Snowy Soo

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Saturday, 20 September 2014

A switch to Digitrax?

Due to a sale price too good to pass up, wireless Digitrax has arrived at the West Toronto Junction. Will it replace the popular NCE system already in service? Stay tuned for future updates. 

More than two years ago, shortly after I began construction on my layout, I purchased an NCE PowerCab DCC system and I haven’t looked back. I really like the system and I’ve since added three UTP panels and a Cab 04 so I can walk around my room-sized switching layout and follow the train.

When I started building the layout and making my return to this great hobby after a long time away, I knew I wanted to go DCC right off the bat. I began to research the different systems. As many do, I narrowed it down to Digitrax vs. NCE. I worked through all the pros and cons of each system (as I saw them) and made my choice. I won’t repeat the factors I chewed over in deciding to go with NCE, but you can read my old post about it here.

And although I like the NCE system very much, I always thought that if a reasonably priced used Digitrax system came my way I might pick it up. Why?

  • To have as a backup system.
  • As a way to become familiar with arguably the most popular train control system out there.
  • I’m considering getting involved in modular model railroading and it seems these groups almost always use Digitrax, though I’m sure there are some exceptions.

I figured the Digitrax starter set that would suit me best would be the Zephyr. But when I saw an ad in my area for a Super Empire Builder Xtra with Duplex (this one) for $150, I jumped at it.

The deal also included a Digitrax PM42, which is a circuit breaker than can separately protect four different sections of a layout. It's an $80 value.

The system I bought had never been out of its box. The previous owner had decided to get out of the hobby before they could execute a planned switch from DC to DCC.

Those of you familiar with Digitrax will know this was a great deal. Digitrax lists the system’s MSRP at $575. The booster/command station alone is worth at least $150. The Duplex equipped DT400 is more than $200. 

Buying this system allows me to try out a Digitrax system and operate my layout completely wireless instead of walking around, plugging and unplugging (though to be honest, I don't much mind this). Moving my NCE system to wireless would require buying an RB02 (they’re about $140) plus buying a radio equipped throttle or converting the ones I’ve got now to wireless.

I picked up this used Digitrax Super Empire Builder Xtra equipped with Duplex for $150. I plan to run the layout with this system for a while, then compare it with the NCE system in a future post. For now it's fun to operate wirelessly and become familiar with this popular train control system.

Discovering the Digitrax

Before I could try out the Digitrax, I had to buy an AC adapter to power it. One complaint I've heard about Digitrax is that some of their starter sets, including the pricier ones, don’t come with a power cable. This was no big deal for  me, I picked up one for $9 at a surplus electronics store near my work. It's essentially the same one I once had for an IBM laptop.  

When I got home, I unplugged the feeders from my PowerCab because I didn’t want the two systems both trying to run my layout at the same time, for obvious reasons! I powered up the Digitrax system, connected it to the layout’s power bus and after a few minutes working through the startup guide, I was running trains wirelessly from the DT400D.

I plan to write a future post that offers some detailed observations about how these two systems compare, so I’ll stay away from any “review type” comments for now.

For now the Digitrax will operate while sitting loose my workbench. Should I decide to keep it and sell the NCE stuff, I will install the DB 150 and the UR92  panel inside the layout fascia.

So am I selling my NCE system?

I now have the option of keeping the system I like best and selling the other. Each would make an attractive package to a modeller. I’m certain I could get more for the Digitrax system than I paid for it, if I opted to sell it and stick with NCE. My NCE stuff is in great shape and I have all the boxes, manuals, etc.

For now at least, I’ll likely keep the Digitrax even though I do acknowledge the silliness of owning two very robust DCC systems for what is a rather small HO scale layout. 

I have heard other modellers who possess both Digitrax and NCE products, even if only a throttle, so they can bring their throttles while operating at another layout. 

So stay tuned for future updates as I discover the Digitrax and compare and contrast it with the NCE. 

I welcome your comments on all this.


  1. The only negative aspect to the Super Empire Builder sets in general, and the DB150 in particular, is that it can't do any reading of CVs when programming: it's write-only. This makes it more suited for an operations device and less suited for your workbench. The Zephyr and Chief sets don't have this "problem". Nevertheless, the set you got was an absolute bargain at 150 bucks!

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I was aware of this limitation. My thought was that if I stick with the Digitrax system, I will get the USB adapter and program with JMRI, which I believe would allow me to read the CVs. The other option is to keep the PowerCab as the "workbench" programmer. I agree that the system was a bargain, I didn't really need it, but at that price I couldn't pass it up either.

  2. You got a heck of a deal. I'm like you, I have the NCE and don't mine the plug in when I'm by myself. But when you have 3 operators in my 12X9 room, the wires are a pain. NCE will make your throttles wireless for about $100 each with a 2-3 week turnaround. Plus as you said, you will have to buy the antenna. All op sessions I have been to are Digitrax.

  3. Digitrax has been great from the fact that it is modular for every layout. I converted from the Atlas Lenz system around 8 years ago.

    For example my double deck layout utilizes a Zephyr Xtra command station / booster for the lower level and a DB150 5 amp booster for the helix and upper level. Loconet connection makes the expansion simple. Additionally I have a AR1 auto reversing unit on my upper level wye, multiple UP5s on the lower level for train control using the UT4 throttles. The icing on the cake is the PR3 interface that connects my zephyr / loconet to my computer where JMRI decoderpro and wifi enable operation utilizing iphones and the WiThrottle app. This advance with wifi and iPhones brings wireless operation without the need for any special throttles or receivers.

  4. I used Digitrax for 8 years but just switched to NCE as did 2 friends of mine. We wanted wireless and had been impressed with how simple NCE was to use on another layout in the area. Thus far my system has been great.