Installing DCC Decoders in N Scale Locomotives


Prior to 1997, N-Scale locomotives were not designed for Command Control. There was no space within the shells of diesel locomotives to install the DCC decoder, nor was it easy to make the electrical connections required. With steam locomotives, the DCC decoder could usually be placed in the tender, but the electrical connections required were still generally difficult to make.

In 1997 both Atlas and Kato introduced production-run diesel locomotives designed for easy conversion to DCC, and locomotives introduced since have been DCC-ready. Several decoder manufacturers have designed decoders to fit in these locomotives. Athearn, Atlas, Bachmann, Broadway Limited, PCM, Walthers and others now offer many or all of their locomotives with decoders already installed. Almost all manufacturers are making their locomotives "DCC ready" or "DCC Equipped."

How do we define "DCC Ready"? Visit our DCC Friendly Definitions page. The comprehensive Decoder Installation Standards proposed on that page, developed by Ron Beardon and published in the November/December 2006 issue of N-Scale Magazine, are used throughout this and the other pages relating to DCC decoder installs.

Modifying or adapting Non-DCC Ready locomotives for Digital Command Control can be done, either on our own (for steam and diesel locomotives) or with products manufactured by two companies (for diesel locomotives). See below for details.

Plug & Play Decoders

Just as Plug & Play doesn't always work as advertised on computers, sometimes some extra effort is required to make Plug & Play (PnP) decoder installations work just as they should in N-scale locomotives. The following are some general problems encountered and suggested solutions.


There is usually more than one decoder from more than one manufacturer that will fit or work in your particular locomotive; check each out then select the one with the desired features, best price, best reputation, etc. For some locomotives, even though the decoder is essentially "drop-in" you may have to do some soldering, such as the wires to the headlight.

Kato E5, E8/9 A/B, F3/7 A/B, F40PH, P42, PA/PB-1

To remove the original light board and install the decoder, you must remove the plastic clip holding the motor brush leads against the light board and bend the leads up. After the decoder is installed you are directed to bend the leads back down against the decoder contact pads and secure them with the plastic clip.

The problem is that in bending the motor brush leads up so you can remove the original light board and insert the decoder, you cannot bend them back to the exact same tension. Thus when the retainer clip is inserted the motor brush leads may or may not be making a good contact with the decoder motor pads. Even if they are when first installed, simply replacing the shell on the frame or the vibration of running the locomotive may cause the contact to go bad.

The solution is to spot solder the motor brush lead to the decoder motor pad, using a very small amount of solder. (You may sometime in the future need to disassemble the locomotive for maintenance.) Be sure the soldering iron is 15 watts maximum and has a small round tip. Be sure to use resin core solder only.

All Atlas Diesel Locomotives that Utilize a Drop-In Decoder

Atlas diesel locomotives that feature a drop-in decoder installation have a potential issue with the motor brush leads making good contact with the motor pads on the bottom of the decoder; the motor brush leads can move. This may result in no or intermittent operation. Repeated attempts to align the motor brush leads may or may not be successful.

Recent decoders for Atlas locomotives have slots into which the motor tabs can be inserted. Inserting the tabs in the slots, installing the decoder in the frame and then fastening the two halves of the frames together successfully can be very difficult, and frustrating.

The best solution is to solder wires between the decoder motor pads and the motor brush leads. Use a very small gauge stranded wire for this purpose (such as the wire used in Digitrax wired decoders). About ¾" long is enough. Strip 1/16" insulation from the ends of each wire. Cut the motor brush leads back about ¼" so they cannot interfere with the solder connection to the decoder motor pads. Solder one wire to the left motor brush lead, then to the left decoder motor pad. Repeat for the right side. Be sure there are no solder bridges between the two decoder motor pads.

You must be sure that neither the installed wires nor the copper brush leads can touch the metal frame or you will destroy the decoder. Use small pieces of Kapton tape to prevent shorts.

Some recent Atlas locomotives have small metal clips mounted on the four corners of the light board where they contact the frame. Removing the light board may cause the clips to come off the light board (fly off never to be found again; order replacements from Atlas). These clips are very difficult to attach to the decoder so they will stay in place. The solution is to spot solder then in place using a little solder as possible, and then install the decoder. Even after doing this the above issues with the motor tabs may be encountered.

Thickness of Plug & Play Decoder Circuit Boards

The circuit board of the Plug & Play decoder that you select for your locomotive may not be exactly the same thickness as the light board it is replacing. This may result in poor electrical contact with the frame, particularly if the decoder board is slightly thinner than the light board.

If the decoder board is slightly thicker than the light board use some extra but gentle force to place the decoder in the correct position in the locomotive frame. Don't use too much force as the circuit board is easily damaged.

If the decoder board is slightly thinner than the light board and does not fit snugly then you will need to build a very small solder dome on the power contact points at the four corners of the decoder. Do this very carefully, as you want to end up with a snug fit, but remember that the decoder must slip into the slots in the frame. Use a soldering iron with a small round tip and 15 watts maximum. Heat the decoder power pad with the soldering iron while applying solder until a very thin dome forms, then remove the soldering iron and allow to cool. Very carefully insert (do not overly force) the decoder in the Atlas frame and re-assemble the locomotive. If a great deal of force is required then the solder dome is too high; remove some solder with the soldering iron and try again.

Wired Decoders

Older locomotives generally must use a wired decoder to convert the locomotive to DCC. This may require the purchase of a retroframe or milling of the OEM frame, or you may modify the frame yourself. Information about retroframes and modifying frames, as well as the tools you will need to perform your conversion are listed below.

Even if your locomotive is DCC-ready you can generally install a wired decoder, probably without modifying the frame. Several of the descriptions below give directions on installing wired decoders in such locomotives.


Locomotive frames must be precisely manufactured to give the correct orientation and tolerances for drive train components, and alignment of the motor and electrical pickups, etc. to produce a smooth-running and quiet locomotive. Aztec and Southern Digital follow different approaches in the way they produce their retroframes.

Aztec uses OEM frames from the locomotive manufacturer or the customer and mills them on precise computer-controlled milling machines to create wiring channels and space for the decoder. These frames do not void the manufacturer's warranty, and most manufacturers will accept locomotives with Aztec frames for repair.

Southern Digital creates a copy of the die cast original frame modified with the wiring channels and space for the decoder. These are then copy cast in rubber molds in lower temperature, but more dense, alloys than the original.

Each approach achieves its purpose of converting an analog locomotive into a digital locomotive. The following table indicates some of the differences between the approaches and the companies:

Comparison of retro-frame manufacturers
Aztec TrackMaster Frame Southern Digital Digi-Frame
Milled OEM frame New cast frame
Less weight than original frame More weight than OEM frame
No filing of frame or adjustments required Hardened frame but brittle, touch up filing only required
Individual, detailed instructions per frame Individual, detailed instructions per frame
Decoder wire lengths specified Decoder wire lengths specified
Shell mounting "nubs" retained Shell mounting "nubs" retained
Strong, straight frame Strong, straight frame


Both companies offer a wide range of DCC-ready frames. Aztec also offers frames milled for speakers for drop-in sound decoders. Check the Aztec and Southern Digital web sites for specific information, availability and pricing.


Due to short supply of some OEM frames, Aztec may require your existing frame as a trade-in. Check at their web site: Aztec also posts the instructions sheets for installing decoders in the frames they produce. Check their web site.

Southern Digital Digi-Frames are fairly brittle, and have been known to break from incorrect handling or dropping of either the frame alone or the frame in a locomotive. Southern Digital also had, at one time, some problems with frame dimensions; watch out for these if purchasing on the used market or over the Internet.

New frames are added by the manufacturers from time to time, and some are discontinued, so check with the manufacturer or dealer for availability.

Suppliers Addresses:

The manufacturers of retroframes for N Scale diesel locomotives can be contacted as follows:

Aztec Manufacturing Company

2701 Conestoga Drive, Unit 113

Carson City, NV 89706

Phone: (775) 883-3327

Fax: (775) 883-3357

Southern Digital

5295 Highway 78

Suite D-322

Stone Mountain, GA 30087

Phone: (404) 929-1888


Modifying the Frame Yourself

You can also modify your own existing frame to accept a DCC decoder. If you have the tools, time and inclination, you can avoid purchasing another frame.

Be extremely careful when modifying/grinding Kato or Atlas/Kato frames that you do not damage or destroy them. Most are no longer available from Kato or Atlas.

Details are provided in the individual publications for locomotives where this is an option.

Tools Required

If you are going to use a commercially available retroframe and/or modify your existing frame you will need the following tools:

Commercial Retroframe Modify Frame
Soldering iron with fine-tipped point Hacksaw
Fine resin core solder Motor Tool
Small Phillips-head and straight-bladed screwdrivers Metal cutting bits for Motor Tool (ball shape, cone shape, square mill, etc.)
Tweezers (hook-tipped work best) No. 600 wet and dry sandpaper
Long-nosed pliers, small Set of flat and circular hobby files
Wire cutter Safety glasses
Wire stripper Milling machine (optional)
Set of flat and circular hobby files  
4 tooth picks (used for removing some shells from frame)  
Paint or magic marker  


Specific Locomotive Installation InstructionsAvailable

Online Instructions and Assistance

Some decoder manufacturers provide detailed installation instructions with photographs showing the installation of their decoder in a range of locomotives. Such companies include (but are not limited to):

Train Control Systems (TCS):

  • TCS on their web site provide photographic instructions for installing their decoders in a wide variety of locomotives in scales from O to Z. Click here to go to the TCS web site, then click on "Installation Pictures" on the left side of the screen, then your desired scale and then your desired locomotive.

Note that you can follow these pitcure instructions when installing a similar decoder from another manufacturer.

Note: Links to the individual TCS descriptions are NOT provided in the listings below. You must go to their web site to access the descriptions.

Some decoder manufacturers provide a "Decoder Selector" page where you can enter the scale, manufacturer and locomotive type to learn which of the manufacturer's decoder products will fit the locomotive. Such companies include (but are not limited to):


Consult these web sites if your locomotive is not listed in the detailed listings below.

How to Use Installation Descriptions

Keep the following in mind when choosing a description to follow:

  • The various conversions listed below provide detailed descriptions covering installations actually performed by model railroaders throughout the world, and reflect the experiences encountered during those installations.
  • After selecting the locomotive manufacturer below, from the listing click on the author's name(s) corresponding to the desired locomotive to go to the detailed installation description.
  • Many locomotives have been released several times over the years, many with updated tooling and frames. Thus each description for a specific manufacturer and locomotive model may not apply to your specific locomotive. Carefully compare your locomotive to the locomotive pictured in the descriptions.
  • Many of the descriptions refer to descriptions on the Train Control Systems (TCS) web site. All of these descriptions use TCS decoders. You should be aware that equivalent decoders may be available from one or more other manufacturers.
  • Note that some descriptions are located in the files area of various Yahoogroups DCC-related lists, and may require membership in the list for access. Also note that articles published in the model railroad press are not generally available online. Contact the publisher to order a desired issue. No claim is made that this list is complete. If you have a locomotive that is not listed here you should use Google or Bing to search for a description for your specific locomotive. New descriptions are being published all the time.

Index by Manufacturer

Arnold-Rapido & Arnold/Rivarossi



Arnold/Rivarossi Alco S-2

David Derway, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club





Kim Saign in N Scale Railroading, Jan/Feb 09, Page 22


Hard wire, non-DCC ready





Atlas/Rivarossi 4-6-2 Pacific

Robert Ray
Clicking on this link takes you to Robert's home page. Click on "DCC Pages" then click on "Atlas/Rivarossi 4-6-2."
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

Two-Truck Shay

David Derway, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

Ron Bearden in N Scale Magazine Jul/Aug 06
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

Alco RS-1

Robert Ray
Clicking on this link takes you to Robert's home page. Click on "DCC Pages" then click on "Atlas RS-1."

Dave MacKinnon in N Scale Railroading, Mar/Apr 09, Page 40


Robert Ray
Clicking on this link takes you to Robert's home page. Click on "DCC Pages" then click on "Atlas GP7-TT."


Col. André Kritzinger
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

EMD GP40 Classic

Col. André Kritzinger

EMD GP40-2

N Scale Station


Col. André Kritzinger




Baldwin Sharknose Diesels

Rod Schaffter

EMC Gas-Electric Doodlebug

Fred Horne

Peter's Model Railroading (Peter Van Vliet)

Ihor Tanin

Dana W. Zimerli

4-4-0 American

The Train Buddy

Spectrum 2-8-0 Consolidation

Kestutis Sonta

Paul J. Downs in N Scale Magazine, Jul/Aug 02 Page 48

George Sebastian-Coleman in Model Railroader, Jan 03 Page 114

Spectrum 4-8-2 USRA Lt. Mountain

Jim Taylor

Spectrum GE C40-8/C40-8W

Col. André Kritzinger





S2 4-8-4 Northern

Peter's Model Railroading (Peter Van Vliet)

4-6-4 J1e Hudson (Kato version)

James Reske & John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club [PDF]

Alco PA-1/PB-1

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

Budd 1/2/3 Rail Diesel Car (RDC)

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

GE U50 / GE UP Gas Turbine

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club


ER Models



Baldwin RF-16A Shark

Rod Schaffter

Nelson [PDF]
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

Baldwin RF-16B Shark

Rod Schaffter

Nelson [PDF]
Hard wire, non-DCC ready




2-8-2 USRA Heavy Mikado

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

Bob (PowerSteamGuy1790) Ellis in N Scale Magazine Jul/Aug 07 Page 18
LokSound decoder installation.

Mike Morgensen & Dave Petty, Wiring For DCC

Peter's Model Railroading (Peter Van Vliet)
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

4-8-4 GS-4

Phill Perry (Tsunami Micro)

Alco RS-2

David Harris

Budd RDC-1, RDC-2, RDC-3, RDC-4

L. Svedberg

"Spookshow International"

EMD E8/9 A/B

Peter's Model Railroading (Peter Van Vliet)


Paul Bender (Sound)

EMD SD40/45

Col. André Kritzinger

David Harris

EMD SD40-2

David Harris

GE C30-7/U30C

Col. André Kritzinger

Key Imports



C-58 2-8-0 Consolidation

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

Alco FEF-3 4-8-4 Northern

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club




2-8-4 Berkshire

Phill Perry


David Derway, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

Phil Brooks in N Scale Railroading, Nov/Dec 04, Page 34

Alco C424

David Harris

Alco FA-2/FB-2

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club
Hard wire, frame modification

Alco RS-2



John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club
Hard wire, frame modification

EMD GP18 (Old)

John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club
Hard wire, frame modification

EMD GP18 (Current)

Digitrax Application Note

EMD GP38-2

Col. André Kritzinger


Col. André Kritzinger

EMD SW9/1200

Stefano Curtarolo

Col. André Kritzinger

Peter's Model Railroading (Peter Van Vliet)
Hard wire, non-DCC ready

Minitrix / Trix




John M. Wallis, North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

Model Power



2-6-0 Mogul

4-6-2 Pacific

Jose Esguerra




Thomas the Tank Engine

Bill Chown

Greg Moore




USRA 0-8-0 Switcher

Bob (Powersteamguy1720) Ellis

Bob (Powersteamguy1720) Ellis in N Scale Magazine May/Jun 08 Page 52


  • Instruction sheets for various locomotive conversions from Aztec Manufacturing Company, N Scale of Nevada, Southern Digital, Train Control Systems and others.

  • "N Scale Digital Decoder Installation," by Paul Lator, Clinic Presented at NMRA National Convention, Atlanta, GA, July 20, 1995. (Paul Lator is owner of Southern Digital).


Decoder Installations



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