Throttles 101

It has become obvious from your feedback that a lot of new folks to DCC (and a few old ones) don’t completely understand what their throttles can do, especially when it comes to programming. I’ll talk more about basic programming in a followup post. However, the throttle is probably the most important part of your DCC system since you use it to communicate with the command station and decoders. So if you don’t have a clear understanding of how it works and what it can do you are hamstrung from the get go. First, there are two types of throttles, (1) master or programming throttles, and (2) basic throttles. Basic or utility throttles as simplest so let’s start there.

Basic throttles have a knob or pushbuttons for speed control, a numeric keypad for entering addresses and controlling functions, and in some cases dedicated function buttons. They also have either a pushbutton or toggle for controlling the direction of locomotive travel. They cannot program decoders. Some may have small rotary switches for entering addresses.

Because of their simplicity and smaller number of buttons they are easiest to use and less confusing. Enter a locomotive address, hit the right button and off you go. Because of their limited capabilities you don’t have to worry about a new user accidentally reprogramming a decoder and they are less expensive. They are smaller than the master throttles and often easier to hold and manipulate.

Most DCC systems sets come with a more advanced master or programming throttle. These are much bigger, have a lot more buttons, a digital screen, and with Digitrax, a pair of control knobs for running two trains at once. In most cases to acquire a locomotive you hit a select button, enter the address, and then the enter button and off you go. Most also have a lot of other buttons to deal with. Some may be used for controlling accessory decoders, and some for programming. The important thing is to not push buttons aimlessly just to see what they do! My recommendation is to sit down with your new throttle connected to the command station, open the manual, and follow the quick start instructions. Each throttle is different enough that it is always a good idea to do this. 

The various types of keypads either have specific functions identified as F1, F2, etc. or simply numeric 1-0. There may also be specific buttons for horns and lights. In any case you need to know what functions corresponds to which function number. Lights are “0”. The bell is “1”, whistles and horns ar “2”. Function 8 is usually used to turn the sounds on and off. Other than that you have to look up the function number assignments in the decoder manual of info sheet. I have written previously on the inconsistency of function assignments and how to deal with them so do a search for more on that topic.

Programming is different with each master/programming throttle so I am not going to really go there. This is another case where sitting down with the throttle and manual, and going through the steps will be the most productive way to learn the process. Personally I rarely use my throttles for programming anymore. It is so much easier to use DecoderPro. This is especially true with sound decoders and working with anything more than programming an address. About the only time I use the throttle is when I speed match locos since I need to experiment with several different values. So if you got a new DCC system or throttle for Christmas sit down with it and learn what it can do. Finally, keep in mind that no matter how bad you screw up, you can always reset a decoder to factory settings, and turning the power off and back on will clear the command station, so don’t panic and start hitting buttons.

My final tip is about the speed control knobs or pots. Folks love to  hold a throttle in the palm of their hand and use their thumb to spin the knob. However you eventually will pay for doing that. The pressure of your thumb against the knob puts pressure on the shaft which is then transmitted into the potentiometer mechanism. This can lead to uneven wear on the internal parts of the potentiometer and in a year or so you will be shipping your throttle back to the factory for repair because it doesn’t work right. This is one of the biggest complaints I hear from folks. To prevent this hold the throttle in the palm of your hand and use the fingers on your free hand to turn the knob—no uneven pressure and your throttle will last a lot longer. This is not a problem with the thumbwheel control on NCE Procabs.


  • One other really nice throttle is the ESU ECOS. It has a large screen, all functions have icons so there is no need to look them up, and it reads a new locomotive ( if the decoder is Railcom equipped) and within a few seconds, the new locomotive with all its functions is displayed on the screen. Each locomotive also has a name and a picture along with its address, so its easy to select a locomotive from your roster. Rosters can be designated Steam, Diesel, and Electric, so one can go to the steam only roster and see all the locomotives in that roster, click on your choice, and you are off and running.

  • When acquiring a new or different throttle, be aware that most of the older models (Digitraxx DT400 for one) and maybe some of the newer ones do not have the capability to access the higher range of functions needed by a lot of the newer decoders. I found this out after purchasing a half dozen or more of the new Soundtraxx Eco 100 decoders. My old DT400 could not access the functions needed for additional lights, such as ditch lights etc. I ended up buying a new DT500R throttle for a little better than a hundred and eighty smackers.

    I understand that there may be a way to do some function remapping to be able to access these functions, but I figured it’s time to upgrade, it’s only money!

    • Don—here is the info from the Digitrax website on upgrading throttles to gain the extra functions. Personally I have found that since no throttles I am aware of have buttons above F12 it is a pain to use the various shift key approaches to access these higher level functions. That makes function remapping all the more important for using these expanded functions—Larry

      DT400, DT402 & DT500 Series Throttles can be upgraded to add more function control and duplex radio control. This is a factory hardware change and must be done by Digitrax. Simply fill out the form and send in your throttles with payment and we’ll get them done as quickly as possible.

      Upgrading from DT400 to DT402 gives you expanded 29 Function control (F0-F28) and convenient step-by-step throttle option set up.

      Upgrading your DT400 or UT4 series throttles to radio control gives you duplex control (with the D version). Upgrading from DT500 to DT500D gives you full duplex radio control.

  • I went with Digitrax because a fellow model railroader had that system. I’m glad I did. The one thing I really like is the fact that Larry mentioned, you can control two trains, or loco’s at once. I usually have my Amtrak Superliner going around my layout, while i’m running a switcher in the yard.
    With the two knobs on the Digitrax throttle, you can easily switch to the other knob, no switches or buttons to press, just start turning the other knob, and the system automatically switches control to that knob.

  • One small note. The BEST UNIVERSAL throttle is an old Smart Phone. the ANDROID Engine Driver used with JMRI Withrottle. They have no knobs to break, no huge repair fees when they break, AND they can be used on ANY layout that uses JMRI with a wifi connection . One can be purchased NEW at most Wal-Mart, Target, or major retailer for $30.-$40 and they do NOT require a contract or cell connection. The DCC manufacturers that love to introduce “new” throttles , then refuse to service their older products do not like people to know this . True, you cannot use them to program a loco but since DecoderPro does that more easily than thumb twiddling hundreds of CVs, that is not really an issue. One final advantage is that Engine Driver will allow the operator to see signal aspects from PanelPro as well. Take THAT Proprietary DCC manufacturers.

  • Is anybody using a Ring Throttle & how does it stack up to Digitrax & other Throttles??