DC versus DCC Model Trains

DC versus DCC Model Trains

If you're just starting out in the world of model railways, you will have most likely come across the two different types of model trains - DC and DCC. For someone new to the hobby, the vast number of locomotives and train sets available in both these formats can be overwhelming and leave many questions. What's the difference between DC and DCC model trains? Is DCC or DC better? Are there any differences between DCC Ready and DCC Fitted trains?

This article is part of our beginners model trains series, where you'll find helpful tips, tricks and expert reviews on all the best train sets from the best wooden train sets through to the best Hornby train set.

Let's start with an overview. DC and DCC are both methods of supplying electricity to a train set or model railway, in order to control the movement of trains. There are some similarities and differences between the two, which will need to be considered when determining the answer to whether DC vs DCC model trains is the best option for you.

DC Explained

Direct Current (DC) is the simplest method of providing the power needed to run model trains. These are sometimes called analogue train sets. In DC, power is sent to the track and trains are controlled by varying the level of power supplied. The voltage sent to the rails correlates to either an increase or decrease in speed - more voltage equals faster speed.

Varying the voltage will mean that all trains (on track wired to the circuit) will increase or decrease in speed at the same time - there is no independence. In DC, the only way to have independent control over multiple trains is to have different sections of track using their own supply of power.

DC has the advantage of being simpler for the operator and less expensive to setup than DCC. However, for some modellers it will prove limiting in terms of flexibility. DC could also lead to some very complicated wiring setups in complex track plans, where multiple DC circuits and power supplies are required.

DCC Explained

Digital Command Control (DCC) is a more advanced system of operating a model railway. As the name implies, this is a digital system rather than an analogue one. In DCC, power is constantly supplied to the rails, and the movement of each train is controlled using a DCC decoder fitted to each locomotive. When the operator issues instructions using the command station, these are transmitted through the track, to all locomotives. However, these instructions are only acted upon by the locomotive for which they were intended.

This means that each train can be controlled independently using a single supply of constant power. In DCC, multiple trains can be operating at any one time - some could be stopped, others could be traveling forwards, one could be slowing down, and another could be reversing on the same track. This gives a large degree of flexibility to the operator with regard to train movements.

There are also many extra features that are made possible with DCC. These include additional electronic effects such as locomotive sounds, lights, and even replica smoke and steam!

The main downside to DCC is often the cost. The initial 'up-front' cost of a DCC system is significantly more than DC. DCC locomotives and accessories also tend to cost more when compared to their DC counterparts, due to the presence of complex digital components needed to run the additional electronics.

What does DCC Ready mean?

A model railway locomotive that's DCC Ready is fitted with a DCC socket, but no DCC decoder. In order to run this locomotive on a DCC controlled layout, a decoder will need to be fitted. DCC Ready locos can still be safely used on DC layouts.

What Does DCC Fitted mean?

A DCC fitted loco has a DCC socket and a DCC decoder fitted, which means it is ready to run on a DCC layout straight away. Normally, DCC decoders will function correctly when running on DC power, so you can run a DCC locomotive on DC. However, older decoders may be an exception to this rule, so always remember to check the specifications of all equipment being used prior to trying this.

Comparison - Is DC or DCC Better?

The short answer is that neither DC or DCC is 'better'. They're both great! However, it's a rather subjective question - what is suitable for you may be different for other railway modellers.

The choice of whether to use DC or DCC is going to be based on many factors, including the level of simplicity (or complexity) desired, any limitations in terms of cost, your experience and preferences as a railway modeller, and your vision for the layout along with any future expansion this might entail.

If simplicity is required, or you have a limited budget, then DC trains will be the best choice. DC is simple for basic track layouts, and if there are any problems they are usually easier to fix than DCC.

For complex layout plans, DC may not be the best choice as the wiring can become very complex when dealing with multiple circuits and power supplies.

However, if you are looking for a greater level of flexibility, have the budget, and want the extra electronics such as the smoke, then DCC is certainly the better option. If you've got a Hornby train set and are looking for a DCC control unit, we would recommend the Offical Hornby DCC Control Unit to ensure maximum compatability.

The Best DC Train Sets

We think the best beginners train set is the Highland Rambler Train Set from Hornby. It includes everything you'd want from a starter train set, including an 0-4-0 locomotive, a wagon, a coach, track and controller. If you're looking to purchase a first train set, this is a fantastic option. The track is also easily expandable, should you wish to do this in the future. If this isn't available, the Valley Drifter Train Set is very similar - it has a slightly different locomotive - but it has the same great build quality and represents great value.

If you prefer freight trains, another option would be the Summertime train set which features four Coca-Cola cargo vans with different liveries, and is another train set suitable for beginners.

The Best DCC Ready Train Sets

The Hornby Harry Potter Hogwarts Express Train Set is one of the best train sets that we've tested. The advantage of this set is that it's suitable for a wide variety of age groups - younger kids right the way through to older adults are sure to enjoy it. The build quality is excellent and it represents great value for money.

We can also recommend the Eurostar Train Set, with the excellent Yellow Submarine livery giving it a rather unique feel that you don't often get with similar train sets in the same price bracket.

If you're into classic steam locomotives, you can't go wrong with the Hornby Flying Scotsman train set, which features the iconic locomotive and three carriages. It's excellent value and a firm favourite.

Difference Between DC and DCC Trains

We've explored the pros and cons of the two different choices for providing power to a model railway layout - DC and DCC. Now let's summarise the difference between DC and DCC trains;

  • DC trains are controlled by varying the voltage supplied to the track. The operator essentially controls the track, rather than the trains. An increase in voltage means trains will run faster and a decrease will mean they run slower. All trains on the same circuit of track will operate in the same way - there is no independence (unless multiple circuits and separate power supplies are used).
  • DCC trains have a constant voltage supplied to the track, and trains are controlled using a DCC decoder fitted to the locomotives. In DCC, multiple trains can be controlled independently. The operator is controlling the trains and not the track.

Whether you should run DC or DCC trains will depend on the complexity of the layout, the level of flexibility required, and your budget.

You'll be better off with DC if you have a limited budget, a simple layout, or don't want the additional complexity that DCC brings.

DCC would be the better choice for modellers who enjoy the electrical aspects of the hobby, are looking for more operational flexibility, or want to make use of additional electronic effects such as replica steam, sounds, and lighting.

As we've seen, while there is certainly a difference between DC and DCC trains, both can be viable options. However, when buying new locomotives, always ensure that they are compatible with your existing equipment before purchasing.

Next Steps

If you're still looking for a train set or aren't sure which one would be most suitable, you'll definitely want to check out our complete guide to the best Hornby train sets, where we cover the best options for different age groups, including kids. If you've got a younger child or toddler, we would recommend taking a look at our wooden train set guide, which is one of the most popular articles in our train set series.

If you've already got your train set and need help setting it up, you should follow our simple beginners guide on how to set up a train set to ensure you get it set up correctly first time.