Choosing your power - how do I make a decision?


The goal of this page is to try to help you decide your long term / future in this important decision. Track power vs. battery power is probably the most hotly debated topic in large scale. (I'm leaving live steam out of this!)

Please note, I'm addressing battery vs track power as the main power source for your locomotives (and usually for lighted cars). Realize that track power can also be useful for powering remote switch controllers, buildings, etc.

Why is this NOT about what remote control system is best? There is a relationship between power delivery and some remote control systems, but virtually ANY remote control system can be made to work with either track power or battery.

So I am NOT tying the type of remote control systems to track or battery power here, as is the "common wisdom" (that is in the next FAQ)

So, in line with my technique to help people make choices by breaking the problem down into smaller pieces, let's just talk battery vs track power.

Avoiding bias:

Each "camp" has their own "formula" "proving" their decision is best.

You will meet people you respect and they will typically convince you their choice is the best. Of course, it's only human nature, but you need to expose yourself to many different options if you want to make the best long term decision so that you don't go part way down the road and then regret your choice.

Good decisions (and products) are supported by their advantages, not by "putting down" an alternative decision or product.If the advice you get is that every other way is inferior in all aspects, then you need more and different advice! 

If money and time are no object, then pick whatever you fancy now, and change later. Unfortunately, I have NEVER met anyone who stated money AND time were no object, so let's continue!

Decision methodology:

The technique presented below is the "process of elimination", trying to find criteria that helps you "eliminate" a "less optimal" choice.

Why do it this way? Because there are really NO "wrong" answers.

Note: it may seem that the following is written sort of backwards, but for a reason: to help you see the "no's" to help eliminate choices and home in on the best choice for you. Therefore, the statements may appear "negative" but that's the best way to eliminate choices that are not in line with what you want, by the method of "elimination".

Elimination logic examples:

  • If you say: "I have lots of very small locos and I need sound and batteries in them all, and no trailing cars", then elimination statement #1 below would say battery might not be for you.
  • If:
    • you have a very tight budget
    • and will only have one or 2 locos
    • and are going to have a lot of track
    • and you cannot/will not solder jumpers between rails

then #6 below would be operational: track power might not be for you. Aluminum or home-made track and battery might be the path.

Battery power:

I will start with battery power, because it requires the most work, and feature for feature, is the highest cost per loco. Most people do not realize this, and make the decision without looking at all the additional concerns, which are mainly because the installation is more complex.

Basically battery power where you do not depend on the rails to supply power to the locomotive. Often touted as the only way to go because of reduced cost, no track maintenance, no wiring, etc.(lower cost is a fallacy). Unlearn most of what you have heard.

Again we are starting with battery power because it actually has the most limitations, highest installation cost, and least standardization. It's true, and you will see this for yourself if you look carefully. I've had it "out" many times over the years with the battery crowd, and when the discussions were kept factual and courteous, what I say here is (usually grudgingly) acknowledged.

Again, the decision is NOT all about cost. Keep reading, the idea is to give you the FEATURES you want, address MAINTENANCE, and CONVENIENCE.

Battery power (with some form of basic Remote/Control)

Put a battery in the locomotive and a motor controller and receiver. Newer battery technologies are more compact, but small locos will be tough or have very limited run time. Space will usually be at a premium, and not always enough room in all locos for sound and a speaker after the batteries are in. Note very small locos may not have room for enough battery and a sound card. Run time may be compromised. Small locos with sound will have speaker space competing with battery and receiver space.

Battery power with a shared "battery car" (slightly different)

This method is to use a shared "battery car" hooked up to your loco. The idea being very few modifications to the loco (but usually some), and all the power and control is in the battery car, usually a box car.

You get to use it with other locos, instead of putting batteries in all locos. Of course, if you run 4 locos at at time, then you need 4 battery cars or much larger batteries.

Note that if you run sound, then you won't have the right sounds for every loco and the sound will not come from the loco unless you run another wire from the battery car to the loco.

Be sure to consider what I just mentioned, how many locos will you run at the same time. Also, be SURE to consider the implications of sound, i.e. if your sound unit is in the battery car, then you will have the SAME sound for all locos.

Battery power considerations: (things people forget)

Batteries DO wear out and need replacing, and chargers are not free and can break. Just consider it. It's part of the decision for both cost and convenience.

You can save money on track using battery power run very inexpensive track and not worry about conductivity, or removing the oxide from the rail.

You WILL still clean track of debris, twigs and leaves and other things will derail your locos. Many people get excited about "no track cleaning" but it is "no oxide removal if you have brass track".

There's also "no track cleaning" with stainless steel rails, and very little with nickel silver rails, so the cost of the track enters. "No track cleaning" is NOT exclusive to battery power.

Battery power elimination items: (things that will tell you battery may not be optimum for you)

This is a great idea for a large number of people. Battery power will be good for you if you are OK with the following "elimination tests":

  1. All your locos are large enough to hold batteries and/or sound OR you do not mind having a trail car coupled to the loco with the batteries and remote control receiver. Remember the restrictions of only having one sound in the battery car, and the extra power used by sound and smoke. Some locos can use small batteries, or you might be happy with short runtimes, you need to talk to an installer if you cannot gauge this yourself.

  2. You need to consider installation cost/hassle. Feature for feature, battery power is more than track power or DCC. There are just more components. There are a number of locomotives out there that have a "plug and play" capability, most notably Aristo-Craft, and some Bachmann. This makes the installation of certain R/C systems dead simple. For locomotives that are not plug and play, you will need to be (or become) relatively handy with basic electronics. An alternative is to have the installation done for you. Traditionally custom installations have been very expensive ($300-$600), but "basic" installations have been offered. While this is getting easier all the time, you can ask installers what they will charge before you commit.

  3. You are OK with spending more money overall (total costs) for battery power if you have over about 4 locos. The cost crossover point WILL vary. You can keep costs down by having fewer chargers, shorter run-times, fewer features, but apples to apples comparison (equivalent features) battery power loses in the long run, even to the most expensive DCC systems.

  4. Even if cost is not an issue, charging multiple locos involves more work and time and storage space. You cannot leave the locos out on the track to charge. Be sure you have the space to do this (normally this is only an issue with a large number of locos, or very severe storage space).

  5. You can afford to have approximately  as many battery chargers as locos running at the same time. Explanation, if you have too few chargers in relation to the number of locos you are running, you will probably run out of power during a lengthy running session. "Quick charging" like a power drill does not cut it, for a number of reasons. Also realize that the "one charger will charge all battery packs" is not usually workable. Different battery packs normally need different chargers, not just different voltages, but different amp hours. (you slow charge a higher capacity pack, but now you are back in how long does it take to charge batteries before you can use them). Standardizing battery packs is not too difficult in large diesels, but pretty much impossible in smaller steam and small locos.

  6. Cost to build track is the highest priority, i.e. aluminum or even metal straps in wood ties. (remember to balance total cost). You can make track very cheaply. (Forget plastic track)

  7. You cannot run power feeders to your track from a power supply. (weird but some people cannot get power outside to the layout)

  8. You do not want to doublehead or MU different locos often or at all (which will run at different speeds). Caveat: Some of the most sophisticated remote control systems (more money) will do this OK, and a few very well, but the cost and complexity go up.

  9. You do not mind some possible limited control. Most R/C systems allow a fair amount of control, but the extra features come at a price, and none of the wireless systems are compatible with each other. Be sure to consider what you want from your trains. If you want a whole lot of extra functions to control remotely from your throttle, like lots of different lighting effects, many functions on a sound unit, etc, then many of the current wireless systems may have a limitation, or be clumsy in operation.

  10. NO SMOKE! The smoke units basically draw as much or more current than the motors, it's just not practical.

OK, those are the big "gotchas", if you can live them, then perhaps battery power is for you. You would do well to explore what simple track power can do for you and also DCC.

Common misconceptions about battery power:

Note: I did not say anything about cleaning track. This is usually the first reason people give for going battery. Well, half of "track cleaning" is getting dirt, grit, leaves and debris off the rail, so that is the SAME between battery and track power.

What is different is cleaning the oxidation from rail. I addressed that on #5. If you want to go track power, my only recommendation is stainless steel, and you will NEVER have to clean oxidation from it. So, it's really a matter of cost. Remember that the track is usually a one time investment.

Battery power is great for lots of people, but realize it is an investment in specialized proprietary controllers, batteries, chargers, and lots of work cramming batteries in the locos. Also, you will have to take the batteries out every so often, so there will be additional wear and tear on your rolling stock.


I'd recommend battery power for small to medium size layouts where you rarely run more than a couple of trains at the same time. If you get a large roster of locomotives, seriously consider putting the batteries in a battery car that is coupled behind the locos. Make it so you can remove the battery packs easily. If you like sound, this is not a good option.

Battery power does not work well for people that run a lot of trains at the same time, or with lots of lighted cars, or if you want to run at a moment's notice, or if you want to run more than a couple of hours at a time. 

Russ MCintyre's Bachmann Davenport with radio control, 5 AA li-ions, and a phoenix P8 with speaker all under the hood. .

Track power

OK, so to explore track power, we will explore by elimination again, but I will define some "flavors" of track power first since there are some nuances.

Track power - Variable DC

This is the way your locos come out of the box. This is the cheapest initial solution, and usually the most limiting, but one of the best starting points.

Track power has the advantage of basically running as many locos at a time as you want, and not worrying about having enough room to fit batteries in your locos. Keeping the rails powered used to be tough, but with the advent of stainless steel rail and rail clamps, it's a snap. This can cost more in track, but can be much more convenient, no batteries to charge.

Go see several layouts, talk to people, and above all, think about your future, not just right now.

A word of advice, it you cannot make up your mind, assume you will use track power, i.e. power the rails and make good connections. Even if you start with battery power, you might find yourself going to track power later if you start using more engines, or have engines that cannot hold enough batteries, or you want lighted cars, or charging batteries gets painful.

The point is be sure to consider the future.


Track power & R/C allowing multiple trains on one track - Proprietary systems

I'm going to address more full-featured systems here, the older systems were not as "friendly" to adding sound and accessories.

  • Aristo-Craft makes a system whereby a receiver goes into each loco, and will run from track or battery power. They have basically obsoleted their 27 and 75 MHz stuff, the new system is called the "revolution", released in 2009.
  • AirWire makes a system, and has gotten support from QSI and NCE. You can buy an AirWire receiver or a QSI with an add-on receiver. NCE is making a throttle you can use instead of the AirWire thottles. This system is basically DCC over the air. It's less proprietary in the sense that you can connect any DCC sound decoder or function decoder to the AirWire receiver. In addition, QSI makes a compatible receiver/decoder combination, and NCE makes a compatible wireless throttle.
  • MTH (Mike's train house) makes a system that almost rivals DCC in capability. It's more "tuned" towards sound than motor tuning/performance and lighting effects, but it has some great feature.

These systems can work very well, but since the receiver/decoders in the locos have antennas, many people have problems with installations, and poor range it they are not near the loco at all times.

Interference from the motors and other electronics in the locos, nearby radio sources and other home appliances can cause problems (your cordless phone, your microwave, your wireless computer and your Bluetooth headset all work on 2.4 GHz).

When it works well, it is great. Many people have good luck with the system. A big advantage is constant power on the rails, so lighted cars are always lit, and you do not need to break the track into blocks.

Of course, as with any track powered system, you will have to handle reversing loops, etc.

This can be quite an investment, so make sure it will work for you. Most R/C systems are set up for battery operation, and are proprietary system, and no other systems will work with them. The exception is AirWire, it is basically DCC over the air, and the AirWire receivers will support almost any DCC sound system.

Recommended for people running multiple trains. MU/doubleheading/consisting works, can be a pain with the Aristo, works well with the AirWire. I do not recommend this for people who are not handy with electronics, some installations require additional noise suppression components and a bit of fiddling with antennas. The QSI and Aristo systems will plug and play in an Aristo loco though, very easy to install.

Track power - DCC

DCC is an NMRA standard for a track powered system with multiple receivers, one in each loco.

You can mix and match components between manufacturers, and it is wildly popular with smaller scales.

The prices have been falling dramatically, and most manufacturers make LS receivers (called decoders) that handle the additional amperage of LS locos.

There are a tremendous amount of features and functions available, and there are many different types of controllers from simple to complex. There are also computer interfaces to allow remote or automatic control.

Decoders are now becoming available that have a sound system as part of the motor drive system, and actually change the sounds based on the actual load of the loco. The effect is incredible.

Speeds of locos can be matched exactly, so you can doublehead or MU any loco with any other loco.

Some unique features: 

  • Fine tuning running characteristics such as top speed, starting speed, mid range speed
  • Matching the speeds of two or more locos EXACTLY so you can MU/doublehead ANY locomotive, and run helpers in the middle and end of trains.
  • Lots of special effects.
  • Track power is constant, so you can tap it for lights, etc.
  • Run hundreds of accessories from the same controller
  • Many different manufacturers to choose from
  • Sophisticated wireless control, multiple base stations, virtually no limit on layout size or wireless range.

This is definitely where the future is going for track power and remote control. Highly recommended for anyone who will run multiple trains and/or multiple locos on one train.


DC Track power Elimination items

This is a great idea for a large number of people. DC track power will be good for you if you are OK with the following:

  1. You are OK with running a track cleaner on brass track

  2. , there are powered ones, manual ones, many types. OR you don't mind the extra cost of Stainless Steel track which NEVER needs oxide removal.  the rails)

  3. If you run only one train per "loop" of track, this makes sense.

  4. If your layout is divided into separate loops, you can put a controller on each one easily. This is the typical application of the old Aristo "Trackside" Train Engineer, basically a wireless throttle lever and reversing switch. Bridgeworks also makes a remote for it's power supplies.

More than one train per track means using breaking the track into separate electrical blocks. This can be done, just like it is commonly done in the smaller scales. For outdoors, there is the hassle of having the multiple feeds and switches for block power and to switch different controllers is not good outside. While this has worked successfully for the smaller indoor scales, very few people do this outdoors since things get so much farther apart.

Long term, you will most likely have to upgrade the stock rail joiners to rail clamps or solder jumpers on brass track. The clamps can be expensive, but easy to do, the jumpers are the opposite, basically free, but labor to solder them to the rail ends.

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