Subscriber & Member Login

Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!

Selecting the right DCC system

Some considerations for choosing a Digital Command Control system for your model railroad
❶ Introductory systems. Introductory systems like the Bachmann E-Z Command, left, and NCE PowerCab are inexpensive ways to get into Digital Command Control. Larry Puckett offers DCC shopping tips.
I can’t even begin to remember how many times folks have asked me “which Digital Command Control system should I buy?” or “Which one is best for me?” The answer isn’t as quite as simple as you might think, as there are a number of things to consider when selecting a DCC system.

One thing you don’t have to worry about, though, is compatibility with accessory and mobile decoders made by other manufacturers. Thanks to the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA)’s DCC standards and recommended practices, that compatibility is guaranteed. Let’s take a look, then, at what does matter.

First, most systems available today work well, have a good track record, and are available at a basic level with a similar array of features. Accordingly, I suggest finding out what the majority of your friends and the local club(s) use(s).

This is important since it means you will have a local support system of experienced users when you need help understanding how some features work. While most DCC equipment is highly reliable (I have only had to send one throttle back for repair in 24 years), the manuals can leave you scratching your head. This is especially true when you’re new to the technology and its jargon. Having someone to translate can relieve a lot of frustration.

Most manufacturers offer an introductory system to help ease you into the technology. Some can be added onto, some may be used as components of larger systems, and some are only suited for solo use. Introductory systems typically are low powered, have fewer features, and allow you to operate fewer locomotives.

For example, the Bachmann E-Z Command DCC system ❶ comes with a 1 amp power supply that can power two HO or four N scale locomotives (assuming .5 amps per locomotive for HO and .25 amps for N scale). The NCE PowerCab, on the other hand, is rated at 2 amps and therefore can power four HO and eight N scale locomotives.

The Bachmann system supports 10 simultaneous trains while the NCE system supports 12. However, you’re still limited by the available amperage, so these are just theoretical values unless you add more power. Both offer booster units to provide that additional power, which also allows these systems to be used with the larger O and G scales. One advantage of the PowerCab, for anyone needing future expansion capacity, is the ability to use it with NCE’s more powerful and advanced Power Pro system.
❷ More power. Digitrax offers the DCS210, left, as part of an intermediate-level introductory system that probably will fit the needs of most model railroads as far as power and memory, while the DCS240 offers advanced capabilities such as a built-in USB computer interface.
❸ Programming throttles. More advanced throttles, from left, like the Model Rectifier Corp. (MRC) Prodigy
series, Digitrax DT500, and NCE PowerCab provide full programming capabilities. Note that the MRC has one mid-size locomotive control knob, the Digitrax throttle has two small knobs, and the NCE has a horizontal thumbwheel. In addition, the throttles have individual push buttons to increase and decrease speed.
❹ Basic utility. Utility throttles like the Digitrax UT4D, left, and NCE Cab-06 have a single large locomotive control knob. These give you the ability to control functions, but can’t be used for programming decoders.

Many manufacturers also offer more advanced systems ❷ that allow users to operate more locomotives, control accessories, set up routes, and communicate with computers. With four-digit address capabilities you can enter addresses up to 9999, and large internal memories allow you to store the addresses of hundreds of locomotives and consists. While you may never need that many locomotive addresses, large clubs and big operators might.

However, it also means even the average modeler will not run into memory issues when attempting to use the full system capabilities on a model railroad. These advanced systems typically have more power, with
5 amps being the norm.

Throttles are another important consideration. Your throttle is the interface for your DCC system just like a computer keyboard allows you to interact with your computer. Because you’ll be using the throttle to program decoders, modify system settings, and control locomotives, it needs to be something you’re comfortable with. For this reason I recommend visiting a local club or DCC system owner to get a little hands-on time to see how different throttles feel and operate.

There are two basic types of throttles: programming throttles with either vertical knobs or horizontal thumbwheels for speed control ❸, and small throttles about the size of your palm with a speed control knob ❹.

The large programming throttles have a variety of push buttons designed for data entry as well as function control. The three throttles shown in ❸, although similar in the number of push buttons and functionality, each have their own approach to locomotive control.

The Digitrax DT500 has two small speed control knobs, making it simple to control two trains at the same time. The Model Rectifier Corp. (MRC) throttle has a single medium-sized control knob, while the NCE throttle has a horizontal thumbwheel for speed control.

The NCE approach makes it easy to hold the throttle in your hand and use your thumb to control locomotive speed while freeing your other hand for holding a schedule or other operating aids. All of these throttles have an address recall capability allowing you to easily switch from one locomotive to another.

The smaller utility throttles ❹ have fewer buttons, since they’re not used for programming and accessing other advanced features. Most of the operators I know like the feel of a large diameter control knob, and a unit that fits comfortably in your hand can be an important factor during a three-hour operating session.

The other great thing about utility throttles is they’re less expensive than the larger throttles, making them ideal to keep on hand for visitors and operators who don’t already own a throttle. Also, because utility throttles don’t have the advanced push buttons and capabilities, you can feel relatively safe to just hand off a train to children or drop-in visitors without fear they’ll reset your system or reprogram a locomotive.

Wireless throttles may not be an important item on your checklist at first, but once you’ve operated on a walk-around layout with one, you’re going to want your own. Fortunately, most manufacturers offer some type of wireless throttle capability. These technologies include infrared, radio, and WiFi-based systems. With some systems you can even use an iPhone, iPad, or Android phone or tablet to control your locomotives.

A final consideration is the availability of devices like accessory decoders, block occupancy detectors, computer interfaces, and other accessories. While many of these can be used with any brand of DCC system, some of the extended capabilities are system dependent.

For example, many Digitrax accessories make use of the company’s LocoNet communication network to provide feedback to the main unit (command station) and the computer interface. Although you may not plan on using these features now, if at some time in the future you should decide to use some of them, having this communication capability may be an important consideration.

Selecting a DCC system, especially when you’re new to model railroading or are just beginning to build a model railroad, may seem a bit challenging. Taking a little time to plan out what you might want in the future can save you some expense and frustration down the road.

Join the discussion

Read and share your comments on this article
Comment on this article
Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of are allowed to comment on this article. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.


Servicing steam locomotives step-by-step

Model Railroader Newsletter See all
Sign up for our FREE e-newsletter and get model railroad news in your inbox!
By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Model Railroader magazine. Please view our privacy policy