This page is intended to help the newbie to Large Scale Trains make an informed choice among the various practical ways to power his trains. For those of you who have already made your choice, you'll already know more about it than the information presented here.
If there were a "best" way to power large scale trains, then there wouldn't be any need for this page as everybody would already be doing it the best way. However, there isn't a "best" way for everybody as each method has both significant advantages and serious disadvantages. The choice is therefore a trade-off and the factors that influence that trade-off vary sharply depending on many conditions such as environment, operating practice and personal preference. Since all the the methods discussed here actually work, its the downside factors that you should pay most attention to.
In the smaller scales, the choice is easier. In an HO or N scale engine, there is hardly room for a motor, adequate weight and maybe a DCC decoder. On board batteries would be out of the question and I'll bet that there are very few live steam HO or N scale locos around. Large scale trains are big enough to operate on live steam or to carry the mechanism AND a set of batteries so the envelope of possibilities opens much wider.
Conventional track power is the choice of about 70% of large scale train operators. This figure was obtained from a Large Scale On Line Voting Booth question posted recently. Since most engines come ready-to-run on track power, this is reasonable. Under some conditions, the system does indeed work adequately well.
|Most engines come ready-to-run wired for track power
No engine modifications required
Unlimited run time
High power available
Can run accessories such as smoke and lights in the engine and/or train with little impact
Multiple Unit operation is easy
Engines can be controlled by walk around radio control with a trackside receiver
|Needs more expensive rail, see Track Selection Tips
Track must be reasonably clean, see Track Cleaning Tips
Engine wheels must be reasonably clean. Cross wiring between engines or an engine and its tender is recommended, see Power Connector Tips
Rail joints must be good, see Track Soldering Tips
May involve extensive underground wiring and a complicated control panel
Reversing loops must be treated carefully (see Reversing Tips)
Multiple engines in the same electrical block cannot be operated independently
Plastic wheels can leave worn off plastic residue on the rails especially in hot weather, which interferes with power pickup,. Metal wheels are expensive.
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Battery powered Large Scale trains have become very popular especially in environments were track cleaning gets to be a real problem. Battery power completely avoids many of the problems that come with track power, but it introduces a different set of problems. Here in sunny Southern California or indoors, track power works quite well. However in other environments, it hardly works at all. In the Pacific Northwest where it rains nearly every day, splashed grit on the rails is death to track power and wet rails oxidize much faster. Snails and slugs leave slime trails which are good insulators. Even ants get to be a problem as they love to use the rails for freeways and the weak acid that they leave as trial markers is corrosive as are thousands of crushed ant bodies.
|NO TRACK CLEANING
No track wiring
Rail joints need be mechanically secure only
Can use less expensive aluminum rail
Dirty track often improves traction
Independent engine control on the same track (allows cornfield meets)
Engines can be transported to run on any other railway, track powered or not
Almost all systems use walk around radio control
Control receiver can often control engine bell and horn/whistle as well
Batteries installed in trail car can be used with several different engines limiting the engine modifications required
Batteries installed in engine add to engine tractive effort by adding weight
|Batteries, receivers and transmitters can run $100 to well over
$200 per engine for a do it yourself installation
Profession installation of batteries and receivers adds even more expense
Limited run time
Engine modifications usually required will usually void manufacturer's warranty
Many engines have limited internal room for batteries, limits run time even more
Battery life is limited, rechargeable batteries must be replaced after a few hundred charge/discharge cycles
Mistreatment of batteries can result in rapid battery failure
Use of accessories such as smoke and lights further limits run time
Not suitable for continuous operation
Batteries installed in trailing car limit train length, ESPECIALLY on grades. A trail car full of batteries can weigh more than 5 lbs.
Trail car cannot be disconnected from engine during operation.
Multiple unit operation difficult, speed sync problem
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Digital Command Control is a system which distributes control signals to each locomotive through digital coding of a signal on the track. Power is distributed on the track as well. DCC has become popular in the smaller scales to allow independent engine control of many engines on the same track. Larger and club layouts benefit most from DCC, but any size layout can use DCC.
|Multiple, independent engine control
Engine accessories can often be controlled from the DCC decoder
Works very well in Multiple Unit operation
Smooth and accurate speed control
Remote control of engine accessories and sound systems
Unlimited run time
Reversing track wiring simplified and sometimes handled automatically
Some DCC equipment from various manufacturers can be mixed and matched, however you must be careful to get fully compatible equipment.
Lower incremental expense than R/C battery power
|High Initial Expense. Initial DCC installation on a medium sized
layout can easily run over $500 and can go much higher.
Requires decoder installation in each engine. Large Scale decoders run $50 or more
Radio walk around control just becoming available but is excessively expensive. Can add $200 per radio throttle.
Track must be as clean and well conditioned as required for regular track power
Some DCC equipped engines cannot be run on a layout not equipped for DCC (depends on decoder design)
Typically only one conventional track powered engine can be controlled on a layout wired for DCC, some systems don't allow a track powered engine at all. In any event, use of a non-DCC equipped loco on a DCC system is hard on the loco.
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Large Scale engines are big enough to make live steam practical. Only a small percentage of hobbyists use live steam, but those that do are often nearly fanatical. To be bitten (or perhaps burned) by the live steam bug seems to be a terminal condition.
|Very high emotional satisfaction index
Sights, sounds and smells that cannot be replicated by electric trains
Track cleaning not an issue (live steam makes dirty track anyway)
Same low cost track advantages as battery power
Can be radio controlled
Independent operations of multiple engines on one track
1st degree burns
Much fiddling required to get them going and keep them running
Latent danger of boiler explosions (doesn't happen often)
Larger engines often require very large radius track
Oil deposits on the track make mixing live steam and track power or DCC difficult.
Steam engines are constant torque devices unlike electric motors which tend to be constant speed devices.
Restricted to outdoor use due to fire hazard
This page has been accessed times since 30 Oct 1999.
© 1998-2001 George Schreyer
Created 20 June 1998
Last Updated Dec 24, 2001