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(4) Train sets aren't what they used to be .. Computer controlled trains

Way back, long before the days we lived in a virtual bubble, kids (and not so kids) had train sets which here in Great Britain, would have been Hornby. Mostly the track would be a loop spread out on the carpet, with a cat waiting ready to pounce on the moving trains.

In those days, you controlled the locomotive using a transformer and rheostat, basically a big knob connected to a powerful variable resister. It was simple, but did the job. For most of us that just had a simple circular track it was easy to set up, two wires on the track and you were off. More difficulties arose for those with more complex layouts with stations and electrically operated track. Skill was required in wiring up the track such that it didn't short out and making the control panels to control the track and drive the trains. For some, this was the fun, for others it was a daunting task.

And so onto the modern day and we find model trains have come a long way. Some of the kids that played with the toy Hornby models are now not so kids and engage in somewhat more sophisticated layouts, in some cases so realistic you have to look hard at close up photos to determine they are not real. The trains come from a variety of companies and the detailing is superb. Stickers on carriage windows will, if you use a string magnifying glass, actually say in scale detail 'No Smoking'.

And so is gone is the rheostat. Even for those that stick with the analogue way of the world the rheostat has been superseded with better and more reliable ways of engaging the engines, but for many the way forward is .. role the drums …. DCC!!

DCC stands for Digital Command Control and is a standard among model railway manufactures that allows a computer or a dedicated controller to send signals to the railway track which will drive a train or switch points, signals and any other accessory on the layout. You could, if you so wished, have a station master blow a whistle with the press of a button! 

Great thing about DCC, is that the commands to drive the trains are acted within the locomotives itself with a chip between the power from the track and the motor. Wiring up is quite easy, rather than the rats nest of wires that you would need on a conventional layout, DCC layouts need just the one circuit. Signals and points (and the station master) all feed off the same circuit. It's almost as if each train actually had a real tiny driver on board.

When it comes to the controllers, the enthusiast can choose from a range of systems on the market to replace that humble rheostat (and, inevitably, considerably more expensive too - 'model railwaying' is not a cheap hobby). A lot of these provide a computer interface that allows you to run software on your home PC to run the trains and tracks. In our case we will be using a Hornby Elite controller system connected to a computer running The Big Bear Model Rail controller system. Fortuitously the Big Bear (as we'll refer to it from now on) is our own product, therefore we have full control over the software and will be in a position to link it to Alexa.

So there it is, DCC gives us ultimate control over the layout and the Big Bear will act as the intermediary between Alexa's commands and the railway. 

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