Consisting 101

Every once in a while I have to go over some basic material that I have previously covered either in an article or earlier post. At Model Railroader the guiding rule is don’t repeat anything within about three years—after that it’s all fair game. I also tend to get a lot of new folks to the website and they ask questions, sometimes the same ones. This happened with an email I got not long ago from a fellow confused over consisting. Part of his problem was an almost total lack of understanding of how his NCE system worked. What are all these functions they keep talking about was his question to me. To anyone who has any familiarity with DCC this may seem to be pretty basic stuff but consider if you were new to the hobby or at least that aspect of it how would you know how it worked? I guess I could write a very basic introduction to DCC book but given my time constraints that’s not likely to happen, so instead how about a post or two on some important concepts starting with consisting.

Not too long ago I wrote a column on different types of consisting and went over the pros and cons of each, so this will not be that specific. So what is a consist and how do they work? I’m sure you’ve seen multiple locomotives on prototype railroads coupled together and operating essentially as a single unit–this is consisting. It is accomplished by linking them together by connecting their electronic and pneumatic systems. This is done by connecting the hoses that hang down on the front and rear pilots. Consequently, when the engineer in the lead locomotive applies the brakes they are applied in all the locomotives. When he slips the throttle into notch 2, all the locomotives’ diesel engines start to rev up.

So how does this work with DCC? First, remember that we are dealing with what essentially are little computers in our command stations and decoders and they can do some pretty astounding stuff. One way or another, and there are three different types of consists with DCC–basic, universal, and advanced, the DCC system keeps track of them and keeps them doing the same things. These three different methods offer differing levels of control. You link up the decoders in the locomotives so they all respond to the commands issued by one throttle. The devil in the details is how this is done and just what is controlled.

The mechanics of setting up a consist differs among the various throttles. I break throttles down into basic and master throttle classes, with the master throttles having the ability for programming, setting up consists, and having a variety of more advanced features. Some throttles just can’t set up consists at all whereas on others the process can vary from pushing a couple buttons to a semi-automated procedure. Some also include creating advanced consists among their semi-automated procedures. Dig into your DCC system manuals to see what yours can do.


  • Hi Larry. Thank-you for your article. Quick question. I have a NCE power cab system. When setting up a consist, does the system adjust for any momentum I had previously set on the two locomotives? I’m using the advanced consist method. The two locomotives (after setting up the consist) tug and pull each other?

  • Hello Larry and thank you for the article. I myself am somewhat new to DCC. Problem with us new guys is most experienced people don’t really take the time to explain what your DCC system can do, or how you should use it. Most guys just push the buttons and give the throttle back to you. Not show, or teach you what and how. So guys like myself have to go elsewhere to learn how and what our systems will do. Myself, trial and error. More error than trial. I have NCE at home, and Digitrixx for our club. These systems come with all kinds of instructions, and information. Have you looked at some of these manuals? Scary to say the least. And the language appears to be written by another species. After reading say a page or two I put it back in the box and put it on the shelf. They could make the manuals a little more understandable in their explanation. So keep these articles coming. I am sure there are other folks like myself. The book is an excellent idea, but I understand the time it will take.

  • Larry, Great article. Starting to use any advanced system is always a challenge. When I started in DCC in 1994, I was the ONLY one in my group that wanted anything to do with it . Choices were limited and costs were high. I learned EVERYTHING the hard way because there were no large clubs or groups involved that early . Programming a decoder , let alone, thinking about consisting, was a real challenge. Especially since there was no such thing as DecoderPro or even a decent computer interface to make it happen. Knob-twiddling and HEX conversion were the norm. I only WISH we would have had it as easy as someone starting out today. My hair would still have some color left.