Monday, May 11, 2009

Model Railroading | Track Maintenance and Keeping Rails Clean

I learned early on the importance of keeping the track clean. Oxidization as well as dust accumulating on the nickel rails slows trains down, while especially dirty sections of the layout may stop them, quite literally, in their tracks!

Dirt and oxidation inhibits the electrical contact between the rails and the wheels of the locomotive. And if you have steel track on your layout, be prepared to perform frequent track cleaning to keep rust at bay!

Model Railroad Track Cleaning
Fleischmann Track Cleaning Wagon

Some common symptoms of dirty track:

  • The engine seems to lack power in certain sections of track and then suddenly lunges forward

  • At lower speed settings on the controller, the engine is at a standstill

  • The locomotive doesn't move at all

The above usually occur when we haven't run our trains for several weeks, when there is an increase in humidity or when we've just done scenic work. The PVA glue used in attaching scenery to a layout forms a thin, non-conductive layer if it should find its way onto the rails.

My method for cleaning track is to rub a piece of balsa wood on the offending section, followed up with a thorough rubdown woth some cloth swabs soaked in isopropyl alcohol.

Model Railroad Track Cleaning
A simple piece of balsa wood is abrasive enough for basic track cleaning

The balsa really helps in removing some of the more stubborn crud and doesn't leave any residue like track rubber cleaners do. Fine grains of rubber residue can get caught in our engine or wheel mechanism.

But if you do use a track rubber, vacuum up any remaining residue and you should be fine. I have a small, handheld, battery-operated vacuum cleaner used for getting at hard to reach crevices between the keys on computer keyboards. It's not too powerful and will not rip up the scenery like a household vacuum cleaner would!

If you have steel track, I wouldn't recommend regular, routine use of steel wool. It should only be used on very stubborn rust spots. Steel wool is very abrasive, much more so than track rubber, and using leaves tiny scratches in the rail that will only fill with more crud and rust in future. It's a good idea to go over the track area with a magnet to pick up any fine scraps of steel wool after you're done cleaning your track.

I routinely run my Fleischmann track cleaning wagon round my layout every now and then. It has rotating cleaning pads made of a soft felt material that are good for gentle maintenance but not as a substitute for balsa and alcohol.

Model Railroad Track Cleaning
Replaceable green felt pads under the Fleischmann Track Cleaning Wagon

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