Railroad modelling tips and questions

A bit if a DCC theme today – starting with a question from Andrew:

“Take a look at my layout so far…this is the bottom section and I’m about to start wiring for DCC
Any suggestions PLEASE !!!???? for wiring especially




I’m an HOer:

Drilling a 1/4 (or whatever) inch hole through my layout table and then inserting a 1/4-inch (or appropriate) plastic tubing through it so that I can easily route those pesky #26 wires for lighting accessories to the underside of the structure. I love it!



“hey al,

more very good stuff. btw, sand paper makes a very good imitation of various surfaces, i.e.:
aluminum oxide is a light tan color, good for replicating sandy areas. beach sidewalks, and parking lots.
emery paper, or wet or dry, can be used for streets and parking lots depending on the grit size …

the drinking straws can be dyed using everyday household “Rite” Dye. can be gotten at the grocery store. be VEEEEERY careful with this as it will stain anything it comes in contact with. I got an old sauce pan for a dollar at a yard sale and use it just for this purpose. the old timmey metal ice cube trays work very well if you can find one …


Lots of DCC stuff on the ebay cheat sheet by the way:



38 Responses to Railroad modelling tips and questions

  1. Roger says:

    For Andrew, and all those new to DCC, like me.

    Wiring a DCC layout is much simpler than DC, but can still be quite daunting.

    I am in the middle of it myself, and I think there are a number of decisions to be made before tackling the job…..

    1. What equipment will you be using – whilst all DCC should be interchangeable a manufacturers offerings often helps in planning eg Infra red, wireless, mobile or fixed controllers
    2. Are you going to break up your layout into Power Districts (recommended) so any any problems can be better identified and don’t bring the whole system to a standstill.
    3. Are you likely to want computer control or automatic signalling, which will require block control – work better done now rather than later, though equipment and faciliatation can come later.
    4. Identify any loops/turntables that need an auto reverser (or similar).
    5. Do you want your points DCC controlled, by switches, or both!
    6. Will you need Boosters – your layout does look pretty large.
    7. What current will be flowing, a question for wire and equipment sizing

    Just some of the things to think about, decisions for which will push you along which way to go, or not!

  2. david says:

    Very interesting layout there with loads of possibilities, apart from the usuall running a bus line underneath with droppers, I know a few use those copper rolls and lay it along side the track then put connecters diectly to the track from them. When wired up can be camoflaged

  3. Chris says:

    I am an avid modeler, but I’m not that savvy with electoral “stuff”. Bachman Trains makes a DCC Controller that you just plug into your track like a normal DC controller. You can get multiple controllers of this type and unplug them and move them around so long as the base stays plugged in. The only down fall- You can only have 9 DCC powered locomotives, and 1 DC powered locomotive on your layout at a time. I am planning on up grading to yet another Bachman Controller, that plugs in the same, and I can even use my old system in conjunction with it. It does hold a LOT more locomotives, (up to 9999 I believe) with up to 50 operating at one time. This system comes with a Spectrum SD60 with DCC. The total cost of this set is $350. A good buy for any Model Railroader that isn’t too good at electoral.

  4. Pierre L says:

    Love the layout do you have aplan I would love to buuild something like it, as for DCC I founs it to be very easy and much more enjoyable than DC there is lots out there on information and what Chris says about Bachmann is true it was my first DCC set and I loved it


  5. paul starr says:

    DCC is not difficult,its simpler than DC,Steve,s advise is good.It,s an advantage to power your accessory modules separately with power boosters
    rather than the controller,use the controller just to power the track.the size of your layout will require you to have several track connections about the
    layout.Also be careful with track joints for conductivity.DCC is ultra
    sensitive to short circuits and power interruptions.

  6. Cheeky Monkey says:

    One of the best resources I have found relating to DCC is the book by Mike Polsgrove antitled “Basic DCC Wiring for your Model Railroad”. It’s published by Model Railroadeer Books and Kalmbach. I got my copy from Amazon but I’m sure that any good model RR shop will have a copy. Good luck with your layout, looks like it has great operating potential.

  7. Mike Street says:

    Re. Andrews DCC wiring query.
    Hi, I converted my existing DC layout several years ago, I had 3 isolated sections so I could run 3 trains if I wanted, 2 on continuous loops ( I like to see trains running at speed, not just back and forth! ) and central siding section for shunting and loco sheds. When I converted to DCC I simply joined up my sections and added some more track feeds. My wiring was simply to have 3 main feed wires, obviously, with the track feeds branching off using the old favourite ‘chocolate blocks’ for connections. The feed to the actual track was done by soldering wires to new fishplates ( track joiners ) Then all you need is 1 or 2 small holes under the track where you want the feeds to be. I used this method because it saves the problem of melting sleepers! and gives feed to 2 pieces of track. The modern way seems to be using a ‘bus’ wire then droppers down to it. Possibly a bit neater , than mine, but as I said I was converting from DC.
    I have seen recommendations of using 30amp!!! wire for the ‘bus wire’, this seems a bit on the heavy side to me, certainly no voltage drop there!
    My wiring underneath looks a bit like a spiders web, with the feeders spreading out from the choc blocks to the track. When/If I build my new track I may use the bus wire method as the feeder wires are much shorter, although I do not suffer from voltage drop on my existing layout, as shown by consistent running and my testing the actual track with a volt meter. I use the Bachmann Dynamis system, with wireless controllers. You can have up to 40 named locos, consists, plus points operation. The base unit is 4amps I think, as a test I have had 5 locos running at the same time pulling wagons, so there seems plenty of power. PS. I hope that ‘choc blocks’ and ‘fishplates are understood by our transatlantic friends. Cheers Mike S

  8. paul Otway says:

    I am not into dcc is it really tricky?

  9. Don says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Is that a removeable section we see in Pic #1? How are you going to join the tracks reliably every time?



  10. David says:

    Hi Al, I have been guided by this Australian site, it is extremely comprehensive, AND they manufacture a lot of materials for DCC use. The site is well worth a visit, you will gain a lot of information

  11. James Moe says:

    You will have to attach feeder wires every 3 feet of track length with 12 or 14 gauge wires under every length of track to attach the feed wires to, the scotch lock connectors work very well for this. These wires hook up to the booster to provide power and command signals to the track. Any reverse loops or wye or turntables would have to be wired as a reversing section with either a double throw double pole switch or a dcc auto reversing unit to change the polarity of those sections when occupied by a train. The feeder wires can be smaller like 18-22 gauge and can be soldered to the rails or are available from Atlas as feeders already attached to rail joiners. make sure to use two different colors of wire on the track bus wires, red and black are a good choice because those colors match the power pick up wires inside your locomotives and help keep the wiring of boosters in phase. I hope this helps, Jim

  12. Martin Wood says:

    Hi, Remember my scenery models and the step by step tunnel out of pink foam? Well I received a book for Christmas ‘How to model trees’. Having played around with some steel florist wire that I had from my horticulture nursery days, I began playing around twisting them together and 4 weeks later I think I am pretty good. Not yet learned to creat specific varieties of the trees yet but maybe that will come later? You should have a go its not very hard. Maybe I could send some pics?
    A small tip for little chimneys on those buildings; Cut off the outer of a 3 core cable, the live hasa brown plastic cover, cut up into small piecesit looks great for chimneys, maybe you could strip a little off so that you have a piece of the wire to help secure it to the stack?

  13. Brian Clauser says:

    I started a new HO layout in April of 2011. It is 7′ wide by 20′ long and 11′ wide at the opposite end. It was my first dip into DCC. I went with Digitrax. I do have an electrical background and know from experience what is involved in troubleshooting. Do use wiring districts. I have about 6 terminal strips wired together with 16 gauge wire as the bus. Each terminal strip is numbered and each pair of feeder wires to the track is numbered. All numbers and a description of location and what is being fed is listed in a notebook. I did not add switches for the power districts, but the bus wires are labeled so I know what to disconnect to isolate sections to find a problem.
    I was surprised how poorly the nickel silver track and connectors conducted when I was doing trials. I used a drop wire every 6 to 9 ft, soldering the wire to the track connectors and at the same time soldering the connectors to the track. All other track connectors were soldered in place except the ones on the turnouts. I have a fair amount of experiance soldering. Clean the joints, use a fairly hot iron, so you can solder quickly. If you use too cold of a soldering iron, the plastic ties will melt because of the time needed to get up to solder-melt temperature.
    With DCC, you can short the rails together with a coin to get a few beeps from the controller and a quick shutdown. If it buzzes and no warning beeps, you need to add a wire drop.
    I understand why someone would be against DCC on an established DC layout. Change is a terrible thing to most people, let alone the $$. I’m glad I was starting the layout from scratch. It was an easy choice.
    If you are adding decoders to old engines, try to keep the decoder away from the motors. The decoders generate heat. I cooked one decoder that was right on top of the motor and the engine was running for several hours.

    Good luck,
    Brian Clauser

  14. bill says:

    It must be great to have all the space most modelers have,my own layout under constrution is 3foot by18inches.Its a challenge!!!Send a tack plan I am using,if anybody is curios!!bill nicholls

  15. paul starr says:

    Some things to remember about DCC,if your fitting decoders to existing loco,s be sure they run smoothly on DC.Fitting a decoder will not improve performance,in fact the reverse is true.Operating points with DCC will be through a accessory module these are programmed with numbers,if the layout is large, with a complex points set-up,it may be useful to put the point number on the relevant point.You need this number to key into your controller to operate that particular point.The same is true of signals wired through accessory modules.Some think it is easier to wire points with DC because it,s quicker to flick a switch than feed the point numbers to the controller
    But the drawback to DC points is that the wiring is a bit more complex

  16. Greywoulf says:

    A good book for learning DCC is Kalmbach’s DCC Projects.

  17. paul Otway says:

    What I have been doing even though I don’t have DCC is, when I buy new locos I always buy locos that are DCC ready. So that when I do decide to convert to DCC I can just plug the chips in and just buy a DCC controller.
    BUT I WOULD use an old one for points and lights.

  18. The DCC wiring information was very helpful, and the Brian Lambert website extremely so.
    In the Responses section, a David referred to an Australian website but no details were provided. Is it possible to provide the website details, as any straightforward DCC info. is invaluable to me, not being very electrically competent.
    Your regular Tips and Layouts are looked forward to Alistair – thank you.

  19. Glen Godden says:

    I am in the process of installing DCC on a 16ft x 6ft N Gauge layout. I am installing it in 6 zones which are interconnected using terminal strips. My main bus is 14ga stranded copper wire and my drops are 22ga solid copper wire every 3ft soldered to the outside web of the rail. All drops are connected using terminal strips and will be numbered by zone. All switches are numbered and connected by terminal strips in zones. I have soldered all rail connections to be sure I have continuity throughout the system. I am using the Bachmann DCC system which I find easy to use. I am running a double track main lines system with many sidings , this system will also be wired for automatic block system operation. Its a work in progress.

  20. David Hodges says:

    I am very interested in the ‘walk-through’ area shown in first picture above. I want to do exactly the same thing on my new HO layout and would like to see a tip on the best method to use in anchoring the removal piece down to assure the exact position each time the piece is returned to the layout. I do plan to use a plug type of connector for purpose of supplying power supply to the sections of track on the removable piece of layout. I have seen this type of thing at several train club meets where the members bring 2ft x 4 ft sections of layout which they have assembled independently; It is actually very interesting to see the very large layout created when these units are all connected together at the train shows. They must stick to very precise guidelines regarding the placement of track – because they all line up quite nicely.
    I’m trying to look at different types of fasteners to use in securing my ‘walk-through’ – found in hardware departments but thought I’d ask to see if someone else has already ‘invented’ this solution and would be willing to share. Thanks!

  21. Thomas says:

    Hey Andrew,
    I recommend the use of DCC i have a digitrax empire builder starter set. it was roughly 500.00 US dollars the xephyr set is a little more expensive but i don’t have a need to control 100’s of locomotives. I have the scenic ridge N scale over and under with atlas rails conected connected to a kato double track plate that runs completely around the entire layout. I also have a reversing loop in this setup.
    When i used DC for my N scale switch track’s it would often burn out the motors to them pushing the button in hopes it would get enough power to even switch the track direction. among speeding the locomotive up just so it had enough power to switch the track. when i switched from DC to DCC i never have that problem EVER i can run my locomotive on 1% or 2% and switch the track completely everytime and not have to even walk over to it to make sure it did it’s job.

    If you use the digitrax i recommend alot of wire feeders/taps mine recommends them to be every 6 to 10 feet apart but i would recommend them every 3 feet just for sound unit locomotives. I only have the 2 power wires off the Digitrax box going to 2 block’s. Block A and block B, for rail A the left side rail and rail B the right side rail and i was off and running a DCC locomotive in a matter of minutes!

    DCC gives you multiple options like suggested in the first post above to block each section, many locomotive decoders give you meany options also with lighting and sound even different whistle options i get all my sound units from tophobbytrains.com and i highly recommend vince the owner’s work for sound and programming the loksound locomotives are a bit touchy because the loksound decoders use so much power. Digitrax has a wide variety of options for reversingloop modules and switch track modules ranging from 15.00 US dollars to 90.00 The most unique thing is the reversing loop module i love the fact i can have multiple trains operating on the same rail and when a locomotive crosses that point it automatically switches the polarity in a split second without stopping or causing even one locomotive to hesitate it’s function or operations.

    The hardest thing with DCC is converting a DC use locomotive to accept a DCC mobile decoder but being your into HO that should’t be a problem at all i use N scale so thing’s are a bit tighter with all the restricted space under the shell but technology is advancing and i’ve already seen N scale locomotives with operating ditch light’s, mars lights, sound, you name it and it’s probably out their.

    Also with the digitrax empire builder set you can control 1 DC operating locomotive but i don’t recommend it, it causes the motor armature to create a whistling or humming sound and draws alot of power.

    When i do run my layout i run trains such as the zephyr, el capitan, union pacific, in A-B-B-A lashup and thier is plenty of power provided having the ability to control up to 28 locomotives the digitrax also has a switch on the front of the box to switch between power options for N scale, HO scale, and O/G scale locomotives. Anyone that uses N scale know’s these trains don’t coast at all like lionel trains but with DCC it’s as simple as push 1 button. Digitrax also has the function capability of F0-F28 which are the many different commands you can programthe decoder into the locomotive to do such as the braking i just mentioned.
    setting a decoders CV setting’s is also very easy once you do it 1 or 2 times and the decoder never forgets once it programmed in. If you used lionel train master DCC lionel locomotives have a battery on board attached to the decoder that needs to be charged in order for it to work if that battery dies you can kiss that decoder good bye cause it will fry out. N and HO don’t have these so your in the clear.
    Trust me when i say if you decide to switch to DCC you won’t be disappointed in any way, shape or form!

  22. Thomas says:

    i forgot to add for lighting building’s i would just use the conventional DC setup and run it off it’s own power you can use the digitrax DCC for this but all your doing is pulling more power from the main box unit. and digitracks also offers walk around cortolers.

    As brian mentioned above you can burn out decoders or locomotive motors due to bad isolation, bad capton tape placement, or over powering a decoders 1AMP capabilities. I’ve only ever fried out 1 decoder for my 4-6-6-4 challenger the docoders do get warm but not hott enough to melt a shell if it does melt the shell something is wrong.

  23. Roberto says:

    On bridging the gap, I haven’t done this but writing as a design engineer I would go about it by having the removable piece as a hinged drop-down. This would then automatically align that end, and you can put as many guidance wedges as you want at the other end to make sure the track board always aligns accurately.

    Then it’s a “simple” matter of securing the track to said drop-down board, minimising the gap at the free end. And wiring to the bridge-piece becomes a flexible cable feed across the hinge.

    Of course nothing’s that simple when you actually do it, but it’s a reasonable start!

  24. Randy Knaub says:

    I built a layout with a lift out gap. I used microswitches to cut power on all traks leading to the gap. If the bridge is NOT in place no train could approach the hole and make the Death plunge to the floor.
    Also i would still use blocks on the railroad. One if you get a short and have blocks on the railroad. they can be turned off and then if the power works, you could turn them on one by one until the short returns, its in the block you turned on. i would rather debug 20 feet of track rather then a whole layout.
    a side effect of blocking on dcc is that parked engines draw current even if off. so removing power from them (yards and staging) leaves more power for the running locomotives.
    also when yopu are building a layout its easier to put gaps in as you build track, Set up power districts as you build the layout the wire then as power districts then connect them together at the panel. The when you can afford booster and power supply. just remove jumpers and run 2 new wires to the layout and you are done.

  25. Nick says:

    Ya get Digitrax that way u can just hook the power station up to th Digitrax and its all set u can also you can buy decoders for signaling and switches and you can switch the switches and u can just go to an option on the controller and switch it from the controller it cuts down the wiring

  26. Peter Goodison says:

    In the process of building my first layout. Decision to go DCC was a not difficult. Which sys. to buy was more of a problem. They all seem to do the same job. Looked at Dynamis, Hornby, Digitrax, Gaugemaster and Lenz. Heard (rumour) that many railroaders in the Sates are changing from Digitrax to NRC. Eventually decided on Gaugemaster Prodigy Wireless sys. Expensive but will do all I will ever need and is wireless, wireless if you understand what I mean.
    Layout will be in a “shed” built in my loft. First stage will be about 3m square, but could be extended later. Will be wiring bus in 2.5mm sq cable and adding droppers to layout split into 4 sections, mainly to ease any fault-finding. Always believed in adding plenty of copper at the start. Easier than adding more later. Going with Peco Streamline code 100 track. Will look at link for more advice. Thanks for all the tips so far folks. Any advice is always welcome when you are begining a trip down this road.

  27. Lee Barry says:

    Fortunately I’m in Z scale and therefore DCC has not been a big item with us. I have a 37″ x 27″ x 10″ layout, and there is no advantage to me having DCC with the exception of I can get upon my “Soapbox” and tell everyone , its called bragging, about my high dollar DCC layout. I as well as probably most of us in Z went to that scale so we could have model railroading in a small space such as a small 2 br house or an apt. or maybe even a sailboat, yes you heard me right, a boat. The fellow who built my layout got into Z scale so he could have a model rr on his boat upon which he lived. Why waste the money???

  28. Leonard Michaels says:

    I only put up my trains and buildings from Thanksgiving through Christmas so the little ones can enjoy them with me. When wiring up the buildings, street lights and such, I use breadboards underneath. You just push a wire into a socket and forward the curent with a second wire. You can buy them from Radio Shack usually four or so in a pack. They are very easy to use and easy to take apart later. For a temporary use, they would great. I first used them years ago when I went to Electronics College in San Francisco. I found I can buy 50′ of wiring there for a fraction of what a hobby store would charge also.

  29. Gary from Sydney Australia says:

    I am creating a new 3.6m x 2.7m “L” shaped layout to run the 1960’s Hornby loco’s that Dad still has. They are being converted to DCC but first I am making sure they run as well as they can on DC.

    The layout will have two outer tracks with station crossovers; a separate terminating two-track station with run-around and turntable branch; goods yard and sidings. The terminating two-track station with have an either/or loop to allow head-out and head-in without the loop connecting both ends at one to avoid the need for complex switching.

    The circulating outer tracks and through-stations are on one bus; the terminating station, turntable and run-around are on another and the goods sidings on a third. This currently allows independent control on DC and will provide power districts when moved to DCC. Bus wiring is 2.5mm² automotive TCW (tinned copper wire). 0.75mm² track feed wiring (“droppers”) is soldered to the underside of every length of flex track and every other piece of set track and also including every live frog turnout.

    Turnout control will be from a conventional DC press button switch panel on a separate bus, as will layout static lighting.

    It’s in the early stages so far but returning to the hobby after 30+ years, an important lesson I’ve learned is – have a plan. Not strictly a hard-and-fast design, but an overall plan that is flexible enough to allow expansion and/or deviation.

    There is one very important overarching design consideration for control of the layout – it must be easily operated by my visually impaired 93-years-young father. DCC controllers with numerous buttons and LCD displays are unusable. Cabs with only a few buttons and a pot or encoder with be used. This also dictates press-button operation for turnouts, rather than DCC control (for now).

    Regards to all,
    Sydney, Australia.

  30. Terry jacks says:

    Love the track plan. May try to copy.

  31. Mike says:

    Please print some pics and give some advice atune to 0 gauge specifically. Please include scenery tips etc. I believe the smaller gauges are somewhat easier to manipulate. Also include size requirements for layouts. The 3 rails offer some other problems as well. All will be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  32. Ira Berg says:

    I have a question specifically addressing TMCC. I have a Cab1, a power base and a TPC 400. I want to run independent loops. I use post war ZW’s. How does one, (if possible) wire an independent four loop layout so that the Cab1 can be used to control each loop separately?

  33. DAvid Jones says:

    Starting out on a DCC project but still confused re wiring. If I use a Bachmann control unit, how do the bus wires connect to the power source? i.e. the controller comes with wiring to attach to the track – yes? How do I then connect up the bus cables? Treat me like an idiot with any responses and make it understandable please!!!!!!!

  34. Dale says:

    re: threading ‘those pesky #26 wires’; I use a small tube (got mine from a ball point pen ink cartridge). Thread the wire through the tube, push tube through your base, remove tube off either end of wire. Requires much smaller hole.

  35. Robert says:

    if it sparks or heat’s up – it is wrong

  36. Larry says:

    I try to make a wiring diagram before I start. It is an ongoing document. At the least make an end-to-end one line list of connections.

  37. Norm says:

    It looks like you already have track down, if I’m seeing what I think I am in the photos. That puts a bit of a crimp in what you can do w/o taking it up or cutting.

    I’m part of an N-Trak club in northern New Jersey and we’ve built some substantial layouts with sections specifically set up for DCC (which, if you’ve not tried it, beats the pants of DC, IMHO). So I’m coming from that background.

    Some (much?) of my comments/opinions have already be expressed by others. but here it is again.

    Yes, power districts. You need to consider how many things drawing power will/can be present in a given district at a given time. Locos, sure, but what about sound, lighting? A big passenger train with lights in most of the cars can add up the amps. I’d go for more, smaller boosters than fewer big ones.

    We typically run the output from a booster through an electronic circuit breaker, too, segmenting the district into, typically four sections, each on its own breaker. When one of these trips 1) the rest of the system keeps running and 2) a light on the circuit board shows you the section. Circuit is faster than the breaker in the booster.

    What about occupancy detection, now or in the future? You need a track feed for each block, then, and electrical isolation in the tracks between blocks. I prefer to just lay track in sections with insulators between sections, even if for now I’m going to power them all the same, w/o occupancy detection. A lot easier to do it now than go back and cut the track or try to insert insulators.

    For long track runs we would solder together two pieces of flex track, provide them with a pair of feed wires (I do NOT rely on joiners alone to power them from another section), and then install with insulators between these sections.

    Underneath we run a buss of two bare copper wired (12-14 ga) from a particular booster/circuit breaker feed) and then just solder the track feeds to the common buss for the section. Later you can route the feeds through occupancy detectors if that’s wanted. You can also connect to this buss for other things needing DCC signals (e.g., turnout control, signaling)

    You can use other busses for lighting, etc.

    If using connectors/plugs underneath, IMHO Power-Poles are the only way to go.

    Do not rely on mechanical connections between track for carrying power; it is either insulated or soldered IMHO!


  38. hugh selleck says:

    What is a good system to start with dcc

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