Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Edge of a Dream

Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by railroad signal systems. Of course, the trains came first, and those remain the star attraction, but the idea that an operator or dispatcher could give trains permission to move over track by controlling signals and switches from a remote location always captured my attention. So, you can imagine the first time I witnessed a working signal system on a model railroad – WOW!

A sign of things to come...medium clear!

Therefore, one of my life-long modeling goals has been to have a working, dispatcher-controlled signal system on my model railroad. For me, that means scale, functional, NYC-style searchlight signals.  Exactly like the one above, manufactured by Integrated Signal Systems.  But there were always questions: first, how does that work? Second, once that works, it needs a full-time dispatcher. How then can I have the signals work as an ‘automatic’ signal system for the times when I am running the trains myself?

These two short questions have taken more than a year to answer. And we’re still working on it. It has been a real learning process to this point trying to figure out how all these goals can be accomplished; many thanks go to the guys that have spent so much time on this so far - Nick, and Alex. Thanks also go to Jack, Mark, and Scott, all of whom have made valuable suggestions in the design.  Model railroad signaling is complicated and expensive, especially on a big layout like the Onondaga Cutoff. The signal systems themselves, especially if they are to be dispatcher-controlled, boil down to systems that must work hand-in-hand with the control system.

Digitrax users have the benefit of the fact that Digitrax has a fully functional signal system to choose from that simply couples in to the Loconet cab bus. For us NCE users, we pay for the easier interface that NCE provides by having to use other’s signal components, since NCE does not yet have a working signal control board. In fact, while I am depending on NCE for block detection and layout control, I am depending on Digitrax for future turnout control and for signal control.

The link between the two systems is provided by the Java Model Railroad Interface, or JMRI. JMRI is an open software package available online for no charge, supported by a group of modelers that use it daily. This software allows for computer control of the DCC system and model railroad. It allows a computer interface to program decoders, speed tables, consists, effects, and also provides a pathway to link NCE to Digitrax via a USB cable so that my NCE layout can use the full Digitrax signal system. Plenty to come on this amazing project!

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