Magazine Article About Controlling A Model Train Set With A TRS-80

In my recent jaunts to Portland’s outlet warehouse stores  I wound up with a stack of old model railroad magazines from the 1960s through the 1980s… because of course I did. Flipping through them, they are detail-intensive and super esoteric, which means they’re perfect for this blog. Unfortunately, I cannot even try to care enough about model railroading to this degree. However, this article “Computerization Of The Great Southern” in the March 1983 issue of Model Railroader caught my eye because it intersected with 1980s retro-computing, which *is* something I give half a crap about.

The article features Lorell Joiner (who apparently died in 2007) discussing the computerization of his Great Southern Railroad model. As you can see from the photo, the equipment involved is a TRS-80 computer. Apparently the Great Southern was kind of a legendary big deal in the model railroad world, and certainly looks like no joke:
The article doesn’t go into any of the program code or anything, but does detail the engineering aspect of it using those awesome programming flowcharts that used to be all over computer programming books from the 1980s.

5 thoughts on “Magazine Article About Controlling A Model Train Set With A TRS-80

  1. I just stumbled onto your post while trying to find out what happened to Joiner’s Great Southern layout. My dad was part of the weekly team that worked on it for years, and I had the honor of seeing it in operation. Still trying to find out where it is today, hoping that it was kept intact and not broken up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting to see this. My alcoholic stepfather bought Joiner’s home after he died, and I visited once to take care of the cats while he was away… I was with my room mate and we experienced a um, I don’t quite want to say a ghost, but an inexplicable phenomenon. I was relating the story to a friend just now and thought I’d see if I could find some photos of the place before the railroad was dismantled (it was completely gone by the time I visited, c. 2009).
    The neighbors had some odd stories about Joiner… I don’t think they were true, he didn’t die at the property, but it was an “interesting” experience visiting. I used to have a TRS-80 as well, so it was kind of cool seeing this blog post and learning that Joiner was also into electronics beside model trains.


  3. I used to participate in the Monday Mafia crowd that descended upon Lorell’s house in the 1980s. I was more interested in the computer side of things and got to tinker with the TRS-80 system that ran the railroad. The application had 2 parts. A Yardmaster side of things created trains and provided a list of cars that needed to be put together for a train that was being dispatched. The main part of the TRS-80 system was what powered the tracks. It was written in the Forth programming language (I modified it some). Lorell had some university professor at Carnegie-Mellon write it for him. The application detected that a train was being dispatched and turned on power for the section of track the train was on and the one ahead of the train. When no more current was being consumed on the a section of the track, it powered it off and powered on the next one ahead of the train, constantly leapfrogging the successive sections of the track.

    The application was really sophisticated and ran just fine on that old 8-bit TRS-80 system. The real time integration with the power grid sensors was so amazing for that time of computing.


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