Turnouts/Switches – Analog or Digital?

Turnouts/Switches – Analog or Digital ?

Pros and Cons / Installation Hints

By Roger Heid

This is a much disputed perennial question. There is no right answer; there is no wrong answer. Let me try to give you some insight for your better understanding.

Your starter kit came with a couple of turn outs, or else you decided to add a couple, or so. By default, these turnouts come without any electrical, digital or remote control features, whatever you want to call it. In order to change the frog position you need to manually throw a lever. In this case, a frog is not a green amphibian; it is the movable portion of the tracks on a turnout, aka switch. No, it is not called Kermit, either.

Sooner or later, as your layout expands, these levers will be out of arms reach. In the old days, you had to get off the couch to change the TV channel. That’s why remote controls were invented. Now you are facing the same old situation. You feel the dire urge to install a remote control in every switch you cannot reach without relieving your chair from your weight.

There are two ways to get this accomplished, either analog or digital. If your layout is straight analog, you don’t have to worry about the digital method, as it will not be possible.

In either case, you need to install a so-called electric turnout motor or mechanism into each switch you to wish to be able to operate from your seat.


Sample of  Switch Motor

For analog operation, you now need to have a switch or control box such as the sample pictures seen below.


Samples of Control Boxes

With one of these you can control four turnouts. The typical control box has two rows of four buttons each. One row has green buttons; the other row has red buttons, for instance. If wired correctly, you can tell by looking at the buttons which state a given turn out happens to be in. If the red button is in the pushed down position, the switch is in the ‘thrown’ or curved mode. If the green button is in the pushed down position, the turnout is in the straight mode.

If you tend to operate your train in relative darkness, there are also the feed-back control boxes. The buttons are of the momentary contact type, just like your door bell button. Right next to each button is an LED light, green in one row, red in the other. You get the drift.

The input of the control box needs to be connected to one polarity of the dedicated power supply. Do NOT connect it to the power supply that feeds the tracks. This is a strict ‘No No’!

The switch motor assemblies typically have three wires dangling from them. On mine, they are red, green and yellow. The yellow wire needs to be connected to the other polarity of the dedicated power supply, therefore, a yellow wire needs to be branched out to each turnout.

On one side of the control box, right below the corresponding button, you will find two connection sockets. The red and green wires plug or connect to these sockets. Quick experimentation will disclose which color wire goes where. The assistance of Wernher von Braun is not required.

If you operate more than four switches, you need another control box. If you have 12 switches, you need a total of three control boxes etc. There is no need to run a separate wire from each additional box back to the power supply. Multiple boxes can be daisy chained. Mine just simply plug together. If yours don’t do that, just run a wire from one to the other.

If all is wired correctly, you’re in business. Now you can have the wife bring you another beer. Now you deserve it.

All this sounds like a lot of work and wiring to do. I know, I have done it for 16 switches.

If you go the digital route, things will be very different. Besides the mandatory switch motor, each turn out requires an appropriate decoder. Usually, the product description tells you what a particular decoder is designed for.


Samples of Decoders


New Maerklin C -Track Decoder (no wiring needed)

Such a decoder needs to be connected to the switch motor and the tracks which provide the power and the digital command signal. Most of the commonly used decoders can handle eight turnouts. You can place the decoder in a strategic location close to the turnouts to minimize wiring distances. You can see that this set up requires very little wiring compared to an analog set up.

The next thing you need to do is to program the individual decoders. Here you need to refer to the instruction manual that comes with the decoder. At first this appears to be tedious. Be patient and try again if it doesn’t work. You’ll get used to these procedures.

So far I described the difference between the two as far as installation efforts go. Now I need to explain the operational differences.

If you choose the analog route, you find yourself staring at an array of too many buttons or lights. It takes a while to remember which button does what. Some people find that confusing. I I have a method to this madness by placing and labeling things. You can come with a system or an arrangement that fits your needs.

If the set up is digital, you only deal with one item, the screen of your control station or whatever device you have chosen to use. You will have to go through some steps to open up a menu that displays a ton of icons for the switches. The exact procedure of this depends on the device you are using. Some people find that to be difficult and confusing.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and perception. For my turnouts, I chose the analog method. Why? Because, for this particular purpose, I do not like having to switch between screens and having to scroll through a menu just to check and change a switch position. I like to be able to see a switch status with just a brief glimpse and then push a button in plain sight. That’s me.

I am planning to install an RR Crossing with the bars going up and down, flashing lights and a warning bell. It will be digitally controlled and automated. However, I will refrain from having the leaves of surrounding shrubs and trees turn brown and fall off as winter approaches.

Some time ago, a visitor who has an automated layout, was wondering why I am so backwards in my approach to things. Then a different visitor looked at my ocean of buttons. It took him merely 10 minutes to figure out which button does what. He complimented me on the wiring job. Did I mention the three additional switch boxes for lights and un-coupler tracks?

Some people I know go the digital route, simply because it is available, and it is in vogue. Others choose the analog method, simply because they are intimidated by computers. Some of those still use an abacus instead of a calculator. Others are surrounded by digital items whether they need them or not. I use whatever works best for me. I did sell my abacus some 60 years ago. Instead, I use a calculator that talks.

My cell phone does not take pictures, but I can make and receive phone calls. My professional Digital Nikon takes much better pictures than any smart phone I know of. Unfortunately, it is not a telephone, it lacks a concrete mixer, and I can’t get HBO on it. For that I use a 52” HD Flat Screen which features caller ID. My toaster has a digital control panel. My toaster oven is analog. When I’m still half asleep, I don’t feel like fighting with zillions of hard to see buttons just heat up a couple of crumpets.

There is a season, a rhyme and a reason, for everything under the sun.

I do not use a GPS in my vehicle. I found them to be less than reliable. Instead, I use an analog road map which does not require batteries that go dead even if you don’t use them. By the same token, I know how to use a google map and how to print out a specific road map. This means I use high tech digital equipment to produce a simple map. The last digital GPS could not understand me when I had a sore throat.

You see, each to their own! It is entirely up to you to choose your own preferred path. If the shoe fits, wear it.

If you pursue a fully automated layout with functional signals and everything else modern technology has in store, operated via a full-fledged computer, all items used need to be digital, of course.

I know this dissertation will help you to make your own decision. I deliberately avoided the financial aspect of all this as it depends on the prices charged by the makers and vendors. Appearance and features of the items discussed vary with manufacturers.

If you have any questions, please post them in the Forum under the appropriate topic.

Thank you.

Happy Railroading y’all !


3 Responses to Turnouts/Switches – Analog or Digital?

  1. John Winter says:

    A very well written blog. Well argued / explained re personal preferences.

    I’m looking to have some automated trains, so they will have to be digital.

    Now comes the hard part! I am hoping to wire ALL 11 tracks up to many options! DC, DC block, DCC Viessman, DCC other. In some cases, I’d like remote / wireless control (especially for kids!). I know my Viessman can concurrently run auto, semi auto and manual options. But with over 100 engines (about 20 with decoders) it will not be simple or cheap.

    Also, what if my main system (Viessman) fails? Backups sound good. So there’s another reason for having more than one system wired up.

    I could use different systems for different tracks and/or engines but thinking I may as well all 11 tracks for all options.

    But beware! If a track is wired for more than one system, I’ll have to design some sort of dead switch for every wire to ensure one system does not back-feed electricity into another system / component and short something! Hopefully I can make it a one flick foolproof switching. That is my next design step!

    • Ernest Robl says:

      A few points to begin with:

      Roger Heid, who wrote the above Blog article, is no longer participating on this site.

      The issues connected with digitization of layouts are complex. Entire books have been written about them.

      Unfortunately at this time (early May, 2018) the Reynauld’s Forum, which would be a better place to discuss this subject with multiple participants, is not available.

      While I am by no means an expert on digital operation, I have given the related issues a lot of research and thought, and, as a (now retired) journalist, I am reasonably good at synthesizing complex subjects.

      Given the apparent complexity of your layout and the number of locomotives, I would forget about any attempts at analog operation — and wiring for that purpose. While mixed analog and digital operation of trains is theoretically possible, it also introduces many potential problems.

      (Yes, you will have to install decoders in all your locomotives, but that is a worth-while investment.)

      By wiring the layout for digital operation to begin with, you can use a better color coding system for your wiring — for example, using different color wires for the feeder bus from each booster to each booster district. You will need two different colors for each booster district, making it simpler to figure out which rail needs to be connected to which feeder bus.

      You appear to be leaning toward Viessmann controls. If you have not made the final decision, I would strongly urge you to consider the Roco Z21 system. Among other things, it allows the use of multiple wireless Multimaus controllers. The Multimaus is very intuitive for guest operators. The basic Multimaus is the most widely used (as far as I know) digital model railroad controller in Europe.

      (Using the Z21 would still let you use turnout decoders and other digital accessories from other manufacturers, such as Viessmann. Much of the lighting I am using on my layout is from Viessmann.)

      The Z21 does provide an interface to computerized operations, if that is what you really want. However, you may want to consider whether you really need full automation or simply the use of routes.

      Again, the Z21 supports the use of routes. In this context, a route consists of setting multiple track turnouts to allow a train to get from one point to another. I plan to use route control for both my main station and my hidden staging yard. By simply entering a route, all the necessary turnouts on that route are set for that route.

      This is much simpler than throwing the turnouts individually — or even remembering the individual address of each turnout. (You can, of course, still set single turnouts individually, if needed for switching operations.)

      Using routes means that the switches on those routes have to be digitally operated via decoders. However, on my digital layout I also plan to use some turnouts that use analog operations and some turnouts (in an industry at the edge of the layout) that are simply operated manually.

      Just some things to think about.
      – Ernest

      • Mr Hoosain Mia Ebrahim says:

        How does one repair Marklin control box with feedback number 72710. I have opened it and each time
        I battle as the red or green light does not light up when the appropriate button is pushed, very, very
        frustrating. Please assist. Kind regards Hoosain M Ebrahim ( Mr)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>