DCC Train Controllers For Beginners

You might have heard it talked about or seen it come up in an article or two, but still, have no idea what DCC train control or DCC controllers are?

Well, it’s one of those things that’s simple on the surface and a little complex underneath.

So let’s jump straight into learning some more about DCC train controllers and DCC systems!

What Is DCC Train Control?

DCC stands for Digital Command Center, and is a way to let you run multiple trains on a track! It’s essentially a model train controller. That’s the simple part.

If you’ve already got a model train set up, you’ll know that you only really need two wires connected to the track to get the train rolling, by supplying a steady current to the track. This is considered the ‘analog’ method of running model electric trains, and if you’re only running one around a track, this is still a perfect method.

Why do you need to know about DCC Train Control?

But what happens when you want to run multiple trains around a track? Or at different speeds? Or even in opposing directions?

Well, then you need to go from analog to digital and install a DCC train control unit. This computer unit that connects to your tracks will run a continuous voltage along the tracks, and interact with a control unit inside your trains that will change speed and direction individually.

This does mean, however, that your model train is going to need to have a Decoder inside its train to read those signals.

A lot of trains these days come with them built-in, but if you have an older model train, there’s a plethora of videos and articles out there on how to make the switch. (we’ll have one up soon!)

What does DCC Ready mean?

Being DCC ready means that your train is equipped with a DCC decoder, and is ready to run digital, as opposed to an analog system.

So what does the Decoder do? Well, your DCC controller is going to send packets of information along your now wired line to the decoder with an address attached to it. If it gets to a train with the wrong address, it moves down the line until it finds the right one and delivers the information. The same way your mailman delivers mail.

This information tends to primarily be speed, direction, and lighting, although some will have fancier options depending on your trains.

What’s involved in a DCC setup?

There are several different elements that make up a DCC setup. These include:

  • The Throttle
  • The Power Supply
  • The Command Station
  • The Booster
  • The Decoder

So what do they all do?

The Throttle

The DCC throttle is the part that you get to play with once it’s all set up. The throttle is oftentimes called ‘The Cab’ because it’s similar to having all the controls like you’re sitting in the cab of a locomotive.

This means your Cab or Throttle is going to have a knob or lever to help adjust speed, as well as other buttons for the direction the train should be going in, whether it should slow down or speed up, apply brakes, turn the lights on, or off, ring the bell or blow its whistle or anything else you can program into it. This part depends on the type of DCC controller setup that you purchase, as to how many knobs, buttons, and bells it has!

The Power Supply

This is a pretty stock standard component that you’ll be familiar with. It supplies power to your Command Station, Booster, and Throttle if need be.

The Command Station

The command station is where a lot of behind-the-scenes magic happens. The command station is oftentimes combined initially with a Booster, and they’re both used to send information from the Throttle to the Decoder in your locomotive.

The Command Station houses a small microcontroller or computer chip that processes all the information that the Throttle is sending out, and transmits it down the rails until it reaches the correct Decoder to hand out that information.
From there, the train will do whatever the information passed through asks of it; speed up, slow down, brake, turn on-off the lights etc.

The Booster

A booster is essentially just the component that takes power from the Power Supply and funnels it into the Command Station so that everything runs smoothly. Down the track, as your layout grows and you get more model trains, you’ll require more power and have to purchase more of these.

The Decoder

Arguably one of the most important parts of a DCC controllers setup, the decoder is responsible for getting all the information sent from the Throttle through the Command Station and then making the train do what it’s told. They’re essentially little computer chip brains that are placed inside your model trains to tell them what to do.

Decoders are also programmable, which means that you can change what they do and how they do it if you have the know-how. This means you can change things like your engine’s performance, how the lights behave or the whistle blows, and even change the address that the Command Center is looking for.
This is a fancy way of saying that if you have two decoders running in a single train (multiple engines or complex lighting) you can control them both at the same time by setting them to the same address.

DCC train decoder

The Best DCC Controllers of 2021

[amazon box=” B00DZOVH4G”]

This DCC controller is the perfect starter model that will help you from the time you first get into DCC, to the time you’re an expert!

This digital command control unit:

  • Program on the main or the program track without affecting active tools
  • 14-28/128 speed steps
  • Capable of 28 accessory functions, so it can handle multi-function sound systems

It’s a pretty easy DCC system to get up and off the ground, and the fact that it’ll let you program in up to 28 accessory functions means you can have noises for your locomotives as well as surrounding areas; waterfalls, towns, crossing lights etc. to really help bring it all to life.

What’s the best way to make it work?

Getting your DCC controllers all set up is normally a pretty straightforward task. It works much like a regular control unit for your model train layout but has a few more steps involved.
These steps, however, depend on the model of train DCC you’ve purchased so you need to read those instructions carefully.
The most labor intensive part about setting everything up is normally making sure that the decoder is programmed correctly for your command center to recognize, and then troubleshooting anything you may have overlooked. Setting up your decoder can often be as simple as just making sure that the address is correct, so you can control the speed from the Throttle.

General model train layout rules apply as well. Making sure that your trains can run around the rails smoothly, everything is connected nicely, and that you have somewhere set up to house your DCC setup.

What else should you know about your DCC train setup?

There are a lot of pro’s to having a DCC system, but there are a couple of cons you should be aware of;

Price – Things can get real expensive, real quick, especially for a beginner. Cabs/Throttles and Command Centers (the guts of a DCC setup) start at about $150 which is pretty good for beginners but can run up to $1000 easily for larger setups with all the fancy bells and whistles. Obviously, a beginner has no need for a $1000 setup straight away, but even at $200 for a DCC setup, plus a couple of extra decoders for your trains can set you back $300 or more before you even turn it on.

So what’s the best DCC system? Well, purchase something around the $200 range if you want to sink your teeth into it. This will give you everything you need to get started, and as you look into buying more trains, buy ones that are DCC-ready. This saves you the hassle of having to buy more decoders and install them.

This leads us to the other major con. If your current model locomotives aren’t DCC-ready, then you’re going to have to buy and install decoders in them. The challenge for this depends on the locomotives you already have. Old models that have no DCC support can be quite tricky to install, and probably aren’t beginner friendly. Other newer models either have them installed, or have a quick-install plug inside the engine that allows for a super easy decoder install process. So just make sure what trains you’ve got before you dive in and start buying, to make sure you’re up for the challenge.

That’s about all you need to know about DCC for beginners. If you have any other questions that we haven’t answered here, feel free to drop them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them!

Check out our post here to learn more about other scales of model trains! or just dive right in and take a look at some trains worth purchasing!

8 thoughts on “DCC Train Controllers For Beginners”

  1. Is there a DCC system that I can purchase, that I can run for example HO trains, oh gauge trains, and G gauge trains using the same set.

    I have a wall mounted layout that goes around a home office above the door top level. I had G gauge trains on it. But I want to put in a G gauge track, and a gauge track, and an HO track. Is there one DCC Manufacture that would give me the flexibility to run all three gauge s individually, by just switching the output from one track, to the other track, if that
    makes sense. I realize that I would have to have the decoders in each type of locomotive for each gauge of track. I have a lot of old time Lionel Trains and non-DCC HO equipment I would have to get decoders for and get installed. I also have some newer Lionel o gage stuff, but They’re not DCC set up. I also have a locomotive from Mike’s train house, and I think that may be pre-DCC.

    My G gauge stuff is 1 Athern loco and think and several LGB locomotives. None of these were manufactured ready for DCC so all would need to have the coders installed.

    So is there one system, even if expensive, that would be able to control all these different gauges, on separate tracks, By just running one gauge at a time,even if I had to run, the old O gauge or G gauge equipment at

    different times so they are not on same track?

    Is there anyway to runO gauge Lionel trains, Mike’s train house trains, on the same DCC system system or are they still limited to Their own proprietary systems?

    I just discovered your articles and they are really great.

    • Hi Ted,

      I’m currently unsure if there is a DCC system that would let you run all those different scales. Typically, G gauge trains require a pretty high amp to run.
      You could take a look at something like the GaugeMaster Prodigy kit – that’ll run everything from N up to O.

      Otherwise, there might be an NCE set that would let you turn down the voltage of a G gauge system to run smaller trains. I’d reach out to NCE to discuss further, I’m sure they’d be able to help you!

      Sorry I’m not more help!

  2. I want to purchased an HO engine that has DCC sound value on board. I have the standard HO fast track and standard power supply controller. Can I run this new engine on this track with the old power supply controller or will it be damaged or not run properly without using a new DCC controller.

  3. Excellent article! Thanks for the explanation. I was mystified by all the trains running on the same track when I went to a local Train Fest and the guys there assumed I had more knowledge about DCC stuff than I did. Can my “N” guage Kato engine be updated to DCC and if so, does it require essentially a new train engine onside the old shell? Also (I bought the engine second hand) how does one recognize an engine that is DCC ready?

  4. Pete, This is the most informative literature I have found regarding starting a train layout. I am going to look into the dollar amount it will require to start a layout.

  5. Hi Sir,
    I’m from India and I’m a beginner as well. I want built a train model. Which DCC is perfect for us to get run around 12 train setup with use of signals and automatic turnout?. I want to run a train on same track on both side..
    So please help to confirm which DCC setup is perfect for us and also confirm to will it work with use 220v AC power.
    Sir, also confirm, what more items are required to make a setup of DCC to run 12 trains in auto mode with use signals with automatic turnout..
    Thanks in advance for your valuable information.

    • HI Sachin,

      I am a beginner as well, I am investing in esu cab control system (a little expensive but worth the extra money). I live in Canada but I am buying equipment than eventually can work in India as well (110-240 v). Initially, I was convinced to buy NCE power cab/Degitrax Zypher Xtra (both are great products)


Leave a Comment