Seldom does somebody wake up one day and say they plan to have a significantly sized model railroad housed in their basement six months from now. There’s a long lead up, often spanning decades of anticipation.
Whether it be a lack of space or, more likely a lack of time or lifestyle fit, realizing that lifelong dream of having a layout gets pushed into the future for many. Eventually though, “the day” arrives whether it be via retirement or another alignment of the stars. All of the thought, hours of daydreaming, and…finally that…day…is….NOW! . A new home, adequate financial resources, and time. Now you are ready! Not so fast. Maybe “ready” in terms of resources but reality tends to raise its ugly head and point out the inconvenient truth that maybe we aren’t so ready in terms of the knowledge needed to launch the project.
I stay in close contact with my clients and often the transition from no layout to having that living breathing machine in your basement isn’t as smooth as anticipated. There is simply so much to learn at once. It can be overwhelming and a little frustrating. How do I program my locomotives? Why do my locomotives barely run? How do I do task X? How do I perform task Y? In retrospect, a lot of these skills and knowledge could have been acquired during the years-long waiting period, and a lot of fun had in the process.
Let’s talk about preparing for “the day” you do eventually have a layout. Even if that point in time is a decade down the road, there are things you can do NOW that are fun, take no space, don’t impinge on a busy lifestyle, and will put you in a position to hit the ground running.
During the decades leading up to “the day”, it’s natural to want to feel like you are doing at least something to get ready, to have your toe just a little bit in the water. My experience has been that this takes one form….buying “STUFF”, particularly rolling stock and structures. I understand, I really do but it’s not the most productive way of getting ready and leaves you behind the curve when the day finally does arrive. Indiscriminate buying isn’t preparing. Technology marches on. Those locomotives you bought 15 years ago? Sorry, but the ones you can buy today are much, much better. You should have waited. The decoders in those locos? Old technology. Locomotives sitting in a box for 15 or 20 years? Not good for them. They may be so corroded and stiff they won’t run. All of those structures? Who knows if they will fit the theme you ultimately decide upon.
So, what is a better way to prepare? Well, the good news you can still buy “stuff”! Let’s talk about a more focused purchase and preparation plan. Ideally, you want to be in a situation where, when “the day” arrives, you can hit the ground running in terms of knowledge, owning and being familiar with the required DCC equipment, and possessing a few basic assembly skills.
On day one you would already have:
-A basic understanding of how a dcc system works and OWN a fully operational DCC system capable of powering the layout you plan to eventually own. The components of a top of the line DCC system are relatively small and easily tucked away in a small cabinet or on a bookshelf. No sense wasting money on a cheap starter system that will need to be scrapped later. Buy and learn how to use what you’ll eventually need.
-A basic understanding of how to program locomotives and lash-ups of locomotives (called “consists”)
-At least three or four locomotives that are programmed, tuned, and ready to be immediately placed into service on your new model railroad.
-Rudimentary soldering skills.
-Rudimentary track laying skills. I cover many entry level skills in my book How To Build A Small Switching Layout.
Here’s a plan of attack that will dovetail into a busy lifestyle and prepare you for that day down the road when you are ready for a full layout. To start, purchase a high-quality bookshelf at least four or five feet wide and place it in your home office or den. This is going to be your “future layout launch pad”
- On the shelf located at armpit level, lay a test track down the center.
- Buy a dcc system adequate for a full sized layout, not a starter system. If in doubt, I suggest the NCE PH-PRO-R wireless system. You’ll also need their P515 power supply and a power strip to plug everything into . Place these components on the shelf below the test track.
- Hook up the DCC system and run the two control wires to the test track above. When you have your permanent layout, all you’ll need to do is take this system, which by now you’re familiar with, and take it from the shelf and tap it in. The point is you’ll be familiar with the system.
- Next to the test track or the DCC components set up a 15-inch long track for programming
- Power your system up and start learning how to program. Gain an understanding of the basics such as entering a loco. address, and then move on to the more advanced features (Most advanced features aren’t necessary to get started but can be fun to fiddle with as your comfort level grows).
- Put your newly programmed locos on the test track and start breaking them in. Experiment with different acceleration curves. Experiment with braking features. Experiment with setting up consists. Simply running your ‘starting lineup’ of locos frequently will keep them in top operating condition. When you do finally have your layout you’ll have a proven roster of power that is tuned and ready to go.
- Once you are this far, experiment with track laying skills by cutting in a spur on your test track. Learn to solder. I wrote a tutorial HERE (link). Learn to ballast.
- After you have the basics of programming down there is a free program called Decoder Pro that makes advanced programming much easier (well actually it makes all programming easier). All you need is a computer, the free software, a small interface card called a Sprog II, and a short programming track to place next to your computer. You can pick the software and Sprog up from DCC Train.
Fast forward and look at the position you’d be in if you took this approach. Rather than having a closet full of “throwback years equipment” you are plug and play for your new layout both in terms of equipment and knowledge. All you have to do is take your DCC system and tap the two power leads in and you’re on line! Take your previously programmed locos, now totally proven entities and broken in, and plop them on the track. You’re engaged in the hobby and taking actual productive steps to prepare. Off to the furniture store for that bookshelf!