De-mystifying the Aristo-Craft Train Engineer System

De-mystifying the Aristo-Craft Train Engineer System
De-mystifying the Aristo-Craft
Train Engineer System
Originally published in 2000
Revised January 2004
By Tom Weaver
Lots of Confusion
When it comes to power supplies, everyone should be
familiar with the traditional ‘transformer’ that plugs into a
wall outlet, has connections to the track, and includes a
rotary knob for adjusting train speed (track voltage). But in
the last few years, we’ve seen more and more remote
controlled layouts. One such remote control system is the
Train Engineer system by Aristo-Craft. Others are made by
RCS and Locolinc (none of them are interoperable). When I
was designing my layout, I thought it would be more fun to
be able to walk around with the train, and still be able to
control its speed and direction from anywhere around the
layout. But I had a hard time figuring out just which
components I needed to buy, and how many of each. I got
confused on which components were compatible with each
other. I wasn’t able to figure it out from the Aristo-Craft
catalog at that time. But I’ve got it figured out now, and via
this article, I want to share what I’ve learned with others
who might be just be starting out. (George Schreyer has
written an excellent book on this subject, available from
Aristo-Craft).
What’s a Train Engineer?
First of all, Aristo-Craft uses the term Train Engineer to
refer to any of a number of different components. The Train
Engineer is not a single item, and you won’t find a specific
part number for buying it. Rather, it is a family of
components that when combined with a source of DC
power, give you remote control of your trains. And the
secret (it shouldn’t be a secret, it should be clearly spelled
out for any buyer) is deciding which components you need
for your railroad. Both the catalog and the dealer ads are
rather ambiguous, it’s hard to tell what each component
does, and what else it depends on, to remotely control your
trains. In the following paragraphs, I will refer to each
component by its specific name (and part number) and
describe what function it performs.
The Aristo-Craft Train Engineer system (as well as RCS
and Locolinc) is a collection of transmitters and receivers
that use radio waves through the air to control the trains.
This is in contrast to Digital Command & Control (DCC)
that puts the control signals directly on the rails along with
the DC power, using devices called boosters, allowing
engines equipped with devices called decoders to respond
to those signals (but that’s a separate article).
Volts and Amps
Some of the following information gets technical, so if
you’re feeling electrically challenged, let’s start with an
analogy. Think of a transformer or power supply as a water
spigot. Voltage (volts) is the pressure of the water in the
pipe. As you begin to open the spigot, some water flows
out. Current (amps) is the amount of water flowing out of
the spigot. With our trains, as we open the throttle (spigot),
some pressure (volts) is applied to our train motors, which
then draw a certain flow of electrical current (amps) to run.
Open the throttle (spigot) further, there’s more pressure
(volts) applied to the tracks, and the train speeds up.
Power Supply
For model trains, a power supply is required to convert
household AC voltage to safe, low voltage DC used by the
trains (exception: trains using on-board batteries). The
Aristo-Craft Ultima Power Supply (#55460, about $95)
generates 18 volts
output and up to 10
amps of current. It is a
fixed power supply,
which is to say it has
no controls for train
speed or direction. Smaller ones are available (most
notable: the ones found in starter sets), but if you expect to
run long trains, or multiple engines, or trains up and down
grades, then 10 amps is recommended. Most engines draw
1 or 2 amps at full speed, and less than that at slower
speeds. Many USA Trains engines draw roughly twice this
much current. The majority of engines run nicely at about
12-14 volts, and are on the verge of flying off the tracks at
18 volts. Some LGB engines run too slow with 18 volts,
and run better with up to 24 volts. Recently, Aristo-Craft
came out with an all-electronic power supply, called the
Elite (#55465, about $130) that generates 22 volts output
and up to 13 amps.
Note that all AristoCraft power supplies
and Train Engineer
components
are
marketed under the
name CREST. Other
power supplies include
one
from
MRC
(#AG990, about $130), which does include a throttle, and
the LGB Jumbo (#50101, about $430), which also includes
a throttle. The point of listing several power supplies here is
this: the Train Engineer will work with any DC power
supply, including a 12 volt car battery. So if you already
have a power supply, and want to take the next step to
remote control, use what you have, as long as the voltage
rating does not exceed 24 volts. If you have to buy a power
supply, add up the current draw for all the engines you
might run at one time, and buy a power supply that delivers
at least that much ‘juice’ with some margin for the future.
Best buy today: the 22 volt, 13 amp Elite.
Trackside Receiver
So-called, because it is connected between your power
supply and your track, the 2nd component in a remote
By: Tom Weaver, Doylestown, PA
tweaver113@comcast.net
controlled layout is a trackside receiver (#55471, about
$80). It increases or decreases the voltage to the track
according to a 27Mhz radio signal it receives on its antenna.
It does the job of a throttle, controlling the speed of the
train, but without a rotary knob. The advantage of this
component, besides the fact that you can control the trains
from anywhere on the layout, is that there are NO
modifications required to the engines.
Any engine from any manufacturer
can be controlled with this device
without having to add electronics
inside the engine. Usually, the power
supply and the receiver are installed
in the house or garage, and a heavy
pair of wires carries the DC current to the tracks. It works
best if the antenna is oriented vertically, and mounted up
high.
Transmitter
The 3rd component in a remote control system is the hand
held transmitter (#55473, about $65). About the size of a
TV remote control (those
work on infrared, not radio
waves), it has a button to
speed up the train, another
to slow down the train, and
a pair of buttons to change
direction. There’s also an
emergency stop button,
which instantly turns the
track voltage down to zero,
very handy if there’s a derailment. The transmitter sends
out a 27Mhz radio signal (only when you push a button),
which in ideal conditions can be picked up by the receiver
at ranges up to 100 feet or more, though in some
installations, it might be less than that. I’ve found, much to
my delight, that the radio signals pass through the concrete
wall of my house and control the receivers in the basement,
even at ranges beyond 100 feet. The transmitter can be
purchased by itself, or paired with a receiver (#55470,
about $120). The transmitter is a universal device, meaning
that it can control as many receivers as you eventually add
to your railroad (maximum of 100). So, using the same
transmitter, you could control two or three or more
receivers (train loops). This is done by selecting a different
frequency and a different channel on the transmitter (There
are ten frequencies, and for each frequency there are ten
unique channels). These selections are made on the
transmitter using some of the buttons and the LED display
at the top. More on this subject later in the article.
On-board receivers
This is where things might start to get confusing. AristoCraft makes another radio receiver, called the mini onboard receiver (#55490, was about $80). This is meant to be
installed within the train itself (the engine, or a trailing car).
Most people use these in conjunction with on-board
batteries. The miniature receiver is wired between the
battery pack and the motors, and controls the speed of the
train based on radio signals. The same #55473 transmitter
described above can be used with this mini receiver,
because they both operate in the same 27Mhz frequency
band. So now, instead of getting its current from the track,
the train gets its current from on-board batteries. This has
several huge advantages: This makes it easier to run
multiple trains on the same track, and control the speed of
each independently, and also it also sidesteps the
requirement to constantly clean the tops of the rails as is
often the case with track powered layouts. The big
disadvantage is you must open up the engine and install the
mini-receiver and its antenna. And if you have a lot of
engines, that can get expensive. Some people put the
batteries and the mini receiver in a trailing car, and run
wires to the engine. That helps to keep the costs down,
since you can use the same trailing car with a different
engine each time you run, but you’re always lugging around
the same trailing car right behind the engine all the time. I
did mention that the antenna for this receiver is now inside
the train, and close to the ground. Unfortunately, that has
the adverse effect of reducing the maximum range by which
the receiver and transmitter can communicate, in some
cases, to as little as 10 feet. Having said that, the #55490 is
now out of production.
So in 2002, Aristo-Craft released a new mini on-board
receiver (#55491, about $100) that operates in the higher
75Mhz frequency band,
which performs all the
same functions, but ideally
offers
better
range
performance
than
its
predecessor. Oh, and now
you have to use a new
75Mhz transmitter with it
(#55003, about $65) since
27Mhz transmitters don’t work with 75Mhz receivers. It’s
easy to tell them apart: 27Mhz transmitters are housed in a
black case, and 75 Mhz transmitters are housed in a gray
case, but the buttons and the functions are the same. 75Mhz
stuff can be bought as a pair (#55492, about $160). One
more thing: Aristo-Craft engines produced since 2002 have
a receptacle inside so that this mini receiver can be plugged
in, which eliminates the need to cut and solder a bunch of
wires. The way they can be identified is by the small plug
found near the coupler at each end of the locomotive, where
a trailing car can optionally be connected.
There’s more. The 27Mhz mini receiver and the 75Mhz
mini receiver are each rated at 3 amps. Sometimes there’s
an engine (or a multi-unit lashup) that draws more than 3
amps. You can (and its been successfully done) take the
trackside receiver, which is rated at 10 amps, out of its case,
and mount the circuit board and its antenna inside the
engine or trailing car, and connect it to some suitably sized
batteries.
Here’s another idea for those bigger layouts. You say you
want multi train action, but batteries aren’t for you? Then
By: Tom Weaver, Doylestown, PA
tweaver113@comcast.net
hook the Elite power supply directly to the rails (with fuses)
and put a mini on-board receiver in every engine. Just don’t
put a stock engine on the rails, because at 22 volts it will
take off like a slot car! (Described in Figure 4)
Last but not least, some of us have a considerable
investment in 27Mhz equipment already, and don’t want
the hassles of intermixing 75Mhz and 27Mhz equipment.
Since the #55490 is out of production, the #55491 can be
retrofitted with a part that allows it to operate in the 27Mhz
band. This is just an RF chip that attaches to the mini
receiver (#55489, about $25).
Accessory Receivers
If I didn’t lose you yet, there are two additional receivers
in the TE family. The accessory receiver (#55474, about
$45) with its antenna is usually installed inside an engine to
turn on or off various things like lights, a bell or a horn. The
switch receiver (#55475, about $40) with its antenna, is
usually installed in the layout where electrically controlled
turnouts are employed, so that as many as 5 of those
turnouts can be operated remotely. The same universal
transmitter described earlier can operate both of these
components, using the A through F buttons toward the
bottom of the transmitter.
How to Choose
Phew, still seems confusing, how does a person decide
what to buy? If you like the idea of not modifying engines,
and you have a method for keeping the track clean (Scotch
Brite pad, track cleaning car, Rail Zip, Goof Off, stainless
steel track, but that’s outside the scope of this article), then
track power is for you. A power supply (assuming you
don’t have one), a trackside receiver and a 27Mhz
transmitter would cost about $240 street price. You could
then operate one train or multiple trains (up to ten amps
total), but they would all move in the same direction at
roughly the same speed (depending on manufacturer).
Track power has definite advantages for large layouts
running multi-engine long trains, which could exceed the
capacity of on-board batteries available today. But it does
require investing in a power supply, some heavy gage wire
(and probably a few rail clamps), and the periodic chore of
cleaning the track.
If you like the idea of never cleaning track, never
installing wires to the track, never worrying about track
joiners, and don’t mind opening up each locomotive to
install electronics, then battery power is for you. The first
mini receiver and 75Mhz transmitter would cost about $160
plus batteries (also outside the scope of this article). Each
additional install would cost $100 plus batteries. Or, you
could put the stuff in a trailing car, and use a plug to the
engine. By the time you retrofit your 3rd engine, the outlay
is higher than for track power, but the huge advantage is
that each train is now independent, and can be slowed down
or stopped even while the others continue to run. You don’t
have to buy another transmitter each time you equip another
engine, because the transmitter is universal and can
communicate with the entire line of receivers. Though
technically the transmitter can control 100 receivers (10
frequencies times 10 channels), you have to take your eyes
off the trains and look at the LED display to make the
selection. From a practical viewpoint, I find controlling
more than about 3 trains becomes tedious.
If you’re going to run a combination of track power and
battery power, you’ll start with 27Mhz equipment for the
track power, then add either 27Mhz on-board equipment (if
you want to be able to use the same transmitters), or 75Mhz
on-board equipment (if you don’t mind using several
transmitters).
Linking
When you buy any receiver, you have to set its codes for
the frequency and channel that it will respond to (just like a
garage door opener). This setup is done just once, and from
then on, it will remember that specific frequency and
channel, even after power is turned off. This is
accomplished through a process called linking. First you
select the frequency and channel on the transmitter. Then
you press and hold buttons on the transmitter and the
receiver simultaneously to set that receiver’s codes. Hint:
This is a good time to write them down; after all, there are
100 choices. (Older style 27 Mhz transmitters supported
just two channels instead of ten, and the frequency was
fixed. While being much more
limited, it did have the
advantage of being very easy
to use for two train operation,
because you did not have to
take your eyes off the trains.
You could feel the ch1/ch2
switch with your thumb and
make the selection more
quickly.)
Multiple Operators
If your railroad has grown to the point where you are
trying to operate more than about 3 trains at the same time,
you’re a primary candidate for having more people and
dividing up the workload. You will need to provide a
separate transmitter to each operator at about $65 each.
Each operator will be responsible for a subset of all the
trains. This approach is safer and a more fun way to run
multiple trains. As long as separate frequencies (e.g., 75.1,
75.2, 75.3, etc) are used, the transmitters will not interfere
with each other, even if several operators push buttons at
the same time.
So far, we’ve established that for track power, there is one
receiver per track, and for battery power, there is one
receiver per engine, yet just one transmitter is all that is
required to run one or more trains. You can operate a
battery-powered train on a track-powered layout because
there’s switch in the engine that disconnects the wheel
pickups when running on batteries. So, you could have a
By: Tom Weaver, Doylestown, PA
tweaver113@comcast.net
big freight running on track power (and running and
running, because there’s no batteries to get depleted) while
other trains, with on-board batteries, receiver and antenna
scamper around on the same or different tracks.
Multiple Independent Loops
Many railroads grow to the point where there are multiple
loops of track. As long as there are no electrical
connections between the loops, they can each be controlled
by a separate trackside receiver, as explained in figure 2.
And all the trackside receivers can be tied to a single power
supply, as long as the combined currents of all the loops
don’t exceed the rated amp capacity of the power supply.
This allows a train on the 1st loop to be controlled
independently of a train on the 2nd loop, etc. You can use
one or more transmitters, whatever is more convenient.
If the loops are connected via turnouts (and insulated rail
joiners) and you expect that trains will traverse from one
loop to the other, as explained in figure 3, then it is
imperative that each loop have a separate receiver and a
separate power supply. Unless the receivers are tied to
separate power supplies, there will be severe damage to the
receivers and the engine wiring when an engine crosses
between the loops.
Miscellaneous
So what are all those other components listed in the dealer
ads? The Basic Train Engineer (#55480) is an entry level
remote control system. It controls
one train instead of several, has a 2
amp capacity, and limited RF range.
This is the kind of system you would
use for a loop under the Christmas
tree, but would be too limited for a
garden railroad. Housed in an orange
case. The control pack adaptor
(#55401) is a manual throttle (with rotary knob) that installs
between a power supply and the track in lieu of a trackside
receiver. Although it too provides pulse width control (a
feature that enhances slow speed running and lighting), it
has no remote control capabilities.
Oh, I didn’t tell you about pulse width control (PWC).
Normal DC power, like that from a battery or most DC
power sources, is often called linear. The TE receivers have
a switch where you can select either linear or PWC. In
linear mode, the voltage output to the track starts at zero,
and as you increase speed, the voltage goes up
proportionally, till it reaches the maximum available from
the power source. In PWC mode, the voltage to the tracks is
rapidly switched between zero and the maximum available
from the power source, like operating a light switch on-offon 25,000 times a second. As you increase speed, you
increase the % on time, and decrease the % off time.
What’s the advantage? Engine motors often run more
smoothly at slow speeds on PWC. And train lighting is
brighter at slow speeds on PWC. What’s the downside?
Sometimes circuit boards for sound systems don’t operate
as expected. All of the Aristo TE receivers feature PWC.
On the trackside receivers, it can be switched off (linear).
Momentum and Time Delay
The Train Engineer system includes two other features
that most model railroaders find very desirable. One is
Momentum, which determines how fast the speed increases
as turn up the throttle. This simulates the weight of a heavy
train as it tries to accelerate, thus avoiding a jackrabbit start.
There are 5 choices for momentum, which is set during the
linking process. The other is Time Delay, which determines
how long the train pauses when changing from forward to
reverse. This simulates the various engineer actions needed
to get the train moving in the opposite direction, and
reduces wear and tear on the gears in the motor blocks.
There are 5 choices for time delay, which is set during the
linking process.
Conclusion
This article is intended to help model railroaders sort
through the many components of the Aristo-Craft Train
Engineer system, and make smart purchasing decisions
when preparing to build or expand a remote control train
layout. It is not a how-to article, nor is it meant to replace
the instructions that come with the equipment (which, I
admit, are poorly written). The Aristo-Craft Train Engineer
system should meet the needs of the vast majority of model
railroaders today at an affordable price. It is expandable by
purchasing more components as the railroad or the number
of operators grows. For more information, see George
Schreyer’s book, or the web site at www.aristocraft.com.
Train Engineer component summary
Component
Transmitter
Track power stuff
Trackside Receiver
(used with DC power supply,
bought separately)
Cooling fan for above
#55473 / #55471 27Mhz set
27Mhz equipment
#55473
10 frequencies times 10 channels (black)
75Mhz equipment
#55003
10 frequencies times 10 channels (gray)
#55471
10 amp capacity (with cooling fan)
none
#55499 (above 5 amps)
#55470
n/a
n/a
By: Tom Weaver, Doylestown, PA
tweaver113@comcast.net
On board battery power stuff
Mini On-board Receiver
(used with on-board batteries,
bought separately)
Cooling fan for above
Mini receiver RF conversion
board for #5491
#55003 / #55491 75Mhz set
Accessory receiver
Switch receiver controller
Acces. Receiver for #55491
#55490
2.5 amp capacity
out of production
#55498
#55489
allows 55491 to work with #55473
n/a
#55474 for 5 devices
#55475 for 5 turnouts
n/a
#55491
3 amp capacity
#55498
n/a
#55492
#55074 for 5 devices
#55075 for 5 turnouts
#55495 for sound and smoke
Equipment list for various layouts
Layout design
Figure 1: Single line, loop, or point-to-point
Equipment list
Track power:
è One power supply
è One (#55471) 27Mhz receiver
è One (#55473) 27Mhz transmitter
Battery power:
è One battery pack per engine or trail car
è One (#55491) mini receiver per engine or trail car, with optional
#55489 converter for 27Mhz
è One (#55473 or #55003) transmitter per operator
Figure 2: Double line, two independent loops,
NOT connected
Track power:
è One power supply
è One (#55471) 27Mhz receiver per track
è One (#55473) 27Mhz transmitter per operator
Battery power:
è One battery pack per engine or trail car
è One (#55491) mini receiver per engine or trail car, with optional
#55489 converter for 27Mhz
è One (#55473 or #55003) transmitter per operator
Figure 3: Double line, two connected loops
Track power:
è One power supply per track
è One (#55471) 27Mhz receiver per track
è One (#55473) 27Mhz transmitter per operator
Battery power:
è One battery pack per engine or trail car
è One (#55491) mini receiver per engine or trail car, with optional
#55489 converter for 27Mhz
è One (#55473 or #55003) transmitter per operator
Figure 4: Special case – DC power wired
directly to track(s), any track plan, on-board
receivers in every engine
Power:
è One power supply wired to all tracks
è One (#55491) mini receiver per engine or trail car, with optional
#55489 converter for 27Mhz
è One (#55473 or #55003) transmitter per operator
By: Tom Weaver, Doylestown, PA
tweaver113@comcast.net
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