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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Part 5, Power and Control

Controlling your trains is something that needs to be examined more closely in this day and age of the hobby.  It used to be that you could have a train run forward and backward, maybe have a whistle and bell.  But now, modelers can choose to have systems that control trains very close to the real thing, and instead of a few features, modern systems can deliver features by the dozen, with lights, bells, horns, whistles, radio chatter, engine droning, exc...

Today, I'll look into several different control systems, DC/AC, walk around control, DCC, DCS and Legacy, and R/C.


DC, or direct current, is the basic power source for all trains except some O scale trains. AC current controls the O scale exceptions.  The idea behind this source of power is to change the amount of current running through the motor, thus controlling speed and direction.  This does give the modeler good control, but at a cost:

  • DC or AC, without blocks to separate power districts, only allows for one locomotive to run on the track.
  • In most applications, DC or AC control is quite limited for extra features.  Though some sound functions may be activated, it is pretty limited compared to DCC or DCS/ Legacy.
  • DC, in most applications, is a stationary control system.  Though walk around throttles are available, they are pretty limited.
DC/AC walk around control

Walk around throttles in DC were more popular back before DCC arrived and became popular.  The idea was to be able to go around your layout (or at least a section of it) and follow your train through a block, before going to another throttle to run the train further.  However, there were a few problems with this:

  • If the throttle is unplugged, the train will stop on most systems.
  • There is still not very many features on the trains under this system of power.
  • Block control becomes mandatory, with each locomotive needing a throttle.  That means that you can have a mess of wiring in this system.

The DCC revolution has made a huge impact on the hobby.  The idea behind DCC was to have each locomotive have their own address on a computer, then be controlled by the computer, hence the name "Digital Command Control".  There is really no limit to what you can do with DCC, as it is expansible, simple, and easy.  Instead of going through a confusing paragraph, I'll explain through ha list what DCC does in a nutshell:

  • DCC has constant current going through the tracks, with electronic signals embedded with the electric current.  
  • A locomotive decoder picks up signals meant for only it, therefore the locomotive acts independently from other locomotives, therefore there is no block system needed.
  • DCC can support sound, light, and engine functions, therefore allowing a locomotive to behave like the real thing.
  • DCC can support more than one operator, with easy wiring, only needing a "bus" system to operate.
DCC however is quite expensive, so it is important to think about what you want in a system.  I suggest, if you have a small layout that you operate by yourself, to not go with DCC.  But, for literally everyone else, DCC is a great option because of what it can do.

DCS and Legacy

DCS by MTH Electric Trains and Legacy by Lionel are the two big systems for O scale and S scale trains that operate similarly to DCC.  You can choose which one you want, but I suggest testing each one, because even though they do the same things, MTH and Lionel are different in how you run the trains and program them.

Remote Control R/C

This idea has been in the hobby fro many years, but it hasn't been until recently that smaller scales down to S scale were able to have their power off of R/C.  There are two kinds of R/C, battery powered and track powered. Battery power is popular with garden railroaders because it eliminates all wiring out side that would be needed for track.  Track powered remote control is good for indoors as bulky batteries are not needed, so that eliminates plenty of problems.

Now the point of this article was not to go into great detail of each kind of power source (that would take several days) but to simply explain what's out there.  If something caught your eye, a simple Google search will reveal all the information you need to know. 

Any wiring diagrams will be presented in the Track Laying and Wiring section to come later.  However, an article might be needed to further the explanation.

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