Large Scale Power and Control

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

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.

New for 2005! Since I originally posted this article, more and more manufacturers are bundling remote control products with their trains:

At the moment, the two most popular track-power remote control systems that can be used on different brands of equipment are the Train Engineer (originally an AristoCraft brand, now sold as Crest brand) 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 have become popular as well.

Control - Two basic kinds of control are available:

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.

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.

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 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.


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.