Of the early model trains made primarily for the toy market, most were powered by clockwork.
Actual control of the model trains was only possible by means of levers on the locomotive itself, which enabled the operator to make the train stop, to go, and, in many models, to reverse.
Although this made control of your model train rather crude, the models were sufficiently large and robust enough that grabbing the controls on the locomotive as they ran around the track, was quite practical.
Some accessory manufacturers also developed special tracks fitted with slowing and stopping devices which triggered levers on the locomotive thus automating these aspects of control.
The early electrically operated model trains used a three-rail system with the wheels resting on metal tracks with metal sleepers that conducted power and a separate middle rail.
This middle rail provided the power for the train through a skid under the locomotive.
This form of model train control was only possible because most of the materials used in manufacturing the model trains were metal at that time as the plastics used in some present day manufacture were still many years away.
This all-metal manufacture meant that the tracks and locomotive readily conducted electricity.
When manufacturers began to develop more accurately detailed model trains, accuracy in all the associated accessories also became more important as an increasing number of makers attempted to gain share of the rapidly growing market of model train enthusiasts.
As a result of this, some model train systems adopted two-rail power where the wheels were isolated from each other and the two rails carried the positive and negative supply or the two sides of the power supply.
Other model train systems used instead a row of small metal studs to replace the central rail, allowing existing three-rail models to use tracks which resembled the more realistic two-rail systems which were coming into widespread use.
Today the most common control method uses DC [Direct current] power with the positive and negative charges on the two rails.
Some model systems however use AC power [Alternating current as used in your general household devices] on the three-rail system.
Marklin and Lionel are examples of this control method. American Flyer is yet another exception, using AC power on a two-rail track.
The very earliest electric model trains ran on battery power as few homes were wired for electric power in the late 19th or early 20th Century.
It is interesting that inexpensive model train sets running on battery power are becoming more common once again.
But most model train operators regard these as toys and they are seldom used by real enthusiasts.
These battery powered model trains can make a valuable contribution however to this absorbing hobby.
They can introduce young children to the joys and pleasures of being a model train operator.
Many of the older model train enthusiasts today recall that their first experiences with model trains were with toy trains given to them as presents and which became the delightful beginnings of a lifetime hobby.
Many garden railway and larger scale model train systems still use battery power today.
This is necessary because of the difficulty in obtaining a reliable power supply through the rails located outdoors where safe wiring and insulation can be a problem.
The high level of power consumption and the subsequent high current drawn by large scale garden model trains is thus more easily and more safely met by using lead acid batteries, like those used in modern cars.
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