Let’s face it large scale model railroading can is expensive, with cost continually increasing.
There is also a lot of misunderstanding, about the types of systems available, and the cost associated with them.
Basically, there is DC, RCC, DCC and DCC DeadRail.
Briefly, it’s exciting to run a train that you can control the lights and sounds, and have it sound like a real train; this brings it to a new level. There are a few ways to do this. The cost is where do you want to put your money.
If you are already using DC track power then shifting a DCC makes a lot of sense. In reality, most DCC systems cost about the same as a good DC transformer such as one from bridgeworks.
With RCC, you are spending your money on RC receivers, Sound Cards and Battery packs, it’s also often more complicated to install battery systems into locomotives. I prefer using DCC Deadrail installs because using CVP’s receiver, it’s compatible with all CVP systems but works with any DCC decoder I want to use, often times Sound Enabled DCC Decoders cost the same a Sound card that is DCC enabled. Confused? Basically, this means that the DCC Decoder drives the motors, lights and plays sounds, The CVP AirWire Receiver converts the DC power from the battery and adds a DCC signal so that from your handheld you can talk to that decoder as if it was on regular DCC rails.
The other option is an AirWire DCC receiver, that controls the lights and motor, from a battery pack. however to provide the sound you need to add a sound card.
The cost is now in the locomotive, – you have to buy the receiver, the sound card, and batteries, there are also times you need to run a separate battery car. You’ll also need a system to charge the batteries.
Your big advantage is you do not have to run power to your tracks or even ensure they provide good conductivity, you can run less expensive rail.
DCC Systems there are several out there; the main thing they do is generate the DCC Signal and provide power for your trains and associated accessories.
Like anything, the more features, the more power and the more accessories, the more it cost.
The dirty secret, large-scale trains use more amperage to carry the voltage, they in general like around 18VDC. Think of your amperage/voltage relationship like a big battery, when the battery starts losing power it stops working. So the more trains you run the more you need feeding to the tracks. It’s a big power pool. And Large-scale love power, say you want to blow that whistle, that sound will ask for upwards of 30amps for a brief second, this is the peak, otherwise, the decoder may only being using maybe 3-4 amps of power. the other issues are the more features, like smoke, 4 motors, etc the more power the decoder needs to be able to handle, otherwise, you are likely to run that decoder too hot and burn it up.
Now, why is this important?
Most base stations are designed to put out a maximum of 5Amps of power. The Base station generates the DCC signal, it also supplies that signal and power to the rails, this is the DCC world is called your railbus, the railbus talks to the stationary accessory decoders and the mobile decoders in locomotives and rolling stock. Now remember I said for large scale you may be able to run a single locomotive on 5Amps, but as soon as you press that horn or start asking for more power to pull a train, it starts straining that 5amps, will like to throw the internal breaker for the DCC base station and shut the system down.
How do we fix this, we need what is called a Booster, What the Booster does is boost that Amperage.
Bear with me. DCC really isn’t complicated.. the NMRA says that if you can not learn to operate a DCC system in a couple of minutes, that it is too complicated. So, the next part is how to control the system, since DCC applies a Signal to the DC voltage it also applies a constant voltage and amperage to the tracks, this means that lights in cars will be fully light up. Etc. this causes a lot of different problems based on the number of locomotives and the power they are drawing, but it also provides an issue of how to talk to the locomotive. Within DCC Systems we use what is called a CAB, the Cab is supposed to represent a locomotive cab, it allows us to play sounds, and drive the locomotive, and actuate accessories, such as turning on a light or throwing a turnout. This communicates to the base station via the Cab Bus. Think of the Cab Bus and Rail Bus as different bus routes or train lines. But they all go to the base station. The Cab Bus can use different communication protocols, such as RF, Wifi, Bluetooth and hardwire. You can also sometimes interchange Cabs with base stations, allowing you use a computer as your CAB. The Fun thing with using a computer as your CAB is that you can run programs to run your train. This type of set-up is now referred to dispatch operation verses simply driving the locomotive. The majority of systems, within the United States, use a hybrid system, wherein they are using software to help operate accessories and talk program the decoders. However, for full dispatch operations operation, you need a way to tell the computer where the train is.
There are a number of different solutions, as well as much more expensive DCC systems that provide ways of tracing the location of the train. That, however, is a bit out of scope for the basic, low-cost DCC system.
Lower costing basic systems:
Often times what you are buying with a DCC System is the cost of development and manufacturing then support for that system. Then for larger scales you need more power!
The least expensive system requires a bit of time, and willingness to experiment and learn, it also doesn’t really have any support or lifecycle path. Remember when a product is developed it has a growth and life cycle pathway.
DCC ++ falls under the least expensive, it’s also considered a homebuilt DCC system. This basically means it’s not supported by commercial software.
Today using what is called open source hardware and software you can build the system for about $50.00 in hardware. However, you have to install the software in the base station. However, you have to also Setup a Cab. Most people use Java Model Railroad Interface or JMRI/Decoder Pro, with something like WiTHrottle as a Cab when Using a DCC ++ system.
What this allows, is for a basic DCC system, which provides about 2amps of power and whatever voltage you are feeding it. Then, a Wireless cab on your mobile devices such as smartphone or tablet, it uses a WiFi interface through JMRI. JMRI run a tiny raspberry pi computer, laptop or desktop.
However, the only support for this setup is through online forums users. – Can it be setup for you and put in a box, sure. But now you have to pay someone. But once again that person is not likely going to provide technical support, simply because there are too many variables.
It’s a great system, but you have to be willing to do a lot for your self.
In addition for large scale you still need a booster, there are plans to build one, or you can simply buy one.
The Sprog is a step above DCC++, it uses similar hardware, but is now a commercial system, with professionally developed software, with a lifecycle. However, you still need to supply your own cab, most commonly used is the open source JMRI and WiThrottle. The good news is that you can also use other 3rd party commercial software as a throttle or even dispatch operations.
Sprog does offer some boosters, but they are typically do not provide enough to run multiple large scale trains. So, if you want more power you need to buy it.
The Newest Sprog is effectively plug and play, it’s attached to a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, and installed with JMRI, all you need to is setup it up with your Wifi and mobile device.
That Sprog Sells for about $160.00.
comparing DCC ++ to the Sprog, if you can build it, DCC ++ is the cheapest, but there is no real support. The Sprog is a commercial system and offers support.
If you have to pay someone to build the DCC ++ System for you and support it for you, it’s going to cost you a pile of money in the long run. Remember you now are basically retaining a consultant. my fees are listed.
Moving on there is likely other low-cost systems, I’m focused on what is easy to get in the United States
I highly recommend this System, it’s made by CVPUSA, which a lot of people call Airwire.
CVP has been around since the 70’s and helped write the DCC Standards, they’ve also published articles about building your own DCC system.
This is a completely commercial system, with full support, the starter system comes with a Command Station, and this is your cab and base station in one unit, a Booster, and the power supply.
This basic system goes for around $280.00, you can purchase plug-in or wireless cabs, or use JRMI on a computer with Wifi for a mobile device.
Bachmann’s EZ DCC
I’m mentioning this because it is low cost, but I’m not sure that it has the ability to really run large scale locomotives or even be expanded. From what I’ve read it doesn’t appear to be much more than a glorified transformer with some basic DCC functions to sound the whistle and make the train go forward. The support is typical Bachmann support. For large scale, the basic decoder is a slimmed down version of a Soundtrax decoder. The decoders are a whole different topic. EZ DCC runs about $200.00
The price jump for a DCC system for large-scale start at about $600.00 this means they support at least 8 amps, manufacturers such as NCE, Digitraxx and so on do offer lower costing systems but again they are typically for smaller scales such as HO.
This doesn’t mean that you can not buy the parts separately, but that will likely cost you more, in the long run.