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How I built my dead-rail battery-powered and remote controlled model train

Dead-rail: Battery operated model train

How I made my Lionel trains remote-controlled and battery-powered!

This practice amongst model railroaders is also called dead-railing. The tracks are not powered at all, instead, the trains are battery-powered. It is more common in larger-scale model railroads, due to the size it requires. It specifically makes sense with Garden railroads, since their tracks are exposed to the outside elements

For this project I used Lionel O-scale trains and tracks. The track that I made is an about 4 feet by 8 feet loop. It is portable, and can be used both indoors and outside. The tracks can also be powered, so it can also be used with traditional trains that require track power.

The train engines I am using for this project are Lionel EMD NW2 Diesel switchers, from early -50’s, and early -70’s.

These Lionel engines have the famous Pullmor AC motors. Those motors can also be run with DC power, which we need, since we are using DC battery power.

The 1970 MPC-era NW2 switcher has enough room inside the shell to contain the battery and other needed parts, but the post-war switcher doesn’t have the room, unless I choose a much smaller battery. So, I decided to convert a caboose to a power-unit, which can be used with either engine.

The Lionel 6257 caboose will be used as power unit. The shell is removed in place of a custom-made shell, for added space for the dead-rail components.
The Lionel 6257 caboose will be used as power unit. The shell is removed in place of a custom-made shell, for added space for the dead-rail components.

The caboose I have available for the project is a Lionel 6257 caboose from early 50’s. Size-wise it was still a bit crowded for to fit all the stuff, and I didn’t want to alter the original shell, so I designed a custom shell, that fits on the original frame.

For battery power, I chose a 14.8V 2200mAh rechargeable LiPo battery. It might be overkill, but I wanted plenty of pulling power, and longer running time, and the 4-cell battery still is small enough to fit.

The battery is a 14.8V 2200mAh 50C re-chargeable Li-Po battery. It has plenty of power for this application. You do need a (smart-) charger capable of charging the battery. Alternatively, you can use standard rechargeable batteries, but they are not as efficient.
The battery is a 14.8V 2200mAh 50C re-chargeable Li-Po battery. It has plenty of power for this application. You do need a (smart-) charger capable of charging the battery. Alternatively, you can use standard rechargeable batteries, but they are not as efficient.

For the remote control I used a wireless led-strip dimmer kit. The receiver unit is small enough, and the sender has on/off and its dimmer control functions as speed control in this case.

It doesn’t have reverse control, but if the train engine has the Lionel electronic direction unit, the direction can still be controlled with the remote.

The Dead-rail controller is a wireless remote RF dimmer for single color LED light strips, and can be found for cheap online. For this project, I removed the enclosure, for better fitness inside the power unit.
The Dead-rail controller is a wireless remote RF dimmer for single color LED light strips, and can be found for cheap online. For this project, I removed the enclosure, for better fitness inside the power unit.

Other parts needed for the project are a 6A circuit breaker and a diode, both in order to protect the receiver unit from electrical shorts, power switches, wiring, and optionally, led lamps, or other type of lamps. I use an automotive resettable breaker, but it seems to react too slowly, so it would be better to use a poly-switch breaker.

The circuitry is quite simple, just have to be careful with polarity, and not forgetting the diode at the controller output.

Dead-rail schematics. Power goes from the battery through an on/off switch to the remote receiver board. It also powers the indicator lights in the power unit. The receiver provides power, through a circuit breaker, to the train engine. A diode is installed to protect the Pullmor motors.
Dead-rail schematics. Power goes from the battery through an on/off switch to the remote receiver board. It also powers the indicator lights in the power unit. The receiver provides power, through a circuit breaker, to the train engine. A diode is installed to protect the Pullmor motors.

I added switches to the locomotives, for switching between power from the track, and battery power.
I salvaged the switches from some old remote-control cars. One switch is for the battery power, and one is for switching between rail- and battery power.
You should be able to find all the electronic components online, at fairly low prices.

Wiring schematics for the engine. Power from the center rail on the track is diverted to the switch, along with power from the battery, and then from the switch to the positive power on the engine.
Wiring schematics for the engine. Power from the center rail on the track is diverted to the switch, along with power from the battery, and then from the switch to the positive power on the engine.

You also need some method of keeping it all together. Fortunately, I have a 3D printer, which I used to make cradles and holders for the various parts (scroll trough the slide show below).

  • Dead-rail caboose chassis before power unit assembly.
    Dead-rail caboose chassis before power unit assembly.

After testing the self-powered train, I can tell it has plenty of power. At full speed, it won’t stay on the track in curves, and it pulls 9 cars very easy at lower power.

This short YouTube video is a slide show, and has some additional images and video, showing how I built my dead-rail train (pardon my heavy accent…)

Short YouTube video showing how I built my dead-rail battery-powered and remote controlled model train.

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