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  • lionelski

The DEFINITIVE Guide to Track Cleaning & Maintenance

Updated: Jun 11

Yes, another "how to" dedicated to restoring and maintaining track!

There have been many published over the years, but every one of them seems to either miss important items or mislead. So, by popular demand, I offer this tutorial.

I'll start with what track is not salvageable for layout use:

1) Track with more than a little light surface rust. Yes, more aggressive rust can be cleaned off and the track will look fine for a while, but the tinplate coating is often removed in the process. These tracks will rust again, especially in a somewhat humid basement - the last thing you want after you worked so hard on your layout.

TIP: Salvage track pins and cardboard insulators from these tracks for future use if needed.

TIP: Cut up the rusted rails and use them for car loads or trackside salvage piles.

2) Bent or dented track - why look for derailments and less than smooth running?

TIP: Use these tracks as noted above or to use the non-damaged portions to cut for custom sized lengths that may be needed for your track plan.

Below is a picture of almost everything you will need to clean and maintain track:

  1. Fantastic or similar spray cleaner

  2. Fingernail brush

  3. Pieces of terrycloth towels

  4. Plastic scouring pads

  5. Folded paper towel

  6. Sandpaper

  7. WD 40 spray

  8. Rubbing alcohol

  9. Flat screwdriver

  10. A small block of wood

  11. Salvaged track insulators

  12. Diagonal cutters

  13. A 12 volt tester (a 12 volt bulb in a socket with 2 wires will do)

  14. A Rat tail file

  15. Of course, track to work on

Not included above, but also needed, will be:

  1. A small hammer

  2. A Train transformer with two leads with allegator clips attached

Cleaning procedures:

  1. Spray your track piece lightly with your spray cleaner (never soak in water!) and softly brush with your fingernail brush, to clean surface dirt and dust off.

2. Wipe dry with one of your terrycloth towel pieces.

3. If there was some light surface rust on your track piece, lightly spray the tops of the track section with WD 40 and wipe dry with a different piece of terrycloth towel. No light surface rust? Skip this step.

4. Lightly scrub the tops of the rails with your scouring pads until the tops of the rails feel nice and smooth to your finger touch.

TIP: Never use steel wool or sandpaper for this purpose. If you do you will remove tinplating and rust will result. Also, steel wool will shred and get into your engines, causing shorts - especially on trains with magne-traction.

5. Wipe the top of the rails with your folded paper towel saturated with rubbing alcohol.

6. Inspect the track pins.

If they appear clean, simply wipe them with your alcohol pad.

If they are dirty or lightly rusted remove them**, clean them with the sandpaper or your scouring pad, and wipe with your alcohol pad. If they are in bad shape or missing, this would be the time to use the pins you salvaged from unusable track as noted above.

**Remove the pins by griping them next to the rail, from the bottom of the track section with your diagonal cutters. Leverage the cutter against the track tie and out they will come.

Before reinserting these pins into the rails, it may be a good idea to clean the inside openings with your rat tail file.

Tap the pins back into the rails with a small hammer. Tighten them by squeezing the rail in its web, close to the rail head and track pin, with your diagonal cutters.

If the pins are loose, I can suggest is that when you squeeze the web with your diagonals, squeeze closer to the rail head and don't just use the tip of the diagonals - try to crimp back at least 1/2 inch. 

You can also try crimping a little without the pin inserted so that the hole is tighter, then reinsert the pin.

7. Test the track for shorts. Track shorts are usually as a result of the center rail insulator being split, worn or out of place.

Attach one lead from your transformer to an outer rail and the other to the center rail with the allegator clips - make sure they don't touch each other.

Then simply touch one wire of your test light to an outer rail and the other to the center rail - if the bulb lights - no short, it's that simple.

8. If there is a short:

With your screwdriver pry up the tabs holding the insulators to the center rail. Remove the rail along with its insulators. Inspect the insulators for splits or worn areas and replace with better ones salvaged from unusable track as noted in the beginning of this article. The problem could also be an insulator that slipped out of place causing rail to tie contact - just slide it back into place.

Put the rail/insulator combination back into place on the track ties and push the tabs back down into place with your screwdriver. BEFORE doing so, however, place your small block of wood into the hollow under the tie so that it is not deformed when pushing the tabs back

into place.

Re-test the track section for shorts before using.

Maintaining track cleanliness:

Clean track results in better train operation and can help avoid your train slowing down, or flickering lights, on some areas.

On my layout, I've found that routine overall track cleaning is very rarely needed - a need for spot cleaning is more common.

Clean areas when and where:

  1. You notice the train slowing or train lights flickering in isolated areas.

  2. You feel or see black grime on the rail tops - this is usually the result of train wheel lubrication, or traction tire residue, on the rails.

  3. You just finished trackwork and or scenery repairs near tracks.

In most cases all you will need to do is wipe the track heads with your paper towel wetted with alcohol - no drying is necessary as the alcohol evaporates almost immediately and leaves no residue. You'll likely see the paper towel pad turn black, just refold it and continue using it as you move along.

In the case of # 2 above, first clean the rail heads with your scouring pad then proceed with your paper towel/alcohol cleaning.

Pre-emptive side note:

There are many who say that fancy track cleaning solutions are necessary and that, as 70% rubbing alcohol is 30% water, it will cause tracks to rust. I disagree, based on my personal experience. I've been using inexpensive 70% rubbing alcohol to clean tracks for over 30 years and it has always done the job for me, and I've never had a track rust as a result of its use.

For more track info and tips, please visit:

https/ Magic of Three Rail Track!


https/ Tubular track info & tips

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