You Are Here.
Jump to other pages.
Garden Railroading Primer Articles Structures for your garden railroad. Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading
Best Choices for Beginning Garden Railroaders: a short list of things you're most likely to need when starting outLarge Scale Starter Sets: Begin with a train you'll be proud to run
Large Scale Track order Form Bachmann Garden Trains: Narrow Gauge models designed to run well in your Garden Railroad
Large Scale Christmas Trains: Trains with a holiday theme for garden or professional display railroads.Free Large Scale Signs and Graphics: Bring your railroad to life with street signs, business signs, and railroad signs
Garden Railroading Books, Magazines, and Videos: Where to go to learn even more
Collectible Trains and Villages: On30 Trains and accessories designed by Thomas Kinkade and others

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)



























































Garden Railway
Basics
By Kevin Strong
Published by Kalmbach


















































































































Large Scale Power and Control

This article isn’t about how to achieve personal power or how to control other people on a large scale—it’s about how to get electricity to the motors in your Large Scale locomotives, and how to make certain they do what you want them to do.

Update for 2014! - The more things change. It doesn't seem that long ago that more and more manufacturers were bundling remote controls with their starter sets or locomotives. For a time it seemed like remote control (and easy conversion to battery) out of the box would become the standard. Then three of our largest suppliers hit big hiccups.

  • AristoCraft's "DCC-Ready" Locomotives - In efforts to make its Revolution system more attractive, AristoCraft reengineered several of its locomotives to include a port that would accept "snap-in" remote-control devices, either for DCC or AristoCraft's own Revolution. Now AristoCraft is out of business, and their heirs are simply selling off old stock that was around before these upgrades. I don't know if the upgraded locomotives will ever be available again. But if you come across them, they will be very nice to have.
  • MTS-Ready LGB Locomotives - During LGB's heyday, a number of locomotives were made with LGB's remote control system out of the box also, although you don't get the remote control in most starter sets. LGB's MTS system is related to DCC, and responds to many (some folks say "most") DCC commands. Sadly, several recent changes of ownership have put a dent in that motion, and the most recent owners have announced plans to emphasize LGB's starter and kid-friendly sets until the division becomes profitable for them again.
  • DCS-Ready MTH Locomotives - A few MTH Large Scale trains came with their "DCS" system already installed. I say "came," because as of August, 2014, MTH doesn't have any Large Scale ("One Gauge") trains in their catalog. MTH "One Gauge" trains offered good value, but their marketing department made many poor decisions, and they apparently didn't survive the recent recession. If you're familiar with "DCS" from MTH's O-gauge trains, and you can track down any of MTH's DCS-equipped or DCS-ready One Gauge locomotives, you'll know most of what you need to know.

What about Bachmann or Piko? Well, their starter sets have never been set up for easy conversion, though lots of folks who are good with screwdrivers and soldering irons have done that work. Some of their better engines have been advertised as "DCC-ready" or some such. At the moment, the two most popular remote control systems that can be used on different brands of equipment are the Revolution (Crest's upgrade to AristoCraft "Train Engineer") and DCC, an "open" system that is supported by several manufacturers. Battery power enthusiasts can use versions of both of these systems and several others, so you have many, many choices. We have tried to organize this article in such a way that you can find what set of choices meets your needs.

The best combination of power and control options for you depends on the kind of railroad you wish to run--indoor or outdoor, long or short mainline, long or short trains, one or multiple locomotives on each train, one or multiple trains on each mainline, hands-on operations versus continuous running, etc.

People whose railroads and operations fall into strict categories (say, very small versus very large, or perhaps all continuous running versus all hands-on operation) tend to insist that the power/control combination they use is the only "worthwhile" combination. And for them it might be. But most of us fall somewhere in between the extremes. To help you with your choices, this article will review some of the basic differences in the ways people operate their railroads and how those choices affect choices of power and control options.

That said, this article is still only a starting point to familiarize you with the possible general approaches before you get overwhelmed with technical details. (Note: George Schreyer’s articles on Power and Control on his Tips Page ) provide additional technical details you will find useful when you begin looking at detailed choices.)

Power - Unless you’re using live steam or fossil fuels to power your trains, your locomotives need electricity to run. Most toy and model trains get their electricity from the rails, although rechargable batteries are popular for garden trains as well.

Control - Two basic kinds of control are available:

  • Track Voltage Control- You can control track-powered locomotives by controlling the voltage and polarity applied to the track. On starter kits and indoor railroads, this is usually done through a power pack or console. You can also buy a remote-control device that attaches to the track and controls track current. Although the second approach gives you some of the advantages of remote control, you are still actually controlling the track, not the locomotive itself. If you put three locomotives on the same track segment, they would all go at the same time, and at similar speeds, when you turned up the voltage.
  • Remote Locomotive Control - Alternatively, you may convert each locomotive to respond to signals sent by remote control devices. With the exception of some kinds of Multiple-Unit operation (see below), each locomotive responds only to its own control signal, no matter how many other locomotives are on the same section of track.

Many people think of remote control and battery power as being synonymous, but they’re not. In fact, there are at least four useful combinations, as shown in the following table: (Battery power without remote control is not considered useful by most garden railroad operators, since it's approximately equal to "runaway train," although some folks like Pete Eggink like to battery-power small novelty locomotives like the AristoCraft Eggliner).

Control Mechanism

Power Source

Control of Track Voltage and Polarity

Remote Control of Individual Locomotive

Fixed Console/ Control Panel Location

Remote Control of Track Current

Track Power

X

X

X

Battery Power

   

X

Because the kinds of operation you may need your railroad to support will affect your power and control choices, this article defines a few different kinds of operation before it delves into the power and control combinations that best suit each kind of operation.

The following topics will be discussed:

Operational Choices

Before we get too much farther, we should define a few basic operational approaches and terms that may affect your power and control choices.
  • Multi-Unit (MU) Operation - Running two or more locomotives in the same train. This increases power demands, and can complicate control issues if the locomotives don't have similar performance characteristics.
  • Multi-Train - Running more than one train at a time on the same mainline. Indoor railroaders often accomplish this by dividing their mainline into "blocks" and using a control panel, but this gets more complicated as your railroad spreads out in the back yard. In Garden Railroading, Multi-Train control usually refers to the ability to run more than one train at a time on the same mainline without using blocks.
  • Display Mode - Setting your trains to run, either continuously, or through automation, with relatively little human intervention. Display layouts in businesses and parks do this. So do many garden railroaders who like to perform prototypical operations, but who don't always have enough time to devote to them continuously, so they occasionally set their trains to run "in the background" while they're doing something else, such as weeding or barbecueing.
  • "Operations" Mode - "Driving" each train individually as an engineer would, building trains up in the switchyard, dropping cars off at industries, etc. Serious "operators" tend to be folks who have enough time to focus on such processes long enough to effectively simulate a prototypical "run." For a few of them, even the ability to have trains running continuously (display mode) would be an abomination. However most garden railroaders aren't quite so extreme; many folks try to build the capabilities for both "display" and "operations" modes into their railroads for those days when they want to do one or the other.

Power Options

To keep this article short enough to be useful, I have given only a broad description of some of these solutions in the following passages; however, I have provided links to George Shreyer's detailed articles on some of these subjects that you may find helpful.

Track Power Basics

Track Power is what you get when you buy most "starter" sets. A power supply converts "house current" (110-120volt AC) into the kind of current your locomotives need (usually something like 0-18volt DC), then wires carry the current to the track. Each locomotive picks up the current through metal wheels (and sometimes through little "shoes" that scrape the track).

When you buy a starter set, the dinky power supply, 22-gauge wire, and slip-on rail joiners are usually enough to get usable current around the 12.5' circle of track you got with the set. The biggest problem you'll face running on a small loop indoors is the build-up of goop from the plastic wheels on your train. This goops up the track and the wheels of your locomotives, forcing you to clean them often to maintain good running conditions. Once you've replaced your wheels with metal wheels, you'll seldom have to clean anything. (A friend with an extensive indoor track-powered Large Scale railroad says she only cleans her track about once every five years; however most indoor railroaders with metal wheels do it every year or so).

Track power gets more complicated when you move outside and your railroad gets more complex.

  • Conductivity Issues - Slip-on rail joiners used outside eventually fail to conduct electricity, as some folks have discovered after building a large railroad using the LGB factory rail joiners. As a result, some track-power users have found themselves revisiting their installation to run jumper wires between each track section, to replace every rail joiner with a clamp-on joiner, or both. (A few have converted to exclusive battery power, and preached against the evils of track power ever since.) On the other hand, you can start out with track like AristoCraft's, that has screw-on rail joiners. Most Aristo rail joiners stay conductive indefinitely in most climates. Aristo track also allows easy screw-on attachment of jumpers, which I use just to be on the "safe" side, but which provide a "backup" in case an Aristo rail-joiner does fail. (Adding occasional jumpers when I lay the track only adds about 5% to my total track-laying time, and I think it's worth it just for peace of mind. Also, the expense is minimal, only a few cents a foot for the wire and "lugs.")
  • Voltage Drop/Distance Issues - If your railroad is large, you should consider running jumpers to far segments of the track, just to compensate for any voltage drop through the rail joiners. Again, this is easily done when you're laying the track, expecially if you're using track like AristoCraft's which has screws for this purpose on every piece.
  • Power Pickup Issues - If you replace the plastic wheels on your rolling stock with metal wheels, your track will be relatively easy to keep clean (except for animal poop, tree sap, etc.). However, some locomotives (especially certain 0-4-0s) just seem to gum up quickly. Many track-power users get around this by running jumpers to the locomotive tenders, so the power pickup is distributed across twelve wheels instead of four. Still, you should clean the drivers on your locomotives when you perform required maintenance like lubrication.
  • Operational Issues - Using "out-of-the" box track power doesn't allow you to run multiple trains on the same mainline (MultiTrain) without blocks or other special wiring. So if track power still interests you, but you're interested in supporting a very complex railroad, you will need to go beyond the "out-of-the-box" setup.

    There are three ways of controlling trains that are track-powered:

    • Fixed Console/Control Panel Location - What most "indoor" railroaders use. This works fine for display layouts (where the trains just run constantly). It also supports Multi-Unit operation (two or more locomotives on one train) fairly well, if the locomotives have very similar operational characteristics and you have a large enough power supply. But if you want to do operations like switching cars, this gets old in a hurry, especially when your railroad starts to spread out a little and you can't see from your control location whether the cars have coupled or the turnout points have thrown properly. Another limitation is that you cannot run two separate trains on the same mainline (Multi-Train operation) without blocking or other special wiring.
    • Remote Control of Track Current - Using a remote device to control track voltage and polarity. A now-discontinued example is the Crest (formerly AristoCraft) Train Engineer, which attaches between your power supply and your track and responds to signals from a hand-held remote control. If you come across one of these, or buy it's replacement from the AristoCraft "Revolution" line, it will give you "walkaround control," which significantly improves operations, while retaining the ability to MU similar engines. However, you are still controlling the track segment, not the individual locomotive. For that reason, you still cannot do Multi-Train operation without blocking or other special wiring. George Schreyer’s articles on Train Engineer (at http://girr.org/girr/tips/tips1/te_programming.html ) provide additional technical details you may find useful when considering this technology.
    • Remote Control of Individual Locomotives - Installing remote control "receivers" or "decoders" in your locomotive so that they respond individually to remote control signals, while still using track power to run. Some remote control solutions provide better Multi-Unit control than others, but they all provide better Multi-Train operation than you can get by simply controlling the track segments. Remote control options are discussed in more detail below.

    No matter how you control a track-powered railroad, you will encounter the same basic advantages and disadvantages:

    • Pros of Track Power
      • No conversion is necessary for most locomotives (although many run better if with a few minor changes, such as running jumpers between the locomotive and tender to "spread out" the power pickup).
      • Track power provides easy interchange of equipment with visitors' off the shelf equipment.
      • You can run trains for hours without having to worry about batteries running down, etc. This is especially useful if:
        • You like Multiple Unit operation, very long trains, and other kinds of operation that draw a lot of power, or
        • You are operating in display mode.
      • "Light Duty" Multi-Train operation (2-3 trains at a time) is relatively simple, with the addition of remote control technology.
    • Cons of Track Power:
      • You will have to select conductive track materials. This usually means brass, although many folks do fine with Llagas Creek’s aluminum rail. However it rules out some really inexpensive solutions that certain folks have used over the years. (Some folks who know from the start they will only be using battery power save enough money by installing cheaper track to pay for some of the expenses of battery/RC conversion.)
      • Track must be kept in a conductive state. (See above).
      • You may want to run jumper wires from your tender to your locomotive to distribute power pickup.
      • You will have to clean the wheels on your locomotives occasionally.
      • "Heavy duty" Multi-Train operation (several trains at a time) can get more interesting, from a power standpoint. (You may need to add power supplies or "boosters" to segments of the track. This isn't the same as "blocking," because all the power supplies stay on all the time, but it does make things more complicated to wire.)

    Battery Power Basics

    Although not all remote-controlled engines are battery powered, all battery powered solutions commonly used on garden railroads include remote control. This combination provides walkaround control, freedom from having to power or clean your track, and the ability to operate as many trains simultaneously (multi-train) as you can fit on the track.

    Converting a locomotive to battery power/RC adds some expense, even moreso when you pay someone to convert it professionally, and get a sound card installed at the same time, which many folks do. ("How do you turn a $400 locomotive into a $700 locomotive?") However, many people who own only a few locomotives insist that they saved at least some of the money necessary to do those conversions by installing cheaper rails, retaining plastic wheels on their rolling stock, and avoiding power supply purchases.

    Conversion Logistics

    • You have a choice of battery types - New formulations have joined Ni-Cads on the market, and each has some advantages and disadvantages you will want to take into account. However, any good rechargeable battery solution will work--some just work better for certain kinds of operation than others.
    • Most locomotives have room - In most conversions, the remote control receivers fit into the locomotive boiler or cab, and the sound card and speaker (if used) fit into the tender. Larger locomotives can even take the batteries in the boiler, adding weight, although the batteries for some smaller locomotives must fit into the tender.
    • You have to be flexible - Sometimes the batteries must be squeezed into tight corners, although this isn't hard for most folks to figure out if you're using AA-sized NiCads or similar batteries.
    • Help is available - A few very small locomotives are difficult for the "layman" to convert, but a good installer can do some pretty amazing stuff. If you do choose to hire someone to convert your locomotive, make certain they've done this for other garden railroaders--a toy train repairman working from a manual is not likely to achieve the same result as someone who is familiar with the demands of garden railroading.
    • Battery car option - Some folks put jacks on their locomotives and install the batteries and receiver in a trailing car, which allows them to use any of their locomotives without substantial conversiion, but a "battery/receiver car" requires you to leave that car in the mix no matter what kind of operation you're doing. Pete Eggink, of the Southeast Pennsylvania Garden Railway Society, has made a science of building battery cars with Aristo Parts.

    In addition to the expense of converting locomotives to battery power is the (admittedly small) complication of having to keep your locomotives charged to be ready to run. Most battery power users get into the habit of hooking their locomotives to trickle chargers when they take them off the track. Rechargeable batteries can fail eventually (usually after years of service), but most battery power users just make certain that they have "backup" locomotives charged and ready on operation days.

    A recent series of articles in Garden Railways described several manufacturers' approaches to battery power/radio control, and I’m not an expert on any of them, so I won’t go into detail. George Schreyer also has some detailed technical information on his web site at http://girr.org/girr/tips/tips7/battery_rc_tips.html

    Whatever kind of radio control you're using, battery power gives you certain advantages and disadvantages.

    • Pros of Battery Power
      • Your locomotives will work on anybody’s railroad.
      • You don’t have to worry about incompatibilities between manufacturer’s systems—as long as you have a controller and a locomotive it will control, you’re fine. Who cares if the next locomotive coming down the pike responds to another brand of transmitter?
      • You can simultaneously operate (multi-train) as many trains as you can squeeze onto your mainline. (A friend who has a large battery-powered railroad brags that he has hosted as many as twenty simultaneous operators at a time. He also brags that he can run in a blinding rainstorm, but I'm not sure that's an advantage.)
      • Your track doesn’t have to conduct electricity, so:
        • You can use cheaper materials (for example, aluminum rails cost less than brass rails, and some folks have used even cheaper materials).
        • You don’t have to keep it very clean (as long as you clear off the tree branches and raccoon poop).
        • You don’t have to run jumpers when you install your track.

        Note: Many of the frequently stated "advantages" of battery power (such as walkaround control) are actually advantages of remote control, which can use track power or batteries.

    • Cons of Battery Power
      • Each locomotive must be converted, which adds expense. A few require professional installation.
      • Friends who operate on track power can't run their trains on your track. (One battery user told me I needed to get new friends, but I'm not sure that's an adequate response.)
      • Locomotive batteries must be charged, and they fail every so many years, usually the morning of open houses. (Battery-power users learn to prepare for this eventuality by keeping charged locomotives on "standby."
      • Because of the additional drain of energy, battery power doesn't support very large engines, very long trains, and Multi-Unit operation of long engines as well as track power. On the other hand, most of my friends who run battery power exclusively like running shorter trains and dinkier engines.

    Remote Control Options

    You can control your trains from the power pack or other fixed locations. This tends to work best for either very small railroads or for "display only" railroads, such as you see at museums. But if you like "running" the train yourself, and if you ever plan to use any of your turnouts, you'll probably soon opt for some means of remote control.

    Remote Control of Track Segments

    If your locomotives are track powered, you can install a Crest TE5471 or a similar device between your power supply and the track. This allows you to control the voltage and polarity of the track segment from a hand-held transmitter. This gives you "walkaround control" of any one train on that segment without having to convert your locomotives or buy batteries. It also gives you good Multi-Unit operation if the locomotives you put together have similar performance characteristics. (One friend MUs two or three big locomotives and runs 50 car trains all day long this way, something that would be a little more complicated with a battery/RC solution.) However it won't allow you to control more than one locomotive on the same mainline (Multi-Train) unless you segment your track into "blocks." (To see the most frequently used components of the AristoCraft/Crest Train Engineer solution, click here.

    Remote Control of Locomotives

    To most people, "Remote Control" of Large Scale locomotives means controlling individual locomotives by means of hand-held devices that send signals to receivers or decoders installed in each locomotive. Unlike using TE5471 to control track current, remote locomotive control allows truly independent operations on the same mainline without using "blocks." In addition, most of the onboard controllers can control other locomotive functions, especially special sounds on add-on sound cards, etc. Many railroaders who don't "need" radio control for their operations appreciate the ability to control bells, whistles, and "blowdown" sounds. In a sense, a locomotive so equipped takes on far more "personality" for the operator than one you can only move "from point A to point B."

    Remote control can be used on both track-powered and battery-powered locomotives--in fact, you can use several combinations on one railroad at one time.

    Remote control signals arrive at the locomotive in two ways.

    • Radio Remote Control - Control signals can be sent through encoded radio waves to track-powered or battery-powered locomotives.
    • Digital Command Control (DCC) and related technologies - Control codes are sent through the track to track-powered locomotives

    Radio Remote Control

    You can use radio remote control with track-powered or battery-powered locomotives. A few transmitter-receiver combinations that Large Scalers have found useful are:

    There's nothing to keep you from simultaneously running locomotives using all of these technologies--since the commands are sent via coded radio waves, they're unlikely to interfere with each other. (Track-powered locomotives equipped with TE 5490s even coexist with DCC systems). Of course, battery-powered locomotives can be added to any existing setup (including conventional powered trackage) to provide multi-train operation as well.

    Multi-Train Considerations - With radio control, you can perform multi-train operations whether you are using batteries or track power.

    • Track power users who multi-train tend to do "light" operation, say operating a switcher or a railbus while an express is also operational on the same track segment. One friend often runs three radio-controlled single-headed trains at the same time on a 15-amp supply. If you want to go beyond that, say supporting multiple operators, or multiple "double-headed" trains, you can add extra power availability by dividing your mainline into multiple segments (what DCC users call "power districts"), each powered by a separate power supply which is always supplying full power to its segment. This isn't the same as blocking, since you don't have to control the power supplies--it just spreads out the power requirement across your mainline. Unlike battery options, once such a setup is tested, you can run this way indefinitely without having to stop and charge anything. However, it does add a layer of complication.
    • Battery-power users who multit-rain can run as many trains simultaneously as they have charged up and can physically fit on the track. On the other hand, they don't tend to run very long trains, because of the extra drain on the batteries. A friend in Illinois has a fleet of railbusses, doodlebugs, and the like that he multitrains with battery power--with such motive power, he can squeeze quite a bit of operations and operators onto his mainline.

    Migration Considerations - If you have been using onboard radio-receiver controllers, converting one or more of your locomotives to battery power is relatively inexpensive, so going to a track power/radio control combination does not necessarily "lock you in" to just that solution. In fact, some folks using radio control install batteries and a DPDT switch so they can still set their locomotives to work on track power if the batteries are dead.

    Digital Command Control

    DCC uses a combination of track power and digital signals sent through the tracks in a kind of asymmetrical AC power. It is widely understood and supported in the indoor scales, and supported by an NMRA standard. The locomotive receives a "conversion" that inserts the DCC "decoder" (control mechanism) between the power pickup and the engine. Some newer locomotives are configured to accept a DCC conversion as a "snap-in."

    With DCC, the track maintains a steady, relatively high voltage (actually a kind of AC that combines the power to run the locomotive with "codes" to control direction, speed, and special functions). The DCC controller in the locomotive (controlled by signal codes it receives through the track) determines how the locomotive operates.

    DCC provides excellent Multiple Unit operation (two locomotives on one train), because you can adjust the response curve of each decoder to match the locomotive. It als provides good Multiple Train operation.

    • Pros of DCC:
      • Walkaround control.
      • Choice of vendors.
      • Because you can tailor the response curve of each decoder to match the locomotive's characteristics, DCC offers the best "multiple-unit" operation (double-heading or triple-heading trains).
      • Many nice locomotives come "DCC-ready," which means that the conversion is relatively simple. Also, although the initial cost of converting a railroad to DCC is relatively high, converting additional locomotives is relatively inexpensive.
      • True multi-train operation without "blocking" or other special wiring of track. (Although reverse loops still require special wiring.)
      • You can run most DCC-converted locomotives on ordinary "analog" layouts, as the decoders recognize when they are not receiving control signals and go into "analog" mode.
    • Cons of DCC:
      • Conversion of individual locomotives is required, as well as investment in the "startup" infrastructure. (You can run one "uncoverted" locomotive on a DCC layout at a time, but most folks recommend against it as the asymmetrical AC power can cause some motors to overheat.
      • Although some DCC users claim that your track doesn’t have to be quite as clean for low-speed operation as it does for traditional track power, it still must be conductive.
      • Conversion to or from DCC to any of the other systems described in this article is relatively expensive, compared to converting between any of the other options. (You might want to visit a couple well-implemented DCC systems and really try them out before you decide to take this particular plunge.)
    • You might consider DCC for:
      • Complex indoor layouts, especially if you’re operating DCC-ready equipment anyway.
      • Outdoor railroads with good connectivity if you want uninterrupted hours of Multiple-Unit and Multiple Train operation.

      Note: George Schreyer’s articles on DCC (at http://girr.org/girr/tips/tips5/dcc_tips.html ) provide many more details you should consider before you decide on this solution.

    Proprietary Digital Command Products

    At this writing, there are two manufacturer-specific implementations of digital command technologies that are not entirely compatible with anything else on the market:

    • MTS is LGB's manufacturer-specific adaptation of certain DCC features. It is only available when ordered in new LGB locomotives--when I wrote this article, no retrofit for existing equipment or other manufacturers was planned. According to one reader, most of the basic operational commands are similar to "open" DCC, so that it may be (he claims always) possible to run a DCC-equipped locomotive on an MTH railroad and vice versa, although certain special features may not work. Still, the decision whether or not to use MTS is really secondary to your decision whether or not to invest in an all- or mostly-LGB railroad.
    • DCS is MTH's manufacturer-specific track-powered/remote control solution. While it has similar features to DCC, it is incompatible. It is "bundled" into MTH locomotives, which makes it relatively inexpensive if you plan to run MTH only. However, when I last checked, MTH had no plans for making retrofits available for other manufacturers' products. If you're just starting out and plan to use MTH exclusively, you may find this technology very useful. Also, if you're already familiar with MTH from their O gauge line, you may be more comfortable with DCS.

    • Pros of MTS and DCS:
      • Idiot-friendly access to special features (special sounds, raising and lowering pantographs, etc.) that are relatively complicated to implement with other solutions.
    • Cons of MTS and DCS:
      • You can't use your present collection of locomotives or any future purchases from other manufacturers.
    • You might consider MTS or DCS if:
      • You want multi-train features, don't like technical challenges, and, in the case of MTH, don't mind being restricted to one manufacturer's locomotives indefinitely.
Summary

A table that presents some of the overall advantages and disadvantages of each approach is provided below. Remember that specific manufacturers' solutions may differ slightly or offer "workarounds" to problems that are not available from other manufacturers of similar solutions, so do your homework.

Power/Control Combination:

Features/Pros/Cons:

Fixed Console/ Control Panel Location

Remote Control of Track Segments
(TE 5471)

Track Power and Individual Remote Control

Battery Power/ Radio Control

Radio

DCC

MTS

DCS

Locomotives can be used "out of the box"

Y*

Y*

N

N

Only new LGB purchased with MTS features installed

Only new MTH

N

Walkaround Control

N

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Locomotives run on non-conductive rails

N

N

N

N

N

N

Y

Remote control of special functions (whistles, etc.)

N**

N

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Good for hours of continuous unattended running (as on display layouts)

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

N

Good for running very long trains for long periods

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

N

Locomotives work without charging.

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

N

Multiple train operation on a single mainline possible without special wiring such as blocks

N

N

"Light" (2-3 on same powered track segment

"Light"

"Light"

"Light"

"Heavy" (as many as you can fit on the track)

Reverse loops possible without special wiring

N

N

N

N

N

N

Y

Your locomotive can run on anyone else’s railroad.

Most track-powered RRs, although DCC may cause to overheat

Most track-powered RRs, although DCC may cause to overheat

Most track-powered RRs, including DCC

Most track-powered RRs ***

Most track-powered RRs

Most track-powered RRs

All RRs

Relative cost of converting existing RR infrastructure (startup costs).

None

Low

Low

High

High

High

None

Relative cost of converting individual locomotives

None

None

Moderate

Low

Not Possible at this time

Not Possible at this time

High

Special Considerations

Inexpensive

Simple to Install

Good transition from TE 5471 or to battery power

Open Standard

LGB only

MTH only

Excellent portability and operation

*Lionel equipment with RailSounds isn’t compatible with Aristo equipment using Pulse Width Power. However relatively few of those engines are still in operation, so it’s not a major consideration.

**A few proprietary systems like Lionel RailSounds provides this function, but they're not common, and Lionel RailSounds is incompatible with almost all of the other systems described in this article.

***Most DCC onboard systems recognize when they're receiving ordinary track power and allow the locomotive to function normally.

How do you decide?

Visit some layouts using each kind of power before you make a major investment. If you like seeing many locomotives running more or less unattended at the same time, track power may be in your future, even if you may eventually want to have walkaround control. However, if you know from the start you’ll be using only battery power (for example, you want multiple "engineers" operating several trains on one point-to-point mainline) don’t "waste" your money on brass track, or even on an RC/track power combination.

For my part, I use track power, and I don't find it inconvenient to keep well-laid track clean and well-connected at all. But my track plan won't support a whole club's operation at one time like some folks' will. Maybe if I had a couple thousand feet of track instead of a couple hundred, I'd be preaching battery power too.

The short answer is that there is no "one size fits all" solution.

Your mileage WILL vary. On the other hand, "paralysis by analysis" poses more danger to your ultimate enjoyment of the hobby than buying initially into the wrong technology. Make your best "guestimate" of what power/control combination you will need and get started. If nothing else, there’s a good aftermarket for all of this stuff.

Best of luck. Paul

Appendix: Reader Feedback

In July, 2007, a reader who only identified himself as Knut wrote me to complain that I created a "serious error" by making LGB MTS and DCC sound less compatible than they really are. According to Knut, they are completely compatible except for some minor features. I don't know if that means he is running MTS-equipped LGB locomotives on an "NMRA standard" DCC railroad without problems or vice versa, because he hasn't told me. My other sources have indicated that there may be problems, and they've given me enough details to convince me that they have a good point. I guess my conclusion is that if you want to use DCC and MTS together in any combination, make certain they play together well enough for your purposes before you invest a fortune in equipment.


Home Pages
Reading Index Pages
Buyer's Guide Pages
Return to Family Garden Trains Home page Return to Big Indoor Trains Home page Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and  running well Big Indoor Trains Primer Articles: All about setting  up and displaying indoor display trains and towns. Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading Big Christmas Trains: Directory of Large Scale and O Scale trains with holiday themes
On30 and O Gauge trains to go with indoor display  villages and railroads


Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, and BIG Train Store™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.
Family Garden Trains is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

For more information, please contact us

Click to see exclusive, licensed Major League  Baseball(r) train and village collections!


Click to see new and vintage-style Lionel  trains.
Click to see new and vintage-style  Lionel trains

Click to see collectible  Christmas villages and trains.