Railroad Track Maintenance

Now that you own your new model train set and have created a unique layout that you like, it is time to do some maintenance track and engine wheel cleaning. As you run your trains around the track, you may begin to notice that the connection is not as good as before. This is due to dust and oxidation that happens over time. You may even begin to see some rust spots on the track as well. If you have your layout in the basement it is possible that the dampness and high humidity may be the cause. Because of these factors, you need to perform regular cleaning of the track and engine wheels.

Track Cleaning

There are three basic types of track: the normal coated steel rail, brass coated rail or the new modern nickel silver rail. Look at the image on the right, part of the track is oxidized (the upper portion) and the other part is good (lower part).

If you own the steel coated rail, you will need to clean your track especially if your set is stored in a damp basement with high humidity. To clean steel rails you can use track rubber or track pad. You just rub over the track to remove any dirt all around your layout. This can be time consuming. In the end, it will be worth it. Your trains will be running well.

If you should have brass rail, you will need to use track cleaning pads to clean lightly dirtied track. Use a sanding sponge to clean heavier dirt and grime off the rails by hand. Pay close attention to discolored areas of the track it may indicate a film created by oxidation. Change the sponge when the abrasive material wears off. In extreme situations, you may have to use a drywall pole sander to remove the oxidation and contaminants off the track.

If you should own the new nickel silver rail, you will have the least amount of maintenance to perform as these tracks do not oxidize. All the cleaning you need to do is to take a soft cloth and wipe the rails with it and you%u2019re done. However, nickel silver track does cost more. Using brass or steel is much cheaper. So you will need to decide which type of track is best for you.

Pictured: Oxidized Model Train Track

Using a Track Cleaning Car

Another way to perform track cleaning is using a track cleaning car that you can buy for your scale model railroad. The cars are available at your local hobby shop. These cars clean the rails as they move around the track. If you own one of these cars, you need to perform track cleaning on a regular basis. The cars are more expensive than using a track pad or rubber pad. However, they do the job well and can save you time especially in trying to clean tracks in tunnels and in hard to get at places on your layout.

Electric Cleaner

Another method to cleaning the track rails and it%u2019s an electric cleaner. Here is how this unit works:

The 12v D.C. controlled output from the controller is passed through the unit. Connection between unit, power source, controller, and track is completed via six terminal connections. The unit superimposes a harmless high frequency signal over the output from the controller. When a poor contact between locomotive and rail is detected the unit switches on, ionizing the gap and burning off the dirt, switching off again when contact is restored.

Locomotive Maintenance

After you have completed the job of cleaning the rails, you now need to focus on the engine or locomotive. If you should have any difficulty in performing any maintenance on your locomotive, you can go to most local model hobby shops in your area and they can do this for you usually at a nominal charge. Be sure to read the maintenance instructions that come with your locomotive and keep them handy.

Most model railroaders will lubricate the engine after either of these situations occurs:

  • Lubricate after 100 hours of running time or every six months whichever occurs first.
  • Whenever you should hear a noisier sound than normal.

Engine lubrication: When you lubricate the locomotive, use light machine oil such as 3 in 1. Be very careful when lubricating not to get any oil on the body as this can deteriorate the condition of the polystyrene plastic that they are made out of.

Application steps: Pour some oil in to the top of a bottle lid (or anything suitable). Using a small screwdriver apply a small amount of the oil to any moving parts. If you should see any oil you have probably used too much. Wipe off any excess. Avoid getting any of the oil on the wheels as this will result in a loss of traction and will be transferred to the track. Wipe off any excess.

Final Maintenance Tips

There are lots of things that can go wrong with a locomotive and here are some of the most common:

Gears: Check that all the gears still have all their teeth. Symptoms of this problem will be a noticeable lack of traction and an increase in noise. Replace any broken gears.

Wheels: The power for the locomotives comes from the track up through the wheels. Therefore, it is very important to keep the wheels clean. Ask your hobby shop for the proper cleaner to clean engine wheels. Read the instructions that came with the locomotive. They may contain some information on how to clean the wheels.

Tyres: Check the locos traction tyres are all still in good working condition. If you should get oil on the traction tyres it is best to change them, giving the wheels a good clean before putting on the new ones. Bad traction tyres will result in poor traction. In some circumstances the tyre can become too lose to grip the wheel. Check that you can't move the tyre around the wheel. If you can, you will need to replace them.

Carbon brushes: Occasionally the carbon brushes will wear out and will need to be replaced. Be sure to consult the manufacture service sheet for your individual locomotive before performing this maintenance. If you have yours you may want to perform this maintenance by following these steps:

  • The springs that pushes the brush against the commutator are under tension. When the plate is removed that is covering them, they are likely to fly off never to be seen again if you are not careful.
  • The brushes go only in one way, make sure that the flat end goes in first.

Commutator: The commutator is the slotted copper segments at the end of the armature on an electric motor, which transfers the current from the brushes to the coils wound on the armature (definition courtesy of Hornby). They can be cleaned using a cotton-bud, making sure none of the cotton enters the motor. Clean off any black deposits which have accumulated from the wearing away of the brushes and dirt that entered the motor. Some locomotives commutator can be cleaned without opening up the motor while with others you have no other way but to open the motor.


You must perform railroad track maintenance periodically when you own a model electric train set. By following the above tips, you can perform this maintenance yourself or you can use some tools mentioned to help you. Also, do not forget to clean your locomotive every 100 hours of operation or six months. Using these tips you will keep your railroad running in tip top shape.

Here is some great information on model train layouts and how to choose a model train set.