How to Choose Between Analog and Digital Model Train Transformer

You’ve decided that you want to get into the model railway hobby. It’s a fun and often time consuming hobby. By now you’ve probably decided on where your railway will be located, what the layout will look like and what your landscape will look like. You have been comparing scales and engines and you might even have your first engine picked out and ready to go. Now how are you going to power it? Model train transformers can actually be as individual as the trains themselves.

If you buy an out of the box set, then choosing a transformer is going to be a no brainer. This is because they will give you the transformer that you should use with this train. End of discussion, that transformer is designed to work well with that train set. That being said it doesn’t mean that down the road you can’t upgrade your transformer.

Analog Power Supply

When choosing your transformer you need to know a few things. First off is the train you are running set to accept AC, DC, or both? Some have a voltage range listed only in AC volts. Some have it listed only in DC volts while others might say 9Volts AC or 12V DC, this is an example of course but you see what the package may look like. If that is the case then you have a little wiggle room on which type of transformer you purchase. You need to know this information because if your train is set to run strictly on DC voltage and you hook and AC power supply up to it, you could damage your train. Of course, most if not all the trains produced today can handle both types of power.

Once you’ve determined the current type that your train will accept and the number of volts needed to run the train you need to consider everything else. What this means is how many accessories are you planning on also hooking up to this single power supply? Are you planning on hooking up the train, all its cars, and the towns to this transformer or are you planning on having two separate transformers to do the job. If you want one transformer for your whole set then you will need a power supply that has more voltage output than what your train alone needs. Don’t worry this won’t damage your train because there will be more items taking care of some of that power. In other words the more things drawing power from the supply the “bigger” the power supply needs to be.

Digital Command Control

With that in mind you might also consider a DCC ready locomotive. The Digital Command Control system is slowly replacing the power packs. Since this is the new industry standard you might consider starting here if you are just starting out. These DCC systems can help to power everything. It’s accomplished by the modulation of volts while encoding digital messages. It runs the trains without worry of which type do I get.

Probably one of the biggest advantages to going this route versus the traditional power supply is the simplistic wiring, for multiple trains. To operate multiple trains in the past you had wire the trains on separate blocks with separate switches. That meant when you ran the trains then you would run the risk of running into this block wall if you failed to make the switch before the train entered the area. This could lead to short circuit and loss of train control. DCC makes that wall go away. You don’t have to worry about the boundary, everything is set up on a single block and you can cross as you please.

If you are purchasing a new set, it is probably best to choose the DCC power supply. Its simpler and the way trains are heading with their power supplies. Everything is going digital these days. If you are purchasing an older train or are already into model railroading the DCC may not be for you. It can be expensive to upgrade your trains to this new technology.

Digital or analog, new or traditional choosing the right model train transformer is probably the one thing that will take a while to make the determination. You need to take your time and research all your possibilities before taking the plunge.

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  1. Great info for new comers like myself. Trying to decide which way to go. I know DCC is expensive and i have some older engines that may not be able to change over. Can i still run these on DCC


  2. Thank you for the article and links to other advise. I’m going to make a bigger lay out. and this time,go a lot slower and try not to make as many mistakes lol

  3. interesting article but still causes confusion. Way back 30 / 40 years ago AC was introduced as a way of obtaining better slow speed control I sem to recall but in todays market I have not seen ANY model trains being dsigned for operation on AC and only DCC Loco’s seem available which are dC compatible – but HERE is where the problem lay. I hve noted that manufcturers in particular are extremely slow in realising that people need to know much more detail specifically in the design and operation of not oonly DECODERS but NOTHING is ever mentioned about ENCODERS. IE the way in which the PWM ( pulse width modulation ) is applied to the DC source. Just one of the “black arts” being kept secret by manufacturers to prevent us finding altenate ways around the high cost of equipment ??? personally I am already researching he need for logic control of signal dystems for my own layout. some of these are unknown at this time but will likely require me to understand multiple input AND GATES etc something which might scare the pants of many but to me seems an essential part of understanding what is ging on without ones knowledge. another sign of “Black art cover ups” is the absence of any “proper” memory address information in hexi-decimal. Reassigning a device to memory slot or button 3 or 99 or whtever is for those not understnding how packet data works so articles exploding how all the myths about encoders and decoders is somehting needing to be covred in detail. Until I see some progress being shown towards these aspects in publications I won’t be buying anything which doesn’t cover those aspects of essential information.

  4. I am disappointed with this article. I have some experience with 240V power and find that there is a poor use of language for power and Volts and Amps- you may need a high power transformer delivering 16V AC but 10A instead of 2A ( as supplied by my set up)

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