Power: Track Power, Battery or Live Steam -- You Choose.
Remember how you powered your first model train? Well forget it. The options today are only limited by your imagination, or your budget.
Garden Railroad engines can operate from a number of different sources of power, each has its advantages and disadvantages. The most commonly used power sources are described here.
Track Power - the way we all got started!
Most garden railroad hobbyists start out powering their engines with track power. Most large scale engines contain a DC electric motor designed to operate at up to 24 volts. Supplying power to a track powered railroad couldn't be simpler. Clips are attached to the track and wires run back to a variable output DC power supply that plugs into a standard wall outlet. Turning the control in one direction moves the train forward and turning it the other way moves it backwards. Most starter sets come with everything you need to run one engine with track power.
Once a garden railroad empire begins to grown many operators continue to use track power but find that they need a power supply that has higher current capability to operate larger engines as they pull long strings of cars, especially if the layout includes even gradual climbs. Many also attach a radio control unit to their track power controller that allows them to move around the garden as they adjust the speed and direction of their trains.
Track power is simple, inexpensive and reliable. Its main drawback is that the track needs to be cleaned periodically and the electrical connections between track sections must be secure. Some track, Aristo-Craft, for example, uses screws to connect track sections. You can also use specialized clamps to securely join rails. Conductive grease can be used to help prevent corrosion at joints and maintain the electrical continuity throughout the layout.
Battery Power - The Hi-Tech Option!
Onboard battery power, using rechargeable batteries, is becoming more and more popular. Track cleaning, beyond removing debris that might derail an engine, is unnecessary. A variety of battery types including nickel cadmium, nickel metal-hydride, sealed lead acid and lithium ion are available and battery operated engines can run for many hours between charges.. Right now the most run time for each dollar invested comes with nickel metal-hydride. You can buy preconfigured battery packs or make your own from individual cells, such as AA's, wiring a number of cells in series until the desired voltage is reached.
Battery powered engines do require one more thing that adds to their cost, a radio control system. A hand held transmitter communicates with an onboard radio receiver that can change the engine's speed and direction. As an added bonus, most radio control systems allow you to have multiple trains on the same track. All the operator needs to do is to periodically adjust their speed so that one doesn't run into the other.
The batteries themselves can be installed inside of many engines, especially diesels, or in a steam engine's tender or in a trailing boxcar. The use of a separate battery car gives you the ability to quickly swap out a depleted battery car replacing it with another while the first one recharges.
Live steam engines operate, as their name implies, from steam that is created by boiling water and using that steam to move pistons that drive wheels that move the train, just like a real steam engine. Although not recommended for first time garden railroaders live steam adds to the realism and excitement of running trains in the garden. Engine sizes range from small 0-4-0's to highly detailed engines that can be several feet long and cost many thousands of dollars.
Most live steam engines are radio controlled and fired by either butane or alcohol although some add even more realism by burning coal!