Where in the World?!

I am more into playing with the train and the electronics than spending my time on creating artificial grass and trees (I think – I didn’t try it yet :-)).

But, still, the train environment should be interesting, both the environment and the train track layout.

I considered:

  • New Zealand, the main trunk line between Auckland and Wellington with emphasis on the old Auckland Train Station, Raurimu Spiral, Tongariro National Park, various viaducts between the Park and Wellington, and Wellington Harbor with its train ferries (do they even still exist? I’m getting old…)
  • Münster, with hot-spots Main Train Station, former harbor tracks, and train maintenance buildings.

…and that’s already it. I decided to go with the Münster environment (first), since for starters the train station offers lots of play on a small area.

Once we move into a bigger house I’ll get to the New Zealand theme :-).

Assembling the OpenDCC Command Station

[Notes: This article is incomplete; I want to add more insights from the assembly process]

The OpenDCC web site states: “If you are not used to soldering, this is not the project to get started with” – no kidding.

Picture: The kit – case, stickers for front and back, PCB (Printed Circuit Board) and electronic parts, and a CD with software and assembly instructions.

My first computer, way back in the last millennium, was a Elector Junior Computer kit. It required maybe 200 soldering connections, but those had generous spacing between pins.

Since I ordered the OpenDCC command station with an USB interface, it came with a few SMDs which is short for Surface Mounted Devices. Or Small Mean Devils.

SMDs are tiny plastic bits with metal ends that become airborne when you inhale too deeply. One of them is an IC that has less pins than a centipede has legs, but a centipede has a wider stance.

When I took a closer look with my glasses pushed up on my forehead, an immediate sweaty outbreak ensued. Can I do this without converting the circuit in a blob of molten lead?

You need a really find tip on your soldering iron, thin solder, and likely some desoldering braid to remove lead when you connected pins accidentally.

Picture: The kit unpacked – PCB (three parts), and many tiny components (and Pollux checking them out).

The official OpenDCC web page jokingly remarks that soldering irons with more than 300W heating power and lead for Tiffany lamps are not adequate.

What they mean is if your iron has more than 20W, no pointy tip, and the lead is thicker than 0.5mm, you better don’t get started. I found that especially a very slender tip is the key to success.

Picture: Before any soldering takes place the PCBs need to be separated. I saw would have been nice, but some sharp wire cutter did the job as well.

Now, the official assembly instructions suggest to connect you lab power supply to the command station, and limit the current to 50mA.

I have no lab, and my power supply is a 12V wall wart that has no qualms about frying anything connected. So after one more inspection of the OpenDCC board I connected it to the power supply and immediately checked if anything was getting unduly warm, or producing smoke signals. Everything stayed calm.

Next step, disconnect power supply, plunk in ICs, re-connect. Tadaa! The LEDs came to life, which I took for a good sign. Then I connected the USB cable with my computer which recognized the USB to serial chip right away. First hurdle taken: The SMD-bug obviously likes his new environment.

Of Course DCC, But What Command Station?

I was looking into buying a DCC command station, and found I need quite a bit more then just the station. €100 for the command station, €50 for a transformer, €110 for the hand controller, €120 for the booster (amplifier), €90 for the computer interface…

For some reason this did not make me feel enthusiastic about getting into the digital railway world. So I googled for command stations in general and found out that some hardware hackers have built their own. And, even better, most have made their designs public, and for some there are even kits you can buy online. I love the Internet…

From the website to the device, I found the OpenDCC Command Station by Wolfgang Kufer the most interesting (www.opendcc.de).

It provides

  • DCC output 100% to the NMRA standard (works with all decoders which are DCC-compliant themselves)
  • RailCom supported (locos and other equipment can report back to the command station)
  • main track and programming track connections
  • intelligent scheduling of DCC commands (which in example put more emphasis on breaking vehicles headed for disaster then sounding the horn)
  • Intellibox (Uhlenbrock) and Xpressnet (Lenz) emulations for sending commands to the station
  • built-in USB or serial computer connection (no separate interface required)
  • supported by Rocrail and other popular layout control software
  • a small internal booster (that easily runs 3 N-scale locos)
  • Xpressnet connector for connecting hardware like controllers (optional)
  • S88-N support for connecting block detection equipment (optional)

Did I forget anything from my wishlist? Nope, all items covered!

The kit from DCC-Versand Hanno Bolte (https://shop.dcc-versand.de/) comes complete with

  • all electronic and mechanical components
  • PCB board(s)
  • USB connector (or serial connector if you so choose)
  • case (optional)
  • foils (optional)
  • pre-programmed Atmel CPU (optional – not the CPU, but the programming part is)
  • extensive documentation and assembly guide on CD

for under 100 (hundred) Euros, including the mentioned options. Like!!! You additionally need a 12V power supply (for gauge N), which is the job your discarded ATX computer power supply has just been looking for.

The drawback: It is a kit. That means wielding a low wattage soldering iron with great skill and precision. Some components are SMDs (Surface Mounted Devices, also known as Small Mean Devils) for which you need the fingers of an elf and the motor skills of a surgeon. Getting the holes in the aluminum front and the back of the case is an extensive jigsaw and filing exercise for a long winter evening. And if nothing happens when you switch it on (or worse, something DOES happen, like smoke rising from an IC) you are in for a possibly long and winding path to success (though people in the OpenDCC online forums are incredibly helpful, as is the master Wolfgang Kufer himself).

I built it, and love the result.


A Start


my wife Annie surprised me with a garden railway for Xmas. This cool present re-kindled an old interest in model railways that began when I discovered my father’s Märklin HO equipment in the attic. Realizing I would need another apartment just to house a railway of that scale, I decided to go with gauge N.

This is a blog about my N gauge endeavors, started mid March 2012.