FrequentlyAskedQuestions

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Contents

Introduction

Here are some answers to common questions that are asked by people new to ATCSMon. But before you start here, please reread carefully the e-mail you were sent when your application to join was approved. The information in it is very basic to your interaction with the ATCS Monitor group.

Q. Where do I find the latest version of ATCS Monitor?

A. The ATCS Monitor software is in the Files section of the ATCS Monitor Yahoo! group. Be sure to read the download instructions for the latest information on versions. This installation information might be very helpful, too.

Q. I live near where the Podunk & West Overshoe joins the Indiana Harbor Belt. Can I monitor this plant via ATCS?

A. Maybe! But only if the plant is run by ATCS. You can find out what lines in your area have ATCS by going to George Paine's maps. These don't guarantee that you can monitor, but they are a very good start.

Q. How can I find out whether the monitoring files are available?

A. There are two files to check. Both are searchable: you could search for IHB and see if P&WO is listed. If a layout appears in Available ATCS Layouts (not 100% current), your plant probably uses ATCS. The list of currently available ATCS Servers also contains information on the source of the files and the data necessary to configure the .ini file that you'll need.

Q. How can I know if a particular ATCS server is working and serving data?

A. Is a Certain Server Serving tells you how to find out.

Q. I notice that I can use my mouse to change switch positions and signals. Can I really control trains?

A. No! Absolutely not! All you are doing is manipulating your local copy of the layout. Read Dave Houy's "An open letter to the industry" to help you understand how this is working.

Q. I can't unzip the files I've downloaded--winzip seems to hate me.

A. Yes, winzip does hate you, but you don't need psychiatric help. You must be logged in as administrator to unzip the files. Once you are, just double-click on the zipped file and you'll be in business.

Q. I get Run-Time error 70 when I try to start running ATCS Monitor and a rather nasty Permission Denied.

A. Windows 7 thinks everybody is out to get it and therefore has tighter security. You have to run as the administrator so that ATCS Monitor can write program files. Do two things to solve this problem:

  1. Right-click on the icon for the executable ATCS Monitor and select "Run as administrator"
  2. Do the same on the shortcut on your desktop.
Q. I get "An error occurred in Start Monitoring. Error number 10048." I'm in "monitor mode."

A. You are attempting to have two listeners on the same port. You can share iMics, but you can't share listener ports. Just change one of them.

Q. I'm following instructions and I've just done Configure ->MCP Information... but nothing happens. What am I doing wrong?

A. Nothing! Windows is playing with your mind. The window you need is there but way off the edge of your screen. Do the following:

  1. In the Task Bar at the bottom of your screen, click on "Configure MCP Information..."
  2. Press Alt-Space, which should make a "Move/Close" window appear near one edge of your screen. If it doesn't, repeat this until it does.
  3. Click on "Move" to select it, which should change your cursor into a four-headed arrow.
  4. Press any of your arrow keys and the hidden widow should attach itself to your cursor.

Application Specific Questions

Dispatchers Display

Much of what needs to be known about reading a dispatcher display is summarized in this: File:ATCS HowToReadTheDisplay.pdf by Brian Swan, originally built for the Rochelle Railroad Park public display. Displays can vary a bit from this template, but overall a good reference.

Indications and General Information

Q. Why don’t I see any other signals except for green on the display? What about Approach indications?

A. The dispatcher only has the ability to request a proceed indication from the devices in the field. A proceed indication is distinctly different from a clear signal. A proceed indication is really any other signal at a control point except for a stop. It’s important to note that the dispatcher requests a signal, he doesn’t actually control it directly. In reality it is up to the logic in the field at the various control points to determine what the appropriate signal to display is. It will make this decision based on block occupancy, switch alignment, etc. The same logic applies with any other controls a dispatcher can send to a control point. A dispatcher can request that a control point line a switch into the siding, however, if it is not safe to do so (for example, a train moving over the switch) the control point will not act on that request. So, when the dispatcher requests a proceed indication at a control point, the signal system may in reality display a stop signal because the next block is occupied, or an approach if next signal is Stop, etc. Likewise, the MCPs in the field will only ever report back a proceed indication, so that is all that can be shown on the display. From the point of view of the dispatcher, all he or she really cares about is if the trains he controls can move forward or not.

Q. What do the track colors mean?

A. The five colors tell you the way the track is being used:

  • White - Just plain track, nothing happening
  • Green - Dispatcher has lined that track for a movement
  • Red - Track is occupied
  • Blue - Out of service, probably for track-and-time for maintenance, etc
  • Purple - Out of service and occupied

For more details, see this file: File:ATCS HowToReadTheDisplay.pdf

Q. Why do station names light up Red and Blue?

A. A station name in Red indicates that an indication was sent by the remote control point to the base station. Indications contain status information about the control point, such as block occupancy, switch alignment, signal indication (proceed or stop), etc. A station will light up blue when a control is sent to it. Controls contain the requests from the dispatcher, such as creating a route, lining a switch, or to turn on a snow melter. When the dispatcher is lining a route for a train, it’s not unusual to see a series of stations turn blue from the control message, then have them turn red as the stations send back status information. You may also see other station colors, such as Orange which indicates that some other type of radio traffic was sent to or from the station. You will also see White or Yellow, which indicates that we are unable to receive any information about that station.

Q. How come I see stations in blue for very long distances, but only the nearby stations light up red? Or some stations almost never show anything?

A. Controls (which make the station show blue) are transmitted from a tall, powerful, and centrally located base station (BCP) that can easily transmit to a large number of control points. The indication information (which makes the station show red) comes from lower-powered radios located at each control point (MCP). Since these are radio signals, atmospheric conditions can affect how well they propagate, meaning that at times (particularly at night) you will receive data for a much larger section of railroad than at other times.

Q. A station name is white and it seems to stay that way. What does this indicate?

A. A white station name indicates that this MCP hasn't been heard from for a long time, maybe never. Stations around it may be active, but this one perhaps is not in good range of the radio receiver for ATCSMon or the server that covers it is down.

Q. I see some other symbols like tools and snowflakes and hour glasses. What are these?

A. Understanding the Dispatcher Display will answer questions about some of these details. Also, be sure to look at Brian Swan's pdf on viewing a layout. File:ATCS HowToReadTheDisplay.pdf

False Indications or No Indications

Q. Why so some stations rarely or never show anything happening?

A. It depends on our radio reception. Some stations on a layout may never show activity if they use a frequency for which we don't have a radio, or a different protocol, or are simply out of range.

Q. Why is there sometimes a train, but no occupancy shown on the display, or vice versa? Or trains passing restricting signals? Or other impossible situations?

A. This is an imperfect, amateur monitoring system. The hundreds-of-dollars in equipment spent to bring this display to you is no match for the tens-of-thousands-of-dollars (or more!) spent by the railroads on radio towers, high-end receivers, transmitters, cabling, etc. If we miss a message telling us that a train is there, or is not, then we miss it and cannot update the display until the next valid message is received.

Q. Why do trains disappear into some sidings on the display, only to reappear on the other side?

A. Some sidings may be “Non-Bonded”, meaning that they are not connected to the signal system to provide block occupancy. Rather, the dispatching computer assists the dispatcher in marking those sidings as occupied.

Q. I see opposing clear signals that look like the dispatcher has lined two routes in conflict with each other. What's really happening?

A. This apparent conflict could be a result of imperfect reception of ATCS signals (see the FAQ two questions above here). But this situation could very well be intentional. (No, not intentionally running trains together!) As explained by a former RF&P/SP/ATSF/IC dispatcher, two signals lined into each other are within the rules. This is often called "switching mode" and allows a switching crew to move back and forth through the control point without waiting every time for the dispatcher to reline the route. Besides, if the dispatcher had to take down the route, the plant might have to run time before allowing setup of the opposite route. Remember that a green signal on your display doesn't mean clear. It really means the signal isn't red, so it could be displaying anything except stop.

Layout display problems

Q. When I start up some layouts, I get a message about missing some type faces? What do I do about that?

A. Probably nothing--other than clicking past them. A certain type face is not installed on your computer, but the layout will most probably display correctly without it. For suggested "universal" type faces, take a look at Font Compatibility.

Q. The station names are shown in red with white borders (or the characters are not clear). Do I have a font problem?

A. Sort of. This is probably caused by font smoothing, which needs to be off:

  • Windows XP: Go to Control Panels -> Display -> Appearance -> Effect. Uncheck "Use the following method to smooth...." OK, Apply, OK.
  • Vista: Right-click in an empty area on the desktop -> Personalize -> Windows Color and Appearance -> Open classic appearance... -> Effects. Uncheck "Use the following method to smooth...." OK, Apply, OK.
  • Windows 7: Go to Control Panels. Add to "Control Panel" at top, \all. Go to Fonts -> Adjust Clear Type text. Uncheck "Turn on Clear Type."

Running Multiple Layouts

Q. Can I run more than one dispatcher layout at a time?

A. Yes, but you'll need some screen real estate. You do this by launching multiple instances of ATCSMon, one running instance for each layout you want to display.

Q. How do I do this?

A. Here are the steps:

  1. Launch the first instance of ATCSMon
  2. Load your first profile [File > Load profile > ___.ini]
  3. Respond to gripes (type face problems, station names, etc.)
  4. Start monitoring if it isn't going [triangle 4th from left]
  5. Bring up the dispatcher layout (if it isn't) [View > Dispatcher display]
  6. Minimize the layout
  7. Launch a second instance of ATCSMon
  8. Load the second profile.
  9. Respond to gripes
  10. Start monitoring
  11. Bring up the second dispatcher layout
  12. Bring back the minimized layout
  13. To reduce clutter, minimize the data windows--they will appear to vanish but they actually become small ATCSMon icons at the bottom right.
Q. Can you use a batch file for this?

A. You can, I can't! Dismissing the gripes complicates a batch file.

Operations

.ini Files

Q. What's the .ini file and why do I have to have it?

A. The .ini file is the file that starts your monitoring of a particular location. It's the file that "Load Project" heads for to get things started. Without it, you cannot get anywhere.

Q. Where do I get this .ini file?

A. For many locations, it comes along with the .mcp or .mdb files. Check your download to see if you've already got it. Then be sure that you have all the files in their correct locations. Take a look at paragraph 1.2.4 Place the Files in the Correct Folders. Once you have these files in the right locations, you have to "import" them as detailed in paragraph 1.2.5 Import the MCP/MDB File.

Q. There doesn't seem to be the necessary .ini file in my download. Now what do I do?

A. You need to create one for yourself, which isn't hard. Paragraph 1.2.7 Creating a Profile lays out the steps.

Q. Windows is complaining that it can't open a file because it is larger than 64K. How can I have a too-long file?

A. Your error message probably says something like "Profile xxx.ini length greater than 64k." A .ini file must be shorter than 64K for some reason known only to gurus. You can pretty easily shorten that file, though. Right-click on the offending .ini file and choose Open with Notepad, making the file available for editing. Find the line [DSPFilters], which is way deep in the text. You must leave that line and the next three ( EnableDSP=False, ATCSDescription=Not Defined, ATCSTaps=0) in place, which means don't change them. You can then delete all the lines that refer to Tap in one way or another. Don't accidentally run past the end of this section: [Rules] is sometimes the next section.

Q. What's all that DSP stuff that I am removing?

A. Those numbers are the parameters for the digital filters that shape up the incoming signal from your radio. They aren't needed when you are monitoring from the Internet.

.mcp & .mdb Files

Q. What's the difference between .mcp and .mdb files?

A. For ATCSMon purposes, nothing except the extension. Both carry the same information (but in different formats) for importing into your database. No matter which of these gets downloaded, importing is the same.

Q. Why do I see errors and an error percentage at the bottom of the ATCS Mon window?

A. Packets don't necessarily arrive in perfect condition. There is some error checking, so faulty packets should be caught. The error rate is 100 times the number of faulty packets divided by the total number of packets received. So if you have received 1,000 packets 'til now and 900 of them are OK, your error rate is 10%.

Q. My database keeps getting bigger and bigger as I add more monitoring sites. There are lots of entries for sites I don't use any more, and I am sure they are slowing down my computer. How do I remove entries from the database?

A. The simple answer is, "Don't." There is no need to. Each incoming packet is matched to the database by an efficient search algorithm. If it matches, the packet does its assigned job. If it doesn't match, the packet is ignored. You can compress your database, though, by going to ATCS Monitor and selecting Actions --> Compress ATCSdb Database.

Q. I'm watching signals on the Podunk & West Overshoe railroad, but I see many unrelated commands flowing in the MCP Window. Some look like Metrolink, for example. How do I get rid of the extraneous ones?

A. First, click on the lightning bolt in the command bar to see what servers you are connecting to. If you see servers that aren't related to the railroad you are watching, you need to change your .ini file. Go to Configure -> Options -> Data Source. In the Network Settings window, uncheck unwanted servers. Then Apply, OK, and File -> Save Profile.

Radios, Scanners, and Antennas

Also look elsewhere on this site for data on various radio.

Scanner Reception

Q. I have been taking my scanner out with a Radio Shack mag-mount antenna and ...

I have been taking my scanner out with a Radio Shack mag-mount antenna and have been listening to the local NS BCP here in Douglasville, GA. I get plenty of ACKS and some indications and a smidget of controls here and there. My first question may be a silly one, please forgive me. %RED% Does weather play a big part %ENDCOLOR% in how well I receive data? For example, I seem to do a lot better at receiving traffic on a clear cool night rather than a warm sunny day. Second question and perhaps Mark Landgraf can provide some insight into this one: I can hear the BCP just fine here, but receiving the MCPs along this line is difficult at best. I don't even get errors or anything when tuned to 897.9375 here. All the relevant MCPs have the same type antennas. I'm not sure if I need a better radio or better antenna.

I have a Uniden Bearcat BC80XLT with a Radio Shack mag-mount antenna on the rooftop of my car. I can sit almost right next to the antenna on some and receive nothing in ATCS. The scanner picks it up but that's it. And the BCP I don't have a problem picking up. Any thoughts are appreciated.

A. Yes, weather definately effects reception. You ought to see what snow and sleet does to otherwise good reception. Having the leaves off the trees for winter is also a big plus.

With regard to sitting under the MCP and hearing nothing, well, it is possible to be too close (especially with radios that have consumer front ends on them) They can be readily overpowered by strong local signals. How do the adjacent MCPs come in? A better radio is certainly a viable option. Many folks use the Icom PCR-1000 ($400) which has a built in descriminator tap. The 1000 is a fine radio for our purposes. It is basically an off the shelf ATCS ready radio. Other folks use a variety of models made by Motorola and MDS. While many of the professional grade radios can be had for under $100, they usually require some degree of bench work before they are suitable for ATCS work. The one notable easy exception to this statement is the 900 MHz Maxtrac units. The convertion into a BCP radio only requires the reprogramming of the freqs and the movement of a jumper inide from voice to data. The 800 MHz Maxtrac convertions into an MCP radio are considerably more involved. The MDS radio is probably the best and cheapest radio out there (usually under $50), but is the hardest to obtain. Convertion of the MDS units is not overly difficult. Your short term solution would be to park between the MCPs not under them.

If you are not already using the Analyze Signal function of ATCSmon, you should play with it in an attempt to minimize your error rate by adjusting your volume. This may improve your MCP signal reception.

(Answer from Mark Landgraf)

Programming/Development Related

Visual Basic Forms, etc, in place of TrackBuilder for Displays

Q. Would it be possible for ATCS Monitor to use Visual Basic forms or graphics with layers support (Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro or other formats) as dispatcher displays?

I think it may be possible to interface ATCS Monitor to tell lines or layers to do things (e.g. ThisTrack.color=green, ThisSwitch.normal=invisible, ThisSwitch.reverse=visible). This would have the advantages of eliminating the need for TrackBuilder, allowing the display to mimic the actual physical map of the tracks, allowing the background to contain details such as roads, crossings, "you are here", etc. A VB form could contain a text area with data from MCP locomotives, or even display signal aspects with a click (assuming my second question is possible).

A. While it would probably be possible to do a GIS type display that would encode a real map, Trackbuilder contains a lot of data above and beyond just the graphics. How this interlocking and it's components interact with the adjacent track sections and signals.

ATCS Server

Q. What does it take to build a server?

A. Barry Baines builds and maintains lots of servers; here is an example server.

Q. What are the costs involved in establishing an ATCS server?

A. One member has answered this question as follows: "I have 14 remote sites feeding an aggregator. The equipment costs average about 500 to 600 dollars each for me. I am lucky as all of my sites serve the ARES system [in a relatively small area]. That cuts down on one radio and other hardware at the site. If I add in the time and mileage for installation, service, and finding and establishing a host location.... well I don't want to think about it. I own all of the equipment at 12 of the sites. It is an expensive hobby."

Another member says, "It can be less expensive though. My server was given to me.... You don't need much of a computer, just one with USB ports.... I bought two radios for approximately $100 each. Antennas and feedline were another hundred. A preamp was about $40 and a diplexer was another $50. Another radio was loaned to me so I have three in total. The USB iMic sound inputs will cost about $35 each and I have three of them."

An even cheaper member answers: "The server operates on a donated computer, operating from a surplus BC780XLT scanner ($150 six years ago),... a magmount scanner antenna ($30)... mounted on a cookie sheet ($5) outside of the bedroom window. It works great, and I get error rates in the low single digits. You can spend thousands if you want, but you don't need to."

ATCSMon on [insert favorite platform here]

Q. Are there any efforts to port ATCS Monitor to Linux, or publically-available code that will at least decode ATCS transmissions?

A. I doubt you'll ever see Dave Houy release the code, but he has been very accommodating of our needs. The MCP's already have Lat/Long on them, and by placing the lat/long on TB3 somewhere/somehow, we could probably get him to include a DDE pass-thru of this info. This would then allow you to start to drive movements in a GIS mapping type environment. Although, you would probably have to do a layout in order to get the logic to work correctly. With the UP locos identing themselves and their locations every minute, you could actually start to show the headend trains, as well as every other parked loco on the property. If or when a radio capable tablet or palm becomes available, and there is enough interest among the members of the group, we may be able to persuade Dave to support the software on two platforms.

Q. How about running on a Mac?

A. No problem--ATCSMon plays very nicely with a Mac (doesn't hit or throw sand) if you run it on an Intel-based Mac with either Boot Camp or Parallels. It also will run under WINE, which doesn't require Windows.

Q. How about on an iPhone, iPad, or iTouch. Can I do that? Or Android or Blackberry?

A. The techie answer is, "No, it is not possible, since the software runs only on a Intel-based computer." The practical answer is, "Yes, but not directly. If you have it running on a PC or a Mac, you can remotely control that computer from your iXxxx." One is to use LogMeIn. by running LogMeIn on a PC (or a Mac). Then you need LogMeIn Ignition for your iXxx or other phone. Another way is to use TeamViewer. Some members have reported that both of these work well.

Technical Data

Q. I'm interested in how the overall ATCS works. Where can I get the standards and specifications?

A. The manuals are available from the Association of American Railroads: ATCS Publications. You have to want them pretty badly, though, because each of the three parts of the Railway Electronics Series (5800) costs over $200, whether in print or by download.

Q. I'm interested in using Rules. How can I find out about them?

A. Go to Fun with Rules to see an example.

Group Membership Topics

Too much e-mail

Q. I'm getting too much e-mail! How do I cut it down?

A. Log into your home page in the ATCS Monitor group. In the bar near the top, you'll find "Edit Membership." There are a number of choices in Step 2 that control how much e-mail you get, all the way from none to all. In Step 3 you can choose how fancy you want the messages to appear. You can also get to your settings via "Change settings via the Web" at the bottom of e-mails. There's also "Switch delivery to Daily Digest" at the bottom of e-mails.

Q. I'm getting too much e-mail and want to get out of here!

A. Log into your home page in the ATCS Monitor Group. At the bottom right is a box "Leave Group." Click there and you are gone. You can also click on "Unsubscribe" at the bottom of e-mail, but some members say this doesn't always do the job.

Q. Can I just type "unsubscribe" in the subject line?

A. No, that doesn't work in this group. See the answer above.

Q. Umm, I'm still stuck. I've done all that and still can't seem to get out.

A. Send a blank e-mail to "ATCS_Monitor-unsubscribe" followed by "@yahoogroups.com" (note the underscore and the hyphen). This must be from the e-mail account where you have been receiving ATCS_Monitor e-mail.