Keep Those Model Train Tracks Clear – And Clean!


For those of us who have power running through our rails to move our locomotives, keeping the track clean can be the difference on whether our railroad is running or not! Dirty tracks can be the culprit that slows your engines to a stop. Our trains rely on electric current going through the tracks to move them along, and dirty wheels or tracks can disrupt the circuit, causing our engines to lurch or hesitate.

The point of contact between the tracks and engine wheels is small enough; to have to maneuver through dirt and grime is asking too much.

So just how do our tracks get so dirty in the first place? I mean, they’re indoors, usually zealously protected by  owners! Well, dirt accumulates on our layouts just like it does anywhere else. The dust that is in our air settles down on our layouts, and if left there, sooner or later builds up to the point where a good electrical connection is unlikely to happen.

Since your track is made of metal, (model rail track is usually either brass or nickel silver) and all metal oxidizes, your tracks will oxidize. Metals oxidize when the oxygen in the air and the metals in the rails combine in a chemical reaction, resulting in the buildup of a thin coating.

Model train tracks

Prototype tracks rails oxidize as well, in the form of iron oxide which appears as rust. Brass track oxidizes faster, and nickel silver rail is a better conduit, so if you have your druthers.

So how do we go about cleaning this stuff? There are several items you’ll want to collect before you start: abrasive pads for cleaning tracks and wheels and special track-cleaning fluid. Most hobby shops can help out with these items.

Using the abrasive pads is not rocket science, but care should be taken to make sure that any shavings from the abrasive pad itself are vacuumed up, because these little hummers can cause your trains a world of hurt if left uncollected. This can result in a derailment, and really, why would you go to all the trouble to clean your tracks if you were going to leave this mess? I only mention it as a precaution. (Some people use pencil erasers as they do a decent job on the tracks, but the rubber shavings left behind can be hazardous)

You can even buy rail-cleaning boxcars that will do a lot of the work for you.  The abrasive pads work well for the tops of the tracks, but you’ll need to dig deeper to get the inside of the rails, and this is done by the use of a liquid cleaner.


Liquid cleaners are available from many suppliers and some modelers even get by using denatured alcohol. You can apply the liquid cleaner with a rag, or let the cleaning car you may have  purchased  rub it into the rails, even have your locomotive spread the cleaning compound around the tracks. Rubbing it in yourself is obviously the most work, but is undoubtedly the most effective way to get the job done.

The cleaning cars won’t really get the job done down along the inside of the rails, where the most dirty build-up collects. The track cleaning cars have their place though, and I think they are best used for slowing the build-up of dirt and lengthening the time between deep cleanings.  You’ll be able to tell by the look of your track when you’ve done with the abrasives and liquid cleaners: your track will shine and your rags will not.

Once you’ve done this dirty work the real fun begins! It’s time to clean the locomotive’s wheels. Fortunately for you there are several tools made by the manufacturers that make this job easier. Most of them need to be hooked up to the power supply to run the brushes that clean the wheels of the locomotive. Some people even connect the locomotive to the power pack and turn the locomotive upside down, and proceed to clean the wheels with an abrasive pad. Some even use their Dremels, or similar fine work power tool. Whatever method you use, take care not to apply too much pressure to the wheels themselves as you could easily damage the motors and gears.

The wheels of all your rolling stock can collect lots of dirt as well. They too should not escape the fun, since if left unattended, the dirt build-up could result in an eventual derailment. Besides, if you went to all the trouble of cleaning everything else and then ran dirty cars all over the layout, just what have you accomplished except to waste an afternoon!

The best method I’ve seen is to have a dedicated piece of track, and cover these tracks with paper towels soaked in cleaning fluid. Then place a car on top of this contraption, and run it back and forth several times with just enough pressure to clean the flanges. Make sure after you’re done to remove any excess dirt, cleaning fluid or paper towel.

If you’re into building scenery on your layout, be aware that this type of construction can leave a good-sized mess if you’re not careful and sometimes when you are! Make sure to protect track with a coating of masking tape and to vacuum up any loose ends when you’re done. One idea is to use those cans of compressed air used for cleaning computers. They work wonders; just be careful where you’re aiming. You may just be shoving the mess around!

Try to maintain a regular cleaning schedule if possible, as the task will only get more gargantuan if left any long length of time. Once a month seems to be the standard, but of course if you have other variables, such as a lot of traffic, airflow and constant use, you may have to be more judicious. And of course, if you have an outdoor layout, then that would be the subject of a whole other article!

Clean track environment and train wheels will make for a smoother running train and no big surprises!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

chuck November 13, 2007 at 12:10 pm

Your article on cleaning was very informitive. Thank You Chuck

Guillermo Patterson November 23, 2007 at 5:17 pm

Hi guys:
I read carefully your comments, and I’ll put in practice as soon as posible. My home is in Comodoro Rivadavia, in the Middle Patagonia, with a lot of wind and dust in the air. For me the dust is really a big problem, specially when I began with my DCC system.
Thanks a lot for your help, yours. Guillermo

Roy Smith May 28, 2009 at 6:48 am

I would like to buy the track cleaner advertised by John Claudino, the HO reefer version but unable to trace his website can you assist please.

Thanks.

Roy Smith

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