POWERING YOUR LAYOUT
The first thing you need to decide in designing a layout is the power system. Traditionally, model railroads were powered through the tracks using DC (direct current.) This system is still used on some garden railroads. Aristocraft has a system that uses DC track power with a walk-around radio throttle. This works fine if you only run a single train, but it becomes more complicated with two or more trains. To do this, you typically need to divide the layout into power blocks. Then every train in the same block must run in the same direction, run at the same speed, and stop at the same time.
If you want to run more than one train at a time, then the better route is to use digital command control, battery power, or some comparable system. All of these approaches involve installing some electronics in each of your locomotives. This increases the cost of each locomotive and requires some work to do the installation, but the improved flexibility in operations is tremendous.
Digital command control (DCC) uses track power, but the power is AC (alternating current) instead of DC. The power pick-ups in each locomotive are isolated from the motor and a small circuit board called a decoder is installed between the power pick-ups and the motor. This circuit board feeds DC power to the motor, controlling the direction of travel and the speed. Household AC alternates the polarity of the current at a regular frequency. A DCC command station controls the switching of the polarity in the AC power going to the track. In this way, it can include a digital signal in the track current which the decoders can detect. This signal allows each decoder to receive individual instructions which control the direction and speed of the locomotive. DCC can also be used to control a sound system and lights on a locomotive or to consist multiple locomotives to run together pulling a single train. For garden railroads, radio throttles can be used with DCC. The throttles send radio signals to a small receiver attached to the command station which converts them to digital signals on the track. Each decoder has its own address, and each throttle can be set to control a different decoder, and hence a different locomotive. With good track connectors that ensure good power transmission through the track, only a few power connections to the track are needed. On the Lake Town & Shire, we have a single connection for 650 feet of track. Any track-powered layout requires some work to keep the track clean enough so the locomotives can pick up power from the rails.
With battery power, special cars are filled with powerful batteries and these are charged before each operating session. Each locomotive must be provided with a battery car. If the batteries run down, another car with freshly charged batteries can be connected to the locomotive. Components that do the job of a DCC decoder and a radio receiver are installed in each locomotive. Radio throttles are then used to control the locomotives. Battery power avoids the need to keep the track clean enough to allow power pick-up from the tracks, but this is a tradeoff since it requires battery cars and battery charging. And you still have to clean the tracks of any debris large enough to cause derailments. Another advantage of battery power is that you can use less expensive aluminum track. Aluminum track does not conduct electricity well enough to use for track-powered layouts. Another disadvantage of battery power from operations is that you can't pick up or drop off the battery car unless you exchange it for another battery car. So one car (the battery car) stays on the train behind the locomotive at all times.
One last options is live steam. Garden railroad locomotives are large enough to be equipped with working burners, boilers, and cylinders. Live steam locomotives can be controlled using manual controls in the locomotive or using radio controlled systems. Nothing could be more realistic than a live steam locomotive, but they typically have less pulling power for their size than an electric locomotive and, of course, you have to replenish water and fuel (butane is often used) from time to time. A growing number of garden railroaders run live steam, but I am not aware of anyone using live steam to do a lot of switching of cars. Also, if you are going to run sessions with young operators, you should be aware of the possibility of burns with live steam.
In some form or other, these are about all the options there are for power: DC track power, DCC or some other system that combines track power with control of locomotives through electronics installed in each locomotive, battery power with control of locomotives through electronics installed in each locomotive, and live steam power with manual controls or control of locomotives through electronics installed in each locomotive.
On the Lake Town & Shire, we use the 8 amp Digitrax DCC command station and Digitrax radio throttles. We have used the same command station since we began operations in 2000 and we have been very happy with it. We use mostly Digitrax decoders, although we have used a few Quantum decoders with sound. Our command station is powerful enough to run four or five locomotives at one time. We have found that the less expensive radio throttles tend to wear out fairly quickly with young operators. The problem seems to be the potentiometers, the round knobs that control the locomotive's speed. Children, even with training, have a tendency turn the pots past their stops. After some time, they become erratic. We often use five different throttles during an operating session. With this kind of use, we average replacing one throttle a year. We have also experienced some difficulty with the radio receiver picking up the signals from the throttles. We have a group of small trees between the house and the back of the layout. As these grew taller and denser, we have had problems controlling trains at the back of the yard. This year, we bought an additional radio receiver and a 200 foot data cord (basically, a six wire telephone cord.) Before an operating session, we run the data cord and a power cord around the side of the yard to the back area. Here we set up the extra radio receiver. This has solved our control problem. By next season, we hope to have the second radio receiver permanently installed in the yard.
I would recommend DCC, particularly the Digitrax system since we have had good experience with it. However, other systems, including battery power, can work well for operating sessions. I would not recommend DC. I used DC on indoor HO and N scale layouts thirty years ago and I would not want to try it in the garden unless I was convinced I would never want to run more than one train at a time. I also would not recommend live steam for operation sessions, although I think it would be great to have a live steam engine to run on our layout when we are not doing operations. If you do decide to use DCC, you might want to take a look at the Digitrax website. An online supplier I have used for DCC is Southern Digital. Owner Paul Lator has been very helpful and his prices are competitive.