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admin 19.11.2015

Since I started writing about trains, some fifteen years ago, I've answered lots of questions about appropriate power supplies for different kinds of trains or installations. Now several contacts from readers remind me that today's middle school students are studying nuclear science and biochemistry instead of the subjects I studied back in Middle Earth, er, Middle School.
Note about AC-Powered Trains - Though this article ostensibly discusses DC power and power supplies, I include some discussion of AC power supplies as a way of showing the roles of the various components usually found in power supplies for electric trains. We will be using two terms that describe ways of "measuring" the electricity, or of measuring a circuit's ability to carry electricity. The relationship between voltage and resistance can be illustrated by the picture to the right.
On the other hand, once voltage overcomes the resistance of a circuit, the capacity of that circuit affects how much amperage can come through.
If you wire the bulbs in parallel, such as the circuit to the right, the voltage stays the same, but you have doubled the capacity of that circuit from one amp to two amps. Obviously smaller scales require less power - a two amp power supply may be all you need for a substantial N or HO railroad, but it may be a starting point for a garden railroad. If you multiply the voltage in a circuit times the amperage it will draw, you get the "wattage" of the circuit. On the the other hand wattage ratings don't mean that much when you're talking about electric train power supplies. We use 120-volt power in our walls because the voltage is high enough to drive current throughout the house, and low enough to be safe as long as the wires are not exposed. But toy or model train "wiring" is exposed by default - that is, the current is carried through metal rails only an inch or so apart. Now that we've reduced our voltage to safe levels, we still need a way to make our trains go faster and slower. Using the example of an 18v power supply, you would first make certain that any train you use will handle at least 18 volts. Note: Most power supplies have other components that are not shown, including circuit breakers or fuses - we are only showing the critical components in these illustrations, to give you an idea of the overall workings of the things. Most house current in North America changes polarity 60 times a second, which we call alternating current, or AC. If you put just one of these into a circuit, it would allow every other phase of the AC current to go through - but that would mean that the electricity would be going on and off 30 times a second.
Modern rectifiers usually look like a little box with four wires coming out, or like IC chips, but the principle is usually the same. The following diagram shows the major components of a DC power supply - transformer, rectifier, and rheostat. Most DC power supplies for model railroads also have a low-voltage AC line that bypasses the rectifier, so that low-voltage AC is available for accessories. Lionel and American Flyer users tend to call their power supplies "transformers" because that was the most important part.
Tinplate trains that run on AC have special circuitry built into them to allow you to change direction.
By now you've probably figured out that if your train is going a certain direction, and you pick it up and turn it around without changing the direction of the voltage, the train will continue to go the same direction, only backwards.
Return Loop Heads-Up - The only place where changing directions gets complicated on DC-powered railroads is when you have a "return loop" that brings your train back around to the mainline that it was on, but going another direction.

Within the world of modern power supplies, there are some notable variations that affect train operation. Pulse Width Power - One variation is AristoCraft's "Pulse Width Power." Instead of simply starting with a very low voltage and going up as you turn the knob, Aristo power suppliers actually send "pulses" of DC power to the locomotive.
A few vendors used to offer something called "Pulse Power" that attempted to perform similar functions by mixing in a bit of AC power at the low end of the power settings, but that doesn't seem "healthy" for a DC motor.
Digital Voltage Control Technologies - With the rise of remote control technologies, direction and speed functions have been taken over by an electronic device that controls how much voltage gets to the train engine.
Although a transformer by itself will step your voltage down to safe levels, transformer output may drop below rated voltage as the circuit approaches capacity.
As the block diagram below shows, the voltage regulator is usually placed after the rectifier but before the rheostat. In real-world examples, however, almost no single-unit power supplies contain voltage regulators. The following illustrations show a selection of one-piece DC power supplies for indoor DC-powered trains (HO, N, On30, etc.). The following illustrations show a selection of one-piece DC power supplies for garden (Large Scale) trains. Outdoor trains draw more power; some may draw much more power, so 1-2-amp power supplies are considered the minimum and 5-10 amp power supplies are common on large garden railroads. Outdoor use requires different materials used - many aftermarket "indoor" power supplies would drive garden trains just fine, but they rust and corrode quickly since they aren't built to handle damp weather. The LGB example below is very similar to the examples above, and contains the same basic components as the drawing. All three units above have actually been discontinued, but the LGB and AristoCraft units are still available used in good condition. The illustrations above assume that the power supply is a single unit, like those supplied with most starter sets (not counting AristoCraft, which includes a remote control these days). Many garden train operators whose railroads outgrow the little power supply that came with their starter set migrate towards a similar two-piece solution. The following pictures are examples of two-piece DC power supplies that are now included with some train sets, especially garden train starter sets. These LGB and Bachmann power supply setups represent the growing trend toward indoor two-piece solutions, especially in garden (Large Scale) train starter sets.
As an alternative to the controller shown above, LGB has occasionally offered a unique rheostat, #52120, which is meant to be left outdoors.
If you are already using or planning to use a separate power supply and controller, you also have the option of a remote-controlled controller. There are many other variations of remote control, but this is the only version we'll discuss in this article. On the left is the original AristoCraft Train Engineer System (later labeled the Crest 55470 system). In the middle is the AristoCraft Basic Train Engineer System that is now provided in most AristoCraft starter sets.
In each of these systems, you run a DC line from the power supply to the trackside controller, and another line from the controller to the track. The trackside controller sends pulse-width power to the track according to the speed and direction you choose.

An additional feature of this solution is that this setup controls ANY train (of any brand) that you put on this track. Small railroads, especially small indoor railroads will generally work fine with the power supply that came with your first train set, especially if it is over one amp (or 1000mA as some power supplies are labeled). In my experience, Aristo's old 1.8-amp power supplies would drive anybody's starter set trains over a railroad up to 120', but for larger trains and locomotives, a minimum of 3 amps are necessary. So don't be afraid to step up to the "next level" when your railroad has outgrown its existing setup.
I'd be delighted to hear about or see examples of anything you've tried along these lines, even if it was a spectacular failure. Note: Family Garden Trains?, Garden Train Store?, Big Christmas Trains?, BIG Indoor Trains?, and BIG Train Store?
The graphic to the right shows one symbol that is commonly used to represent bridge rectifiers in circuits. When HO and other models that required DC power came along, model railroaders took to calling their power suppliers "rectifiers," because they contained this critical element that was NOT included in earlier power supplies.
But model trains that run on DC (including garden trains, On30, HO and N scale trains) change direction whenever the direction of the current changes.
The first two are examples of "aftermarket" supplies that someone with a large indoor railroad might add to his setup. The AristoCraft 5401 fulfills similar functions, but it includes other features, such as "inertia" and "pulse power" technology that the other power supplies don't have.
Such sets usually have the transformer and rectifier in a single "regulated" power supply (see above), then they use a separate rectifier unit. The transformer and rectifier are in the little black "wall wart." The rheostat (speed control) and DPDT switch (direction control) is contained in a separate unit. By the way, I have several of these, and they run every brand of train substantially better than the power supplies that come in the train set. All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. It's also worth noting that NOT ONE garden train power supply is actually designed to be left out in the rain. Unlike house wiring, where you can usually count on, say, 20 amps driving each circuit, most power supplies that come with train sets provide one amp or less, so when you start upgrading trains, you will need to consider upgrading your power supply.
At one end of the rheostat's range, electricity must travel only through one loop of the coil to get to the wiper.
The ONE caveat is that this system will chew up any Lionel's "RailSounds" sound systems, but since those haven't been made since the 1990s, you're probably safe.
It can also drive "receivers" mounted right in the locomotive for individual remote control ("cab control") if you wish, but that's beyond the scope of this article.

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