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Ethernet For Model Trains? 70

RiscIt writes: "This technology has been around for some time ... Ethernet-protocol-like networking for model trains. LocoNet was created by DigiTrax. It is meant to work with their DCC systems, which can control trains and most everything else on a layout without hundreds of toggle switches. DigiTrax has posted a basic description of the technology as well as the protocol spec in pdf format. Very cool. I'm not about to go buy a gigabit switch for that train under the Christmas tree, however." Not sure why everything is underlined on that site, but I'm sure the headache will fade. Considering the influence of model trains on early computers (as related in Hackers and other books), this is one of the coolest instances I've heard of turnabout-is-fair-play.
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Ethernet For Model Trains?

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    That site is an HTML mess because the fool used Word 97. Just go view the source, its the generator. My god man, learn how to code or at least get a better framework. And slow down with the underlines and large exclamation points...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    All I want to know is if they define the fun and useful "adams" operations in the protocol, like blowing up the bridge
  • apparently nobody has been reading the small print at the bottom of the digittrax website:

    Yes, in the strictest sense of the word LocoNet is a proprietary system. In order to maintain a system as complex as LocoNet someone has to be "in charge" so that valuable system resources are not used unwisely. Digitrax has decided to maintain LocoNet professionally for the benefit of the hobby & to work with other competent DCC developers so that they can include it in their systems. The non-disclosure agreements & licensing agreements & fees for the use of LocoNet are not intended to discourage anyone from using the system but merely to insure that system resources are used prudently & to cover our cost to maintain the system.

    sounds like a project that needs open-sourcing to me. while the protocols for DCC aren't freely copyable, at least there don't appear to be any non-disclosure agreements necessary to develop or use it.

  • This should be a clue:

    <meta NAME="Generator" CONTENT="Microsoft Word 97">
    <meta NAME="Template" CONTENT="C:\WINWOR97\OFFICE\">
  • But then your could only have one train on the track at a time.... A very inefficient use of rail. Full duplex ethernet is better. :) Plus, it's more fun having lots of trains on the layout at the same time.
  • I don't know how many consumer (read: cheap, toy-train-esque) models have 3 pole motors anymore. Even the cheap ones have 5-pole motors. At least here in the states and in HO scale anyway. I can't speak too much for N scale, since my dad's had all his trains packed away for some time (15 years or so), waiting to get a bit more space to build a layout in.

    And I still don't know how they fit the receivers into some of those powered N scale locos, either.

    Anyhow, as others have said, once you start using a command control equipped layout, you'll never want to go back to toggle or rotary switches. I don't.
  • In particular, SPRint was a creation of the Southern Pacific Railway. All the cabling was laid along the right-of-way of the Espee.
  • I thought half the fun of model trains was the incredibly complicated wiring diagrams! This does away with the whole problem. How depressing!
  • that someone decided to use Word 97 to write their HTML. Which is a very bad idea. Hence the wonderful sequence of tags <P><B><U>...</P></B> </U>, which unsurprisingly fails to render properly. Of course, once XHTML becomes standard, mistakes like this should finally stop.

    PS If you do want to convert your word files to HTML, I strongly recommend using AbiWord []. It gives clean, standard HTML - and you can always apply a style sheet afterwards to make it look prettier.

  • now if you could get a computer system to link scalextric [] for laptimes etc (and maybe Murray Walker) into a computer then that would be cool....
  • Ah! Of course, geek amusement: why didn't I think of that??



  • I detect a british train passe^h^h^h^h^hcustomer :-)
  • This all seems like an updated, uprated version of the old late 70's Horby Zero-1 system.

    Basically, the Zero-1 system could control up to 16 locomotives and 99 "other" devices such as signals and points etc. Seeing as in the main unit it had a 4bit TI processor to control it, you can see why the 16 loco limit was there.

    In each loco you had to install a circuit board which you coded to the loco's ID number using thin wire through holes in pads. The circuitboard sat between the motor and the power-pick-ups on the wheels, the circuit then rectified the AC current and controlled it to vary the motor speed with 16 voltage steps.

    The data was sent to the locos and other things through the track using a modulated 16v AC system.

    The major problems with the system were that the high frequencies of the current caused the tyres of the wheels to get burnt and pitted, causing poor contacts and the small number of units which could be controlled. Oh, and the half rectified DC from the circuits in the locos generally caused the motors to overheat and possibly burn out.
  • I recently started working on a simple controll system for linux. Its basically just a hacked up parralell port driver that allows me to control 8 individual track segments from my paralell port. At the moment I am having trouble designing the power pack that will take the TTL level signal from the LPT port and apply it properly to the track. Does anyone have any links to sites where people are working on this stuff?
  • OK, get me your email address and I will send you the details of what I am working on. Maybe we can come up with somthing interesting.

    You can email me at
    howlet AT hotmail


  • They did publish an abbreviated version of the protocol that you can get at their site in .pdf form.

    I've tried to program to it; if you're used to layered protocols, it's not trivial. I participated in a discussion to build a Linux device driver for it, but guys who know a lot more about DDs than I got frustrated...

    I think that Digitrax is going to see the wisdom of opening the entire protocol before long, so that conformant products take off and stimulate their business in turn.

  • Has anyone combined Lego Mindstorms with the Lego electric trains? It seems like you could do something similar. Check out the trains at: ery.htm []

  • I have been using a four lane IR timer and score board. You can get them from Train Express in Indianapolis, ask for Mike, It comes with no instructions, but their is a serial port on the back of the score board for this. No idea how to program for it, but shouldnt be too hard to figure out. As for club racing, it is a great timer. Can do either a time or lap limit. 2 beeps start the race. Each single beep means a faster lap, a long beep stops the race. I believe a 6 and 8 lane version are made as well. I use the 4. The digital display is nice, and it is quite accurate.
  • People often forget that the railroads ran the "first Internet", an interconnected network of telegraph lines, relays (routers) and stations (end nodes), used to send telegrams (email), over a century ago.
    As for signalling, the railroads have used Centralized Traffic Control (CTC), a digital network technology, for almost 70 years. The basis of the system is a series of frequency coded pulses, which are sent over a separate pole line, but often repeated into the rails to be inductively picked up and displayed in the locomotive cab. CTC is used extensively on major mainlines in the US, and since 1980, CTC districts on the two major western US railroads have been controlled from a single dispatching center (the Union Pacific in Omaha and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Ft. Worth(less).
  • Sounds good .. or how about broad band internet access while riding a train? Just plug in your notebook or pda and start surfin!


  • When I was younger I had a small Märklin train train set. Before this I had a regular american style HO setup in our basement. The Märklin quality blew it away. I remember looking through the catalogue (circa 1990) and seeing this:

    Digital Train Control []

    I was amazed that each and every train was given a unique, addressable identity. You could have many locomotives on the same set of track running independantly of each other. In addition, you could hook up a PC to your digital control box, and have the computer control your whole layout.

    While using ethernet to do this is interesting, its not exactly new. In fact, unless you have a massive train layout I imagine that it would be overkill.

    Just my opinion...
  • Don't forget that it was the railroads that spurred the creation of long distance telephones and time zones.

  • The telco's have used the bridge and train technology for a while. This seems to be the same application.
  • There is an email group at called Loconet_hackers that is quite active in discussing the desgin parameters of the loconet and developing custom/original software solutions to utilize the loconet packet traffic. Its way over my head, but worth listening to.

    --------------------------------------------- ---
  • Imagine running dozens of trains at different speeds and different directions at the same time on that large layout.

    Thats what DCC makes possible.
  • They already have automatic train control on trains in London (Docklands Light Rail) and other places. It's cool.... you can sit in the front of the train with NO driver.

    A little disturbing at first, but it works great.

    I'm pretty sure it's not ethernet though, because it's not real-time.

  • Wow, are they gonna do this to real trains as well? It would be sort of like a taxi, just plug in your laptop and direct your train to your favorite destination!

    OK, bit far fetched, but they did try that sort of thing with a bus: at certain points all passengers could decide wether they wanted to go left, right or straight on. Probably not such a success, never seen it since.

    So we stick with toys.

  • But then again, I'd hate to see that train get slashdotted :).

    In a similar vein, what's happening out there with networking non-computer items? I remember hearing talk about Java-enabling and networking household items like refrigerators and ovens. Does anything like that exist anywhere, in development or reality?

    Give me the milk, HAL.
    I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that.

  • They did it already.

    The Eurostar trains that go between London and Paris and Brussels are loaded with embedded processors controlling the on-board equipment. Notably, the traction control-gear (which is distributed between the vehicles) the equipment that guards against interference with signalling and the systems for controlling the ride of the cars are all tweakable in software.

    There are (or there were on the Eurostar prototypes, at least) ports in the vestibules of the cars where engineers (in the sense of equipment designers, not train drivers) could connect laptops to monitor and adjust things. On many early Eurostar runs, you could see the manufacturer's people perched in the vestibules just keeping tabs on the train.

  • You can build a simple switch-mode PSU that'll get close to crawling speed without breaking the bank. Admittedly it's smoother if you have a 5- or 7-pole motor instead of the 3-pole variety that's in most "consumer" models.
    You can even get multiple trains on the same track if you split the track into small enough sections. You'll need a microprocessor if you want to do it reasonably cheaply, but the engines are still passive, and you can still use toggle switches to set the thing up. Plus, you don't have space problems in the N-scale tank engines either.

  • A bit sick, considering this []. :-(
  • Right Here [] and probably elsewhere if you are too lazy to build it yourself. (hint: Somone has made a start []
  • As a model train enthusiast, I have trouble seeing the point of this sort of system.

    Much of the appeal of running one's own model railroad is the tactile reality of your line. It isn't digital, it isn't computerized, it's simple analog circuits controlling simple electric models. The joy of running a model railroad is the feeling of connection to a more real era.

    I love my trains and my line's dozens of toggle switches. All day I work with the latest networking technology, and when I play, I'm in the mood to take a step back in time, of sorts.

    Maybe others will enjoy ethernet controlled trains, but I certainly won't be upgrading my line any time soon.

    - qpt
  • Having a kick-ass-beyond-all-comprehension electric train set has always been one of those dreams from childhood that I'd do when I was grown up.

    This would be so ultimately kick ass.

    If only I had a basement.... (sigh)
  • I've been wanting to get my train layout under computer monitoring, if not control, for some time now. My dream is to have a web interface to the system using PHP to acccess the LocoNet and therefore the DCC in the locomotives, turnouts,... and also have a MySQL DB to hold all of the individual loco's DCC custom variables. Add in a few web cams and I could run the system from work! While I could do all of this under Winders I really want the stability of linux to avoid a chain reaction - system crash -> train wreck.
  • I thought there would be someone working on this. I agree that the extant docs are not exactly what is needed to write SW for LocoNet and Digitrax would like folks to develop SW on a non-disclosure basis. So, I toyed initially with the DOS TSR's that are out there to see if I could reverse engineer or disassemble them to gain some insight. Got far enough to know that putting together something that mimicked a control throttle should be pretty straightforward. I'd like to get in contact with the group developing the linux software since I have the required hardware, run linux, and can program (GUI's are my favorite). Ideally, it would be nice to have a daemon running to manage the traffic and monitor/buffer messages and provide an interface for SW others might develop. Something akin to what the German group has been working on. I dabbled with running their websight through babelfish, since my German is not what it used to be, and did not see anything which led me to believe that they had a working loconet daemon. If there is a working monitor out there then getting the commanding going should not be too difficult. I'm willing to contribute to an open source effort for linux.
  • There are rail system manufacturers that are exploring replacing or augmenting the existing rather slow air brake line with wireless electronic control systems. Remote engine control (from the lead engine) of trailing power is already in wide spread use. Check out this and related products from GE-Harris: LocoTrol EB [] - Dave.
  • And so was the old Commodore 64 that can do almost the same thing
  • And ignore the issue completely. Convert to PDF, HTML, .rtf, ASCII, etc.
  • Check the user info before you reply or moderate - everything qpt writes is a troll. "A Sinister Legacy" or "It's Too Much" are good examples.
  • Ain't got the dough to plunk down for lengths of track or Athearn hogs? Ain't got the patience to do the itty-bitty wiring or superdetailing on your hogs?

    No problem. Just head to the nearest rail museum, enroll as a volunteer, and you get to play with REAL TRAINS (at 12 inches to the foot scale) for (gasp!) FREE...


  • This could be really useful for implementing a local-area complement to the wide-area datagram transmission protocols described in RFC1149 [] and RFC2549 [].

    Avian carriers are perfect for transmitting datagrams between different locations and model train networks could be leveraged to deliver the datagrams within the office/building...


  • The posted story gives the impression that LocoNet actually runs the trains. That's not true. The protocol on the track is DCC (Digital Command Control), created by Lenz Electronics of Germany and donated to the NMRA. It's a broadcast-only protocol with currently no feedback mechanism, though work is under way on that. LocoNet is the communications mechanism between the booster that sends the signal onto the track, and the hand throttles that control the trains. That one was developed by DigiTrax.
  • "Why is this, other than a cool factor like IP over carrier pigeons, so terribly neat? "

    It's so you can crack terrible puns about there being too much traffic on the 'Net, or using round-robin DNS, or having a token-ring LAN.
    .|` Clouds cross the black moonlight,
  • Even N scale is often using 5 pole motors. Kato is the most notable, but I think the other manufacturers do as well.

    For plug-n-play locomotives, DCC decoders are installed by way of a drop-in replacement for the stock light board. For other locos, cutting away a small section of the frame may be required. The smallest decoder available from Digitrax measures 36 x .575 x .16 inches.


  • Ummm. Loconet isn't ethernet on a train. Loconet is a throttle and accessory network for model railroads. It has nothing to do with commuter, freight and passenger trains other than the models being miniature versions of the real thing.

    That's not to say that having network access on a commuter train wouldn't be cool, but isn't that what the Ricochet [] is for?


  • There's a Yahoo! Groups (formerly eGroups) mailing list called loconet_hackers that discusses Digitrax and Loconet programming in general.

    Check the mailing list home page [] for subscription information.


  • There are a couple people working on it. Part of the problem is that there are few model railroaders that are computer people. Far fewer are programmers. Even fewer still will be Linux programmers. Couple that with the documentation being less than stellar, it's not easy.

    Just recently a guy came out with a Linux based Loconet monitor that displays the packet data. Basically a packet sniffer for Loconet. He's now expanding it to generate its own Loconet packets. Once done, he can expand it into a control program. I will say that he's released his source so far and it's looking pretty good.


  • For me, the advantage of DCC is less wiring. With traditional block control, you run a wire from the control panel to the block it controls. Multiply that out by however many blocks you have and it can quickly turn into a copper mine under your layout.

    With DCC, you run a single wiring bus under the layout and tap the track feeders into it. I can use one handheld control to make the trains move and throw turnouts, among other things.

    Further, with DCC and a computer, I can create a CTC (centralized train control) board much easier, and with fewer wires, than with block control.

    DCC may not be your thing but, personally, I prefer controlling the trains and not managing the track.


  • Just because he's a troll doesn't mean he doesn't have a point.

    My father has been playing with model railroading since the 40's. He specializes in modelling the western U.S. during the late steam era and also the Pacific Electric Red Cars. His layout has over 100 switches, a reversing loop, is multilevel, has both standard and narrow gauge ,and has been under construction for years. Oh, and it's HO scale. I offered to computerize it so that he wouldn't need all the toggles. He likes the toggles. He likes the tactility. He gets as much, or more, enjoyment from building the layout as he does from running it.

  • It allows for more systems to be on the net, which runs over the rails, without packet collision. Because dcc often uses a protocol similar to RS-485 one of the problems is that, if too many engines are on the track, the latency climbs. RS-485, and most dcc implementations, use polling to communicate. Therefore, each device on the net slows down the communications for all the devices. This system seems to avoid that problem.
  • Is this article talking about a train network architecture based on ethernet or do they actually have train cars with NIC cards and IP addresses that are part of a LAN? I think it's the former, but wouldn't the latter be cool?

    Its actually close to the latter. Each locomotive has a controller card in it that picks up the digital signals and controls the locomotive. You program each control card with a unique number. Then you set your throttle controller to that number and control the trains. By changing the number on the throttle you can control multiple locomotives.

    Its pretty much the same for other items, such as switches, that can be DCC controlled.
  • Several of the programs I mentioned in my previous post about the SRCP project are available under the GPL. erddcc, the DigitalDirekt server, runs under Linux. See [] for more information.

  • Once we get our model train sets hooked up the internet, bill gates will try to take control of them and lay down proprietary gauges. The world is simply not read for .RAIL
  • You talk about "real"... well, unless you spend thousands on outrageously priced powerpaks and locos, you can't crawl into your station at a scale .5 mph like you can with DCC. You also can't run multiple trains on the same track (same block as well) in the opposite directions either. Simple anolog control is just that - simple. You can hardly do anything "real" on a model layout with anolog/block wiring. Don't rule out DCC just because it can do everything for you. You don't have to let it. Just let it do the basic things that you couldn't before.
  • What better way to test redundent saftey designs?
    If the train looses computer connection, do you kick in a safty AI? or just shut it all down?
    Could you get a machine between your controller box and the train to relize there has been a computer error and deal with it by slowly brining the trains into the next station? Now that I think about it, figuring out how to handle this with while minimilizing the 'passengers' inconvience would be far more challenging then setting up the system.
    I choo choo choose you -RW
  • This guy [] has loads of information on an implementation of this. Sort of wacky!

    I think this is one Britain should leave to everyone else... how about they figure how to stop their trains falling off the tracks [] every day first.

  • Wow, someone who knows the difference between career and careen. I'm impressed.
  • []
    For those who want to do model trains but feel they don't have the space or money for a full blown train setup.
    Modular train setups where several dozen scale miles of track are routinely set up and dozens of trains run simultaneously with sometimes a hundred or more cars in the consist.
    Check it out.
  • In a token ring network, isn't the token kind of like the model train? Traveling around and around the network, restricted to the cable/tracks.
  • Gives new meaning to the phrase 'packet collision'. Sorta the Addams Family approach to network management.

  • The thingis that you are not controlling the trains, but rather controlling the track! DCC copntrolled trains 'know' what direction they are facing on the track. The direction and speed are not controlled by track voltage and polarity. And yes, DCC does allow trains to make (realistic) engine noises, control signals, switch on lights in carraiges, smoke making devices (so that real smoke comes out smoke stacks). Before you rubbish this go out and look at a DCC setup. Once you have been a train driver being a track driver is not the same. It is really cool when a loco takes a grade and you hear the engine work harder, more smoke comes out the stack some of them can even have a little red light that comes on and varies in intensity to emulate the fireman stoking the boiler!
  • by gattaca ( 27954 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @05:12AM (#396249)
    ...the British version runs Windows 98. Means that the trains keep crashing, you see...
  • by kenf ( 75431 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @04:49AM (#396250)
    This would make a great deal of sense on the NE Corridor, Washington to Boston, and on commuter trains.

    The cheapest way would probably be a wireless lan. Put a wireless router in each car that could contact stations along the right of way, and then route the packets to wireless lan cards in the laptops, either customer provided, or rented by the train crew.
  • by yuggoth ( 85136 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @04:35AM (#396251)

    While this has not necessarily something to do with LocoNet, it's interesting nevertheless...

    Some guys from the german model rr newsgroup de.rec.modelle.bahn [modelle.bahn] have designed a protocol and several programs to control trains over a TCP/IP network. The project includes the protocol SRCP, clients to control your trains and turnouts (some with graphical interfaces), daemons to control central units for several digital train systems (Märklin, NRMA with LocoNet or XBus) and even a daemon which turns your computer itself into a multi-protocol command center - you only need a simple booster to supply power and data to the tracks. The project is located here []. Sorry, german only - use the fish...:-)

  • by Lonesmurf ( 88531 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @03:58AM (#396252) Homepage
    When I was knee-high to a grasshopper (always wanted to say that), my dad and I built a GIANT trainset in our garage -- much to my mother's great dismay. For this monstrosity, there were at least ten separate track lines that all converged in the 'train yard' that lay on the third level, which my father dubbed, Olympus. To get power and control to all of these tracks, he built a giant control pad full of switches and, to me at least, wholly indecipherable labels.

    A fairly simple interface via a serial port would probably work well for this. I fail to see how the ethernet protocol benefits a closed circuit system like a train. Why is this, other than a cool factor like IP over carrier pigeons, so terribly neat?

    BTW, I liked the underlines for each topic. When /. makes leaps and bounds in usability you can complain.. until then, enough with the trolling.

  • by bjb ( 3050 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @05:20AM (#396253) Homepage Journal
    I just want to throw my 2 in by saying that when I was younger I used to have a nice HO scale set (even bought some nice DB Marklin trains when I was in Germany). I was happy with the rows of switches and how I could control one train.

    Then I went to my family friend's house and saw the 7yr old's setup in their basement.

    If you haven't been in the model railroading scene for the last 15-20 years (like myself), you would not believe what they can do today. Not only can the powerpack control several trains at once, but they can all run at different speeds and NOT by the voltage of the track; they regulate their speed by themselves (radio controlled) on a full voltage track! In addition, the modern marvels of 16-bit sound chips has added a new realism to railroading that blows me away. Granted, when I was younger I had a plastic billboard model that actually was a whistle when you pressed a button, but these things you can press a button and have the clickety-clack of the tracks going on.

    There were a couple other things that amazed me, but I was impressed enough just by being able to run several trains at once without juggling different power packs.



  • by mmmmbeer ( 107215 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @05:25AM (#396254)
    Doesn't ethernet have a few too many collisions? I think token ring might be safer...
  • by selan ( 234261 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @03:57AM (#396255) Journal
    Is this article talking about a train network architecture based on ethernet or do they actually have train cars with NIC cards and IP addresses that are part of a LAN? I think it's the former, but wouldn't the latter be cool?

    I can just see it now...

    Telnetting to the caboose to tell it to slow down.
    A web server, complete with webcam, running from the engine.
    ICANN introducing the .choo TLD.

    [from the mind of the geek wife of a model railroader]

  • by gattaca ( 27954 ) on Wednesday February 28, 2001 @04:06AM (#396256)
    Do these ethernet installed trains play streaming audio - that way you could hear mobile phones ringing continuously, cries of 'I'm on the train', announcements describing in tortuous detail the entire contents of the buffet carriage, and the sounds of muffled screams as customers (who were quite happy being referred to merely as passengers) have their lives interrupted once again with an annoucement listing every station the train has ever been through. If you put your head in the right place you can even get all of this with astounding doppler-shift as the train careers past you at a scale 30mph on the verge of shattering another broken rail as it rounds that bend... What excitement.

The absent ones are always at fault.