Test / Programming Track

As a kid watching my father work on his model trains, I always got excited when the test track came out. He would tinker with his locomotives to get the best performance. The track would be hooked up to the power pack and the locomotive would go back and forth as he analyzed the performance and made tweaks. He always wanted a “rolling test stand” where he could run the locomotive without it moving to better get a sense of its performance. A couple of home-built ideas never panned out, but then again, we didn’t have a machine shop in our apartment.

Many things have happened since that time in the 70s. We now have DCC and along with that comes the need to program decoders which, thanks to the software JMRI has become much easier with the use of a computer. I have chosen ESU Lok Sound as my sound decoder of choice and have bought an ESU Lok Programmer to program them. Hence, a test track for me would need to include all possibilities of testing and programming.

DCC doesn’t improve the performance of DC locomotives. They need to run well on DC before installation and programming of a decoder. Therefore, a DC testing component is required. I’ve tried to include everything I could possibly need into one, fairly compact and aesthetically pleasing unit. I’ve seen lots of modellers ideas of test tracks/stands but they always seem encumbered with wires everywhere. This is my take on it, I hope it provides some inspiration for you to make something that fits your needs and desires.

It is built from ½” plywood I had in the garage. Nothing was purchased for this build; it is all material I had lying around. I’ll take it piece by piece and explain what I did and why. There are many ways to go about this. This is my way and I hope it inspires you to do something similar.

Front panel hinges down. Provides storage for NCE PowerCab and cables.
Back panel removed.

DCC Section

For DCC I used an NCE PowerCab. Any DCC basestation would work but the PowerCab is compact and is excellent for programming sound decoders as it does not need any kind of boosting to do so. I simply cut a hole in the plywood for the Panel. Beside it, I mounted the NCE USB Adapter to connect to my computer for JMRI. These are mounted on the right side of the test track as seen in the closeup below.

PowerCab and USB adapter connections.

ESU Decoder Tester & LokProgrammer

I have two switches shown below; one for the Lok Programmer power and the other to allow me to select the input to the tester, either the NCE Power Cab or the Lok Programmer.

ESU Decoder Tester and LokProgrammer

DC Section

The picture below shows a switch to choose which DCC signal is applied to the tracks; either the NCE or the LokProgrammer. Moving to the left, is a switch that chooses between DCC and DC. There is a switch for DC power, direction and speed. Below the power switch there is a jumper that can be removed for an amp meter to be put in its place to measure current draw in DC mode.

Track Output and DC Throttle

The throttle is a very simple design, with two resistors, a potentiometer, one transistor and a reversing switch. It is designed for DC input which I have coming from the laptop power supply. I built this throttle about 20 years ago and it’s stood the test of time in several enclosures. I provide a schematic for those who want to try themselves. It is based on a Peter Thorne design in one of his Electronics for Model Railroaders books. Those books inspired me to go into my first career of electronics and taught me a lot. See schematic below:

Throttle Schematic


The captioned photo below shows mains power coming in to a simple 2 outlet receptacle. Always be cautious with mains power. The adapter for the NCE is plugged in and an old laptop power supply that supplies the Lok Programmer, the LEDs and the DC control circuit with 17 Volts Regulated DC.

Also, the NCE PowerCab Panel and USB Panel can be seen. To the right of these is the power switch to the LokProgrammer and the switch to select which DCC signal is being sent to the tester, either the NCE PowerCab or the LokProgrammer.

For the other section, shown below, there is a switch to select which DCC signal is sent to the track. There is a choice between the NCE or the LokProgrammer. Next to this is the DC/DCC track selector which is then connected to the track outputs.

Moving over, there is a switch that controls power to the DC throttle. I also included a “jumper” which, when removed, I can connect my meter to measure DC current that is being drawn by the locomotive.

Rolling Test Stand

In a box of stuff that I came across somewhere were some rolling test stands. I adapted them to be used on the test track. The photos tell the story. The rails to the left are higher than the rails for the rollers so that when a steam locomotive is on the stand, the tender can be on the rails at the same height.

Rolling Test Stand
Rolling Test Stand

I have a video showing an On30 locomotive on the test stand on my YouTube Channel.


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