Turnouts and Digital Command Control
- Main article: Turnout
Summary: A commercial "DCC Compatible" turnout is manufactured or wired for use with Digital Command Control. Commercial switches are often labelled DCC Friendly or For DC and DCC Use on the packaging. All turnouts are compatible with DCC, while older ones may need some attention to mechanical and electrical aspects of their construction.
- 1 Turnouts and Digital Command Control
- 1.1 "DCC Friendly" Turnouts
- 1.2 The Issue with Digital Command Control and Turnouts
- 1.3 How to Use a National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) Gauge - Model Railroader
- 1.4 The Ideal Turnout
- 1.5 Terminology
- 1.6 DCC Friendly
- 1.7 Incompatible Turnouts
- 1.8 Shinohara / Walthers
- 1.9 Drawings
- 1.10 NMRA Standards Relating to Trackwork
- 2 Demystifying The NMRA Standards
Turnouts and Digital Command Control
"DCC Friendly" Turnouts
There is no such thing as a "DCC Friendly" turnout. If a turnout is compatible with analog DC operation, then it is compatible with Digital Command Control.
The most obvious feature of a DCC Compatible turnout is the gaps which electrically separate the frog from the closure and point rails. The frog is often unpowered. Others may use a cast plastic frog, or a hybrid of metal rails and plastic.
The Issue with Digital Command Control and Turnouts
- When track work and wheelsets are properly gauged, there should be no momentary short circuits occurring at turnouts. The backside of the wheel should not graze the open switch rail and cause a short between it and the stock rail.
Many Digital Command Control Boosters are very sensitive to sudden changes in current flow. Just the wheel grazing the switch rail and allowing current to flow can be enough to trip their protection circuit and cut power. Which is annoying.
Older technologies employed by analog power supplies were not a sensitive to a momentary short. Often they didn't deliver enough current to do a lot of damage either. DCC Boosters can deliver three times or even more current than was typical for analog operations.
The solution is the NMRA Track Gauge. Checking turnouts with the gauge will show if there may be problems or not. Many commercial offerings have compromised the clearances required. Verifying the correct gauge of the wheel sets on your rolling stock will also identify offenders which may cause an issue. The gauge will measure clearances at the switch, flange ways, track and wheel gauge. Handlaid track usually has no issues with DCC as the NMRA Gauge is an integral part of making a turnout.
Also use the gauge to verify your wheel sets are in gauge. Many track manufacturers will recommend the use of NMRA RP-25 S4 profile wheel sets for the best results.
How to Use a National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) Gauge - Model Railroader
The Ideal Turnout
The Ideal Turnout for use with Digital Command Control has the following features:
- Switch Rails connected to nearest Stock rail
- Frog electrically isolated and powered by switch rail contacts (Metal frogs preferred)
- Point rails after the frog are powered by their appropriate stock rails
It is also important that the turnout is gauged properly using an NMRA guage, as well as the wheelsets. Shorts between the stock and switch rails are a source of problems.
A Turnout is made of two parts:
- The switch, an assembly consisting of two fixed rails, two movable switch rails, and the associated components
- The frog, constructed from the wing and point rails
- The frog has a toe and a heel
- The point rails diverge from a point, midway between the toe and heel, hence their description
The complete assembly consisting of a switch and frog is called a turnout
Unfortunately there are a lot of mislabelled diagrams with incorrect terms available on the internet. Which can cause confusion. The DCCWiki uses the same terminology the prototype does to describe a turnout.
- Switch Rail: Used to direct the wheels in the direction the train is supposed to go in. These are the moving parts of the switch
- Closure Rails: These rails connect to the switch rails and the toe of the frog
- Frog: This is the assembly that allows the wheels to cross from one track to another. In operation the wheel should smoothly transition from the wing to point rail.
- Stock rails: These are the fixed rails on the outside of the turnout
- Guard rails to assist in guiding the wheels through the frog
- Point Rails: These begin at the heel of the frog, allowing the two routes to diverge as they exit the frog
- Throwbar: The device the switch rails are attached to, and allows them to be positioned. The switch stand or motor attaches here
Also see this video from Fast Tracks: How A Railway Frog Point Works. See below for more links. ====Power Routing Turnouts====Turnouts which are advertised as "power routing" are wired so that the switch rails are electrically connected to themselves, the frog, and the point rails beyond the frog. Power is routed depending on how they are aligned, often by the mechanical contact between a stock rail and the switch rail. In older turnouts, the two switch rails were often connected together with a metal strap at the throw bar.
Power routing turnouts may not be DCC Compatible.
There is no advantage to power routing as there is no need to control the power flowing into sidings. For DCC all the track is powered all the time. With some turnouts shorts can occur if the point rails are one electrical unit, or if a wheel tread bridges across them. For this reason the point rails should be isolated from the diverging and main routes, as that track will be energized and the adjacent point rails do not share the same phase.
The problem with power routing is that the back of a metal wheel may make contact with the switch rail, and cause a short to the stock rail. DCC systems are very quick to react, unlike analog power supplies.
- Note: when building a crossover, power routing turnouts that are non-isolating can cause a short where the point rails are connected together. The point rails must be gapped (e.g. by using insulating rail joiners).
If the frog is powered by a switch it is important that it disconnects before making the new connection (Break before Make).
A turnout labelled as DCC Friendly is one designed for use with DCC. The switch rails are not connected together, instead they share the polarity of the stock rail nearest to them.
The frog is often unpowered, and gaps sever the electrical connection between it and the switch rails.
DCC Friendly turnouts can be Live Frog (All Live) or Dead Frog. With live frogs, the power must be fed to frog by some mechanism that switches the polarity to match the route set. This can be a electronic device called a Frog Juicer, the contacts on a Tortoise slow motion switch machine, or the contacts on solenoid or motor driven switch machines. It is also possible to power frogs using some manual throws with contacts.
Frogs can be powered if needed, often because some locomotives will stall on them. This is usually needed for short wheelbase locomotives, like switchers, with four axle trucks, or an 0-4-0 or 0-6-0. Between a dead frog and dirty rails, the loco can stall. Those with all wheel pickup are less likely to have problems than lower cost units with fewer pickups.
Rail Gaps at Frog
With analog, the practice was to gap the point rails just past the fouling point (where two trains on adjacent tracks can collide).
For DCC, the gap in the point rails should be much closer to the heel of the frog, to eliminate a potential short should a train run past the fouling point gap.
While these may not be the ideal turnouts, they can be adapted for use with DCC. Click on the links below to see how.
PECO is discontinuing the Electrofrog and Insulfrog products:
New PECO Unifrog Design
The wiring of these new turnouts is a development of both the Insulfrog and Electrofrog designs. The stock-rails are wired to the centre-rails at the factory, which in turn are connected to the corresponding frog-rail. This means the turnout is completely live (except for the tip of the frog), no extra wiring required. If the turnout is being used as a switch to isolate a section of track then it is simple job to remove the wire that joins the centre-rail and stock-rail and it will work like a current Insulfrog.
The Peco Insulfrog turnouts have a very small insulated frog and on initial inspection they can appear to be live frog because the metal frog rails are so close together. Because of this, it is possible to have a short if a metal wheel bridges the two rails. Usually, this will only happen with old rolling stock wheels that have crude profiles.
The Peco Electrofrog turnouts are power routing right out of the box and therefore they are not DCC Friendly. However, they are designed to be easily be converted to DCC Friendly if needed.
Shinohara / Walthers
Shinohara of Japan made quality turnouts, Walthers would later distribute them under the Walthers/Shinohara name.
There are two types of Shinohara turnouts out there. Newer ones are DCC compatible, and state that fact on the package. Older ones are not, as the power is routed by the switch, and the switch rails share the same connection.
For more details see the Shinohara page.
Clicking on these images does not work, so they are presented as a slideshow . Images courtesy of, and with the permission of Fast Tracks
Note that the switch rails share the polarity of the stock rail adjacent to them. This makes them DCC Friendly, as a metal wheel's flange touching the switch rail will not create a short between the switch and stock rails. The frog is being powered by contacts included in the ground throw mechanism. This can be done using a switch throw with contacts, or the contacts on a switch machine.
- Images used with the permission of FastTracks for illustrating various track work concepts.
NMRA Standards Relating to Trackwork
These link to the the NMRA Website:
Demystifying The NMRA Standards
Fasttracks (user name FastTracks Tools) has posted a number of videos showing how to make a turnout using their fixtures.
- Main article: DCC Friendly Turnout/Demystifying The NMRA Standards