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Short Definition

Arrangement of rails to allow a train to be switched between the main route and a diverging route

Atlas HO Turnout

A Turnout is the arrangement of rails to allow a train to be switched between the main route and a diverging route. In model railroad terminology, turnout usually refers to a ready-made track item that can be incorporated into a layout, but the idea is the same.

Also known as a switch, set of points or simply points.

You do not have to buy turnouts labelled "Digital Command Control-ready", and you do not have to modify existing turnouts when converting a layout to Digital Command Control. You should choose the turnouts that best suit your overall requirements and don't go out of your way to find "Digital Command Control-ready" or "Digital Command Control Friendly Turnouts".

  1. All turnouts work with Digital Command Control
  2. There are no turnouts that do not work with Digital Command Control
  3. If a turnout works with analog it will work with Digital Command Control


Many use the terms turnout and switch interchangeably.

In prototype practice:

A COMPLETE SWITCH consists of two switch points with all the necessary accessories.
A SWITCH is not a TURNOUT, only part of it. Branching from one track to another requires a turnout with both a frog and a switch.
The terminology is from the US Steel Trackwork Catalog. Some images may not conform to standard prototype nomenclature.

A complete turnout consists of:

  1. A straight stock rail
  2. A straight closure rail
  3. Two switch rails
  4. A curved stock rail
  5. A curved closure rail
    1. The closure rails form the wing rails in the frog
  6. The frog
    1. The frog has a toe and a heel
  7. The point rails

The frog consists of a number of parts.

The main parts are the LH and RH wing rails, which form the TOE of the frog. The HEEL of the frog is formed by the Long and Short point rails. The HEEL has the flangeways between the point and wing rails. The THROAT is the section where the wing rails diverge to the just before the point formed by the point rails.

HO Scale turnout with parts identified

Frog Numbers

The number of a frog is the ratio of the spread to its distance from the theoretical point (where the long and short point rails would form a point, not the actual point).

A number 4 is 1" in 4". The spread is measured at right angles to the center line. The actual angle formed is 14 degrees 15 minutes.

As per prototype practice, for high speed movements a turnout of #16 to 20 is recommended. Mainline slow speed movements, #10 to 12. Yards and sidings, #8. For modelling purposes, #8 is good for most applications, with smaller frogs angles for yards and branch lines.

Frog number Radius, Feet Degree of Curve (DMS) O Scale HO Scale N Scale
5 177.8 32-39-56 44 24 13
6 258.57 22-17-58 65 35 19
8 487.28 11-46-44 122 67 37
10 779.39 7-21-24 195 107 58
12 1104.63 5-11-20 276 151 83
16 2007.12 2-51-18 502 275 151
18 2578.79 2-13-20 645 354 193
20 3289.29 1-44-32 822 451 247

O, HO, and N Scale are expressed in Inches.

As the table shows, a number 20 turnout requires a radius of 21 feet in N Scale. So for modelling purposes, a number 10 or 12 turnout is reasonable compromise at five to seven feet (in N).

Digital Command Control and Turnouts

To say the least, Digital Command Control has certain requirements that must be met by your track work. The two electrical issues are related are the switch (sometimes called the points) rails and the frog. Using your NMRA gauge to verify the clearances of the turnout as well as wheel gauge goes a long way here.

Also verify wheel sets are in gauge using your NMRA gauge. Out of gauge wheel sets can cause shorts and derailments. Consider replacing plastic wheels with metal ones, as plastic wheels can wobble due to manufacturing issues. Also verify that trucks have free movement in both horizontal and vertical planes.

  • Short Circuits are a disruptive problem and should be minimized. Since full power is available on the rails at all times, a short with cause interruptions in your enjoyment. They can also allow enough current to flow to weld things together which is never a good thing. Your boosters will react quickly and shut down everything, and if the short isn't cleared, will begin cycling on and off until it is cleared.
  • Wheels on Rails is not the most reliable power delivery system. Your locomotives need a clean, uninterrupted Digital Command Control signal on the track for proper operation. Electrically unreliable turnouts will cause problems like stalling, or in the case of sound decoders, restarting of the prime mover.
  • A careless operator can foul a turnout, causing a short, causing the Digital Command Control signal to be cut off. Or it may just cause problems until the points are aligned correctly, inconveniencing everyone else until power is restored.
  • You want to run your trains and have fun, and troublesome turnouts are not going to improve the experience.

Older turnouts may present issues with Digital Command Control. When they were made Digital Command Control wasn't available or not widespread. Later versions may have been improved to deal with issues arising with Digital Command Control.

Frog Types

There are two types of frogs: Live (powered) and Dead (unpowered).

Dead (Insulated) Frogs

The dead frog means it is isolated from the rest of the track. Typically the frog will be made from an insulating material such as plastic, but metal can be used as well. This route made for turnouts which were much more Digital Command Control compatible than older turnouts with live frogs. Also at less cost. The PECO Insulfrog is a good example, as are many other brands, such as the Atlas Snap Track and almost all turnouts made with brass rail. Also available are turnouts by Micro Engineering, Walthers, the Atlas Custom Line Code 83 turnouts and others with metal frogs insulated from the adjoining rails.

  • Atlas
  • Peco Insulfrog
  • Micro Engineering
  • Walthers/Shinohara Digital Command Control Compatible (Older ones may need come work to make them compatible)
  • Hand laid turnouts, such as those made using Fast Tracks jigs or Central Valley kits

Peco's insulated frog turnouts are ready to use out-of-the-box with the slight caveat described below (see Small Frogs).

Dead/Insulated frog turnouts are shown in the picture for Self Isolating Turnouts.

Live Frogs

Live Frogs are metal and electrically connected to the track power. They have the advantage of less unpowered track but are slightly more complicated to wire up. Isolated frogs are made from metal but are electrically isolated from all the other rails which makes them behave very much like insulated frogs. However, being metal, this gives you the option to convert them to live frog by attaching a feed wire to the frog.

There are two ways that live frogs can get their power:

  • Self Powered
  • Frog Switching
Just because the frog is constructed from metal (a casting or with rails) does not mean it is live.

An example of a live frog is the Peco Electrofrog.

Isolated frog turnouts are shown in the picture Non-Power Routing Turnouts.

Turnout Overview

Also see the page on DCC Friendly Turnouts.

Remote Operation

Main article: Turnout Operation

On a Digital Command Control layout, turnouts can be operated remotely by Turnout Motors controlled by Stationary Decoders using commands sent from a Throttle.

Types of Turnouts

Commercial turnouts are produced in many different shapes, sizes, sleeper types, rail profiles, and degrees of realism. To complicate the choice there are various different electrical behaviours and some are labelled "DCC-Ready" or "DCC-Friendly" and others are not. So, which type should you choose?

You do not have to buy turnouts labelled "DCC-ready" and you do not have to modify existing turnouts when converting a layout to Digital Command Control. You should choose the turnouts that best suit your overall requirements and don't go out of your way to find "DCC-ready" or "DCC Friendly Turnouts". However there are several special considerations to bear in mind and if you're just starting out on a Digital Command Control project it will be well worth investing the time to understand the different types of turnouts, their various benefits and the best way to wire them up.

But before you read on and get too confused, remember a few rules...

  • All turnouts work with Digital Command Control
  • There are no turnouts that don't work with Digital Command Control
  • If a turnout works with analog it will work with Digital Command Control

Power Routing

This is the issue that confuses many modellers.

Non-Power Routing Turnouts

Non-power routing turnouts are turnouts where all routes are always powered. In commercial turnouts, this is achieved with internal bonding wires (usually on the underside) between the stock and switch rails or stock and closure rails (the diagram shows the latter case but they are effectively equivalent to each other). Since the stock and switch rail pair is electrically connected and share the same phase relationship, there should be no shorts caused by a wheel bridging the gap between them.

Non-Power Routing Turnout

Atlas and Roco are examples of non-power routing turnouts.

Self-Isolating or Power Routing Turnouts

Self-isolating / power routing turnouts are ones that only power the track on the selected route, the other route is electrically dead. This is a good feature for analog layouts because it automatically isolates a locomotive sitting idle on a siding. The point of using Digital Command Control is you don't need to cut the power to make a locomotive stop, and doing so will prevent things from working; such as sound, lights, and CV programming. The solution is simple though, just add power feeds to the track in the siding.

This feature is usually implemented by wires connecting the closure rail to the appropriate point rail, located beneath the frog. The switch rails function as a electrical switch, connecting or disconnecting power.

Peco Insulfrog and Hornby are examples of self-isolating power routing turnouts.

Non-Isolating Power Routing Turnouts

Non-Isolating Power Routing Turnout

Non-isolating power routing turnouts are ones that only power the track on the selected route, the other route has the same phase on both rails. To a locomotive, it sees no potential difference (voltage) between the two rails. Like the self-isolating trunouts this is not good for Digital Command Control. And whether you're using Digital Command Control or not, this type of turnout needs isolating rail joiners or gaps (not shown in the diagram) on the end of the point rails to prevent short circuits when power is also fed from elsewhere.

These turnouts have all of their point rails, closure rails and points electrically connected together. In some cases this is partly because the closure rails share the same metal hinge mechanism. The frog may or may not be live, in the diagram below a live frog version is shown. Shorts may occur if a wheel bridges the gap between the switch and stock rail.

PECO Electrofrogs are examples of non-isolating power routing turnouts.

Shinohara Turnouts (Walthers) come in two varieties. The older ones are non-isolating power routing. They can be identified by the metal bars joining the switch rails together and there are no gaps at the toe and heel of the frog. Small metal tabs under the points connect the switch rails to either stock rail.

Self Powered

With the self-powered or power routing type of turnout, the frog is electrically connected to point blades and therefore takes the phase according to the route selected by way of the blade contacting the stock rail.

The main task to perform is to gap the two point rails. With ready-made turnouts this simply means installing insulating rail joiners on those two rails. The second task you may want to perform is wiring a frog feed that also provides the correct phase to the frog. This avoids having to rely on the contact between switch and stock rails making a good electrical connection.

Peco call theirs Electrofrogs. Peco's live frog turnouts are ready to use out-of-the-box (assuming you use two insulating rail joiners on the frog rails) as the self-powered type. However they are designed to be easily converted to the other type (frog switching) if desired.

Many brands offer these types of turnouts such as Micro Engineering's older turnouts, Shinohara, Walthers and PECO's Electrofrog.

Frog Switching

Digital Command Control Friendly Turnout with Frog Phase Switching

With frog switching, the frog is isolated from all the other rails and must get its power from a separate power feed that switches accordingly.

The next diagram shows "Digital Command Control-Friendly" turnouts with the frog phase switch added. Here a switch is mechanically linked to the tie-bar so that whatever operates the points also operates the frog switch. This can either be a turnout motor with a built in switch, or a SPDT switch mounted at the side of the layout with a rod or wire-in-tube linking it to the tie-bar. An alternative to a mechanical switch is an electronic device such as the Frog Juicer.

Short Circuits

Three types of short circuits can occur at turnouts. Most of the time none of these should be an issue but if you want to improve the reliability of your layout take note.

None of these issues are specific to Digital Command Control but since a short on a Digital Command Control layout trips the booster and cuts power to all of the locomotives in the same district, the effect is much more annoying.

Small Frogs

The smaller an insulated frog is, the less dead track there is to inadvertently stall your locomotive. However if they are too small and your rolling stock wheels are too wide there is a risk that a metal wheel will bridge the gap between the two point rails where they meet in the frog. Peco Insulfrog turnouts can have this issue, especially with older, cruder profile wheels.

During installation the point rails must have insulating rail joiners to isolate them from the downstream trackwork. This allows the switch to control power flow to the point rails, and eliminates the issue with a bridging the point rails in the frog. This is important if the point rails are electrically bonded together.

If this proves to be a problem for you, see the page on the Peco Insulfrog for a simple fix.

Stock Rail to Switch Rail Shorts

This is another issue that can occur with crude profile metal wheels, or with wheel sets or rails out of gauge. if the tread is wide enough the back of the wheel flange can touch the side of the open switch rail. Another cause is out of gauge wheel sets or trackwork where again, the wheel can bridge the gap. Verifying wheel gauge and turnouts clearances with an NMRA Gauge can identify these issues. In the case of wheelsets, they should be checked and corrected as necessary before new rolling stock goes on your layout.

If you hand lay your trackwork, use an appropriate gauge to check the clearances during turnout construction, especially the switch rail clearances. The gauge can also identify issues with commercial turnouts as well, since compromises are made for manufacturing.

Insulated frog or live frog turnouts can have this issue depending on how the switch rails are wired. Ideally they should be isolated from the frog and electrically connected to the adjacent stock rail.

This issue can occur with Peco Electrofrogs because out-of-the box both switch rails are electrically connected to the live frog which means the one rail will have the opposite phase of the adjacent stock rail. Peco supply instructions with all their Electrofrog turnouts for modifying them to solve this problem.

Running into Turnouts the Wrong Way (Against the Points)

See Also


USS Track Work Catalog, First Edition, 1955