TPL Frequently Asked Questions

If you've been curious (or confused) about TPL, here's a list of the most frequently asked questions -- and answers. These questions have been arranged by category to help you quickly learn more about the various aspects of the program.

General questions about TPL
Hardware (COM ports, cables, Interfaces, etc.)
Contact tracks, switching tracks, reed switches, and s88 decoders
New features in beta test
Planned improvements
Marklin Digital (non-TPL) Q&A
Pricing, ordering, upgrades, and support

General questions about TPL

Q: What do I get with TPL? Is there a manual? What about on-line help?

A: TPL comes complete with a 70+ page manual. The first half of the manual describes how TPL works and guides you through the process of creating automated sequencing routines (command files). The second part of the manual contains pictures and descriptions of all the various configuration and operational screens within the program, and describes all the available options and functions. The on-line help file is written to the Microsoft Windows help file specifications, so it works just like any other Windows help file you may already be using. It has the same format and structure as the printed manual, but it is much easier to use. The help file contains hypertext and graphics links, so you can easily navigate from one section to another (and back). Click here to download a copy of the TPL help file.

Q: How flexible is TPL? Can I customize it to work the way I run my trains?

A: TPL offers more than 100 different options and settings available. The Configuration screen alone has 12 separate tabbed dialog pages that let you setup the program exactly how you want. Hardware (both train and PC) and software settings can be customized to your particular needs. You can even link scanned pictures of your actual trains and layout so they appear within the program. With the Layout Design Utility (LDU), you can create a drawing of your layout, complete with switches, signals, and contact tracks. You can add text to the drawing and even bitmaps that either come with TPL or you design yourself.

Click here to view some of the many screens available to TPL.
Click here
to view a sample layout design.

Q: How easy is TPL to use?

A: TPL is extremely easy to use. There are several different ways you can use the program. You can operate it in "manual" mode, where there are several different screens which allow to point-and-click to operate your engines and solenoids. There's a screen that acts as a "virtual" keyboard, which is really 16 keyboards in one. Another screen allows control of up to 9 different engines at a time. There's also a screen that shows the status (and allows control) of all 256 solenoids and 80 digital engines -- all on a single screen. In addition to these screens, you can also load the layout you create with the Layout Design Utility. Then, you can just click on all your solenoids and watch them change position on screen! If you have multiple screens up at the same time, any change you initiate on one screen gets automatically updated on all the other screens.

But that's just the beginning of TPL. In order to automate your train layout, you can create "command files" to perform any variety of sequenced operations.

Q: What exactly is a command file?

A: A command file is a set of instructions that you create to automate the running of your engines, signals, and switches. You create a "text file", which is merely a set of instructions that you want your trains to follow. There are more than 30 different commands. Many of these commands are very simple to use. For example, there is a command called ENGINES which causes a digital engine to move, reverse, or turn its function on (or off). There are commands called SWITCHES and SIGNALS which operate your digital solenoids, and commands called DETECT: and CLEAR: which are used with the #6088 decoders and contact tracks to detect when tracks are occupied or clear. There are also more advanced commands that allow you to test for certain conditions (even multiple conditions) to facilitate more sophisticated operating logic. For example, you could write a series of commands that would have a train wait for an empty track to be available at a station. Once the track was clear, other commands could be used to determine which (of several) tracks had been cleared and route the train to the appropriate location.

Q: Are there examples on how to program the various commands?

A: Yes, each command is defined in detail with examples and descriptions of how the command is structured. There are also several examples of complete command files and descriptions which cover all the available commands. Click here to view all the available TPL commands.

Q: What if I make mistakes entering TPL commands?

A: Whenever you create a command file, it is quickly run through a "syntax checker" which examines your individual commands as well as any train hardware (engines, switches, contact tracks) you may have previously defined. The syntax checker reports any errors or conflicts that it finds. Some errors are just inconsistencies that TPL will warn you about, but the command file will still run normally. If TPL detects that your commands too severe, it will tell you that it will not run your sequences correctly. In that case, you would simple open your command file, make the necessary corrections, and then instruct TPL to check it again.

Q: Can I run several trains at one time with these command files?

A: Yes, in fact there's more than one way to accomplish this. Within your command file, you can define different sequences of commands to operate independently of each other. Each set of commands is called a "route". Each route can contain commands to operate any number of different engines, or just a single engine if you prefer. And, since the routes run independently of one another, there's no limit to the different types of sequenced operations you can develop.

Q: Can I run more than one route at a time?

A: Yes, any number of routes can be run simultaneously. This can be accomplished two different ways. From within a command file, a route can contain commands to start other route(s) at the appropriate time. From the TPL main screen, all you need to do is click on the route name itself in the execution grid to start it. Using some of the more advanced TPL commands, you can even use a route as a "subroutine" to be called from several other routes.

Q: How large can my command files be?

A: Presently, a command file can contain as many as 50 different routes; each route can contain as many as 500 individual commands.

Q: Once the sequencing of a command file starts, do I lose manual control of my engines and switches? Can I still operate my Marklin digital boxes or control these items from within TPL?

A: With TPL (unlike some other programs), you always retain control. Even while a command file is executing, you can still operate your attached Keyboards and Control 80's. But that's not all, you can still operate the "virtual" TPL keyboards (all 16 of them) and control all your digital engines on your layout from any TPL screen, including the window you create with a schematic of your layout. As far as the Central Unit (Control Unit) is concerned, TPL is just another Control 80f. This just means that both TPL and your "real" Control 80 can't both take control of a single engine at the same time. Other than that, there are no restrictions on how you control everything.

Q: How do I stop everything in an emergency?

A: You can quickly terminate or cancel a route (or all routes) with just 2 clicks of your mouse. There's also an On/Off button on the TPL Main Screen that will immediately shut off your entire layout.

Q: What if I don't want to create automated sequences for my trains? I just want to have multiple Keyboards and Control 80's, and be able to just see a picture of my layout so I can click on signals and switches to make them operate.

A: That's fine. One of the best features about TPL is that it can be as much (or as little) as you want it to be. In fact, there's only one screen dedicated to operating automated sequences; all the rest were specifically designed to allow "manual" computer control of your engines and solenoids. Even without the power of programming your own sequences, there's plenty of ways to operate and enjoy TPL.

Q: I'm not an expert with a PC, and I'll probably have a lot of simple PC and Marklin related questions. Will you help me get started and be there if I have any problems?

A: I've dealt with people with a wide range of PC skills, including (at least) one person who never had a PC and just bought one to run his trains with TPL! All I ask is that if you don't mind paying for the phone call, I'll give you all the free support you require.

Hardware (COM ports, cables, Interfaces, etc.)

Q: What about my COM ports? I'm using a mouse and a modem already. Do I have to purchase another serial port?

A: No. Most PC's come with 2 serial (COM) ports for connecting external devices. You'll need one port for the mouse, and another for the Interface. If you already have an external modem connected to one of your serial ports, I suggest that you purchase an inexpensive A-B switch box and connect your modem and Interface to it since you won't be using both at the same time. If you have an internal modem, you'll have to be sure that it does not conflict with one of your existing COM ports.You may find that one of your serial ports has been disabled in order to allow your internal modem to work.There are relatively simple ways for your internal modem and externally connected Interface to share the same COM port number, as long as they use different interrupts (IRQ's). This can be easily set from the Windows Control panel. If you happen to have bus mouse, you may already have a free serial port for the Interface.

Q: How can I check the status of my COM ports?

A: There are several utilities available from various on-line services. If you have purchased any of the Microsoft Office products (Word, Excel, etc.) you probably have a program called MSD. This is a good diagnostics program and can display the status of your serial ports.

Q: Do I need one of those newer high-speed serial ports?

A: No, normally any serial port will suffice. Data is being sent at only 2400 baud, so speed is not really a concern. I have seen situations with older 386 PC's that had problems when reading the s88 decoders. When the serial port was upgraded, these problems went away. All 486 (and higher) machines I've seen work fine with whatever serial port comes installed.

Q: If data is being sent at only 2400 baud, how can TPL (or any other program) really control a large layout?

A: Actually, in terms of controlling your layout, 2400 baud is really pretty fast. This equates to more than 100 engine or switch commands per second! TPL constantly monitors the communications line and sends commands to the Interface as soon as it can accept more data. In addition, switch and signal commands are "grouped" together to send a rapid stream of commands in a single burst. If you've ever used the Marklin Memory unit, you've seen how fast it can throw solenoids -- literally dozens per second. TPL works the same way.

Q: How do I obtain an Interface cable? Can I make one?

A: A cable normally comes with the newer #6051 Interface units from Marklin. If you have one of the older #6050 or starter set (#6023) units, you can obtain a cable from your Marklin dealer or I can order one from Marklin for you as well. If you are handy with a soldering iron, you can easily make a cable yourself. The #6050 and #6023 units came with the required 6-pin DIN plug. If you don't have this, you can purchase one from Radio Shack. The other end of the cable will require a 9-pin or 25-pin female connector depending on the type of serial port you will be using. A diagram for the wiring itself is contained in the TPL on-line help file.

Q: Does TPL really support all Marklin Interfaces?

A: Yes. Support is provided for the original #6050, new #6051, and the starter set #6023. The #6023 is limited in that it can only support up to 4 blocks of s88 decoders (64 inputs).

Contact tracks, switching tracks, reed switches, and s88 decoders

Q: If I'm using contact tracks and TPL to regulate train operations, do I really need to use signals as well?

A: Yes. Too many people rely exclusively on contact tracks and decoders to stop and position their trains. My recommendation is always to use signals to stop your trains. You can (and should) use detectors liberally for various purposes, including to determine when an engine is at a certain point so you can begin slowing it down as it approaches a station. But, signals are the most reliable way to make sure that a train stops where you want it. Depending on the speed of your PC, the number and complexity or your TPL command file routes, and the arrangement of your layout, you will find that the timing of detectors may not be reliable enough to suit critical functions. Another thing many people fail to take into account is the fact that engines go faster (at a given digital speed setting) after they've had a chance to warm up. This too can affect the distance traveled after contact is made and an instruction given to the engine to slow down.

Q: Do you think that if I use the signals as kind of a "safe zone" (the engine has slowed down quite a bit by the time it gets to the signal) that 1 x 18cm piece of track would be enough for a dead block?

A: This would probably be ok; I generally use 2 tracks. Whatever you do -- and it's the same with non-digital, non-computerized operations, you need to be SURE that the engine won't overrun your section of "dead" track.

Q: What about all these different ways of detecting trains. There are contact tracks, switching tracks, reed switches. How do I know which one(s) to use?

A: I prefer contact track sections since these are the most reliable and easy to install. Switching track sections (the ones with the spring loaded lever in the center of the track) are useful too. They have the advantage of being able to detect the direction of travel, but they can't be used, for example, to detect if an engine or car is sitting on a length of track. Over time, switching track section have a tendency to wear out or loose their ability to make good contact. Reed switches won't wear out since their contacts are made in a vacuum and the contact points won't corrode, but they also can't be used to detect the presence or absence of a train. For all-around general use, contact tracks are the preferred type of device.

Q: Am I correct that the length of the contact track should be greater than the largest distance of 2 axles under a train (like a modern passenger car, 18 cm), to insure that contact is being made or to avoid a contact track from reporting it has tripped it twice?

A: Well, yes, sort of. If you really think that there's a chance that a situation will arise where a passenger car is so long and it may be in such a position that it would span the entire decoder and give TPL the impression that the track was free, then this would be a correct statement. However, I generally try and place detectors such that this won't happen. For example, to test to see if a train is at a station, I'd probably put a detector close to the front where the engine/coal tender are (where the wheel spacing is tight) to ensure that the program received the correct information.

New features in beta test

Q: What's going on with your latest update/beta version of TPL?

A: In the latest beta version, I now have incorporated IF-ENDIF and (even better) IF-ELSE-ENDIF programming constructs. This will definitely make the program more powerful and flexible.

I've also just finished new commands to check multiple detectors. For example:

ENGINE: 12/5/0

After executing the ENGINE command, this sequencing will wait until detectors 5 and 8 and 42 are all tripped at the same time. Only then will the SWITCH command get executed.

In addition to this command, there is also a ANDCLEAR command which will wait until multiple detectors are cleared. I've even taken this a step further with additional commands ORDETECT and ORCLEAR. As you might guess, these will wait until any ONE of a number of tracks are tripped or cleared. This works great in the situation where, for example, you are waiting for an empty track (any empty track - not necessarily a particular track) at a station to be cleared before allowing a train to proceed. You could then use IF-ELSE-ENDIF logic to determine exactly which track was unoccupied and execute the commands accordingly.

The IF-ENDIF and IF-ELSE-ENDIF constructs support (up to 10) levels of nesting, so the following would now be possible:

IF ...
  IF ...
      more commands
  IF ...

Another new feature recently added to TPL is the ability to double-head, triple-head engines. In fact, the latest TPL beta includes support for up to 5 groups of engines, where each group can contain as many as 10 engines each! Each of the 5 groups is represented by its own special color on various screens, so you always know which group you're controlling. Engine synchronization can be turned on/off with just a single click of the mouse.

There's a new feature in TPL that allows you to view your individual commands in the order that they are executed. A new "debugging" window allows you to trace, and even step through, the execution of each command. It's a great way to help you pinpoint problems with your command files.

Last, but not least, are new commands to support looping operations. The following block of code will loop 5 times, each time waiting for detector #23 to be tripped. This would be a very simple way to have a train pass over the same detector 5 times before continuing the sequencing. The 3rd time through the loop, the sound file "WHISTLE.WAV" will be played through the PC's speaker:

FOR: 5
  CLEAR: 23
  DETECT: 23
  IF_LOOP: 3

Planned improvements

Q: What do you have planned for the future?

A: I'm currently working on a timetable to enhance the automation of scheduled train operations. Another item that has been requested is the ability for TPL to support passing parameters (typically engine codes) to subroutines. This would allow you to use the same route several times in a command file, with the ability to substitute different engine numbers each time.

Q: What if I'd like you to add a new command or feature?

A: Most of the functions, commands, and options that comprise TPL are the direct result of user's asking for more, more, and more. I'm always interested in hearing people's suggestions and ideas for improving the program. That's one of the things that makes TPL so popular. I've written it in such a way that it's relatively easy to add new features and commands. I'll be glad to listen to your suggestions.

Marklin Digital (non-TPL) Q&A

Q: What about using TPL with a catenary layout? I've read somewhere that Marklin advises against it.

A: This really doesn't have anything to do with TPL, but it's still a valid question. I've never really experimented with catenary and digital. When I had a conventional layout, I did have catenary and it worked great. I moved about the time that digital came along and removed the catenary when I moved the layout. I've heard from some people that it works fine -- I don't know why it wouldn't, especially if you have a 6021 control unit which keeps sending out signals to the equipment. I would suggest you experiment a little; maybe contact Tom Catherall for a more definitive answer.

Q: How about connecting k83 switch/signal decoders directly to the track. I've also heard that Marklin advises against this practice.

A: I don't recall seeing advice against attaching k83 power leads to the track. In fact, the whole premise of digital and how it eliminates wiring is all predicated on the fact that you can attach any digital component to its nearest power source. BUT, if you are going to have even a moderate sized layout, you will definitely want to consider powering all your digital components from a power source independent from that which is driving your engines. It only takes about 4 engines to reach the limit of a 30W-42W transformer, so most people isolate their k83's etc. from the track. It's strictly up to the individual, but one must take the power needs of the layout into account.

Pricing, ordering, and upgrades

Q: How much does TPL cost and how do I obtain it?

A: The cost of TPL is $249, and shipping is free to any US location. I have to charge an additional $30 for overseas shipments since the manual makes the total weight over 2 lbs. (1kg). If you live outside of North America and can make do with the on-line manual, shipping is free. I would prefer payment by check but, if necessary, I do have the facility to accept VISA, MasterCard or Discover. Payment by check drawn on a foreign bank must be in US dollars and payable by a US branch of that bank. Within the US, I normally ship via Priority Mail (normally 2-day delivery). Foreign shipments are mail first class air mail. If you're really in a hurry, I can even e-mail you the installation disks.

Q: Isn't that a little expensive?

A: That depends on your point of view. I generally explain that it's less than the cost of most Marklin engines. But more to the point, it's considerably less money than other programs that cost even more and provide a lot less in the way of options and control. TPL offers more functions, options, and features than any program at any price.

Q: How much do you charge for upgrades?

A: I always provide free upgrades for the first year. Actually, I've never yet charged for an upgrade. If you are an "active" user and are willing to beta test, provide regular feedback, etc., I'm more than willing to provide free upgrades.

Q: How do I obtain these upgrades?

A: Upgrades and beta versions are available for free and can be downloaded from the home page.

Q: I am not an expert when it comes to downloading from the Internet, is it easy?

A: It's extremely easy. Just click on the file you want to download. Your browser will ask you where you will want to place the file. Once you've downloaded it, you just have to de-compress it using PKUNZIP. I can help you with this if necessary.

Q: How can I keep track of your updates, improvements, bug fixes, etc?

A: I've made a number of improvements to the program in the last year. Those that are part of the current beta version are included in the latest help file which you can get off this Internet home page. The best way to keep informed is to e-mail me or visit this home page to see what's new. At the top of the help file is a link to any new features and bug fixes. It's always just a single mouse click to see what's been added to the program.

Q: Do you charge for support? What if I have problems?

A: Support is always free; all I ask is that you pay for the phone call. Generally problems occur as a result of improper Interface cables, decoder wiring, or setting up options from within Windows. I'll be glad to help step you through any problems you may encounter. If you have any doubts or concerns, I will gladly provide you with the names and phone numbers (or e-mail addresses) of numerous people who can vouch for the fine level of support I provide.

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