Yes I know I have a bias, after 20 years in the industrial control business, I can sketch a design on the back of an envelope go into my garage and pull out a handful of relays and wires and build a control system in a hour.
Where as to use some “smart” products I have to pay just like you.
Having said that, my 20 years experience in industrial controls and 50 years model railroading has given me the opportunity to do practical testing. The discussion that follows while biased is supposed to give you some clarity in your options for powering / controlling your railroad.
Digital Command Control
This is about garden rail please look at HO control for a different discussion because key elements take on a new meaning when we are in the great out doors.
DCC evolved out of smart transistorized throttles, as function and features were added to control systems a desire to operate multiple engines on one section of track was addressed by supplying constant power to the track and controlling speed inside the loco, as an added feature this was also considered a solution to wiring and controlling a reversing loop.
Well life go on and we need to look at reality, IF you are going to try to operate your garden railway as if it is a real operating railroad then you MAY need to operate multiple engine on the same track at the same time, the majority of us however just like to see the trains run in a garden setting. Most of us have a loop and several sidings or alternate routes; very few of us have automated remote control switches (that we trust) because nature has a tendency to dump all sorts of crap into moving parts when we leave them outside.
Nature brings us to the next problem DCC is supposed to cut down on the amount of wiring you need to do because you do not need to have all these separate blocks for controlling different engines but I have found the wiring I have to do is entirely dependent upon getting any power to the section of track DCC needs good solid connection and no electronic noise so I do not believe I have any difference in the number of connections to the track, and reversing loops still need to have an isolation cut, so no advantage to use DCC.
The DCC advocate will now point out they do not need a central control panel, but this also is a non starter because since Garden railways generally do not have a need for centralized switching so we do not have a need for centralized control.
Ultimately experience tells me that sophisticated electronics are not worth the extra expense when we have a dirty (electronically and well as physically) environment.
Having said that let me tell you what I think the ideal power system would be, then I will tell you where I have ended up as a compromise.
My ideal Power/Control system for Garden Railways would be Radio controlled and Battery powered with a limited Battery size or Capacitance charging cell. The idea is just like real trains your locomotive would not be able to run for an unlimited amount of time. So after operation the engine would need to “fuel up.” To recharge the power-cell the loco would be parked on a short, powered section of track where it can “refuel” through wheel contacts. This type of realism should be as basic as adding “momentum” control to your throttle.
Reality is I do not have any more time to build this out than you do because it is not (yet) a standard product to pick up and install (maybe when I retire).
What I have is three different operational sections each powered differently as per my expectations; the main line around the outside is easily accessible and runs the large trains (in summer it has a tunnel section where the trains park when not in use so everything is very stable in operation) it has a standard PS one connection from the power supply to the track and any difficult electrical conductivity sections are cross connected to the next to maintain continuity
The upper level has a small work train and I have to walk through the layout to get access to the equipment in many places, so I have a basic radio control so I can “kill” the power if anything goes wrong. This also is the section I let visitors “operate (play).”
In between I have a Trolley system set to shuttle between the town and the main line. This is set up with a cycle controller and rarely get used parties and open days when I want a lot of action going on at the same time.
I think more like a dispatcher than a engineer, I want to see things run, more than I want to control every little movement. (This also allows me to, enjoy my beverage without juggling the controller in my other hand.)