How many kids woke up this past Christmas morning and found a toy train set under the tree? A train set is a classic gift for any child who has a thing for transportation. Interestingly, more toy trains are going the way of batteries these days. Not every train enthusiast is happy about it, but technology has a way of pushing forward.
There are definite drawbacks to powering model trains with batteries. But there are also some benefits, too. The debate raging in the model train community right now is whether battery-powered engines will eventually eliminate conventional engines entirely.
Cars, Planes, and Boats
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that batteries are more than capable of supporting model railroading. Lithium-ion batteries are especially attractive because they offer maximum performance with less weight. Model makers have been using them extensively in remote-controlled cars, planes, and boats for years.
Trains have been the exception to the rule thanks to the practice of electrifying tracks (more on that later). As for the other types of vehicles, there is no practical way to plug them into a wall outlet. So they have to be powered by either electricity or combustible fuel. Gasoline used to be the default, but it has since been replaced by battery power.
Since the earliest days of model railroading, hobbyists have enjoyed AC-powered locomotives that draw power from the tracks. Layouts have been built with two- or three-rail tracks and an AC transformer. The largest layouts utilize multiple transformers to generate a steady supply of electricity.
Perhaps one of the reasons toy train sets are being powered more frequently by batteries is the fact that they are toys. They are smaller, standalone sets rather than being part of a much larger layout. As such, they are used less frequently and for shorter amounts of time. Why force a kid to wrangle with a transformer and electrified track when a battery pack will do just as well?
It could also be a safety issue. Toy manufacturers may not want to assume the liability risk that comes with children and electrical outlets. It is just safer to rely on lithium-ion batteries instead.
AC Power Not Dead Yet
Though there are some exceptions to the rule, most of the model trains now being powered by batteries are larger scale models designed as toys. To the serious model railroad hobbyist though, AC power is not dead yet. Their gargantuan layouts that run trains through simulated cities, villages, deserts, and mountains are still powered by electrified tracks painstakingly laid by dedicated railroaders.
There may come a day when AC transformers are no longer utilized in model railroading. After all, people were convinced that digital photography would never replace film. And yet, here we are. The AC transformer could be next on the list of extinct technologies.
If that day ever comes, we will push even harder for USB rechargeable batteries over other rechargeable technologies and disposable alkaline products. We are all-in on lithium-ion cells with built-in USB recharging technology because we think that they are superior to anything else out there on the market at the moment.
In the meantime, model railroaders will continue debating whether AC power is better than battery power. Some will make the transition to batteries faster than others. As that happens, it seems highly likely that the number of battery-powered trains only stands to increase over the next few years. With battery technology constantly getting better, there are fewer reasons to continue laying electrified tracks that rely on AC transformers.