Digital Command Control (DCC) is one of the latest innovations in the hobby, however, there is still much confusion about what it is and how it works.  This primer has two intentions.  First, we will introduce you to the basic concepts of DCC.  Second, we will explain the systems that are available on the market today.  We will point out the features of each and provide you with realistic costs.  We would also like to emphasize right here at the beginning that knowledge of computers of not necessary to get involved with DCC.

How DCC works

The way many hobbyists control their trains today is by conventional DC operation.  This is where a voltage is applied to the track from a transformer.  The higher the knob on the transformer is set, the more voltage is applied to the track and the faster the trains run. While this simple and reliable method has been around as long as the hobby itself, things can get very complicated when more than one train is running on the same track.  In order to allow for this, we must set up independent circuits called “blocks” so that each train can be under separate control.  In Digital Command Control (DCC) the voltage that is applied to the track is constant although no train will run until it is told to do so.  This is because every locomotive is equipped with a “brain” or more properly a decoder that interprets the commands given to it by the DCC system.  The result is that many trains can run on the same track at the same time completely independent of one another.  They can even run at different speeds and directions.  Lights as well as other functions can be turned on and off independently on each locomotive regardless of whether the train is parked or in motion. Simply stated, DCC allows you to run your trains instead of your track.

Depending on the system you choose, DCC can do more than just run your trains.  Some manufacturers offer decoders that will run turnouts (switches), layout accessories and even interior train lighting.  Imagine running a passenger train and being able to turn the lighting on and off in individual coaches!  Some manufacturers even offer train detection and integrated signaling as additional options.

All DCC systems are comprised of 3 main components: a command station, a power station (also called a booster) and a throttle. Let's start with the throttle.  This is the input device that allows you to communicate with the command station.  The command station's job is to create the digital signals that eventually will be sent to the decoders in the locomotives, however, before these signals can be delivered to the locomotives, they must be amplified through the power station or booster.  In addition to amplifying these signals, it is also the job of the booster to provide the voltage and amperage that runs the layout.

Before we go on any further, it is also necessary to discuss the decoders which ride along inside each locomotive.  It is important to understand that these decoders play a large part in the operation of the system.  Each decoder contains several memory banks called configuration variables (CV's).  The process of changing the information inside the CV's is known as programming.  The programming of CV's is what gives each decoder (and locomotive) it's identity and “personality”.  For instance, CV #1 is the address.  The address is a number that is given to that decoder which allows the system to recognize it.  Each locomotive running on the layout should have a different address.  The address is what allows each locomotive to be run independently as all other locomotives will ignore commands that are not specifically sent to it's address.  This basic concept is what makes DCC the powerful tool it is.  Other programming options in DCC include acceleration/braking that can simulate the drag of a loaded train, and maximum speed limiting.  The latter is especially handy for us N-Scalers since most of our locomotives tend to run too fast anyway.

The concept of DCC was invented by Mr. Bernt Lenz in Germany in the early 1980's.  Mr. Lenz, a physicist by trade, designed and built systems for the two “giants” of the European model train industry: ARNOLD (who invented N-Scale) and MÄRKLIN.  The DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ system that is sold today is an extremely enhanced and updated version of those original systems.  THE N-SCALE DIVISION is a fully authorized DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ dealer.  In addition to DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ, we are also maintain fully authorized dealerships for the firms of DIGITRAX, MRC and NCE who also offer high quality products for DCC.  This brings us to the next segment of our primer, the systems themselves.

Digital Command Control System Descriptions

In this next section we will highlight the major features of each manufacturer's DCC system and components.  The manufacturers are arranged by alphabetical order.

NCE Corporation

The current market leader for DCC in the USA is NCE Corporation.  Their products are designed, tooled and manufactured in Webster, NY.  NCE started in 1993 and at first they built OEM systems for other DCC firms.  Eventually they started selling products under their own name.  NCE offers one of the largest selections of DCC components, decoders and accessories.  Their systems are highly scalable and when you do expand nothing gets thrown away.  Almost everything you buy from NCE is fully compatible with all of their components and accessories. 

NCE Power Cab

The entry level DCC starter set from NCE is called the PowerCab.  This is a very unique system because the command station and booster are built into the hand held throttle.  This self-contained unit plugs into a small circuit board which connects to the track and the power supply which is also included.  The PowerCab puts out about 1.5 amps of current.  Straight out of the box it can run 3-4 sound equipped N-Scale locos.  If you need more power it can be easily expanded to 5 amps by adding NCE's SB5 Smart Booster.  The PowerCab offers features well beyond what others might consider entry level.  For instance, the PowerCab offers full programming capabilities including the ability to program sound decoders without a programming booster.  It can control all 28 NMRA DCC functions.  The PowerCab is such a low cost system that some model railroaders buy one just to have on their workbench for testing and programming.

NCE Power Pro Wireless

The high end systems from NCE are the Power Pro and Power Pro Wireless.  These are 5 amp systems and feature NCE's Pro Cab Throttle plus a separate command station/booster. The Power Pro and Power Pro Wireless systems are ideal for larger layouts as they can accommodate up 63 throttles.  The Power Pro Wireless system comes with the Pro Cab Wireless Throttle plus a radio base base station to facilitate wireless operations.  The wireless system is bi-directional so both running trains and programming can be achieved without ever having to plug in.  Both the Power Pro and Power Pro Wireless systems feature a built in computer interface.  This permits the easy connection of a computer for layout automation or decoder programming using software such as JMRI's popular Decoder Pro.

In addition to DCC systems NCE also offers a very comprehensive line of decoders and accessories.  Their innovative Mini Panel offers the ability to automate your layout without using a dedicated computer.  The Mini Panel has multiple uses but two of the most popular are it's ability to act like a "robotic cab" issuing commands automatically to trains, switches, signals and more.  The Mini Panel can also be used to build dedicated control panels that control multiple switches at the same time.  Complex routing through a yard or interlocking can be set with the push of a single button.


As stated in the opening, LENZ is the inventor of DCC.  The LENZ factory is located in Geissen, Germany and is imported into the United States exclusively by LENZ Agency of North America.  DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ offers the SET 100 which is their flagship system.  It carries the prestigious NMRA DCC Conformance Award meaning it has undergone strict compliance testing for compatibility to the DCC standards as set up by the NMRA in the USA.

Digital Plus by Lenz
 Set 100

The LENZ SET 100 is a two piece system which utilizes the new, more powerful LZV 100 combination Command and Power Station (booster) and also includes the full featured LH 100 Throttle.  With it's full calculator style number matrix and 6 digit LCD display the LH 100 Throttle greatly simplifies decoder programming and it's push button speed control is extremely precise. The SET 100 is capable of controlling 1024 turnouts (through the use of LENZ turnout decoders which must be purchased separately), all 28 NMRA DCC functions and can be easily expanded to support up to 31 throttles.  It has a feedback bus and supports the LENZ RailCom specification which provides two way communication between the layout and the command station.  With all of it's advanced features and our discount price of $486.00 the SET 01 is designed for the advanced DCC operator or those who want to own the best available.

Digital Plus by Lenz LE0511W

In addition to their systems DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ also offers some of the most innovative decoders on the market.  They were the first to offer Back EMF (BEMF) which is where the decoder monitors the motor output and continually adjusts the input to keep the motor at constant speed.  The result is "cruise control" for your locomotives which keep a constant speed even on grades without having to adjust the speed manually!  DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ also offers decoders with Silent Drive technology which results in the motor running virtually dead silent and the only noise you will hear from your locomotive is wheels on rail just like the real thing!  DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ currently offers the world's smallest decoder, the LE0511W which is about the size of a dime!


The Florida based company of DIGITRAX offers 2 levels of DCC systems plus many types of decoders and accessories.  Note that DIGITRAX systems do not come with decoders allowing you to select the appropriate decoders for your particular locomotives.

Digitrax Zephyr Xtra

The DIGITRAX entry-level system is the ZEPHYR XTRA.  At our discount price of $180.00, the ZEPHYR XTRA is an all in one system that combines a Command Station, Booster, and Throttle all in one unit.  It even come with it's own Power Supply which is something not ever DCC system includes.  The ZEPHYR XTRA may be an entry level system but it does have some very innovative design features such as the inclusion of two "jump ports" which allow you to hook up standard DC transformers and use them as digital throttles!  This is an excellent idea since most model railroaders moving up to DCC have a least one standard DC transformer on hand anyway.  Now it can be put to good use instead of tossed aside.  This is a very nice value priced entry level system which is capable of running 20 trains.

Digitrax Evolution
Advanced 5/8 Amp
Starter Set

The top-of-the-line system from DIGITRAX is the EVOLUTION ADVANCED 5/8 AMP STARTER SET.  The EVOLUTION ADVANCED includes the DCS-210 Advanced Command Station, DT500 Advanced Super Throttle, UP5 Universal Panel, PS615 Power Supply and a LT1 Loconet Tester.  Also available is the RADIO EQUIPPED EVOLUTION ADVANCED 5/8 AMP STARTER SET.  This set comes with the DT500D Advanced Super Throttle which is equipped with a full duplex radio system.  Both systems are capable of running up to 100 loco addresses at the same time and can handle up to 100 throttles.  Both systems will address up to 30 functions.

Digitrax "Plug-N-Play" Decoder

In addition to systems, DIGITRAX also offers a superb line of decoders.  Most of their decoders are more than just basic and allow for several additional functions such as horns or smoke generators.  Many of their decoders also have special lighting effects built-in.  The special lighting effects include such things as alternating ditch lights and strobes!  The modeler has to supply and wire the bulbs but this task is made simple thanks to the extremely well written decoder users manual provided by DIGITRAX.  Another area in decoder technology where DIGITRAX has excelled is in the manufacture of “Plug-N-Play” decoders.  These are decoders that are designed to replace the existing circuit boards in specific locomotives.  This makes decoder installation much easier as soldering is no longer required in most cases!

Finally, DIGITRAX also produces an excellent line of accessory decoders (for lighting and turnouts, etc.) and a unique accessory programmer.  The PR-1 programmer makes programming easier for those who wish to use their personal computers.  With the PR-1, the most complex of decoder programming is reduced to a few simple mouse clicks.  We again would like to emphasize that you do not need to have a computer or knowledge of computers to get involved with DCC, this accessory just makes things go a little faster for those who do.

Model Rectifier Corporation (MRC)

New Jersey based Model Rectifier Corporation (MRC) offers a couple of excellent DCC systems that are considered by many to be the value leaders.  These systems do not come with decoders allowing you to select the best ones for your needs.

MRC Prodigy Express

MRC's entry level system is the Prodigy Express and it offers the features of high end DCC at an entry level price.  The hand held throttle features a full numeric keypad plus a smooth encoder for speed control.  These are both features that up until now were unheard of at this price point!  Other comprehensive features include two or four digit addressing (0-9999 addresses available) 14-28/128 speed step capability, advanced consisting, the ability to control 16 accessory functions and full programming capability including programming on the main.  The system comes complete with it's own power supply capable of putting out 1.6 amps of power and can run up to 20 throttles.  MRC's Prodigy Express system is an excellent choice for a small layout.

MRC Prodigy
Advance Squared

The Prodigy Advance Squared is MRC's high end DCC system.  Naturally it incorporates all the features of the Prodigy Express above plus more.  Perhaps the most important difference is that the power output is increased to 3.5 amps allowing you to run more trains at the same time.  Up to 28 accessory functions can be controlled.  The system can handle up to 99 throttles at the same time and has a built in fast clock for operating sessions.  There's also built in routing control which allows you to throw multiple turnouts with just one button.  MRC's Prodigy Advance system is an excellent choice for any size layout!

MRC Prodigy
Advance Wireless

The ultimate DCC system from MRC is the Prodigy Advance Wireless.  It will do everything the Prodigy Advance Squared will do and as its name suggests, it employs a wireless throttle.  The system features full duplex communication which means every function that a traditional wired throttle will do can be done with the Prodigy Advance Wireless.  There is no need to plug the throttle in to select a new locomotive and even the most complex programming can be done wirelessly.  The system comes with rechargeable batteries that can be charged directly in the throttle.  It can also use conventional batteries and can also operate as a traditional wired throttle as well!

Decoder Installation and Other Useful Information

Many folks fear that decoder installation can be a nightmare.  This does not have to be true.  In N-scale, many locomotives are coming from the factory with either a decoder already installed or the ability to install one without soldering thanks to the new “Plug-N-Play” decoders from both DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ and DIGITRAX.  For older locomotives without the “Plug-N-Play” capability, a decoder must be fitted and it's wires soldered in place.  If you are not comfortable doing this yourself, there are specialists who offer decoder installation service.

Besides basic train control there have been promises of other unique items for the DCC market.  One of these items has already appeared and it deserves special mention.  In 1996 DIGITAL PLUS by LENZ and ROCO teamed up to produce a DIGITAL RAILWAY CRANE.  This crane is actually a U.S. prototype that was also used on European railways.  A perfect subject to model!  The crane hook and boom can be raised and lowered as well as full 360 degree rotation of the crane itself all under digital control.  There are even accessories (available at extra cost) such as an electro-magnet, a clamshell bucket and a spotlight which can be activated via DCC.  This model won the coveted MODEL OF THE YEAR AWARD at the Nürnberg Toy Fair in 1996!  The ROCO/LENZ DIGITAL CRANE is HO but an N-scale model is expected in the future.

Choosing a System that Fits Your Needs

The most important considerations when choosing a DCC system are the size of your layout and budget.  While the high end sets offer many advanced features, not everyone has the need or budget for them.  Also on the topic of expense, we would like to present an interesting option that can be easily overlooked.  It is not necessary to convert your entire layout or locomotive fleet all at once.  Exercising this option can save a lot of money in initial startup costs.  For example, if you have a modest size layout that has a yard, you should consider running the yard under DCC control and let the main line stay under conventional DC power until your budget allows for the conversion more locomotives.  The excellent speed control that DCC offers will make yard operations more enjoyable and you can still run trains on the main line as you have always done.  It is important to understand that locomotives with decoders installed will still run under conventional DC control!

Once you have decided on a system, we recommend that you purchase that system from a reputable dealer who will support your needs for years to come.  We at THE N-SCALE DIVISION have already made that commitment to our customers.  Help is just an e-mail away.  After all, you are jumping in to a whole new world.  You should want someone there that you can turn to for reliable advice and answers.  If on rare occasions we can not give you answers immediately, we can turn to the manufacturers for further support.  This is our advantage by being authorized by these firms to handle their products.


We hope that this primer has been helpful to you but there still may be questions that you need answered.  We invite you to contact us for further information on your switch to Digital Command Control.  THE N-SCALE DIVISION wants to be your source for DCC.  Oh, and don't forget we can still provide you with the best in trains and accessories from American as well as European and Japanese manufacturers at discount pricing just as we have been doing for many years.  We know that making the switch to DCC will allow you to have more enjoyment from your hobby.