When I was a kid, 40-ish years ago, I was an avid model railroader. I built a great 6x8 layout with three main tracks, a switching yard, and three transformer packs. As I grew older and became more interested in computers and technology, my interest waned. I sold my layout, but kept my favorite locos and rolling stock, kept in a box and stored in various closets over the years.
About five years ago, my interest started to re-emerge. I was thrilled to learn about DCC, the exciting technology that was clearly revolutionizing the hobby. But as computers and phones and other devices became wireless, I was surprised to see that DCC remained mostly a hard-wired solution, with the control signals being sent down the track to the locos. I wondered why none of the big players were pushing truly wireless solutions using 802.11 or Bluetooth or Zigbee. I didn’t want to invest in a technology platform that I could tell was reaching its natural end-of-life. So I waited.
When I came across LocoFi about two years ago, I immediately recognized its potential and appeal. I wouldn’t need an expensive hard-wired control system and I could use a smartphone or tablet as the controller. Bingo. I bought in.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve purchased and installed 10 Locofi controllers, both 1st and 2nd generations. I scoured eBay for good deals on quality locos sporting my preferred livery: the Louisville & Nashville railroad that had an active route near my childhood neighborhood. I tweaked and tuned up each loco, carefully installed the Locos controllers, and created custom horn and running sound files for each one. The Locofi development team were a big help, providing valuable guidance on how to make the systems work perfectly I had a blast!
But one thing I didn’t have: an actual layout to run them on! Seriously, for the first year or so I just had the locos on my desk, running on a single piece of flex-track hooked to an old 12 volt laptop power supply. It was fun, but I quickly realized I needed more.
So with the start of the pandemic, I began drawing up plans for a densely-packet 4x8 layout. I gathered advice online for the frame, base, and wiring. I bought RailModeller Pro and spent a month or two tweaking my layout. I ordered everything online and began the build on top of the ping-pong tabletop that sits on top of my billiard table. Here's the final product...
It’s not beautiful, and it won’t be not he cover of Model Railroader anytime soon, but it works great. I used 1/2-inch pink foam insulation board as the base so I could rearrange things easily in the future if desired. No cork roadbed. No signals. No electrified turnouts. Just flex track and Peco turnouts.
I spent a long time planning and building the control board where I can control power to seven different districts including a turntable. The spokes of that turntable are on a reversible circuit so I can rotate locos 180 degrees without shorting out the rest of the layout. Three of the power districts are fed by one 12v power supply; the other four are fed by a different power supply, all wired together on the neutral lead so trains can run easily from one district to the other with no shorts.
I played around with circuit breakers for each district – using either automotive taillight bulbs or the NCE circuit breaker gizmos – but I could never get that working right so I removed it. The Locofi guys had lots of great advice, but apparently my older locos were pulling more amps than the circuits could handle.
I routinely run 6 or more locos simultaneously – though it’s a bit tricky to do without the locos running into each other like that scene from the old Addams Family TV show! The system could definitely handle all 10 locos moving at once though probably not on the same power district because it would pull too many amps. But with an extra set of hands and extra Android device, I could maybe pull it off.
Here's a video I shot of an operating session last week:
The outermost oval has a single Locofi-controlled E7 pulling a few passenger cars. The next oval inward is running a very old SP Daylight 4-8-4 steam loco that is not Locofi controlled – it's just running on that power district at full throttle, LOL. And the third oval in is running an F7 A&B consist. There are 6 other Loco-fi controlled locos idling around the turntable, ready to head out on the tracks when needed. And then a single Locofi-controller switcher loco in the yard. Eventually I'll add Locofi to the steam loco, though that'll require some fancy wiring to the tender car and a revamp of the sound files.
By the way, I had to heavily modify how power is fed to the tracks on that turntable so that it would remain constant while rotating. The stock Walthers design kinda sucks; the locos would power on and off constantly, but with my mods they get constant power and don't need to be rebooted after the turning stops. That was annoying.
Although the Locofi controller app on my Android device does not yet allow you to control a consist with a single throttle (coming soon!), I have run multi-loco consists the old fashioned way: by connecting them together on the track and slowly increasing the throttle speed on each one, quickly switching back and forth between the loco control screens to tweak their speeds, as shown with the F7 A&B units in the video above. I haven’t burned out any loco motors... yet. I’m looking forward to the next version of the controller app – and an iPhone version, both of which are in development.
Like any emerging technology, there are a few hiccups – though I’ll save those very minor issues for a future post. But suffice it to say that I'm a big fan. I haven’t ever run my Locofi-equipped locos on someone else’s layout, but theoretically I should be able to walk up to just about any layout and drop one on the tracks and start running – assuming they let me!
So even if you already have a big investment in hard-wired DCC systems, you should give Locofi a try. It’s a cool technology and it’s definitely the way of the future. Buying a few controllers from them will help fund their development of this great tech – and allow them to expand into battery assist, deadrail, and other potential features. Plus you'll get to play around with something cool and exciting that might just convince you to walk away from that big investment you've made in that NCE or Digitrax system you bought years ago!
And if you're new to the hobby (or recently rejoining it like I am), you should give it a try as well – especially if you like to tinker with things like I do. Enjoy! 😀