Keeping it under control
There are those in the garden railway brotherhood who are determined to do things in what they see as the natural way, and run their locos entirely manually. Getting the right balance between regulator, reverser and gas valve is a skill that takes a little practice, and can involve much running about after errant engines. Occasionally traffic accidents occur that makes one turn one’s head away quickly to avoid witnessing, if only because we know very precisely just how much the tools of our trade cost. However once mastered it is a satisfying experience to sit back and watch while a loco and a couple of coaches pootle around the garden, sometimes accelerating down a gradient purpose-built to help gain speed, other times pausing for a blow-up before attempting the reverse curve around Aunt Agatha’s holly bush and the place where the gerbils are buried. All with no human intervention, leaving both hands free for tea and cake, or something stronger if the learning curve has been a touch steeper than one would have liked.
Human nature being what it is though, the temptation to fiddle with new technology and wrest back control from Mother Nature could not be resisted for long. Radio control of planes and boats had been commonplace for some time, and trains soon followed. For small locos it could be a challenge to fit in all the gear, but the advent of miniature servos and high-capacity AAA-size batteries has largely solved the problem. Initially AM frequencies were used, with crystals to change the frequency from that employed by your colleague, and coloured flags to fly from your aerial to indicate which you were using. The oscillation rate has increased over the years, and we are now in the gigahertz range, with microchips instead of transistors and interference virtually eliminated. More recently purposed-designed transmitters have become available, replacing the rather ungainly two-handed lumps of plastic with a small shiny black (or grey) box.
So now, as they say in virtually every TV advert, you can stop worrying and sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that your loco is obedient to your every wish, and will behave impeccably whatever you ask of it. That is until one or other set of batteries dips below the critical voltage, or the receiver suddenly decides to unbind itself from the transmitter and take the loco off on a fantasy journey of its own. And of course human error is still possible, as with several knobs and buttons to play with it is inevitable that the wrong one will be twisted or prodded at some time. I recall a garden steam-up with four locos operating simultaneously on a single-track line. Despite full use of radio control the incident count was three collisions and two speed-related derailments. Some things never change.