Blog Home

Controlling a model railroad with a vintage Atari ST

Arduino TeamFebruary 24th, 2023

Back in the ’90s, Cyril Rossignol had a dream of controlling his model railroad with his computer. While that was possible at the time, it wasn’t easy and would have required some serious skill with hardware and programming. But today, thanks to development boards like those from Arduino, this is a much more accessible project. That’s how Rossignol was able to achieve his dream and control a model railroad with a retro Atari ST.

The Atari ST line of computers hit the market in the mid 1980s and featured mouse-controlled GUIs (graphical user interfaces). Rossignol recently found his vintage Atari 1040 STE while sorting through old belongings and realized that he could accomplish his dream from the ’90s using an Arduino as an intermediary between the computer and the model railroad. With a custom software interface programmed for the Atari, Rossignol was able to control his model locomotives from his computer.

Rossignol’s model railroad features DCC (Digital Command Control), which controls the amount of power and its polarity going to the tracks, as well as switches. Rossignol just needed a way for his Atari to communicate with the DCC. For that, he chose an Arduino Mega 2560 board. The Atari talks to the Arduino via an RS232-to-TTL converter, and the Arduino, in turn, talks to Rossignol’s DCC-EX via I2C.

This setup was a success and now Rossignol can operate his trains with his Atari, just like he envisioned 30 years ago.