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DCC – Making the Choice


At first, the choice of DCC system may not sound like such an issue..

Perhaps you received your first train set, and it included a starter DCC system- perhaps your hobby shop recommended a certain brand or perhaps you fancy something you read about in a magazine..

Read this Article on Current DCC Systems

Here is another Article on Popular DCC systems

Everything should work just fine, until you start expanding your system, and this is when you may well realize that the DCC systems from competing companies are not (necessarily) compatible with each other!

The “DCC Incompatibility” has got to do with licensing of the DCC protocol, as well as the Control and Feedback Bus technology implementation of each system.

Read this article on the various control and Feedback Bus Systems , and you will quickly realize why interoperability is always going to be a major issue.

All modellers will eventually run into the issue of “Automation”, and this is where your choice (read Investment) will either work for you.. or against you.

Be warned that I am probably biased – but this is based on my own experience of what works and what not, availability of products, expansion and upgrade options, and the level of support received from the supply chain (manufacturer, distributor and vendors) over a period of time.

I have owned a number of DCC systems, and have operated numerous layouts using different systems, and have made an effort to source every possible DCC systems to hit the market.

Thus, based on availability, pricing and support, I favour and highly recommend Lenz and Digitrax (keeping in mind that I am based in SA). Availability of DCC systems tend to vary from country to country, and this will almost certainly affect your experience and ultimately your choice.. Without a doubt, I am also fond of the new range of NCE and MRC systems and if these are available to you, check them out!


Most people who “just want to run trains”, will be happy with any of the DCC systems and probably do not need to read on..

Remember, there are many good systems available and even the most basic DCC system is still ultimately a vast improvement over the traditional DC system.

Also note that your choice of DCC system may well be influenced by what’s available (and supported) at your local hobby shop, or by your club, and this ok !

Tip: Keep in mind that the information provided here is simply aimed at giving you a better understanding of DCC systems, and how you unknowingly may be locked into a particular vendors solution.

So, which DCC System is the right one for you?

With an ever increasing number of DCC systems on the market, determining which system is right for you is a bit harder to figure out from the outset, but is still quite possible.

Think of this as being like buying a car. Many people lean toward one brand or another, but ultimately the price, the features (what is it going to be used for), and support are the deciding factors.. the same is true with DCC systems.

Making a decision on which DCC system to purchase, starts with how you intend to use the system :
Is the DCC system for a large club with many members or do you just intend to run a small shelf or 4X8 layout?
or perhaps you are a member of a club that needs a system at home that is compatible with the club’s system.

Cost is always a big factor, keeping in mind possible future expansion of your layout.

Also remember that all manufacturers decoders should work with any DCC system- Regardless of the system you buy, it will run any DCC equipped locomotive.
(with the exception and/or possible /limitation being the number of functions available to your system – not all DCC systems implement or support all functions)

Which features do you need ?
Apart from Automation features or add-on modules, most people will initially only consider the features or functions available as part of the Controller.While you initially may only require a few function keys, you may well find that additional function keys are no longer optional but required.Sound decoders for instance are expanding the use of function keys.
If you are using sound F0 to F8 is the minimum for sound control.
Most DCC systems have added more function keys to their cabs or throttles.
It is best to have F0 thru F12 with sound . Some systems have F0 thru F19 available.Some modelers are intimidated by all the keys on some of the handheld cabs, but once you start operating a DCC system you will find that only a few keys are used for locomotive and accessory control.
Just like the TV remote, you only end up using a few keys.Other features that have become popular includes Wireless cab and throttles that allow you to walk with your train and not bother plugging in the cord every few feet.The number of operators that will be using the system and the number of locomotives that will be operating are also important. Knowing this will help to determine the number of cabs or throttles and power boosters needed.

If you have full Automation and Computer control in mind, your choice is really be limited (actually a good thing) to a few systems, with my recommendation being a system that is compatible with the NMRA standard, and which uses the X-Bus or the S88 bus, anything else will probably have you pulling your hair out..


What’s Your “Best Choice”  ?

Why all the fuss ?
With an ever increasing product range of DCC equipment and magazine articles, the new concepts and terms such as digital packets, time-division multiplexing, bits, stretched bits, single-chip micro controllers, and bi-polar digital control signals are overwhelming and confusing to all.

You probably know that command control systems enable independent operation of locomotives without traditional insulated blocks and multitudes of toggle switches to control power routing. As a result, we can simply enjoy running trains without worrying about properly throwing a block toggle every time a locomotive or caboose enters and/or leaves a section of track. Engine terminal movements, in particular, are greatly facilitated with the use of command control since locomotives can be closely parked without concern as to where the plastic rail joiners are located.

Currently, several commercial systems are available utilizing various technologies such as radio waves, infrared waves, analog signals, digital signals, and others.

Each Product has its own set of advantages and disadvantages relating to size, cost, sound generation, susceptibility to noise, multiple unit running (MU’ing) ability, sole-source cottage-industry manufacturers, etc.

Although there are clear market leaders, no Single product or approach has yet emerged as a marketplace front-runner with obvious unbeatable advantages over other technologies.

Once you have enjoyed the benefits of DCC there simply is no turning back!


You may want to Review the available Software Options before making a final decision on which DCC system to choose..

What follows is a quick review and summary of available systems and some recommendations.

You are again reminded that Manufacturers have varying implementations of the DCC protocol, and once you have implemented a Control/Feedback Bus you will be tied to that technology
(changing pretty much means replacement of the entire DCC system and components – a very costly exercise indeed)

Note: As of 2022, the most commonly used and most-widely available Control/Feedback Products manufactured, shipped and in use world-wide is based on XpressNet and S88, followed by Loconet.

Control Bus
NMRAdcc The NMRA defines the standard not the implementation

(the original design by Lenz)

The DCC protocol is defined by the Digital Command Control Working group of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA).
The NMRA has trademarked the term DCC, so while the term Digital Command Control is sometimes used to describe any digital model railway control system, strictly and legally speaking it refers to NMRA DCC.
 LENZ / Roco / ZTC
Lenz is arguably the best known name in the world for Digital Command Control having had the original format devised by Bernard Lenz adopted by the NMRA which has evolved into the DCC standard now universally accepted.  Lenz now produce two DCC system variations which differ only in the style of cab they use.  The Compact, which was their entry level starter system, is no longer manufactured.
 MARKLINmarklin Motorola  Märklin’s digital system for 3 rail track is not directly compatible with DCC (Digital Command Control) although the systems are electrically compatible and many controllers can work both systems. Today Märklin offers DCC compatible locomotives for its 2-rail DC Trix brand
 DIGITRAXdigitrax LocoNet
LocoNet is a Peer to Peer Local Area Network (LAN) designed for train and layout control.LocoNet is designed for adding new products and features while still using existing equipment, without obsoleting any equipment already installed. LocoNet’s transmission protocol is similar to Ethernet optimized for model railroad layout control.
MRCMRCLogo MRC Using a custom implementation of the DCC protocol, the MRC systems are very capable and supported by the JMRI software. MRC provides free train control Software for their hardware.  Not compatible with the S88 and/or Lenz systems
ATLASatlaslogo X-BUS Atlas is based on the Lenz/NMRA system and promotes their system as “running your railroad like a real engineer” It allows you to have complete control of speed and functions such as headlights, ditchlights and sound, of up to 99 decoder-equipped locomotives and 99 decoder-equipped accessories (i.e. turnouts). It supports up to six additional Commanders and/or HandCommands and three additional power stations (for added power).

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