New command stations are coming out, and the smartphone/tablet owner is targeted.

Market changes

Everywhere, model railroading is kind of on the back burner of technology. Even in Europe, manufacturers sometimes sell products that are technologically 2 to 4 years late in comparison with regular consumer products like smartphones. The trend seems slightly worse in Japan and in North America, where many hobbyists like to recreate the clunky driving style of locomotives with levers and very mechanical looking devices. This is by no means a criticism! Model railroading should be what everyone like, but the trend is quite clear.

In Europe meanwhile, changes are happening, but slowly. A few years ago, with the ESU ECOS II and the Märklin CS2, color touchscreens finally made their way in front of the layout. Years after people were used to tapping on their phones.
Those command stations have received updates. The ESU ECOS with part no 50210 is now more powerful. The Märklin CS3 (60226) has received improvements and now has a brother, the CS3 plus (60216). There is an excellent article about those 2 Märklin devices here at Railway.zone.

I also commented on the connectivity of my ECOS II here.

ESU Ecos II with all the sound functions of the Arriva locomotive (right panel)…and the light functions for the coaches (left panel).

Is the future screenless?

Despite those improvements, many model railroaders actually don’t need the screens on those command stations. I personally have connected my ECOS II to a computer and barely use the ECOS screen anymore. Other people prefer to use control devices connected to Loconet for example, or smartphone apps.

There seems to be a trend to highly connected command stations that don’t even include a screen at all. After all, adding screens is expensive for manufacturers with low volumes such as our train companies.D espite the quality of the ECOS screen, my smartphone or tablet do better.

Manufacturers are starting to realise the following:

  • Inserting high quality last generation touch screens is impossible for cost reason
  • People actually already have high quality screens! Their smartphones or tablets.

This leads to a shift in the market which I believe will be confirmed in the next year, at least for more advanced model railroaders.

The new generation

In many ways, connected command stations are not new. The ECOS II or the CS2 can very well be connected to a computer or other control devices. Even older but respectable devices, such as the Ulhenbrock Intellibox possess many ports for computers or control pads.

What is new however, is the tendency to not provide any control means on the command station itself. Uhlenbrock had launched the IB-Com, another station without control knobs. But it was more designed for PC control rather than smartphone or tablet use.

The first big manufacturer to embrace this idea was Roco/Fleischman, with its z21/Z21 command stations. Completely connected, it needs a tablet or a smartphone.

The second big manufacturer to go all in is Viessmann, with the new Commander II that I mentioned in my 2017 new items post. Same principle, you need a tablet. Only the Commander II has a neat “tablet holder” form factor.

The new players

Because screens are expensive, not including them allow smaller manufactures to offer interesting command stations that may look less fancy that the big names but do just as much, and even more.

One of the command station I have noticed is the Digikeijs Digicentral DR5000. The command station has all the ports advanced users may need (S88, Loconet, X-Bus, RS-Bus…) and an ethernet port (as the ECOS II or CS2). What makes it different is the built-in wifi, that confirms this command station was built for modern users. It also includes an IR receiver compatible with some IR devices from Uhlenbrock and Piko.
I haven’t tested this command station, but on paper it looks able to do anything, and for a price tag 3 to 5 lower than fancy command stations from the big names.

DR5000 Digikeijs Digicentral

DR5000 Digikeijs Digicentral
Copyright: Digikeijs (Netherlands)

I have not been sponsored in any way by Digikeijs, but I like talking about smaller and innovative model train manufacturers. Their website with the DR5000 Command station and many other digital products is at http://digikeijs.com/ . I will be trying their Loconet modules soon and hope to be able to post a review here on the blog.

Conclusion

I think there is a whole new market for “bring your own screen and buttons” command stations. PC Control of model railroads was reserved to very advanced users who wanted to automate their layouts. Now with smartphones, tablets and wifi, there are many more possibilities to control trains even in “manual” mode. The trend of “headless” but highly connected command stations is here to stay I think.