Model trains and model railroading are more popular today than ever. While the standards for model trains — both European (NEM) and North American (NMRA) — are more than 75 years old, the last two decades have brought about fascinating changes in model train and railroading technologies.
One of the biggest changes was from analog control to digital. While there are advantages to both with respect to potential and versatility, digital command control (DCC) is both the present and future.
That said, direct current (DC) operations are not obsolete. There are still advantages to DC, with price and simplicity being the two primary ones.
A Quick Overview of DC
Direct current control is the original power source system used by model train and railroading enthusiasts. Direct current — as opposed to the alternating current (AC) you have in your home — has no circuit (return) and no ground.
Since the original power source for your model train or railroad will be AC, DC model trains require a transformer between the power source and the track.
Simple and reliable, DC is still the control many prefer. As in every industry, there are traditionalists who believe the old way of doing things remains the best. It is no different in the world of model trains and railroading.
An Overview of DCC and Its Advantages
Digital command control is a power source system that is light years ahead of DC systems. If DC systems are analogous to rotary phones, then DCC systems are like the most advanced smartphone available.
The advantages of DCC controllers are factors of modeling potentials and options, not the power itself. DCC and DC are essentially equal with respect to power supply consistency and reliability. What dramatically separates DCC from DC is the way the power is used.
DCC vs. DC Controllers
As the name implies, controllers are the means by which a modeler controls his train, moving the train up and down the track. A DC controller is capable of adjusting speed and changing direction. Those are the only two functions a DC controller can offer.
A DCC controller, on the other hand, has the potential to allow a model train enthusiast to control more than one train at one time — even if they are on the same track; make switches from the control; control points; and control lighting and sound.
On a DC track, all trains on the rails move at the same rate of speed and change direction at the same time. The only way to control different trains is with switches. On a DCC controlled track, every train can be controlled independently without switches. The ability to change directions and move points from the control gives the entire experience a more organic feel.
Remote vs. Cable
DCC controllers are available in two types: direct connect and remote. Direct connect offers the same control potentials as remote, but remote DCC is wireless, which allows for freedom of movement around a room without dragging around cables.
Cost Factors Related to DC and DCC
DCC is more expensive because the technology is both easier to develop on a track and far more versatile. DC is less expensive because the model train’s potential is limited until a conversion from DC to DCC is made.
Some might suggest beginning with DC and moving to DCC later on, but the biggest expense of DCC is associated with that conversion. As such, rather than starting inexpensively and moving to better technology in the future, it is actually far better to start with DCC if you have even the slightest thought of making the conversion in the future.
DCC Is Here to Stay
One concern novice model train and railroading enthusiasts may have is standardization. Because of NMRA standards, not only will old technology remain functional, different brands can be mixed without issue as well.