'buyer
beware'. If something seems to good to be true, it usually is to good to be true. You can
hardly expect to buy a 60-piece quality toolkit for a small outlay. That said, some useful
toolkits can be found marketed as 'PC Repair Kits'.
Tool collections are different from all-purpose toolkits and these can be useful. Sets of
Allen keys (hex keys), socket sets, etc. provide a selection of sizes at a reasonable price.

Two other assets

Apart from tools, there are two other important assets that you possess.
Pencil and Paper
Don't rely on your memory; what you remember today may not be recalled next
week. So write down important details (e.g. what colours of wire are used for
particular purposes, what settings you have used, what options you have chosen,
simple wiring diagrams, etc.).
Plenty of time and patience
Don't rush at a job. You may be desperate to see things working but that leads to
mistakes and botched results. Accept that projects may take twice as long as
expected and leave time to understand, plan and properly execute what you are doing.
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Safety on the bench/layout

This chapter has to begin with some words of caution when working with electricity and
with hand tools.
Model railway equipment runs at relatively low voltages but that does not mean that there
are no potential threats to health and safety.
A few simple precautions, and a responsible approach, will ensure that the hobby can be
enjoyed without any significant risk. The main areas of concern are listed below.

Electric shock
Although the equipment runs at low voltages, the power supplies that feed it connect to the
mains supply. It should go without saying that you should not open up mains power
supplies unless you really know what you are doing. There is 240V AC lurking inside these
units, which can be lethal.
Here are a few simple rules:
Ensure that power supplies are safe. Check the power cable for any

damage such as cracked or burnt insulation, cracked or bulging

plastic casing, broken or loose plugs.
If you are in any doubt, you can check whether any metal surfaces
are live to the mains by touching it with a 'mains tester screwdriver'
as shown. If the neon inside the handle lights, the surface being
touched is live. The tester can be used with no risk to the user as the
handle and shaft are insulated.
If your mains-powered unit blows a fuse, ensure that the replacement is of the same rating as
the original. If a plug has a 5A fuse, do not replace it with a 13A fuse it uses a 5A fuse for
a reason. Of course, the unit that blew the fuse should be thoroughly checked before being
used again.
If your layout is in a damp environment, you may consider fitting an
RCD (Residual Current Device) between your power unit(s) and the
mains outlet. An RCD device monitors the current passing through
it and switches the power off very quickly (30 to 50 milliseconds) if
the normal current balance is upset (e.g. a leak between live and
earth). Some exhibition managers prefer to have these on every
layout in their show where the hall does not provide this in their

Risk of fire/burns
Although electric shock is a very serious condition, it is rarely a danger for modellers who
follow some elementary precautions.
More common are the minor accidents that occur at the workbench, mainly burns and cuts.
Some pieces of equipment consume very little current and produce very little heat unless
things go wrong. Other modules are designed to handle larger currents and have
components that are fitted with heatsinks, a piece of metal with fins designed to dissipate
the unwanted heat.
A short on a board, or other fault that results in excess current, results in excessive heat
being generated. For example, if a 12V module suddenly shorts and draws 2A, the module
is now dissipating 24 Watts, mostly in heat. If the unit has a thermal cut-out, things may
be controlled; otherwise, you have the equivalent of a soldering iron inside your plastic box!
The other danger, and probably more common, are the risks of minor to serious burns when
using a soldering iron.
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If you smell burning, or see smoke, turn off the module's power immediately. If you are
working in an enclosed space, you may want to open a window to dispel any possible toxic
If you are building a module that handles large currents, fit heat sinks to the power
transistors and the voltage regulator.
Do not overload a circuit by adding extra modules beyond the supply's working capacity.
Heat sinks can get very hot, even during normal operation. So, use caution when touching
a heatsink.
The soldering iron should stay in its stand/holder when not in use. Do not leave it resting on
your workbench; that is an accident waiting to happen.
If the soldering iron should fall from your bench, your instinct is to catch it Don't! Let it
fall then carefully pick it up by its handle.
Take care when soldering. This is when most accidents occur. While concentrating on
juggling wires, components, soldering iron and solder, it is easy to accidentally touch the
soldering iron or the work being soldered.
Use aids that support the work being soldered (see later). This prevents burns caused by
touching the objects being soldered; the heat from the soldering iron conducts along the
metal and the soldered joint takes a little while to cool down.
Wherever possible, avoid soldering joints that are above you, such as under baseboards.
Stray blobs of falling solder are a real danger to your face and eyes.

Risk of fumes / poisoning

Electronics components can contain toxic materials which can be released if mishandled.
Some solders also fall into this category. Many users find 60/40 solder (i.e. 40% lead)
much easier to work with than lead-free solder. Unfortunately, over-exposure to lead can
affect the nervous system, the heart, bones, kidneys, etc. That is why lead is banned in paint,
petrol, etc. 60/40 solder is still widely available and in regular use by hobbyists and is safe
if handled correctly.
Avoid the temptation to hold small components or solder in your mouth while you are

After a soldering session, wash your hands before eating.
Avoid the fumes that are generated while soldering. Work in a well-ventilated area or use a
fume extractor. A cheaper alternative to an extractor is to use a 12V fan recovered from an
old computer to blow away the fumes.
Burning plastic is particularly nasty, releasing very toxic dioxin fumes. If you come across
burning plastic, hold your breath, switch off power to the module, open a window and
quickly leave the room
Most printed circuit boards are made from a material called FR-4. The 'FR' indicates that it
is flame retardant. However, if any components on that board overheat or catch fire, the
board will give off highly toxic halogen fumes. In that event, take the same actions as
listed above.
Caution should be observed when sawing or filing boards or components, to avoid inhaling
the dust; or use a fume extractor/dispenser.

Risk of cuts
As a railway modeller you have doubtless already suffered a number of cuts and the same
advice applies to working with electronics.
Use a wire stripper to remove insulation from wires (see later).
Do not attempt to cut materials with a blunt knife. The blade is likely to skid off the work
and cause damage elsewhere, including you.
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Use the correct knife for the job (see later).

Beware cheap quality knives that may break during use.

Risk to eyes
While modellers are usually aware of the risks of burns and cuts, eye protection is often
overlooked or seen as a burden. Taking risks can result in temporary or permanent damage
to the eyes. The main risks are irritation or damage from fumes, dust or particles from
sawing, grinding, filing, and solder blobs being accidentally flicked while soldering.
For fumes, read the preceding section.
Use safety glasses while working.
Alternatively, view the job you are working on through an illuminated magnifier glass (you
may already need this because of failing eyesight)

Risk to circuit
Apart from keeping yourself safe, you want to avoid damaging your project.
Static electricity can destroy some sensitive components and spilled fluids are the enemy of
all electronic circuits.
When working with integrated circuits that are sensitive to static, always take steps to avoid

static build-up on your body. The commonest method is to touch a bare metal area of a
radiator to disperse the charge before handling chips.
A cheap but effective approach is to use an anti-static wristband.
The strap attaches to your wrist and the clip is attached to any
ground connection. Do NOT make your own as the commercial
band includes a high value resistance to prevent any high current
flowing through its wearer.
Regular users might want to invest in an anti-static floor mat. This
prevents static from building up on the body.
Avoid having fluids on the workbench. A spilled coffee can wreak havoc with your
electronics project and can be dangerous if spilled over mains-powered equipment.
The single biggest threat to a project is connecting it to power before carefully checking it
over. Any mistakes can lead to the destruction of some components.
Do not solder components while the module is still connected to a power supply.
Use insulated tools while working on projects that are connected to power. Sometimes you
have to make adjustments on live modules and the insulation prevents accidental shorting.
Be aware that large capacitors, like those used in capacitive discharge modules, can maintain
a high voltage for some time after the power is disconnected.

Of course, there are other things that can damage a project and/or its components. Issues
such as inserting components the wrong way round, inserting the wrong component, etc.
These are not strictly health and safety issues although they can be costly and can cause
damage in some cases. These issues are covered in the chapter on fault finding.

The work area

An organised work bench is a major contributor to safety.

Have a well-lit work area.

Have an uncluttered and clean work area, with only the things you need on the bench or to
hand. Remove any flammable objects, drinks, etc.
Have the appropriate tools to hand before starting a project.
Do not remove safety shields or other protective devices from your tools.

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Maintain your tools in good working order.

Have a printed copy of project's circuit diagram and assembly instructions.
Read through the instructions before you begin. This will minimise errors and prevent
expensive (and maybe dangerous) mistakes.
If your tools need special handling, familiarise yourself with them.
Make sure you switch your soldering iron off when not at the bench.
What about having a First Aid Kit handy?

Finally ...
The above pages try to point out potential working hazards and how to avoid them. In
practice, you may never come across many of these dangers. However, knowledge of them
and an alert mind goes a long way to having fun in a safe environment.

Electronics/Electrical tools
The tools detailed in the following pages cover most of what you will ever need. They are
not intended as a shopping list; you will find a useful home for some of them and may
decide to add others to your collection as you progress.

Cutters / strippers
You will often need to cut wire to specific lengths for your projects
and to trim the wires from resistors and capacitors. You should have
a pair of wire cutters reserved for that job alone. Wire cutters, often
known as 'diagonal cutters' or 'side cutters', are designed for that
task and are a good investment.
Cutting wires with scissors or knives will result in an inferior cut and will blunt or chip
these tools more quickly as a result. The added effort in using these tools also makes their
use more dangerous than the tool designed for the job.

Rail cutters
These are designed to produce a clean flush cut of the rails of 00, HO
and N gauge track. The sides of the cut ends are smooth and free
from burrs and any rounded edges. The results are quicker and
superior to using a razor saw or a Dremel cutting disc.
Again, these cutters should only be used on track. Cutting wires with
rail cutters can damage the cutting edges of the tool.

Wire strippers
Removing the insulation from the end of a piece of wire to expose
the copper is a regular task for modellers. Some users cut round
the insulation with a knife and prise the unwanted insulation free.
Others use wire cutters to 'nip' the insulation before pulling the
unwanted section away. The danger is that the copper wire is
nicked in the process making it vulnerable to breaking in the
future. The images show two tools that do an efficient job of
removing the unwanted insulation without damaging the copper
wire inside. The blue handled strippers are adjusted with a screw
to the desired setting before stripping. The red handled version
has preset blades of different gauges along its length.
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Screwdrivers / nut drivers

You probably have some of these already and it is useful to have different sizes of each type.
The three most common types of screw and bolt are shown in the
illustration and it is best to use the correct screwdriver for each
type, to avoid chewing the head of the screw or bolt.
The most common type is known as the 'Standard', 'Flathead' or
You may come across other types such as the hex, Torx, square, tri-wing and
a range of tamper-free screws intended to keep the amateur from opening
devices and equipment cases. The picture shows a set of these screwdriver
bits that is used for handling these more unusual types.
The advantage of having separate bits is that you can use them with a
ratcheting handle for quicker insertion/removal or for use in confined space
where there is little room to manoeuvre.
Electric screwdrivers are available and are useful where there is a lot
of screws to be fitted, such as constructing a baseboard.
Another possible purchase is a set of jeweller's screwdrivers. These
miniature screwdrivers are useful for handling small screws,
adjusting trimmers and working on locomotives.
They are sometimes also known as watchmaker's screwdrivers
Nut driver
You will use nuts and bolts to connect things together, such as constructing a case or panel,
securing switches to panels, bolting voltage regulators to heatsinks and so on.
Do not be tempted to use pliers to tighten the nuts, as the effort
is likely to result in slippage and the edges of the nuts being
rounded off.
Nut drivers, also known as a nut spinners are designed for the
safe tightening and loosening of nuts.
They are available as sets, as shown in the image, or as a single
handle with a set of interchangeable sockets.
The smaller ones can also be used with a loco's crank-pin nuts.

Completing the trio of indispensable items is one or more pairs of
They are used for holding small objects, bending wires, holding
wires during soldering, straightening pins, tightening rail joiners,
inserting/removing track pins and a host of other tasks.
The images show two pairs of needle-nose pliers, also known as
long nose pliers. They are available in both straight and bent
angle versions and the ones shown are fitted with springs which
open the jaws when pressure on the handles are released.
Electricians and other tradesmen often
use combination pliers to bend and cut wire and cable. They are
larger and have flat edges on the nose and often incorporate
cutting blades. They should NOT be used to tighten larger nuts
that's what a spanner is for!
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Seeing what you are doing

Electronics makes use of small components and cramped tracks on printed circuit boards
and stripboard.
A well lit work area is important, as is the ability to inspect your
work at close quarters.
Sometimes, these two features are combined, with illuminated
desk magnifiers. These are available with a heavy stand (as
shown) or with a clamp to secure it to the desk. The one shown
is particularly useful as it has a smaller lens built into the main
lens. The main lens is used while doing general soldering and
construction, allowing hands-free operation. The smaller lens
has greater magnification for close inspection of the completed job, looking for dry joints,
solder blobs, etc.
While a normal eyeglass like the one shown on
the left is useful for close inspection it has one
problem the closer you get to the work, the
more you obstruct light getting to the circuit
being examined. This can be overcome by
using an illuminated 'Jeweller's Loupe'. A
small internal battery powers a bright LED that
shines on the circuit. Combined with its magnification properties, it is a very useful
inspection tool.
If you find working under a magnifier stand too restrictive,
you may want to consider a headband with built-in
magnifiers. This allows you to work hands-free over a larger
area, if you don't mind wearing the headgear. The image
shows the popular Optivisor which is available with a range of
lenses of varying magnification, from 1.5X to 3.5X. The
Optivisor can also be worn over a user's prescription glasses.
If you have good eyesight but want to work in the dark area
under a baseboard, you can buy a headband with built in
LED lamp. These are cheap and are powered from a built-in
battery. These are better than a normal torch which requires
to be held or strapped to a surface during your activity.
If you want to work in a darkened space, but have poorer eyesight
or need to work with small parts, then you can buy a headband
that combines a light with a magnification lens.
Finally, you may consider buying a
small dental mirror or a mirror that it
attached to a telescopic handle.
This allows you inspect awkward areas tight spaces, round
corners, behind objects, etc.

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Holding the work

Sometimes construction can be a really fiddly business. Trying to hold the soldering iron
and solder, along with the items to be soldered makes you feel that you could benefit from
having extra hands.
Thankfully, a range of tools is available to help out. They are
designed to hold the items to be soldered, leaving you with only
the soldering iron and solder to handle.
The most common aid is the 'Third Hand' shown in the image.
The alligator clips are attached to a heavy base and are
adjustable. They hold the work in place, leaving you free to
solder. Some, like the one shown, also provide a magnifying
glass while others may include a solder mop and/or storage tray
for the parts you are working with. Modellers also tend to use
the clips to hold items that are being painted or glued.

The tips of most tweezers are normally open and are closed together by squeezing on their
sides. This is handy for picking up and laying objects.
A variation on these are the 'cross action' or 'reverse action'
tweezers. Their sides are normally held closed and need to
be squeezed to open them. This reverse action allows wires and components to be held
securely while you solder them. The type with the flat grippers on the tips, as shown, can
also be used while soldering LEDs to boards. If the leads between the LED and the board
are gripped by the tweezers, it prevents excess heat from the soldering iron being conducted
up into the LED and causing damage if soldering takes too long.
A similar tool is the 'Hemostat'. It looks similar to a pair of
scissors. The blades are replaced by the holding tips and you will
notice that there are two projections close to the finger holes.
When you close the jaws over, the friction between these
projections locks the tips onto your wire or component.
The above tools are for holding items during soldering and
construction. There are another couple of tools that are useful. The upper one in this
image is a 'prong holder', sometimes called a 'part picker'. When the cap on the top of the
holder is pressed by your thumb, prongs pop out from the other end. The prongs are placed
round an object and when you release your thumb, the
jaws retract and hold the object. It is able to pick up
small parts that you would find difficult to fetch with
your fingers. It is also useful to place small screws in
their wanted locations.
The other tool is a telescopic magnetic retriever. As
the name suggests, it is ideal for recovering small
screws or bolts that you have dropped into areas that
are difficult to access. It is simply a telescopic rod
with a magnet on one end, although some also have a
light to help locate a dropped part.
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Soldering tools
These tools are so important that they can be found in the chapter on soldering.

Other useful items

There are a number of other tools and aids that can make construction easier.

Test leads
There are many occasions when you want to make temporary connections, without the fuss
of soldering and unsoldering components or wires.
The set of low voltage jumper leads shown
on the left is cheap and is supplied with
leads of different colours to aid recognition
when a number are used on a project.
They have croc clips on the ends of each
lead and they clip on to component leads,
tag strips, etc. If you are working with
smaller components or have less room to
work in, the leads on the right use mini
grabber probes to make the connections.

IC Insertion/Extraction tools
Many projects make use of integrated circuits and these have rows
of pins that are pushed into an IC socket. Trying to get both
rows of pins lined up to insert without bending the pins can be
tricky. The more pins on the chip, the trickier it becomes.
It is also difficult to remove a chip
from its socket. Levering it out
with a screwdriver, for example, will often bend or break the
The upper tool in the image is used to extract a chip from its
holder. The prongs are clipped under the top and bottom of
the chip and then the chip is pulled out vertically with a very
slight rocking motion, avoiding bending the pins.
The lower tool can also be used to remove a chip from its
socket by clipping it under the sides of the chip and pulling
vertically. It is also used to insert a chip into a socket as the
pins are held in place by the tool during insertion.

Crimping Tool
A number of modules that you will come across use 'crimp terminal'
plugs and sockets to connect the module to power or to other devices.
These plugs and sockets are 'keyed' so that they cannot be inserted the
wrong way round and are available in a number of sizes; the image
shows a 5-way connection.
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The plugs are soldered to the module's board while the sockets use a terminal housing and a
set of crimp terminals (see the image).
The crimp terminals have to be connected to the wires
before inserting into the terminal housing, where they
click into place.
With a little practice, wires can be soldered to the crimp
terminals but the professionals use a crimping tool to do
the job. The bare end of a wire is inserted into the
terminal and placed in the jaws of the crimping tool. Squeezing the handle results in a
strong mechanical joint.

Rolling road
A rolling road is a replacement for a length of test track. If you need the loco to run for
some time, the test track has to be formed as a circle. This largish board is often
inconvenient, as it has to be kept close to where you
are working, or you end up carrying the loco between
the workbench and the test track.
The rolling road is simply a set of rotatable metal
discs on which the loco's wheels sit. The discs are
powered by your supply and the loco remains
stationary while its wheels spin on the discs.
Rolling roads are ideal for:

Running in a loco
Warming up a loco before using it at an exhibition
Setting a DCC decoder's CV settings
Testing radio controlled locos

Rolling roads are available for scales from N through to gauge 1.

The upper image shows the Hornby rolling road, where the rolling
discs are adjustable along slides.
The lower image shows one that sits on any existing piece of track, getting its power from
that track. These would be used in sets, depending on the loco's wheel configuration.

Test tools
If everything we built or designed, everything we ever wired up or connected, always
worked first time, we would not need any test equipment to help us locate the faults.
Since we are never that lucky, we need tools to help us. This is covered in detail in the
chapter on 'Using test equipment'.

Cleaning tools
Dirt is the enemy of model railway electronics. It interferes with successful soldering, it
affects the performance of motors, it affects the efficiency of trackwork, and more.
Keeping the work area free from dust and debris is a simple task, requiring no more than a
brush and/or small vacuum cleaner
For each of the other tasks, a range of cleaning tools is available.

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Cleaning the board

If you are building a module you ought to clean the
printed circuit board, or strip board, twice once before
soldering and once after soldering.
As explained in the chapter on soldering, surfaces to be
soldered must be free from oxidation, grease, dirt, etc.
The surfaces can be cleaned using either steel wool, fine grit
sandpaper, or an ultra-fine abrasive pad.
A cleaning block can be used but ensure that it is not also used
for cleaning track, as you can easily transfer dirt from the track
on to the soldering surfaces. Maintain separate cleaning blocks.
Another tool is the fibreglass pen (supplied with refills). This
cleans with little surface damage. However, take a little care in
use as small strands of fibre can break loose and these can irritate or damage your skin.
When the soldering on a circuit board is complete you may have some yellowish gunge on
the surface. This is flux residue that needs to be removed. The build up covers work areas
making it difficult to check for dry joints, solder blobs, etc. Since fluxes can contain acid,
it can erode part of the copper tracks over time.
An old toothbrush is a handy tool for brushing away loose debris, while a wooden toothpick
or careful prising with the tip of a screwdriver can break away stubborn buildup.
Servisol sell a cleaning solvent known as De-Flux 160 which produces a clean finish when
sprayed on the affected areas. Or, use IPA (see later).

Cleaning the track

Problems of keeping the tracks clean are well known to all modellers. The build up of
surface dirt, grease or oxidisation results in poor running and the stalling of locomotives.
There are two approaches to cleaning track abrasive blocks and liquid solvents.
There are cleaning blocks, such as the PECO Rail Cleaner, designed for this purpose. Do
not use sandpaper, as this will scratch the rails and worsen future running.
If you can afford it, the Hornby R296 Track Cleaning Coach uses spring loaded abrasive
pads to clean the track as it goes round your layout. This takes some of the effort out of
keeping the track clean as the loco can be set to make multiple runs round the main loops in
the layout while you do something more interesting.
A similar choice is available with solvents. You can either clean the track manually, using a
bottle of cleaner, such as Rail-Zip2 or LocoLube, and applying with a lint-free cloth (i.e.
one that does does give off fluff when used).
A number of cleaning wagons are available that use
solvent soaked pads to clean the track.
The Tomix 6421 Track Cleaning Wagon is a N gauge
wagon that uses pads and cleaning fluid.
The image shows the CMX Track Cleaning Machine,
an OO gauge wagon that offers both abrasive and
solvent pads.
The Dapol B800 OO Track Cleaner is a solvent based system that has motorised cleaning
heads and even a vaccuum.
For those areas that a track cleaning wagon cannot easily be used, there is always the track
cleaning rubber and IPA (Isopropyl Alcohol) rubbed with a cloth.

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Cleaning loco wheels

Smooth running depends not only on clean trackwork, but also on clean loco wheels and
clean pickups. There are a number of methods for keeping
wheels clean.
The simplest is to use a cotton bud dipped in cleaning fluid
such as IPA. Turn the loco upside down (or in a loco servicing
cradle if you have one), apply power to the wheels and hold the
bud against the wheel to be cleaned.
If there is particularly stubborn gunge on the wheel, you can
use a fibreglass brushes to clean the wheel. Take care that no stray threads break from the
brush and get into the loco mechanism. Also, do not use this brush to also clean PCBs or
stripboard, to avoid transferring contamination from the wheels to the copper tracks of the
module you are building.
Only use sand paper or grit paper in extreme circumstances, when the gunge is caked and
immovable by other means. Take care, as overuse will scratch the surface of the wheels
leading to more problems later.
Avoid using steel wool to clean wheels as strands are likely to break off.
Wire brushes use steel wire bristles and and are also to be avoided.
You can use a brass brush or brass pencil to clean the wheels.
This approach is adopted by the Trix HO Locomotive Wheel Cleaning Brush and by the
Conrad model shown in the image.
Two rows of brass bristles are powered up and the
loco is held against the rows. As the loco motor
rotates, it cleans all the wheels at the same time.
It also has an added advantage, in that the loco is
never turned upside down thereby reducing the risk of material falling into the loco
It is best to maintain wheels in good condition. Regular cleaning saves time in the long run,
compared to having to tackling hardened deposits.
If you prefer not to use abrasive
materials, you may consider this
simple but effective way to keep
wheels clean. A piece of J cloth
or paper towel is placed over the
track and drops of cleaning fluid
such as IPA are sprinkled on the
areas that are over the tracks.
One set of wheels is placed on
the cleaning area while the other wheels are held on the powered track. As the motor
spins, the wheels are cleaned. Then, reverse the loco and clean the other wheels.
This, like the cleaning brush above, has the advantage that the loco is not turned upside
There are a couple of videos on YouTube that illustrate this process:

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Apart from tools, there are items that you will use either regularly or occasionally.
Your list of consumables might include:

Hook-up wire in various colours. 7/0.2 is a popular general-purpose wire made up of seven
strands of 0.2mm copper wires. Ideal for interconnecting modules, making temporary
connections, or even for low current layouts (it can handle a maximum of 1.4A). Alternative,
use 10/0.1 wire (ten strands of 0.1mm wire). This type can only handle a maximum of 0.5A
but is thinner (0.9mm compared to 1.2mm for 7/0.2) and suitable for most low current
Kynar wire. A very thin (usually 30AWG) wire with excellent heat resistant insulation (i.e.
the insulation does not instantly melt when soldering). Ideal for wiring where normal hookup wire would be too obtrusive or space-consuming.
A selection of heat-shrink shrink tubes of different diameters. As the name suggests, the
diameter of these plastic tubes shrink when heat is
applied. The image shows the result. Pieces of the
tubing are cut off and slipped over a wires prior to
soldering. The tubes are then slipped over the
soldered joints and when the soldering iron is held
close (not touching), the tubes shrink over the joints.
This prevents any possibility of shorts between the
pins. It also provides a level of protection from
contamination and mechanical movement.
Choc block terminal strips.
Rolls of electrical tape in various colours. These are used for general
purposes and for the temporary insulation of joints (there are better
methods for the permanent connection of wires). Also useful for
colour coding wires by wrapping a small strip of a particular colour
round a wire (for example you could use red for +12V, orange for +5V, black for 0V, and so
Cable ties. Use for the temporarily securing modules or for holding bunches of wire neatly.
A selection of nuts, bolts and washers. Include some of the very small sizes as these are the
ones you most often lose.
A selection of screws. Many modules have mounting holes on them so that you can screw
them to a board. Sometimes, these holes are small and and cannot be enlarged as it might
break the nearby copper tracks. For these situations, keeping small screws in your
collection pays off.
Double Sided VHB Gel Tape. This double-sided tape has very strong bonding properties
compared to some other products and is widely used in industry as a quick and permanent
replacement for conventional fixings such as bolts, screws and rivets. It can bond together a
variety of materials such as metal, plastic, glass, etc. Its foam layer also allows for some
degree of gap filling.
For those jobs that can't be achieved with double-sided tape, there are epoxy resins. It is
supplied as two separate components and these are mixed to produce a fast acting permanent
Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) for those many cleaning jobs.
Cotton buds for use with IPA.
Solder, either 60/40 or lead-free, depending on your preference.
Flux remover
Solder tip cleaner.
Containers to hold small parts.

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Control panels
One of the most common construction tasks for railway modellers is the building of a layout
control panel to house the switches, buttons, lights and some of the electronic modules
needed for controlling your layout.
The following tools help with creating
a control panel. Although not strictly
electronic tools, they are included
because they contribute to creating
panels in addition to general layout
The main tasks for these tools are
sawing, cutting, drilling and fixing.
Of course, many of these tools will
used in other tasks such as baseboard
and scenic construction.

Sawing and cutting

There is quite a range of tools for cutting and shaping materials such as wood, plastic and
metal. Although you can muddle through with a simple 2 hacksaw, you might want to look
at the features of the various other types of saws as they are designed for specific purposes
and produce superior results.
Panel saw
The first task is to cut a sheet of material (usually wood) to the specific dimensions of your
planned control panel. The panel saw, often referred to as a handsaw, is designed to make
straight cuts in large sheets of wood.
Its tempered steel blade blade, shown in the
upper image, has a fine toothed crosscut and
can handle plywood and other wood sheet
Tenon saw
The tenon, or mitre, saw is useful for making
the battens that often support a panel's box
construction. As the lower image shows, the
back of the saw has a steel stiffener and this
prevents any flexing of the blade. The result is
an accurate straight cut, making it popular for
general modelling.
Hack saw
Although the hacksaw can be used to cut wood, it is mostly
used for cutting plastic and metals. The blades are
replaceable and are held in tension by adjusting screws.
Like other saws, whether their blades are coarse or fine
cutting is determined by the number of cutting teeth per
inch (tpi) along the blade.

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The options are:

14tpi is coarse and is used for sawing soft metals such as aluminium.
18tpi is used for general jobs
24tpi is used for cutting thin steel plate (up to 5mm).
32tpi is a very fine blade and is used for sawing tubes and other hollows sections.

A cheap miniature version, the Junior hacksaw, is a common tool on

the workbench and is mostly 32 tpi.
Razor saw
The razor saw often comes as a handle with interchangeable blades.
A saw normally cuts a slightly larger width than the width of its blade; this is known as its
'kerf' and makes the blade less likely to jam
while cutting. The razor saw, as the name
may suggest, has a very thin blade (i.e. a
low kerf) and produces a very fine cut
compared even to a fine hack saw.
Blades are available from 32tpi to 52tpi
and are used to cut wood, plastic and soft
metals. The Ultra Thin (Superfine) and
Fine blades saw through wood and plastic
without any splits or ragged edges, great for
balsa and thin ply. The Medium is often used for metal cutting (e.g. an alternative to rail
cutters for cutting flexi-track or cutting track breaks) while the Heavy blades are used for
heavier wood cutting jobs.
Like the tenon saw, the blades have steel stiffeners to ensure a straight cut.
Improving the cut
Unless you are experienced in woodworking, you could probably benefit from having tools
that help produce a clean straight cut.
The humble vice is a useful tool as it holds the work while it is being sawed, preventing it
from moving and allowing both hands to be free. It can
also be used for filing, bending and soldering tasks.
However, if you need cuts to be sawn at precise angles,
you can use a mitre box, as shown in the image.
It is made from wood, plastic or aluminium and has slots
into which the saw blade sits, thus ensuring perfect
square or angled cuts. A mitre box is very useful for
structure work and for cutting track.
Finer cuts
There are occasions when you need a more precise cut in situations where the above saws
are not practical. For example, cutting rectangular holes in control panels for mounting
switches and meters, or cutting rectangular holes for windows in buildings.
For these jobs, the coping saw, fret saw and jeweller's saw can be used.
They all have a saw blade that is stretched across a C-shaped frame. The work to be cut has
a small hole drilled within the area to be removed. The blade is then disconnected at one
end and the blade is passed through the hole before being reconnected to the frame. The

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saw is then able to cut any shape, subject only to the depth of the saw's frame (the throat
depth). When the area is cut out, the blade is disconnected again and extracted from the
piece being cut.
The differences between the types are mostly about construction and blade abilities.
A 'Coping Saw' uses blades that are generally of set length with pins at each
end that are held by the saw frame. Since the blades are smaller than
hacksaw blades, they are better at sawing shapes and curves. These saws are
mostly used to saw plastic and wood.
A 'Fret saw' is like a coping saw with a deeper throat, perhaps 10" or 12"
Their blades are not pinned but are clamped at each end of the saw with thumb
screws. They use thinner saw blades, allowing them to cut tighter curves than
a coping saw and produce more intricate results. The finer blades make them
more vulnerable to snapping than coping blades. Also, many users find the
larger frame more awkward to work with.
A 'Jewellers Saw' also has its blades clamped by
thumscrews but its 'C' frame is adjustable. With
the other saws, a snapped blade means a
discarded blade. With the jeweller's saw, you can
still use the remains of a broken blade by
adjusting the frame width. Their blades are
generally even thinner than those used by fret
saws, resulting in even more intricate cuts and a
smaller kerf.
Although capable of cutting plastic and wood, they are ideal for detailed cutting of metal
(hence its name).
If you are building an oddly shaped control panel, or are just
needing to cut curved rising trackbed as shown in the image, the
jigsaw power tool is the answer. With a little care (watch out for
the exposed blade) and a little experience, curves and custom
shapes are quickly cut.
Blades are available for sawing wood, laminates, metal and
plastics, Don't expect too fine a cut
as some blades can be as low as
10tpi or even 5tpi.
If you already own a Dremel
multitool, you can buy the 'Mini
Saw Attachment' that converts it into a rip saw.

Other shaping tools

While the main shaping work is carried out by saws, there is often a need to give a final trim
or shape to a job. For these, a selection of knives and files is useful.
General craft knifes, such as the X-Acto or Swann Morton ranges, have handles with
removable and interchangeable blades. These include blades that designed for special tasks
such as scoring, chiselling, whittling, deburring, stripping, etc.
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A popular knife for the larger, although less accurate,

jobs is the Stanley Knife with the retractable blade for
safety when not in use.
For high precision, Swann Morton sell surgical scalpels.
They are very effective but have to be handled extremely
carefully as they are not called scalpels for nothing!
A useful addition for cutting panel labels, decals, etc., is
a self healing cutting mat. This supports the work and
provides a clean cut.
Don't forget to replace blades if they show any signs of wear or chipping, or are leaving
jagged edges on the cut material. Apart from doing a bad job, they can lead to accidents.
Finally, there is always a place for the humble pair of scissors.

The final step is often a final smoothing of edges and surfaces.
Rasp files, such as the 'Bastard File', are too coarse for finishing work and files with finer
teeth are required.
Small sets of files, known as 'Needle Files' are ideal for
smoothing small areas of wood, plastic, metal and even
glass. As the image shows, they are available in various
shapes, such as
round, half round, flat or pillar file, square, and triangle.
This provides flexibility for the user to achieve the wanted
effect for a particular job.
The surface of the file is usually coated with fine tungsten
or diamond grit, to provide the smaller abrasive effect
required for finishing work. They may come with handles
already attached (as shown), or are expected to be used with a separate handle.
It is best to keep a separate set of files for metal and plastic/wood.
And, if you really want a superior finish, you can always carry out a bit of hand sanding
with very fine grade sandpaper.

Apart from the general uses of a drill while model making, there are specific tasks where
drilling tools are useful.
Drilling pilot holes for screws, to prevent the splitting of wood.
Drilling holes in control panels and project boxes for switches and lights.
Drilling holes in baseboard battens to pass wires through.
A hand drill is relatively cheap and is more controllable when extra care has to be taken to
prevent damage (e.g. drilling beyond the work piece to areas underneath).
A mains-powered or cordless drill is much faster and is safe to use if handled with care.
Some rotary tools, such as the Dremel Multitool, offer extra facilities such as flexible shaft
between the drill and the drill bit to allow drilling in otherwise inaccessible areas.
There are many types of drill bit, including specialist bits for drilling masonry, glass and
tile. For modellers, drill bits for wood and metal are the ones to add to the toolkit.

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Twist Bits
This is the most common bit in use, for both hand
drills and powered drills.
They are general purpose bits for use on wood, plastic and light metal.
There are three main categories of twist bits:
Carbon Steel The cheapest but not suitable for metal or even hardwoods.
High Speed Steel (HSS) Can be used to drill wood or plastic but are best used with metals, as

they can handle the higher tip temperatures that are generated. These
bits usually are black in colour.
Titanium Nitride (TiN) The TiN coating makes the bit particularly suitable for drilling metal;
do not use on wood. The bit has a golden colour.

Making a point
The cutting edges of a drill bit has an angle (usually 118) and the tip of the bit is where you
start drilling the hole. In practice, it can sometimes be difficult to get the bit to stay in
place, specially when you start drilling into metal. The bit can skid along the metal, scoring
the surface, or you might drill a hole that is slightly off where you intended.
A centre punch tool can prevent any movement of the drill.
It has a pointed end that is held at the centre of the
intended hole position. The top of the punch is then
tapped with a hammer and this makes a recessed dimple in
the metal.
This indentation helps keep the bit in place during the
initial drilling.
If a large hole has to be drilled, a smaller pilot hole can be drilled first. This gives extra
protection against the larger bit from wandering along the metal surface.
A similar technique can be used when drilling wood, specially hardwood. Again, a smaller
pilot hole can be useful to mark the exact centre point for the hole.
With softwood, the danger is that forcing a large screw into
the wood might result in the wood splitting along its grain.
This danger can be minimised by making a pilot hole to
break up or remove some of the wood fibre.
A pilot hole can be made with a drill bit smaller than the
final bit size, or with a bradawl. A bradawl look similar to
a screwdriver and is inserted into the wood and twisted to
break up the fibres.

Brad Point Bits

Sometimes called spur point bits, these are for drilling through wood and some plastics
The tip of the bit has a sharp point that holds the bit in place when starting to drill the wood.
This makes positioning and drilling more accurate.
It also has two spurs at the tip and these ensure
straight, parallel, clean-sided holes.
Apart from general use, they are ideal when for drilling holes for dowelling work (they are
sometimes called dowel bits).

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The Bullet Pilot Point bit. Is the version for drilling metal; it can also be used with wood and

Flat Wood Bits

Sometimes called Spade Bits or Paddle Bits, these are designed for drilling out large
diameter holes in wood and some plastics. They can be used for drilling holes in baseboard
battens (to pass wires and cables through) or in panels
(to mount some instruments).
These bits are for use with power drills that are run at
high speed to prevent the bit from jamming in the wood.
The sharp tip keeps the bit on the centre of the intended hole, while the flat blades cut away
the excess wood.

Countersink Bits
When using screws you want to ensure that the head does not sit above the surface of the
material, otherwise it may scrape other surfaces.
If the surface part of the drilled hole is enlarged, the head of the screw can sit flush, or
below, the surface of the material.
You could simply uses a drill bit of larger size than the hole to
create this recessed area.
However, there are drill bits specially made for this job.
The countersink bit shown in the image can be used with either a
hand drill or a power drill.
When used with a powered drill, care has to be
taken to avoid accidentally drilling down to
You have more control with a hand drill and you
can buy a countersink bit with its own fitted handle.
A combination bit is available that both drills
and countersinks in the one operation. As the
image shows, it also has a limiter to prevent you
countersinking too deeply.
Unless you work a lot with the same screw size,
this can be an expensive option as you would require a countersink/clearance drill for every
hole size that you use.
Although commonly used with wood, countersink bits are available for metal too.

Pin Vices
When you work with very fine, small diameter, drill
bits, they are very fragile and snap easily. When
used with large hand or electric drills, the size and
weight of the drill threatens the stability of the drilling
process, tilting the drill and snapping the bit.
To provide better control over drilling small holes, you
can use a pin vice. This is basically a small hand

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You locate the drill bit in the chuck (collet) and rotate the pin vice barrel between your
fingers, while holding the top of the barrel steady with your other hand.
Some provide a rotating knob at the top of the barrel so that the vice can be used more
comfortably and perhaps single handedly.
As the image shows, you can buy pin vices that cover a range of bit sizes.
An alternative is to buy a pin vice with replaceable collets, so that you only need a single
tool that covers a range of bit sizes.
If you are using an electric drill and find it difficult to hold small bits centrally in the chuck,
you can hold the small drill bit in a pin vice and place the pin vice in the electric drill.
Finally, avoid using drill bits that have been blunted with wear. They will take forever to
drill the work, will overheat and may char the wood being drilled. A sharp bit always drills
faster and results in a cleaner hole.

Final fixing
After cutting and drilling the material, you will want to secure the pieces together.
Nails are not recommended, apart from using panel pins to hold a job while the glue dries.
A light to medium weight hammer is all that is required to drive home panel pins.
The most common way to secure wood sections to each other is with screws and
screwdrivers were covered earlier. This method allows the construction to be
disassembled at any time by removing the screws (unless you have also used glue).
An alternative approach, that used in many items of
office and home furniture, is to use dowels.
The two pieces of wood are drilled and wooden
dowels are glued into the holes. The large surface
area of the dowel rods provides a substantial contact
area for the glue and this makes the joint stronger than
using screws, particularly with composite materials
such as plywood.
When two pieces of wood are screwed together, they
are pulled tightly together when the screw is driven home.
This does not happen with dowels, so you have to ensure that they are in close contact.
Often, a tap with a hammer suffices. Even better, use
clamps to hold the pieces tight while the glue dries.
The downside with dowels is that construction takes
longer than screwing, as you have to wait for the glue to
dry. The upside is a stronger joint and the joint is hidden
(there are no screw heads showing).
You can buy a small starter kit as shown in the image to
practice this technique. If you are happy you can then
buy a bag of dowels and use your own glue.

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Glue gun
These are relatively cheap tools and you will find many uses for it once you own one. You
can use the glue to secure LEDs inside buildings, hold wires in awkward places, and
anywhere you want a quick fixing.
Beware though, that the glue is very hot and very sticky.

Some last words

This chapter covers more tools than you might need but does still not cover all that are
available. What you buy depends on your particluar needs and preferences.
Also,the chapter has not covered the use or care of tools. That is a whole other subject.
Always read the instructions for each tool you intend to use.

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Chapter 19

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Soldering is defined as the joining of two metals using a low melting temperature alloy
(solder) as the filler metal.
Solder has three functions:

It wets the metal surfaces that make up the joint.

It flows to fill the spaces between the two parts.
It metallurgically bonds the surfaces when it solidifies.

Although solder is a poorer conductor than the metals it connects, its very short conducting
path means that it has little impact on the overall resistance of the joint.
Soldering requires three resources:

A soldering iron (sometimes called a soldering bolt) to generate the heat required.
Solder to bond the joint.
A selection of tools and accessories to aid the soldering process.

Soldering Irons
Types of soldering iron
A range of soldering irons are available, with differing characteristics and advantages/
Most soldering irons work at 240v and plug directly into a mains supply socket.
This ensures a constant supply current and allows for high-wattage irons to be constructed.
Another mains-powered bolt is the hot air iron. This blows out a clean source of heat and is
very useful for other tasks such as drying glue, fault-finding, working with SM (surface
mount) components, heat-shrinking and desoldering. A very expensive option.
Another wired iron works from a 12v supply. This is useful when working under a
baseboard, attaching the iron's cable to any 12v connection that runs along under the
baseboard. Also handy for working on car repairs. They are fixed wattage irons, with no
facility to vary temperature.
There are two types of portable (i.e. non-wired) irons. These have the advantage that they
can be used anywhere without needing to find a source of power.
The illustration shows a typical battery-powered iron. It produces
6W and runs off three AAA batteries.
The Weller BP860CEU is an 8W model that can carry out 180
solder joints on a set of four AA batteries.
They are often described as cold soldering as the tip heats to
working temperature in only a few seconds and, when switched off, the tip is safe to touch
within only a few seconds.
A 'ColdHeat' version has a tip made up of two prods that are shorted by the joint/solder and
the high resulting current produces an almost instant heat. When removed from the joint,
the tip cools very quickly. This iron is NOT suitable for kit building as the voltage it
produces may damage electronic components.
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The other form of portable iron is gas powered, as shown in the

illustration, and uses normal cigarette lighter fuel. A typical
gas iron will run for about 20 minutes on a butane fill.
With portable irons, you gain convenience of use at the cost of
regular replacement of batteries/gas and less control over

Wattage and temperature

These are different characteristics but they are closely linked.
The temperature specifies how hot the iron's tip can become, while the wattage determines
how long this temperature can be maintained when applied to a joint (i.e. the heat capacity).
Soldering is all about applying heat at the correct temperature and for the correct
amount of time, for any given job.

So, using a higher wattage iron does not necessarily providing greater heat; it means it may
provide heat for a longer period.
In some situations, a sustained heat is necessary - e.g. when soldering brass items together
or when soldering an earth wire to a metal chassis. A low wattage iron would not be
capable of maintaining a constant high temperature, as the heat would be shunted away by
the large area of the job being soldered.
On the other hand, high sustained heat applied to small joints could easily result in
burnt/lifted PCB tracks and burnt components.
Modellers may, therefore, have two soldering irons - a lowish wattage iron for working on
circuit boards and a higher wattage iron for soldering track droppers, brass kits, etc.
Soldering irons rated at 12W / 15W /17W / 18w are generally used for assembling kits, with
25W irons used for general layout work (e.g. brass kits, track droppers, baseboard wiring).
Higher wattage irons range from 40W / 50W / 80W / 100W and are used for larger soldering
jobs, such as connections to metal chassis, large terminals, earthing tags, stained glass

Variable temperature irons

Different types of solder melt at different temperatures
(see later). Also, desoldering 60/40 solder is normally
carried out at a higher temperature than soldering.
To provide this flexibility, you can buy a 'soldering
This is a soldering iron that can have its bit temperature
set by a rotatory knob or by push-buttons (as in the
A cheaper alternative is the soldering iron whose
temperature is controlled via a miniature setting dial, set
into the handle which is continuously variable from 200
to 450C .
Typical operating temperatures are:
60/40 (leaded) solder - 280C to 320C
Lead-free solder - 350C to 400C
Solder for white metal - 80C
Desoldering - 320C to 360C
Sleep - 220C
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The tip of the soldering iron's bit is usually made from
copper or copper alloy, to achieve the best heat transfer to
the joint being soldered.
As the illustration shows, a wide range of bit sizes is
available, even for average soldering irons.
The size of the tip determines the heat transference
capability, while the shape of the tip determines how well
the heat is transferred to the joint.
The trick is to match the tip size/shape to the nature of the
The smallest bit shown is ideal for working with tiny
components, or in awkward places to reach.
The largest, chisel-shaped, bit is best used to transfer large
amounts of heat to large surface areas.

For many years, solder was made from an alloy of tin and
lead, usually in the proportions of 60% tin and 40% lead
(therefore known as '60/40 solder').
However, on July 1, 2006 the European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
Directive (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) banned using
lead in most consumer electronics products manufactured in the EU.
60/40 solder is still OK for home/hobby use and is still manufactured. It is widely regarded
as easier to work with than lead-free solder.
The melting points of different solders are:
60/40 solder 188C
LMP (Low Melting Point) for SM 179C/188C
Low Melt (for white castings) 70C
Lead-free solder - 217C to 227oC
Lead-free can have a matt finish, whereas leaded solder is shiny.
Solder is available in different thickness. 18swg is used for for larger joints, while 22swg
is used for kit building. Low melt solder, for use in constructing white metal loco kits, is
supplied in sticks or as solid blocks.

A successful soldered joint requires that the surfaces to be soldered be perfectly clean, both
before and during the soldering process.
Unfortunately, metals such as copper and tin oxidise rapidly when exposed to air, moisture
or heat. It forms a nonconductive, therefore non-solderable, surface on the metal. For
example, copper's normally bright shiny colour turns to a dull, orange colour.
Flux is a chemical cleaner with three jobs;
It removes any existing oxide layer from the joint's surfaces.
It prevents the joint's surface from oxidizing under the extreme heat of the bolt until
the solder makes the joint.
It encourages the flow of solder into the recesses of the joint.
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Most solder has several cores of flux embedded in the solder (maybe 3 or 5 cores). When
heat is applied, the flux flows out over the surfaces to be soldered, thus removing any oxides
and preventing re-oxidation during the soldering process.
It is possible to buy a flux pen, shown in the illustration. It has a 'felt'
tip, similar to that used in marker pens. When pressed, it dispenses
flux and the pen can be used to apply addition flux to a particular spot.
This is sometimes used when soldering thin lead-free solder, where the
joint may not be getting sufficient flux. Its use has been controversial,
mainly due to constructors using water soluble flux pens which can
cause long-term damage to the joint and its surrounding metal. The
No Clean flux pen is not water soluble and is commonly used as a
safe aid for soldering with thin lead-free solder.

Soldering brass kits and white metal kits use different materials and different techniques
from assembling electronic modules.
A Google search will result in websites that explain theses processes.
In both cases, cored solder is not used. Instead joining surfaces have flux applied to them
and the solder is applied before the flux is burnt away.
For example, ROX150 Liquid flux is used for white metal soldering and Rox145 solder is
used for brass and nickel silver joints.

Successful soldering is about how heat is transferred to the joint and how solder is applied
to the joint.
Below is a suggested guide to the steps.
Clean the joint

The surfaces to be soldered must be free from oxidation, grease,

dirt, etc.
While flux is great at removing oxides from the surfaces, it will
not clean dirt, oil, grease, etch resist, etc. For that you must use
one of a number of cleaning methods.
The PCB connecting pads can be cleaned using either steel
wool , fine grit sandpaper, a cleaning block, a fibreglass pen
(supplied with refills) or an ultrafine abrasive pad.
Prepare wire/components

When you purchase a kit it is likely that the components have been purchased relatively
recently and will only show minor amounts of surface deterioration. Nevertheless, the
leads of the components should be cleaned before insertion into the PCB.
Strip off a little of the insulation on any wires that are to connect to the PCB and tin their
ends (especially with multi-stranded wire) before soldering on to board.
Support the work

Holding components in place and rotating the board to the best angle for soldering, while
holding the soldering iron and applying solder can be a frustrating experience. Ever
wished you had three hands?
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A number of devices can be used to support the board and hold it at

the correct angle, freeing your two hands for the iron and the solder.
For professional work an expensive PCB holding frame is
available. , Hobbyists usually employ a small vice or a ' helping
hand' as shown in the illustration. This model has a clamps to hold
the work, as well as a magnifying glass, a soldering iron holder and a
pad for cleaning the iron's tip.
Best mechanical joint

Where possible, it is best to obtain a good mechanical connection between

components. The illustration shows a wire being wrapped round a pin or a tag.
This provides improved mechanical strength as well as improved electrical
This is not always possible e.g. poking a resistor's leads through holes in a PCB. In such
cases, it is best to insert the component's leads through their holes and then bend the
wires to an angle. This has the double benefit of allowing the lead to touch the side of the
copper pad on the PCB, as well as preventing the component from dropping out when the
board is turned over for soldering.
Wet/tin the iron's tip

The first step in soldering is to heat the joint to be soldered. The iron's job is to transfer
heat to the joint. To promote the the transference of heat, the iron's bit is 'tinned' or
'wetted' a small amount of solder is applied to the tip. This allows the tip to have a
greater contact with the surfaces of the joint and prevents oxidisation of the tip.
Apply heat to joint

Use the iron's tip to apply heat to both surfaces of the job. Try not to rely on heat applied
to one surface being transferred to the other surface. This could result in a 'dry joint'
(see later).
The process is the iron heats the surfaces
the surfaces melt the solder that is placed on them.
Apply solder to heated joint

With the joint at working temperature, apply the solder to the joint. The heat from the
joint melts the solder and its flux cores. Capillary action ensures that the molten flux
covers the surfaces to be joined and also penetrates between the surfaces.
Apart from keeping the joint clean, the flux encourages the flow of the molten solder into
every part of the joint. As soon as the joint is covered by the solder, the soldering iron
should be removed from the joint.
The act of soldering a joint should only take about two seconds to complete. If it takes a
lot longer, the iron may not be up to the job, the joint may be dirty, or you may be doing
it wrong.
Enough is enough - applying heat for longer than necessary risks heat damage to sensitive
components or copper tracks lifting away from the PCB. It may also change the physical
properties (strength and hardness) of the metals being soldered in a process known as
'annealing' leading to failed joints at a later time.
Some dont's

Don't apply extra heat or extend the soldering time in an attempt to 'force' the solder
to adhere to a dirty surface.
Don't drip solder on to to joint, or create a large blob of solder on the end of the tip,
to carry over to the joint. That way, the flux that was designed to protect the joint
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from oxidisation during soldering is burnt off prior to the solder touching the joint.
Let the joint melt the solder.
Don't use 60/40 on lead-free joints. The lead will degrade the lead-free material.
Support joint until it cools

When the soldering iron is removed from the job, the solder on the joint takes time to
solidify. If the connection is disturbed during this time, it can lead to dry joints. Resist
the temptation to immediately move the board and wait until the solder has cooled before
snipping off the excess wires on component leads.
Some other soldering issues

Soldering track droppers

Soldering wires to track can be difficult, as the large amount of metal in the track can
quickly shunt away the heat from the area to be soldered. Contrary to possible
expectations, a high wattage iron should be used. Although this may be thought to melt
the plastic, the shorter time required to make the soldered connection results in a lesser
risk of melting the track. A large amount of heat for a short time is the preferred way to
solder track droppers.
Tack soldering
Here, a small temporary solder joint is used to hold component in position (e.g. one pin of
an IC socket) with the joint being remade later.
Seam soldering
Used in the building of brass kits, a continuous bond is made along a seam or joint, by
slowly moving the iron along the seam, heating up the soldered area as it progresses.

Health and Safety

A hot soldering iron is a dangerous implement when not given sufficient respect. It is not
unknown for hobbyists to burn tables, lamps and themselves while carelessly holding an
iron (usually while engrossed in examining a joint, etc.).
Switch the iron off when not being used for a period, keep the iron in its holder when not in
use, and keep the iron away from any flammables.
Remember too that the joint remains very hot for some time after the soldering is removed.
Try to avoid inhaling the fumes that are produced during soldering. Professional workshops
have extractor fans, but you can use a small desk fan to push the fumes away from you. If
possible, work in a well-ventilated area.
Phosphoric acid fumes can be highly irritating to the nose and lungs, while inhaling
Cadmium fumes (silver soldering) can cause serious lung conditions.

Tip maintenance
Although the soldering iron tip may be clean and wetted at the start of a session, it can soon
end up with a tip that is dry and is dirty.
Eventually, flux residue and oxidized lead from the solder coat the tip. This gunge is often
referred to as clag and can contaminate joints. A black oxide scale results from using
60/40 solder.
Since only a tip that is clean, shiny and wetted successfully transfers heat, it follows that the
tip needs periodic cleaning during soldering.
Different methods are compared next.

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Tip cleaner
The illustration shows an example of a tip cleaner that is supplied in a
small tin. The tin contains a solid disc of solder powder and some
For badly affected irons, the tip of the iron is pushed into the cleaner
and results in large quantities of smoke being produced (use in a wellventilated room). For general use, a single wipe of the bit across the
block is sufficient to clean an re-wet the tip.
Moist sponge
A very popular method is to clean the tip with a moist (not wet) sponge. The tip is wiped
across the sponge to remove any oxide layer.
Most soldering iron stands and soldering stations have a built-in area for storing the sponge.
This is the cheapest method but it has its drawbacks.
It is often suggested that the sponge should be used after every
soldered joint but this can lead to early tip failure.
Repeated frequent wiping during a session creates large swings in
tip temperature and the metal layers that make up the tip expand and
contract at different rates, leading to metal fatigue.
The sponge is also often used to remove excess solder from the tip.
The tip of the iron is drawn across the damp sponge and this cools the solder at a different
rate from the irons' tip, helping to remove debris. However, this dumps the excess solder,
burned flux residue, and other contaminants onto the sponge. Eventually, the next time you
clean the tip, you may pick up as much gunge as you deposit. To overcome this, some
sponges have a circle or an arc cut out of them so that the gunge can be wiped on their
edges. This depositing the gunge in the hole rather than on the sponge.
Brass wool
A very useful option is the brass wool pad into which the tip is inserted
and withdrawn, or wiped across a few times.
Brass is abrasive enough to remove the gunge without damaging the tip's
coating, as brass is a softer metal than that of the tip.
Unlike the sponge, it does not cool down the iron's tip significantly, so
soldering can carry on without waiting for the tip's temperature returning to its operating
point. Great for 60/40 solder, or a badly coated lead-free tip.
It is possible, although not advisable, to scrape the gunge off using a file, sandpaper or steel
wire brush. While they may be used in cases of extreme contamination, they should
generally be avoided.
An iron's tip is generally made from a copper core with an outer iron cladding and a nickel
or chrome plating. If the protective outer plating is breached, flux is able to penetrate into
the copper area. Combined with the heat, this will rapidly eat away the copper core, leading
to pitting and holes in the bit's surface. If you really must use extreme measures, use extra
fine grade sandpaper (between 220 and 600 grit) and be careful not to rub excessively.
You may find that a fine-bristle, brass grill-brush will be sufficient and safer.
Keep tip tinned

The tip should be kept clean and shiny during the soldering session, for the reasons already
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It helps if you match the diameter of the solder to the tip. Using small diameter solders may
not keep the tip flooded with solder while in use and cause the tip oxidize and wear faster.
If, on the other hand, there is excess solder on the tip, remove the iron from the job, take it
to an used section of the workbench (one with a protective cover) and give the iron a gentle
tap or whip-like shake to remove the excess solder.
At the end of a soldering session, the iron should be left in a tinned state, to protect it from
oxidation and corrosion when lying unused.
Other issues

Do not use the iron's tip to push a component or use it as a lever (e.g. to prise out a
component lead).
Do not push solder against the tip, to force it to melt; wait until the tip is sufficiently
hot to melt the solder naturally.
Do not use pressure or rubbing of the bit on the joint, in an attempt to improve heat
Excessive force on the tip will cause the iron plating to crack, with reduced tip life as
previously explained.
Use only the temperature that you need. Higher tip temperatures result in faster oxidation.
Soldering at temperatures over 470 C will make the tip to oxidize twice as fast as soldering
at 370C.

There are many occasions when you might want to desolder a wire or a component.

A component has become faulty.

You have wired a component in the wrong place.
To remake a joint that you think may be suspect.
You want to lift one lead off a component to aid in fault-finding.
You want to recover components from a module that you no longer use.

Trying to remove the solder with only the use of the iron is often not successful, with the
remaining solder running back into the joint whenever the iron is removed.
To remove large solder blobs, a desoldering pump, often called a
'solder sucker' can be used. It is a spring-loaded device that puts
the spring into tension when the knob is pushed down. The iron is
placed on the soldered joint to melt the solder before being quickly
withdrawn and replaced by the sucker. A quick press on the button
releases the spring and the solder is sucked into the body of the
A very effective method for most joints is
the use of a 'solder wick' or 'desoldering

The wick is made from a ribbon of braided

copper wire that is impregnated with flux.
The braid is placed over the soldered joint
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and the soldering iron's tip is then held against the braid.
The heated braid melts the solder which wicks (seeps) into the braid.
Removing the braid lifts away the excess solder.
The impregnated section of the braid is then cut off and discarded.
A typical desoldering may use up less than 1 of the braid and, since the braid comes in 5'
rolls, it will last for some.

Shopping List
If you are just about to start experimenting with soldering, the following is a list of the tools
and accessories you might find useful.

Must haves

Soldering Iron
Soldering Iron Stand (if not supplied with the soldering iron)
Cutters (to trim off component leads, cut wires and wire links to length)
Magnifying glass / eyeglass
Good lighting
Protective surface (to avoid burning the dining room table!)
Cleaner sponge (if not supplied with the soldering iron stand)
Brass wool

Useful accessories

Third 'Hand' / small vice

Wire strippers (strips insulation from wires without risking damaging the wire)
Solder wick / desoldering braid
Solder sucker
Earthing strap / anti-static wrist strap with cord (if handling static-sensitive devices)
Brass wire brush
Tip cleaner
Flux pen
Heatsink (to clip on to a lead if it is being soldered close to a heat-sensitive

Further information on some of these tools can be found in the chapter on Assembling a

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Surface Mount components

For a long time, electronic components were of the 'through-hole' type. They have wire
leads that poke through holes in circuit boards and are soldered to the copper pads
underneath. These are still in widespread use but have been joined by 'surface mount'
equivalents. These are tiny devices that allow the miniaturisation of mobile phones, etc.
They also make the production of commercial boards quicker and simpler to produce, being
designed for robotic pick-and-place assembly of boards, rather than the manual assembly.
All the common electronic components, such as ICs, resistors, capacitors, regulators, LEDs,
etc. available in both through-hole and SMD types.
Surface mount devices are so small that they are measured in thousands of an inch.
The most common size is the 0805, which means that it is 8 thou long by 5 thou wide (i.e.
2mm x 1.3mm). Most resistors and capacitors are supplied in this size. Other sizes are
larger (1206 3mm x 1.5mm, 1210, 2010 and
2512) or smaller (0603 and even smaller).
The image shows some of the most common
shapes for SMD components.
Passive components (i.e. resistors and
capacitors) are found in the 0805 or 1206
outlines. General-purpose transistors use the
SOT-23, with power transistors using the SOT223 outline.
The 8-SOIC and 14-SOIC are the 'Small
Outline Integrated Circuit' outlines for many
integrated circuits.
SMD components are so small that it is difficult to print conventional markings on them.
Often, they will have no markings and have to be kept in separate plastic bags with labels.
They are usually supplied on a bandolier (a 'film strip' with many sealed pockets) and
should be kept there until they are ready to be mounted on your modules.
If any components have markings, they will not be ones you are accustomed to but you can
look up their details at:
For example, a resistor marked as 273 is a value of 27k, while one marked as 2702 is a 27k
resistor with a 1% tolerance.

Soldering methods
As SMD components are intended for industrial and professional use, it poses extra
challenges to hobbyists who have to work with much smaller components and increased
risks of shorts, dry joints, burnt-out components, etc. Having said that, many hobbyists
have adapted to working with surface mount technology.
They have different (sometimes contradictory) experiences, use slightly different methods
and offer differing advice.
There are three main methods, depending on what you are prepared to spend.

Hand soldering
Hot air
Reflow oven

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Hand soldering
Like conventional soldering, it uses a soldering iron and solder, with the possible addition of
other aids and materials.

Soldering iron
You might think that you would use a soldering bit with a fine point but it will not transfer
heat as effectively as a bit with a flat edge. A flat or chisel tip of at least 1mm should be
used, with some users reporting great results with a tip as large as 3mm.
While a 15W iron will handle a few components, it may struggle to maintain its temperature
when soldering many components, or working with large surface areas.
If you have a temperature controlled station, you will benefit from the constant heat output
it provides. The temperature can be set to 315C to 370C for tin-lead solder, and 370C to
426C for lead-free solder.
A different tip is better for handling ICs and this is covered later.

Solder/Flux/Solder paste
Efficient solder flow is even more important when soldering SMD components, as
prolonged application of heat from the soldering iron can damage components. Solder that
contains a small amount of silver aids the flow and shortens the time needed for soldering.
From earlier, we know that flux prevents oxides from forming on surfaces, aids the
distribution of heat and makes the solder flow more easily.
Normal solder has flux cores embedded in it and the flux flows when the soldering iron
melts the solder. We can use this method to solder SMD components but normal solder is
far too thick for the job. Instead, we use a fine gauge solder (26 SWG) that still manages to
have cores of flux. Since the solder is so fine, there is not a lot of flux in the cores. If
necessary, the user can apply extra flux to a solder pad using a flux pen or brushing on from
a jar of liquid flux.
There are three types of flux in common use - water soluble flux, rosin-based flux and noclean flux.
Water-based flux is more 'active' (better at combatting oxides) but is mildly corrosive
and also conductive, so excess flux has to be cleaned off with water.
Rosin-based flux is less active, less corrosive and the residue is cleaned off using a
cleaning solvent.
No-clean flux has a low activation level, making it harder to achieve good results.
However, its residue is non-corrosive and non-conductive, so does not require to
cleaned away except to improve appearance.
Solder paste is something completely different and should not be confused with solder flux.
Flux can be used along with your solder, as in normal soldering.
Solder paste is used instead of separate solder and flux. It has tiny particles of solder
suspended in a flux gel. The paste is grey in colour and sticky to help hold components in
place during soldering.
The two hand soldering techniques are looked at next.

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Getting started
The components you are working with are tiny and the board on which they will be soldered
is likely to be small too. These pose extra challenges for us.
SMD components can easily slide off the board, or even 'ping' off in any direction and get
lost forever.
It helps, therefore, to work on a flat surface that has plenty of visibility.
If you place the board on a flat work area that is covered by a large sheet of white paper (A3
or even lining paper) you improve your chances of successful construction.
Professionals use precision board holders that clamp the board to prevent movement during
soldering. A budget equivalent is to stick your small board on to a larger piece of board
using double-side tape or even Blu-Tack. This larger board provides stability and can be
easily rotated to provide optimum access when soldering.
Other items to gather together include:

A source of adequate light

A magnifier (or combined lamp plus magnifier)
A soldering iron
The appropriate soldering bit for the method being adopted.
Brass wool or other cleaner to maintain a clean bit.
Desolder braid
Solder, flux or solder paste and a cocktail stick
IPA, to clean the board before starting, during the construction where required and after
completion of soldering where required.

As a rule, it is best to work with a single SMD component at a time to minimise the risks of
lost components. The protective film strip should only be peeled back as far as required to
uncover each component. The component can then be removed by tipping it on to the
board, where it can be moved into place.

Using cored solder

The pads on the printed circuit board may or may not be pre-tinned. If the pads are tinned,
ensure that they are only a thin film; any blobs should be removed with desolder braid.
If the pads are not tinned, tin one pad only.

Pick up the component using tweezers.

Place the component across the pads.
Hold the component in place.
Quickly tack one side of the component to its pad, with
as little solder as possible.
Check that the component has not moved; melt the
solder and adjust if necessary.
Maintaining light pressure on the component, solder
the other end properly.
Return to the first end of the component and solder it

Solder as quickly as possible with as little solder as

possible, consistent with making a good joint.
You can watch this video on YouTube:
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You do not need a lot of solder to make a good joint. If a pad is pre-tinned, you may only
need apply a little solder to the iron's tip and apply it to the joint, specially if you apply flux
to the pads.
This is the opposite of conventional soldering where you heat the joint and then apply the
solder to the heated joint. You can still manage this with fine gauge solder. Alternatively,
you can melt the solder on the iron and apply it to the joint. This way, the flux will boil off
before the iron reaches the joint, hence the need for additional liquid flux.
When all the components are soldered, clean off the flux residue.

Using solder paste

This method is a little simpler.

Ensure that both pads are tinned with a thin layer; use desolder braid to remove any excess
Apply solder paste to each pad, using a cocktail stick or similar thin pointed object.
Pick up the component using tweezers.
Place the component across the pads.
Hold the component in place.
Place the iron's tip on one end of the component, until the paste melts and flows.
Check that the component has not moved; melt the solder and adjust if necessary.
After a few seconds, the joint will be cool enough to solder the other end of the component.

If your iron is too hot, the paste will sputter and minute solder balls will be sprayed out from
the paste. That, and any unfused paste must be cleaned from the board.
This method can also be seen on the above YouTube video.

Soldering ICs
This can appear a very task as you have to solder multiple tags that are spaced very close to
each other, with all the possible shorts that could be caused.
A number of techniques are used and they all share some basic rules:

Before starting, make sure that all pads are tinned with a thin layer of solder. Check that
there are no solder bridges between adjacent pads.
When placing the IC on the pads; make sure the pins are centred on the pads and it is fitted
the correct way round!
Solder two pins on diagonally opposite sides of the IC. This holds the IC securely in place
while soldering the remaining pins. Check and reposition if necessary before proceeding.

Some hobbyists apply flux to the pads. This method is:

Apply flux to the pads. There is no need to dab each pad individually, just apply to the
local area.
Place the IC on the pads, soldering diagonally opposite pins.
Solder each remaining IC pin, one at a time, using a fine gauge solder and a very fine tipped
soldering iron. Pause from time to time to prevent the IC from overheating.
Using a soldering iron with a flat tip, rub the flat tip along the pins whilst feeding solder.
Pause between each row to prevent the IC from overheating.

Some hobbyists use the 'drag soldering' method. It is similar to the above method but uses a
soldering iron with a special tip with a concave cup at the end. These are available as
gullwing tips, bucket tips, spoon tips, or NTGW conical tips.

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This acts as a reservoir or bowl for some molten solder.

This method is:

Apply flux to the pads. There is no need to dab each pad individually, just apply to the
local area.
Place the IC on the pads, soldering diagonally opposite pins.
Load up the reservoir pool with solder.
Slowly run the tip across a row of pins with its solder pool facing the pins. The solder will
be drawn to the joints and, with practice, there will be little or no shorts between pins.

This method can also be seen on this YouTube video;

Some hobbyists apply solder paste to each pad. This method is:

Apply solder paste to the pads. There is no need to dab each pad individually, just run a
strip of the paste along each row of pins.
Place the IC on the pads, soldering diagonally opposite pins..
Solder each remaining IC pin, one at a time, using a very fine tipped soldering iron.
Using a soldering iron with a flat tip, rub the flat tip along the pins.

Hot air rework station

This method does not use a soldering iron to melt the solder. Instead it directs a stream of
very hot air at the joint.
This method is:

Before starting, make sure that all pads are tinned

with a layer of solder. Check that there are no solder
bridges between adjacent pads.
Apply solder paste to the pads.
Place the component on, or close to, the pads.
Heat the air gun to its working temperature and set
the air flow to a constant gentle stream (you don't
want to blow the component off the board!).
Hold the gun over the work until the solder melts.
Move the component into its final position.

Some users replace the solder paste with flux and rely
on having sufficient solder on the pad to melt and complete the joint.
As the image shows, you can fit specially-shaped nozzles on the end of the hot air gun. A
range of shapes and sizes is available, covering round shapes, DIP 8-pin upwards and QFP
(Quad Flat Package) outlines. These nozzles direct the heat more efficiently at the work
area, allowing an IC to be soldered in a single operation. They also prevent any unintended
unsoldering of nearby components. Unlike soldering iron tips, the nozzles have a very long
working l