As you may know, I usually run my trains with a Lenz LZV100, a LH100 and a LI-USB for computer control. I do not use the LI-USB much, but I do use the LZV100 and the LH100 a lot. The Lenz system is good and does the job, but I am currently looking on other systems. Mainly because I think Lenz is at a stand still. They have promised a lot of cool new stuff, but next to nothing has seen the light of day.
I would like something to happen on the digital front, so I thought I would take the opportunity to look around and check out some of the other cool digital command control systems available.
The market for digital command control is big and there are several cool systems to choose from. I have a few requirements which are important to me:
- A mobile controller must be available
- I must be able to use more than one mobile controller
- My new system must be compatible with S88 feedback (Lenz is not)
- Computer control must be available (built-in or available with additional components like the LI-USB)
- The system must support DCC
- The system must be independent of additional hardware like iPhones or Android
Let the battle begin!
I have looked at the following systems:
- Digtrax. I ruled out Digitrax, because almost no dealer in Denmark sells them. I can buy it over the Internet, but I like to be able to take digital stuff to my local dealer should something go wrong. On the more soft side of things, I also do not like the looks of the Digitrax components.
- ESU ECoS. I ruled out ESU because of the lack of a manufacturer produced mobile controller. To be fair, there is a mobile controller but at the cost of 260 € it is not an option for me. That is almost twice the price of some of the more expensive mobile controllers on other systems. There are also options with mobile controllers from other manufactures, but I want a mobile controller designed for the system. Without having to use converters and the like.
- Roco Z21. The Z21 system have been ruled out because it requires other hardware like Android or iPhone.
- Uhlenbrock Intellibox II
- Märklin Digital
This leaves me with the two last candidates.
The Uhlenbrock Intellibox II would be the easy choice for me here. I know what the old Intellibox was capable of and I am sure the Intellibox II is just as good and can do more. The Intellibox II is interesting because it speaks Loconet, which is the BUS system I use for the modular layout. Märklin Digital, on the other hand, is also interesting because so little is known about it in the 2-rail world.
I run 2-rail - no question about that. I noticed that many 2-railers seems to think very little of the Märklin Digital system and think it is an inferior system compared to the other systems. Despite what you, as a 2-railer, may have heard, think you know or what not:
Märklin Digital is a fully DCC compliant system
...and for very little money you are set to go with almost as much bells and whistles as the Lenz system will provide.
THAT is why I have decided to investigate the Märklin Digital system. It complies with all of my requirements and it has an open protocol and specification available for me to develop stuff for it with my computer. I did that with the Lenz system, and I think it would be fun to do it with the Märklin Digital system as well.
Getting Started In Märklin Digital
A basic Märklin Digital system consists of:
- A Märklin or Trix Mobile Station 2 (common short: MS2) (Märklin p/n 60653, Trix p/n 66950)
- A railbox for H0- or N gauge (p/n 60113)
- A power supply unit (230 volt p/n 66361, 120 volt p/n 66365)
The differences between the Märklin and Trix MS2s are purely cosmetic. The Märklin MS2 has a red knob and the Trix MS2 has a green knob. That's all. You can later expand the system with a Central Station 2, which will give you several additional options and really open up the potential of the digital model railway.
The railbox is the box you connect to the track. It is mandatory. You connect the power and MS2 to the railbox. From there you are ready to roll. The railbox will allow you to connect one additional MS2 so a friend can run trains along with you. The old Märklin Digital system (called Märklin Systems) operated on a Master/Slave basis. This is no longer the case. The railbox acts as a hub, and every MS2 connected to it will have equal rights on the system BUS.
With a MS2-Hub (p/n: 60122) it is possible to connect up to 5 additional MS2s to the railbox. You can attach two MS2-Hubs to the railbox giving you a total of 10 MS2 connections for your layout.
If you have a Central Station 2, you can further expand the system and add several MS2 plugs around your layout. The MS2 allows itself to be unplugged and plugged in at another location. It does not work excactly as Lenz, since the MS2 cannot remember the locomotive's settings between plugs, which is frustrating and annoying.
For my setup I use a MS2 and the railbox, I do not have any additional components. It set me back around 140 €. The Mobile Station alone can be found for as little as 80 €.
Running Trains With the Mobile Station 2
One major difference on the MS2 and the Lenz LH100 is that the MS2 does not allow direct input of locomotive addresses. This is something I must get used to. I liked the fact that I could just type in the address of the locomotive and go. With the MS2 I must first create locomotive in the database and then run it. You can have 11 active locomotives at the same time, but the MS2's internal database will hold up to 40 of your locomotives.
On the other hand the MS2 allows me to setup a locomotive name, so I do not have to remember the addresses. It also allows me to customize the locomotive home screen with nice little pictogrammes representing the locomotive functions. At the bottom of the home screen you have 10 permanent locomotive slots and one extra slot. This gives you a total of 11 active locomotives that you can run on one MS2.
The Extra Locomotive Slot
Märklin provides what they call locomotive cards. This is basically just a plastic card (like a credit card) where you can store the information about a locomotive. The MS2 has a card reader built-in to read this type of cards. What it gives you is the ability to quickly pick up a locomotive that is not in the local database and run it immediatly. The MS2 will read the card and make the locomotive active. If all 10 slots are filled, the locomotive will be in the extra slot as long as the card is in the mobile station.
The locomotive card stores all the settings from the locomotive home screen and which icons you have setup. If you take your locomotive and card to a friend's house, you can easily load the locomotive into your friend's Mobile Station 2. In rough terms you can think of the locomotive card as an "analogue" MFX system for DCC and Märklin Motorola (MM) decoders.
If you have MFX decoders in your locomotives, you have no need for locomotive cards. I run DCC and I think the feature is fun and usefull.
If you have a locomotive with a Märklin MFX decoder, the MS2 will put that locomotive in the extra slot when it detects it and it will stay there as long as it is on the tracks. For more information about the Märklin MFX decoders check the Märklin website.
What You Can And Cannot Do With The Mobile Station 2
Many people have asked me: What are the limits? What can the MS2 not do?
Those are interesting questions - and valid questions - because what is to expect from a digital system? These do's and don't's are from my point of view. Meaning, that they are what I have noticed according to how I use my layout. You might have different preferences, so do some research before deciding on your digital control system.
First of all, the most interesting part:
What you cannot do with the Mobile Station 2:
- You cannot enter a locomotive address directly and run it. You must always create the locomotive first.
- You cannot create multiple consists or double traction. You must have a Central Station 2 for that.
- You cannot have a programming track. You must have a Central Station 2 for that.
- You cannot use computer control. You must have a Central Station 2 for that.
What you can to do with the Mobile Station 2:
- You can use up to 16 locomotive functions
- You can run up to 11 locomotives at the same time (this is a limit of the MS2, the more MS2s the more concurrent trains)
- You can set switches and signals (signals must be setup on the Central Station 2)
- You can program locomotives (either via the easy to use programming screen or directly via CVs)
- You can use the "Programming on Main" (PoM) features of the decoders
- You can switch off the decoder languages that you do not use (MM, MFX or DCC)
- You can choose to control your accessory decoders using MM or DCC, but not both at the same time
Besides the fact that I have no programming track, I think the do's pretty much outweighs the don't's. The Mobile Station 2 is truly a really, really good system for controlling your trains. It is easy to use and expandable. You can buy a MS2 for as little as 80€ and I think that is a really nice price.
If you need a digital control system for casual model railroading or if you are planning taking your layout into the digital age, the Märklin Mobile Station 2 might be the choice for you. I recommend that you check it out.
In future articles I will describe the MS2 and the Märklin Digital system in more details.
If you have any questions don't hesitate to ask me!