Sunday, July 17, 2011

The future of model railway control ?


Last weekend, I had the opportunity to have a go with the latest Hornby Railmaster software attached to the magazine's N gauge layout. I was only in charge of it for a few minutes, but it was long enough for me to work out it's not for me. Big time.

I must start by saying that the system works. On screen you have a mimic diagram showing the track plan. Clicking on the points changes them. Down the side of the screen are a list of locos. Each can be selected and driven on screen using the mouse. You have the option to drive the loco in the conventional way, or to pick "cruise" which sets the train off at a pre-determined speed. So we had a 9F on a long coal train set to 15mph. No need to use the speed slider, just press the button and let the computer sort it out.

If you want to get sophisticated then train movements can be pre-programmed. A DMU shuttle service operated and each time the train came into the fiddle yard the points changed so the service alternated between two different units. While clever the programming relied on timing the trains and they didn't seem to run reliably enough for this, sometimes they wanted to go out the back of the siding, other times not running far enough. Maybe OO stock would be better in this respect. Certainly operating in a glass-roofed room didn't help as doubtless the temperature changes would affect the motors.

So if it all works, why don't you like it ? I hear you cry.

I don't know really. Maybe the act of clicking on points didn't seem that natural - a larger touch screen would have been better but that just seems like an expensive version of the button-based mimic panels I build on the back of layouts. I poke a button with my finger instead of prodding the screen.

The problem seemed to be the list of trains. Working them using the mouse was positively unnatural. It will sound weird but I find I need the connection of twiddling a knob and seeing a loco move. There's too much separation. The list was long too which meant much scrolling up and down to find the one I wanted - no fun when you've messed up and need to find it in a hurry.

Now you are probably shouting something about me being old-fashioned. That's a pretty impressive achievement in this hobby but one I'll hold my hand up to. Da kidz will probably love the idea of running trains via the compuery box. With a bit of practise, picking trains from a list will get easier and I suspect they could have been grouped more suitably for stupid people. If I could identify the locos (why are N gauge choo choo's so tiny ?) faster it would help too.

So, this might be the future of train set control, but I'm stocking up on 12DC stuff.


All images and text on this are copyrighted by Tracy Wall, 2007-9, unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved. said...


Andy in Germany said...

I'm with you Phil. If folk want to play with computer programmes that's fine be me: I'll stick to playing with 'real' trains.

But then, it's a good time to get hold of used 12vDC loco chassis...

CF said...

Can the laptop 'see' if a point has not thrown properly? Tell you if a loco has failed to move?
I'm with you on this one. It's too detached. You're watching the screen not your trainset. If you want to do it this way then you mays well be playing a computer game.

Steve said...

Despite being a "computer person" I'm with you in not being keen on this. It feels like a layer of abstraction too far. And the screen design looks horrendous.

I do, however, like the idea of the iPhone app which interfaces with a DCC system (can't remember which one). I think that is a decent analogue (pun intended) to a traditional walkabout controller.

Gav said...

As I am new to the hobby I have yet to deside which route to take, being that DC or DCC.

I remember the enjoyment as a child playing with my train set, using the DC controller to wizz a train round the track. But now I am more keen on the modeling aspect. Yes I want to have trains running, but it would be a secondary objective.

Saying that, I am very much a computer person. I have dabbled in most aspects of computing, from building/repairing towers to programing back in collage. And I have to admit, that I am a little exceted at being able to program something external to the computer system. I think I would enjoy using the Railmaster program to make the trains memorise a route.

The only problem with this is DCC is a little expensive, and I have two retro DC controllers in the loft. Maybe this is something to think about when I am more established with the hobby.

Phil Parker said...

CF - I don't think the system can tell if the point has changed but I can't be sure. There did seem to be some interation with the loco as at one point the operating controls came up showing "Push" when it had stalled. I don't think this was that reliable though as other locos stalled with no error reported.

Phil Parker said...

Steve/Gav - If you are into computers then this migth well be the way of the future. The concept of being able to program train movements has a heck of a lot going for it but at present the system can't detect where the trains are exactly. Fix that, something I'm sure will happen one day, and the possibilities are huge. Imagine being able to operate purely as signal man and have computer "drivers" do everything else to operate the layout. Or as a yard shunter with the wagons delivered and taken away by the computer.

These are early days for this sort of thing. Give it a couple of years...

Phil Parker said...

Comment left by Andy In germany and then deleted by Phil the idiot when he tried to approve it:

Another thought I have with these things is that every layer of complexity/'control' is something to go wrong later, and with microchip and computer based control, that's a lot of things that you can't fix yourself with a hammer and a screwdriver, and it makes you more reliant of someone at the other end of a help line in the best case scenario.

Now, this may not bother some people, or they may be the sort of computer whizz that can fix it themselves, but personally I feel what you don't install can't break down mysteriously: I'll stick to two wires.

(exits muttering in search of flint knife)

Anonymous said...

RailMaster actually makes it easier to control a layout. Whilst there are no physical knobs to slide or turn, life is much easier with single shunt, cruise and stop buttons as well as, of course, the slider. The beauty of the shunt, cruise and stop buttons is that, at a single press, the loco/train gradually accelerates or decelerates to a new speed level. The programming ability adds a new dimension because, for example, I can program an entire end-to-end branch line routine with loco changeovers at each end and then run the main lines myself. This brings much more action and interest to the layout. RailMaster is certainly the way of the future, as is DCC. I believe Analogue will be dead within 10 years and you'll have to go to specialist places to find analogue, just as film photography is dead, although you can find film and processors if you look very hard, and pay the prices.

TimmyEv said...

Those people commenting on RailMaster - that they wouldn't use it - have clearly not used it and are judging it on theory, not practice.

Even Phil, dare I say, has not really given it a chance. When he talks about selecting locos with a mouse?? RailMaster works best on a touch-screen. You can use your finger to slide the entire loco control panel up or down and select a loco.

You can also pop up a much larger loco controller which is really easy to use.

There is also a specific loco select button on the screen which brings up an incredibly easy to use list (with pictures) of your locos. You can either touch the button for the loco you want or enter the DCC ID.

The New Hornby eLink, which is a 'knobless' DCC controller will set the standard for model railway control, utilising RailMaster as the only control system of its type in the world.

Also bear in mind that RailMaster allows the linking in of your tablet and mobile phone to control trains and also you can now speak to it through a headset to control locos, points, signals and all sorts.

I guess we have to wait for the old stuck-in-the-dark-ages generation to die off!

Phil Parker said...

TimmyEV - I have tried it and at the time thought a touch-screen device would have been better, but this was some time ago as you can see by the date of the post.

With the more rescent developemtns linking iPads etc to the system, maybe things are looking rosier but for me, who has no intention of dieing off for a while, it's still another device between me and the loco.

There's no saving in cost, or much in wiring so I would have to look hard at the benefits I'd gian and with the sort of layouts I build, there are none. Of course, you might build bigger and more complex layouts (An MPD jumps to mind as a case I would go DCC) or just like using the interface, in which case - go for it.