Model Railroads and goTenna: A Wireless Telegram!?!

Besides fiddling with radios, another hobby of mine is a very old one – model railroading. One of the major social aspects of adults (mostly) enjoying this hobby are what are called “operations” – the simulation of various operational aspects of railroading in the model environment.

Operators often rely on FRS or other handheld radios, because layouts are often sizable, have various scenic viewblocks to help simulate distance and isolation, and the dispatcher (just as in real life) must communicate with crews “out on the road.” The radios help limit the amount of yelling across the room and inspire more authentic realism by requiring the use of the specialized lingo unique to to railroading. But this can lead to a lot of back-and-forth on the radio which interferes with another aspect of the hobby – sound. Many now buy their locos with sound already installed or do that later. Things can get loud once people start taking louder to be heard over the train sounds.

Radios do fit in, because after all that’s what RR crews still use. But before that, the telegram ruled, with telegraphers transcribing orders from the dispatcher to pass along to crews passing their station. A few have even gone so far as to install telegraph keys at each model town, bit these tend to be the few whose operators are all familiar with Morse code. Given that passing the Morse code test was the toughest part of Scouting for me, I’m not going there!:roll_eyes:

However, if you’ve read the title and stayed with me this far, you may know where this is going. The goTenna Mesh provides a very convenient way to simulate sending “telegrams” to crews on the road. Interestingly enough, the pairing of radio and phone inherent in the goTenna concept fits right in with another way that smart phones are involved with the hobby already.

Both Apple and Android devices have apps that enable the phone to be used as a wireless throttle to control the trains and other features of the layout. This has proven to be very popular, because the proprietary wireless throttles marketed by train control systems vendors cost upwards of $150, while older smart phones taken out of service can have the app installed and cost virtually nothing to use.

So many model railroaders are already operating with a phone in their hand.

Last night, we did some preliminary testing with WiThrottle, the Apple app, while transmitting text via goTenna. It worked! The alert for new messages came in just fine when the phone was being run as a throttle. You do have to switch apps to read the message, but it’s possible that the goTenna SDK may offer a way to slide a banner with the message included across the WiThrottle app with some development. That’s way above my pay grade, though.

In any case, the goTenna Mesh holds potential to limit the amount of extraneous noise in the railroad layout room, replicate some of the functionality of prototype operations, and facilitate the safe operation of the line by crews. In a sense, for thos already familar with using FRS for many of the same things, goTenna is a lot like “FRS text.” Although that term undersells the overall capabilities of the goTenna, is is very descriptive for those who could use it to substitute for much of the work done by means of voice in model railroading.

Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell and breakfast is cooking, so all for right now. I’ll be back to flesh out the concept some more, plus will be posting up info about goTenna on a popular hobby forum a little later to introduce them to how the goTenna can add to authentic operations.


Here’s a link back to my post about the usefulness of the goTenna Mesh to support model railroad operations at the Model Railroader General Discussion Forum:

Model railroaders can be conservative and skeptical of anything new. Don’t let that discourage. There are some very good and thoughtful comments and the view count is pushing past 450 in less than 24 hours. I’m going to bet more than a few think, “Hmmm, maybe there is something to that goTenna concept…!”


@bbwr10coqsm we have a SDK challenge going on. Perhaps you could invite your friends from the Model Railroad hobby community to take a crack at integrating the goTenna SDK into apps such as WiThrottle.
We will be very happy to support them through the development process.


Hi Rahul,
Ultimately, that is something I’d like to see. The model railroad community is a complex thing, driven by a variety of attachments to proprietary means of implementing a pretty solid commons made possible by the adoption of the digital command control *DCC) by the National Model Railroad Association. So it’s a real mix of people wanting to make money (I say that in a positive sort of way) and those who want an easy to navigate commons.

Perhaps the best thing to arise so far in terms of standardization is something called Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI). WiThrottle and its Android counterpart are both integral parts of JMRI for many, yet are independent implementations. I’m sure there’s a way in for goTenna support.

Right now, I have to go to see the dentist, but will reply at greater and more useful length later.


This was going to need a little time, so needed to wait until I found enough time to peck my way through things. First, the SDK is a great idea. And it fits together with much else that makes the goTenna useful in model railroading. But I’m not a programmer The command line start-up interface in my Respberry Pi regularly confuses me. But with the aid of my forebearing wife (who is a programmer here at the big U) I do have JMRI on it running part of the railroad in my basement.

But I do want to correct an oversimplification in my rush to the dentist’s earlier. DCC is the current standard for model railroad control. Manufacturers sell complete systems that include a "command station " and various mostly handheld controllers, along with decoders for the locos. The vendors who make locos generally have two price points: DCC only or DCC/Sound.

What’s missing from this picture?

DC, of course, which is still used widely. People stick with DC for many reasons. Cost is one. Difficulties can arise in converting old locos to use decoders and it can be a lot of work. Others just din;t like the complexities of DCC.

But they might still be interested in the advantages that goTenna offers, just as much as those in DCC. There are others in a similar vein. Outdoors, there is large scale (LGB is a popular German brand) that uses DC from the rails, but might also be battery-powered or even live steam powered. Here is Wally (to show the scale) with my custom-built battery-powered, radio-controlled railcar.

Even without the benefit of being incorporated in software, all these railroad operations could still benefit from using the goTenna Mesh to simulate a telegraph.

Then there are tourist railroads, who operate actual 1:1 scale trains. The operating crews are governed by many of the same rules as the big railroads, so are restricted from using cell phones on duty except for very restricted circumstances. However, hospitality crew like guides and docents, food and beverage servers, and others might find the goTenna advantageous as a private channel for managing work on trains such as on the Durango & Silverton’s narrowgauge line between its namesake towns.

Thus, software integration aside, there are plenty of possibilities here where goTenna could be found quite useful with train-felated activities.

Let’s turn back to software, though, as it’s a place that leverages the goTenna’s strengths. I could see a place for its integration into some aspects of JMRI. It is an almost wholly volunteer effort, although much of the work goes to support different manufacturer’s particular lines. The volunteer’s tend to have the skills and interests in working on what is important to them. Things like updated decoder definitions tend to appear in a timely manner. A hack needed in code to keep a legacy system running under the latest update might end up waiting awhile. The code is available for the most AFAIK, which tends to inspire those interested in such arcane matters. For folks like me, this tends to inspire MEGO, TOO MUCH INFO.

Thus, JMRI specializes in offering something of interest to all, loose ends and all. Far and away, WiThrottle and its Android cousin offer a great way to figure out the component parts for someone new to software. That’s a good thing to encourage. On the other hand, there’s an expectation that JMRI users are rather self-sufficient hacker types. While true in the beginning, it’s much less so now that the cell-converted-to-radio-throttle software thing has taken hold.

So many folks are attracted by the economy and usefulness of the phone-to-throttle apps that the manufacturers, who are losing out on selling more $150+ radio throttles, have started to join the crowd by offering their own turnkey applications of a phone-throttle link without the need to maintain the rest of the architecture that JMRI provides.

One of the components of JMRI’s smorgasbord of feature ares is operations, a place already discussed here. I’m sure there are other areas of functionality where it will be useful. But my initial testing that showed message alerts from goTenna will interrupt the work of the WiThrottle are a clear indication that this basic functionality already is of wide interest to the hobby.

I suspect I’ve already been of use in simply cracking the door open for people to see the basic benefits of the goTenna Mesh. Heck, even one of MRs editors replied, so I’ve got at least a seed of discussion planted with staff at MR . While the hobby is rather Balkanized by era, prototype, scale, and interest in operations, the basic utility of the goTenna is etty self-evident to the average model railroader once introduced to it.


I intended to include several links to info discussed earlier. Here they are.

The NMRA’s DCC Pages:

Wiring for DCC:

The Operations Special Interest Group:


My brief article describing how goTenna can be useful in model RR ops has now passed 650 page views:


Wow, I learned so much reading this thread. Also those photos are amazing — and really nostalgic for me. My dad had a serious model railroad setup at our home when I was little.

How big is the community around this these days? And what is the follow-up from the MR editor you contacted?

Also please note that @Rahul_Subramany is available to answer any/all answers regarding our goTenna Mesh SDK and how you might use it to build a dedicated full-featured app for the use-cases you talk about here!


+1 on being fascinated by this.

@bbwr10coqsm Will you be making an app with the SDK yourself?


Sorry I haven’t been able to reply sooner. End of the week is a busy time for me. I’ll try short answers at this hour, may have to revise/add later.

Thanks for your kind comments daniela and femmesh.

The total model railroad community is at best a guesstimate. I would say somewhere around a quarter million, but that includes everyone from the most dedicated with a basement empire to those who pull out the trainset to run around the Xmas tree. The formally organized side of things in the NMRA is around 15,000, a number that has drifted downward in recent years as people are lesa and less joiners )in general, see the book “Bowling Alone”) and able to find much of what they need on the internet.

The MR editor commented in the thread that I linked to earlier. It’s good to just get a bug in the ear of anyone at MR and I wouldn’t say that was much more than that. MR is the largest circulation model railroad publication in the US. The ideal person to bring this up with is one of MT’s somewhat-retired editors, Tony Koester, who writes a monthly column on operations called “Trains of Thought.” It’s more about philosophy than products.

Another possibility at MR is “On Operation” a new monthly operations column by Jerry Dziedzic that is somewhat more nuts-and-bolts. He’s relatively new, so unable to assess how he might deal with an interesting new product like goTenna.

MR also has its own video series, MR Video Plus, but my finances /time haven’t permitted a subscription. MR doesn’t list individual addys, but does have a general editorial email address at and there are some general contributor’s guidelines in the front matter of each issue.

There are lots of other possibities. I mentioned the NMRA, which also has its own magazine, “NMRA Magazine.” NMRA members tend to be early adopters, so getting the goTenna before them is helpful. I’m actually the local division superintendent. One of the aspects of the NMRA is the Achievement Program, where participants can earn a number of certificates, including Author, so there are incentives to write for the NMRA and most any other model railroad publication. I’ve been thinking I could do that if I could only find the time, so I won’t make any promises. Publication depends on editorial discretion, of course.

Another associated group is the Operations Special Interest Group (OPSIG) and their quarterly, the Dispatchers Office:

This would be another ideal place to publish a basic article on goTenna and the submission guidelines are at the above link with other info.

Another important publication is Railroad Model Craftsman (RMC), nearly as old as MR. RMC is rebuilding after the longtime previous owners went under. One of RMC’s ops columnists, Bill Navigato, is a local resident and is currently just finishing rebuilding his layout after a recent move. His layout is certainly sizable and complex enough to need it’s own “telegraph circuits” and progress can be seen here:
Bill’s contact info is at the bottom of that page and he might be the best person to run some sample by for him to experiment with. Not saying he will commit to a review, but getting goTenna into his hands might gain you some interesting feedback and useful word of mouth. He’s certainly an opinion leader in this area.rg

There’s also a free online magazine, Model Railroad Hobbyist (MRH), . MRH sponsors a lot of blogs and forums and its no-cost-to-the-consumer distribution model assures a wide readership. I read it on and off but just don’t have time to keep up with it as much as I’d like.

Probably not. Very unlikely unless I’m struck in the head by some sort of magical meteorite. I might be able to write an introductory article on the usefulness of goTenna Mesh if I can find a copacetic editor

I am not a programmer in even the most generous terms. My wife wears those pants in our family. I’ve taken ineffectual stabs at it in high school (COBOL, so you know how long ago that was…) and PERL about 15 years ago. I did manage to build a macro in Photoshop to help me process the thousands of document images I took while visiting the National Archives for my dissertation research a few years back.

It’s good to hear from Rahul via daniela that much of the basis for model railroad ops could be built in by using the SDK to [quote=“bbwr10coqsm, post:9, topic:1750, full:true”]
OK, brain is starting to nudge me toward hitting the sack. I just lost an entire paragraph on my very limited set of virtually nonexistent programming skills in responding to femmesh’s inquiry.

OK, will try to add to this in a more cogent manner on Saturday. I haven’t even figured out how to hookup decent audio with that particular camera: hushed::hushed::zipper_mouth_face::zipper_mouth_face
Cab Ride on the Narrowgauge: Silverton to Snowden

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Gosh, that was a mess, my apologies and I think I’ve cleaned it up enough to be readable. I should stay off the internet after 2am… :no_mouth:

Ok, after all that rambling, what’s the path forward here? Recruiting a few skilled model railroaders with some coding experience is a good first step. They could turn the resources provided by the SDK into something that fits the terrain of model railroading by delivering usable features that facilitate operations.

To do this, all it needs to do is deliver several forms widely used in operations.

Clearance Form A - authorization to leave a terminal
Form 19 - a basic train order that can be “hooped up” to crews without a receipt
Form 31 - a train order that must be confirmed by signature
Track Warrant - a more modern form widely used with computerized dispatching systems instead of Form 19 to confer track authority

In each case, what would be needed is a basic rather generic form, although railroads often had such forms modified to their specific needs.

The most likely place to find such a skilled group of people to meet these needs will likely be found among those supporting JMRI currently. in addition to the site I referenced earlier, there’s also JMRIusers group on Yahoo:

Whew, enough for now.

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Wow! I didn’t quite realize how deep your hobby went. I do understand the obsession though.

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It can get pretty obsessive. People get really deep into ops. I tried to cover all the bases here, but tend towards the “let’s have fun and run trains” side of the hobby myself.