Large Scale Trains Power Source Tips

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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

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 some time ago. Since most engines come ready-to-run on track power, this is reasonable. Under some conditions, the system does indeed work adequately well.

Pro Con
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

  • Soldered jumper wires or
  • Screwed rail joiners or
  • Rail clamps or
  • Conductive grease or
  • all of the above (overkill)

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 Power

Battery Powered R/C 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.

Pro Con
Less 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

Track must still be cleared of debris such as leaves, sticks and pine needles

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

  • Power pickup disconnection
  • Battery and receiver installation
  • Charging connection installation

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.

Pro Con
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

Only one throttle needed per operator.

Remote control of engine accessories and sound systems

Unlimited run time

Reversing track wiring simplified and sometimes handled automatically

Track shorts handled automatically without any permanent damage

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 is common but 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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Live Steam

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.

Pro Con
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.

Many live steam locos do not have insulated wheelsets so that they short out powered track

Steam engines are constant torque devices unlike electric motors which tend to be constant speed devices.

  • Steam engines are very sensitive to changes in load so level track is helpful.
  • Radio control is important to allow for changes in grade and load.

Restricted to outdoor use due to fire hazard

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This page has been accessed hit counter times since 20 June 1998.

© 1998-2010 George Schreyer
Created 20 June 1998
Last Updated September 26, 2010