Track Cleaning

























Under Construction






Most will agree from the start

The best way to have the smooth operation of a model railroad

        Is to run trains

Constant operation

    Will provide a  rubbing action

     Which keeps the railhead polished

      And therefore provide good contact

          between the tracks and the wheels of a locomotive

         Indeed, many constantly running store displays have no problems

         Nor the mainline of many club layouts

In an idealistic world, tracks should never require cleaning






Things happen, however, in the real world. 

Scenery projects requiring plaster can instantly destroy any operation at all.

      Long times between running trains

          or a harsh environment can also conspire to rust, corrode and degrade both tracks and wheels thereby destroying the critical contact

further, attempting to operate over dirty track combined with modern transistor or DCC circuitry can further accelerate this destruction and actually cause physical harm to both wheels and rails


So, what can be done?





Here are some of the tools used on the North River First is a caddy to carry around track cleaning tools







 Please Understand

      No one method for track cleaning is best for all situations

       It is an intuitive art

       Using an abrasive block on perfectly clean track can do more harm than good

         While trying to clean extremely dirty track with only a track cleaning car

                 Can allow a bad poor operation to further disintegrate

       Variation in environment, scenic materials used in railroad, recent construction-related activities

          All conspire to ruin smooth operation in several ways

           I can only throw out several suggestions as to what can be done

           Leave it to you, the reader to experiment

           See what works best for you and your particular situation.







Sandpaper was once used for track cleaning back in the stone age when Model Railroading was in its infancy.  This might have had its use when the O-Scale tracks were heavier and there was no other product available but it is obsolete today, especially I the smaller scales.  Likewise, do not use files.  The only time a file should be used is after soldering or some other process as tracks are laid and there may be a build-up of unwanted material on the railhead.  So not use files for cleaning. 






Track cleaners after 20-30 years of use






 Use of an abrasive track cleaner should be done sparingly

                      I use it mostly where rails have been painted or covered by scenery which covers the rails

                      Over enthusiastic or repeated use of abrasives can eventually wear down the railhead.

                      Also, always use extreme caution around switches.                           Work from the frog toward the points to avoid damaging delicate points.

Another consideration is the use of an abrasive on the railheads tends to flatten the rail head.  While the wheel treads are tapered. 

                      This means the wheel tends to make contact                           between the sharp inside corner of railhead and radius between the tread and flange of the wheel, not squarely on the tread as designed.

                Yet another consideration is the rail used to begin with.  I have seen cheap track where the railhead is actually cupped and prone to collect dirt.

                    Only slightly better is track where the cross-section of rails are completely flat on top with sharp corners The cross-section of a rail should have radius at the edges





    First is the old stand-by, the abrasive track cleaner

               This is usually a composite block

                    Consisting of a rubber-like base

                    Embedded with bits of brass or some metallic fibers   

               It is these bits of metal

                    that can scrape paint, glue, oxidation, corrosion

                    Or other non-conductive debris from the surface of the rail

               Take a look at your cleaner and if it does not have these bits of metal

                    Consider using something else as cleaning will be a lot harder









A 1” x 1” x 6” block of balsa to be extremely useful for track cleaning   

      I use it when trains have been idle for an extensive period

             And before any trains are run

    Fibrous cellulite structure abrasive Polishes, not scratches like abrasives

    Porosity holds cleaning solutions or absorbs wet films left by cleaning solutions

    Less likely to damage delicate Trackwork like points of turnouts

Easy to clean

         Quick pass over sandpaper or even a cement floor cleans block



               The main disadvantage of using balsa alone is that it will not remove Paint, corrosion, Pitting in rails or dirt trapped in microscopic scratches

         Or imperfections in railhead.

  Using both balsa and cleaning solutions is the best approach for general cleaning






Cleaning solutions can help

       They are only way to draw dirt out from imperfections in rail head

             And especially from wheels of an engine

        These, when new, are usually smooth and polished

             In time can be scratched by abrasive cleaners

             Or pitted due to arcing when an engine runs over a dirty piece of track

                   Such arcs burn tiny holes in both wheels and railhead that over time can collect dirt


The argument FOR using cleaning solutions

     Is to draw out this dirt and/or leave a slightly conductive coating on rails to improve contact.

      This can dramatically improve operation

The argument AGAINST using cleaning solutions

      Is that the film left behind can attract dirt and dust and actually degrade the very electrical contact

       They are designed to improve

another aspect is that this dirt can collect on wheels to the point of lifting the tread far enough

      that the flange rides up on frogs or other parts of a switch and cause derailments

      this must be checked and cleaned periodically if the rails are left “wet”






I use a citronella scented outdoor lamp oil (the main ingredient is kerosene) because it is cheap, I happen to have some lying around, and it is a form that is convenient to store.  Actually, almost any kerosene product including paint thinner could be used

Some track cleaning solutions contain mostly coal oil

     And is designed to be used with track cleaning cars.

     A small reservoir is filled and the solution is allowed to drip on a cleaning pad

          This does a good jog and dissolves dirt and grease and leaves a film on the tracks       The trouble is that this type of cleaner is often non-conductive should be removed after use

          The Film will tend to collect dust






                 Kerosene and soap (my favorite and most used method)

          Literally washes rail AND wheels

              Soap chemically reacts with grease and dirt

              Kerosene lifts dirt particles from rails

              Dissolves dirt caked on to wheels

            Method 1

                 Soak (1) side of balsa with kerosene and scrub top of rails

                 Rub a bar of regular hand soap for ½ inch every foot or so along yard track

                 Run train back and forth across section (note, rails should turn black with dirt

                 Dry rail with 2nd side of balsa and run train across section of track

                  Repeat until train no longer blackens rails

                 Run train to and from another part of railroad

                 Dirt will tend to be drawn from tracks and collect on wheels of train

                 Repeat above until train runs smoothly

            Method 2

                  Use small brush

                  Paint soap bar with kerosene

                  Paint rails

                  Run train until rails turn black

                  Wipe dry with balsa

Use a contact cleaner

      Several cleaners specific to model railroad and otherwise

          All promote electrical contact

          Leave film

          Can be used instead of or in conjunction with kerosene

     Unlike kerosene, Use VERY sparingly

           Paint only an inch or two of rails with contact cleaner

          Run train back and forth across painted area

          Run to another part of the railroad and back

          The idea here is to create a thin film of cleaner to the mainline

                Thick enough to increase the contact between the wheels and railhead

     An alternate way is to paint an inch of rail every five feet or so

        Before an operation session or on a specific trouble spot   But not so thick as to attract dust


Water tends to cause rust and corrosion and does not have much effect on surface films



This is both a lubricant and electrically conductive coating 



These are derivatives of radio products and are meant to leave a  conductive film for the specific purpose of improving electrical contact       



This is an environmentally friendly way to remove grease and films left by other cleaning products

Mostly Alcohol

Offered by Centerline





     I have always looked a track cleaning cars more as preventative maintenance

        To use, track must be clean enough to run engine


      One of my earliest was the Ulrich cleaner

            Small tank dripped on pad

       Next was a cow/calf unit

        Cow was simply about three pounds of lead on four tracks feeding power to engine

            Idea was to force contact against rails so train could be run

        Yes, another little nugget

                 Wire a .47 mfd cap and 150 ohm resisters in series across brushes of the motor of ALL engines to reduce arcing

                 Especially when using DCC or conventional transistor throttles




A car to press a bright-boy abrasion block against rails.  This was not a success

              But there are many examples of a spring-loaded piece of Masonite (rough side against the rails)      These will do much to keep most of the mainline clean

                     But there will always be areas that are missed


Centerline came up with an effective cleaner

         A heavy roller is pushed along tracks in a frame

            Rolling action reduces risk of damage to delicate switch points

            Gravity insures it will reach all spots

Interchangeable pads make it easy to clean pads

         Only down side is that there IS friction that makes it hard to push in a train

                  One or two cars fine, long trains, no.


See what can be done with this basic chases and more details at:




One of several models available






This flexible test track can work with a wide range of locomotives with different wheelbase length and wheel arrangements.  It works equally well from diesels to stream engines.  Note the coupler to keep the engine in place.




 Some sort of “run-in” track best for cleaning wheels of engines

      Less strain on running gear

      Run engine as long as required to clean Lubricants and any loose debris falls down and away








Wire brushes require extreme caution

      Will run an engine where wheels are to far gone to run any other way

      Avoid if at all possible because wires break loose and fall into running gear


     Difficult to get into corners









Once track clean and good operation restored

                 Keep it that way

Avoid creating dust

       No power tools, especially sanding

 If you must create dust, vacuum room and keep clean after

      Use clean bag for each project

      If you can, keep vacuum on and the nozzle close to dust source as you work

Cover cement floors.  This can be done by sealing and painting the floor, using a “poured” floor, or rugs.

     While rugs can be a source of contamination they almost always are better than bare cement

      And can be vacuumed to reduce dust.

Use of air filter extreme but every bit helps

No smoking, incense etc

Use minimal oil to lubricate engines and equipment     





























Model Railroading is fun in Connecticut.
Bob Van Cleef, MMR

Last update   7/25/2012