Model Trains & Railroads Tips

Model trains tips, tricks and secrets
Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Track cleaning is one of those jobs that has to be carried out on a regular basis if you want to have your trains run well.This is especially important in the smaller scales. You can get away with less cleaning on large G scale layouts, but even there good electrical pick up is vital unless you are using battery power.

I’ve found that good electrical pick up on DCC layouts is even more important than on DC track. Silent and sound decoders are susceptible to a small amount of dirt on the rails.

While preparing for an operating session to show fellow members of our Nottawasage Model Railroad Club how to use car cards, I got to thinking that some of you might be unaware of methods that have been tried over the years. Everyone seems to have a favorite method.

There are several major reasons for poor electrical pickup. One is dirt and crud that is picked up by wheels and spread around the layout. The other is oxidation of the rail head. This is assuming that you’ve already cleaned any glue or paint off the railheads when you installed the trackwork.Many modelers feel that plastic wheels pick up dirt faster than metal wheels. I believe this is true. I try to replace plastic wheel sets with metal wheels when I build or acquire a piece of rolling stock. This also has the added benefit of lowering the center of gravity of the car and adding a little more weight. This helps tracking over uneven track (not that any of us have bad track!).I also use a metal brush in a Dremel to spin-clean the wheels whenever a “bad order” car comes to the workbench for maintenance.


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I still prefer to use a Bright Boy eraser for general track cleaning. Some modelers feel the abrasive blocks from Walthers or Peco leave tiny scratches in the rail head that attract dirt. Maybe so, but the dirt is going to find a way to get there anyway. The long-handled tool with the eraser in the photo I bought from Micro Mark. It’s great for cleaning in tunnels, bridges and other out-of-the-way spots.

I also like Aero fluid. I use it on a piece of J-cloth stretched across the track and then I run my DCC engines over it letting the wheels spin. You need to be careful to avoid getting the Aero fluid all over the locomotive while holding it, not that it will do any really damage if you do. I use this method before every operating session for all locomotives that will be running.

Non-petroleum-based Labelle 101 lubricant is also a recommended choice. A few drops on the rails is all that’s needed. Wipe the rail head and let the trains spread it around. I saw this tip in the NMRA magazine, Scale Rails , August 2009. In that same issue on page 11 there was a description and photo of a wheel-cleaning track where the author, Don Jennings, had made circular saw cuts beside the track on a board and inserted a paper towel through the slots. This is a clever idea because it solves the problem of pulling the J-cloth or paper towel underneath the locomotive’s wheels. It would allow holding the towel taut so the couplers don’t snag as you move the engine across the cleaning pad.

The other way I use Aero fluid is on a piece of J-cloth wrapped around the metal roller in an Aztek track cleaning car. I put the Aztek track cleaning car in a work train and make it part of an operating session. In the photo, a caboose-type car with a tank for track cleaning fluid is on the rear of the train. This type of car works by allowing the fluid to soak a pad underneath the car. There are several on the market. I find this method too messy. At least, I’ve never had much success with it.

There are also abrasive pads that can be inserted into the floor of a boxcar and pulled around the layout. These usually use very fine sandpaper. I have one of these mounted in a Great Northern boxcar, but found it has a tendency to snag on turnouts. Probably because I mounted it slightly off center. Cars like this help to keep the track clean in tunnels or other places that are difficult to reach.

Roundhouse made a box cab locomotive with rotating abrasive pads to polish the rails. I don’t know if this is still available. Mine has a gearing problem that I’ve never been able to fix properly so the engine is on the “get around to it one day” shelf.

Some modellers use citrus-based products like Goo-B-Gone or De-Solv-It. We used to use this at the NMRC club. I find it

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