What did Computrains build?

Our Home Layout

After our initial analogue layout we trialled and tested DCC.  Eventually we designed the above ‘OO gauge’ layout 24ft x 14ft.  This is supposed to represent a fictitious railway around a bay with a harbour.  Access to the sea is under the railway bridge and leaving the beach to port, (I found out that was to the left)! The bridge is removable, allowing easy access to the centre operating well.

The layout operates on three levels; on the lowest level, a 20 lane Fiddle Yard is on a pull-out tray (11ft x 3ft) which slides out from under the station.  An elevated section allows access to the bridge and continues around the layout.  The main deck has the station, harbour and engine shed area

With over 40% of the track hidden (shaded areas on diagram above), there are a number of infra-red cameras keeping tabs on rail traffic underground.  Track design has kept hidden points to a minimum.

The track is all PECO code 75, with PECO solenoid point motors and double micro-switches taking care of frog polarity and feedback to the display panel. DCC equipment is all by Digitrax.  The computer software is Railroad & Co. Sound decoders are ESU loksound (with most of the original manufacturers’ sound files re-blown by Olivia’s Trains in Sheffield).


Our 1st Exhibition Layout - now retired

Our local club members suggested that we build a portable layout to take to our club’s summer exhibition, held in Pickering, home of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

They said a portable, interactive, demonstration stand explaining how we added computer control may prove interesting.  So, as others were working on the scenery, we started to build our 13ft x 4ft exhibition layout.

This was deliberately complex for such a small layout, which gave us the opportunity to show the computer software controlling many trains without incident and keeping to a timetable!  There wasn't any scenery; the focus was on the wiring, the electronics and the computer screens. The rolling stock was based on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway - our local heritage railway.

This has generated a lot of interest.  Railway Modeller Magazine heard about us and came to video our home layout.  They also videoed the demonstration.  This was featured on one of their DVDs and they ran an article over 4 editions of their magazine.

Although this demonstration layout served its purpose well, it wasn't too much fun to 'play trains' at home, in between exhibitions.  So, it was time to progress to a more traditional exhibition layout.  The initial layout was dismantled and all the electronics were retained for use on the next project.


Our Latest Project - a computer controlled, N Gauge Exhibition layout -  'Yorkshire Pennines'

YP barn 2.jpg

Computrains’ next challenge was to build an N gauge exhibition layout incorporating DCC, sound and computer control.   With N gauge gaining in popularity, it would be appropriate for us to show that computer control is applicable across all scales and gauges.   It also fits into the only available space left at home!

The main challenge is not so much the computer aspects but the fitting of sound decoders and speakers into such small spaces!   We are indebted to Paul Foulds at CR Signals for his help and advice, together with him supplying many of the locos and all the signals used on the layout.

With 6 main lines, 4 platforms, 6 sidings, 48 point motors and up to 10 trains operating to timetable, our plan was to make an interesting layout, one that requires quite a few operators to keep everything moving safely (or help from the computer).  We think it's important to keep something moving .....

Photo courtesy of Steve Flint (Railway Modeller)

Photo courtesy of Steve Flint (Railway Modeller)

The computer can run multiple trains continually on the layout, adhering to timetables, setting routes, changing points, adjusting train speeds, stopping trains at the exact point on the station platforms.   All while avoiding 'SPADS' and accidents.   Quite entertaining ......

This layout is also fairly unusual in that it is fully scenic (360 degrees). 

Layout track plan and operating footprint

Layout track plan and operating footprint

Fine tuning still continues but we managed to have this portable exhibition layout fully operational for 
BRM’s Best of British Model Railway Exhibition
at Doncaster for 9th & 10th February 2019.

It is also confirmed as booked for:
Barnsley Model Railway Show
on 9th and 10th November 2019
International N Gauge Model Railway Exhibition
at Leamington Spa on 12th and 13th September 2020.

We have taken provisional bookings for:
BRM’s National Festival of Railway Modelling
at Peterborough on 7th and 8th December 2019,
Heworth (York against Cancer) on 22nd and 23rd February 2020,
Lincoln on 16th and 17th October 2021 and
Eurospoor (Utrecht) on 12th - 14th November 2021

The layout can be viewed here: www.sdrmweb.co.uk/Yorkshire_Pennines.php

Why computer control?

DCC has already transformed our hobby. The catch phrase was ‘drive the trains and not the track’.  Multiple locos could be on any given track at the same time, doing their own thing!  In addition, when first introduced, perhaps the most exciting new part of DCC was the addition of sound.   Now much more is available; opening carriage doors, working cranes and sliding roofs on container wagons, all controlled from your handset.

With DCC’s different (and simplified) approach to wiring the layout, many modellers have been encouraged to build complex layouts without having to worry too much about DPDT switches and the like.   Driving many locos at the same time is exciting but not without its own problems.   Realistically, how many locos can you control at any one time?   Personally, I find two to be the limit (and that is with a controller that allows me to see at all times what each loco is doing)!

YP track plan - no labels.jpg

Track Plan showing contact indicators, points and signals

These complex layouts need many people controlling the trains (very sociable and many clubs operate their layouts this way) but, if operating on your own or with a limited number of operatives, extra help is needed......  Enter the computer.

We were amazed and confused when we first started to think about adding the computer to our DCC layout.  There seemed to be various options and price ranges.  Some of the manuals were ambiguous.   A main consideration is 'train detection' - how does the computer know where the rolling stock is on the layout?  Eventually, we decided to go with the Railroad & Co gold option. 
Not the cheapest but ......

We decided to share our experiences and set up this website.  There are many ways (and systems available) to consider but here we give you one possible solution and a basis for you to build on as you develop YOUR layout.

We have found that computer control can be very sophisticated or quite simple depending on your needs.   The computer can run everything – you sit back and watch, or the computer can run a number of trains on part of the layout and leave you to operate your locos on another section.   The more powerful programs even allow you to run your locos wherever you want and they schedule their locos around you.   They can even be set to intervene and take over your loco if there is an impending disaster!   The choice is yours as you set up your system.  Remember, it can always be turned off.   Just because you have a computer system, it doesn’t have to be used.  Normal service is available at the flick of the ‘off’ switch!

These are some of the components we use to give feedback to the computer.

Where to go for help?

We had help and inspiration from many sources.  Below we have listed only some of them.  We found that it was best to get as many experienced views and ideas as possible, then experiment by trying those that appeared to suit us.

We don’t believe there is a right way; certainly no definitive answer.  Different options will suit different people, layouts and operating systems available.

YP logo.png

Many thanks to:

  • Scarborough & District Railway Modellers

  • David Townend at McKinley Railway

  • Two Tone Green on RMweb

  • Paul Foulds at CR Signals

  • Ian Harper at Peasholm Models

  • Geoff Jefferson at Scarborough’s The Train Shop

  • Ted Smale at Sunningwell Command Control

  • Neil Bishop and Dan at Olivia’s Trains

  • Jeremy and Nicole at Digitrains

  • Wiring for DCC website

  • Digitrax user group

  • Railroad & Co user group