When it comes to controlling your model trains on the tracks, you are pretty much left with two choices: Analog control and DCC (Digital Command Control). There are vast differences between these two methods of controlling your trains on the track, and here we’ll look at them and discuss what you may need for your layout.
Firstly, a definition of the two terms is in order. Analog control works by having the power pack send a variable voltage charge into the track, which is picked up by all the locomotives you have on your track, causing them to have motion. Their motors and lights are fed this current directly through their wheels which are in contact with the tracks. If more current is served up, your engine will go faster. If you reverse the polarity, the train will change direction. So in essence when you have analog control all you are ever really controlling is the current which goes into the tracks, and you are only able to have one system going at once.
DCC is another animal. The booster puts a constant current into the track, and each engine is controlled by means of a decoder, which receives its signals from the command station. The commands are specific to that locomotive only, and the other trains on the track don’t respond to it. This opens up a world of possibilities. The lighting effects you can utilize are numerous: strobe, ditch, mars, cab and others. You are able to program in many more sounds, and control them from your console. You have complete control over your turnouts and uncoupling. All of this is controlled by a computer, and the ultimate upside to all this is that your layout operates much more like a real railway, with trains going at different speeds, crawling to a gradual stop, even matching prototype acceleration and deceleration profiles with a few keystrokes. You can adjust the speed vs. throttle curves for each locomotive independent of the others, giving you the ability to match each other. You can even introduce speed stabilization, and your decoder senses the speed of the locomotive for you and adjusts the power to the train.
A typical DCC system consists of a power supply, decoder, throttle, command station and a booster. Most all DCC systems have at least a 14 speed step control, but both 28 speed step and 128 speed step are becoming more and more available. You can imagine the possibilities with 128 speed step. One of the best things about a DCC system is that parts and systems are all interchangeable. If the company you bought from goes out of business tomorrow your railway is still rolling. DCC wiring is fairly straightforward and simple, and it is possible to convert an analog track to DCC , thus ridding you of the headache of complex analog wiring and block assignments.
One tip to note is that if you are thinking of converting to DCC try and do it as early as you can in your journey. If you have or anticipate having a large yard of locomotives and complex layout it could be something of a chore to convert so many locomotives and tracks to DCC. Just food for thought. If you are already in that position, carefully weigh the possible advantages and decide if it’s worth the time and expense. DCC can certainly bring more realism and fun to your layout. Give it a good look!