If you've started to notice your model trains are no longer running as smoothly as they once were, it may be a sign that some railway track cleaning is required.
Clean track is often overlooked when building a model railway and running trains. However, it should be an important part of your maintenance regime and will help you get the most out of your model railway and ensure that everything operates as expected.
In this guide we'll offer practical tips and advice on how to clean model railway track the right way so that you can keep your trains running efficiently without any issues.
Model Railway Tracks
Regular railway cleaning, in addition to consistent preventative maintenance, are two important factors needed for model railway tracks to operate in a trouble-free manner and to keep trains running smoothly.
What are train tracks made of?
Model train tracks consist of the two rails and the sleepers. The sleepers are evenly spaced and the rails are laid on top at a perpendicular angle and attached using chairs. Different sections of track are connected together using fishplates.
Numerous types of track sections are available. These include straights, curves of different radiuses (these relate to how sharp the turn is), turnouts, switches or points (either left or right hand), crossovers, turntables and inspection pits. Some or all of these types of train tracks form part of the model railway track layout design.
There are a number of different model railway gauges that are used. The gauge refers to the distance between the rails. Many model railway hobbyists get started with the oval track layout that came with their first train set. This is usually in HO or OO gauge. Some of the other popular gauges are O, N and Z scale.
Most common model train tracks are all made of similar materials, so it's important to follow the best cleaning and maintenance practices in order to keep clean tracks on your model railway layout.
Model trains are only as good as the track that they run on. Therefore, it's very important that you have clean tracks on your model railway.
If you allow dirt and debris to accumulate on your track this will have a detrimental effect on the operation (and subsequent enjoyment) of your layout. Poor cleaning and maintenance will affect the electrical conductivity between the locomotive wheels and the rails on your railway - leading to the interuption of a reliable supply of power to the motor and onboard systems of your model trains. The result is juddering, incosistent performance and an overall poor experience.
Therefore, it's very important to keep clean tracks on your model railway or train set. The benefits of clean track are very easy to see. Locomotives will run smoothly, will operate efficiently, the onboard systems will function correctly and you'll be able to enjoy trouble-free operation of your model trains.
Let's take a closer look at some of the methods we can use to clean model railway track and ensure the consistent reliability of your locomotives and rolling stock.
Choosing the correct track cleaner is an important decision for any railway modeller. It's very important to opt for a suitable track cleaning solution to ensure that your layout is maintained appropriately.
You should not use WD-40 to clean model railway track. It contains oils that will leave a nasty greasy residue on the rails which is extremely difficult to remove. This will likely cause significant traction issues for model trains. Whilst WD-40 is excellent for a myriad of other household and garage uses, it's not an appropriate track cleaner - so don't use it on a model railway layout.
The best track cleaner to use on model train tracks is Isopropyl Alcohol. Simply pour some into a small container and use a Q-tip or cotton wool bud to apply it to the track (you can also use a lint-free cloth). Start with a light pressure and gradually increase if this is required. You may need to make multiple passes depending on the level of dirt needing to be removed. When applying, be careful not to spill any as the alcohol can cause damage to your model railway scenery and paintwork on locomotives and rolling stock.
An important mistake to avoid is to not confuse this with rubbing alcohol (which contains oils and fragrance) as this will have the same negative effects as using WD-40.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid any track cleaners that are oil-based as these will likely have the opposite of the desired effect - they will actually end up attracting more dirt which will increase the likelihood of traction problems affecting your model trains. It's best to just avoid them if you want your model railway to run smoothly.
There are also some specialist track cleaner liquid solutions available, and these often work well and do the job required, however in our experience it's more cost effective to simply use Isopropyl Alcohol. It's readily available and a 1 litre bottle will last a long time, depending on the size of your railway layout and the amount of track that you have.
Peco Track Rubber
Another option for cleaning model railway track is using a rubber track cleaner such as a Peco Track Rubber.
This is a particularly useful option when you're building your model railway. During construction any number of pieces of dirt or dust can find their way onto the rails. This may even be glue, paint or grease which can all prove to be particularly challenging to remove.
The Peco Track Rubber is an abrasive rubber block that's used to remove stubborn dirt and oxidisation from the surface of the rails. As it's abrasive, it's only recommended to be used for caked-on deposits like those mentioned above. Start off by applying light pressure and gradually apply more if the level of dirt requires this - doing so will help to avoid eroding the tops of the rails. When you've finished, be sure to remove any rubber dust that's accumulated by using a vacuum or similar.
A Peco Track Rubber is an ideal solution for occasional heavy-duty cleaning or just after you've finished constructing your model railway layout and you need to tidy it up. However, for regular light cleaning you should use less abrasive methods, such as Isopropyl Alcohol, which will help preserve your model railway track for longer.
N Gauge Track Cleaning Wagon
Railway cleaning can also be carried out using an N gauge track cleaning wagon, or similar. This is either hauled by a locomotive or pushed manually around the track. Track cleaning pads are mounted on the underside of the unit which rub against the rails as the wagon travels along the track. Some use soft pads and apply cleaning solvent, whereas others use more coarse pads and rely on abrasion to clean the rails. Both of these options work well.
There are also similar railway cleaning wagons for other model railway scales, such as HO or OO gauge. These work in exactly the same way but are instead designed for the specific gauge required.
How to clean Hornby track
If you're a beginner railway modeller or have just got your first Hornby train set you may be asking how to clean Hornby track. The answer is that it's exactly the same as any other model railway track. No specialist Hornby track cleaner is required and all the methods mentioned in this guide will also work fine on Hornby equipment.
As stated above, Isopropyl Alcohol with a Q-tip, cotton bud or lint-free cloth is the most simple and cost effective solution to clean Hornby track. If you add this method to your regular cleaning routine your train set should work for many years without any issues. Preventative maintenance such as this will significantly reduce the risk of serious problems occuring further down the line.
When carrying out railway cleaning there are a number of tips and tricks to be aware of that'll make your life easier and produce consistent and effective results.
- Determine if your track needs cleaning by taking a piece of white kitchen paper and running it along the rails. If you see grease or dirt picked up, it's safe to say that your railway requires cleaning.
- When you've finished building your model railway be sure to thoroughly check the track for any larger pieces of dirt or debris. Keep a particular eye on the rails near points or turnout switches and crossovers.
- Consider using a lightweight dust cover on your model railway when it's not being used. This will protect the layout and give you simpler railway cleaning by preventing the build-up of dirt.
- If your model railway has been unused for a long period of time the tracks may have developed tarnish on the rails. Clean this by using a fibreglass pen and applying light pressure. This will help provide reliable current to your model trains.
These are just some of the techniques that can be used when maintaining a model railway. You'll see tangible short term and long term benefits from having a good cleaning routine. That's why good railway cleaning is so important. Your model trains will be reliable, function correctly and your layout will look clean, tidy and well cared for.
Model railway track cleaning summary
Track cleaning should be an essential part of any regular maintenance routine for a model railway layout. In this guide we've discussed the best techniques on how to clean model railway track and have also covered some that you should avoid.
The recommended method for railway track cleaning is applying Isopropyl Alcohol to the rails using a Q-tip, cotton bud or lint-free cloth. This is a cost effective way to clean model railway track in a safe manner which also produces great results.
You should avoid using oil-based track cleaners, such as WD-40, as these will cause more problems than they solve. The oil in these products will actually attract more dirt onto the rails resulting in an increased risk of faults occuring with model trains.
After you've decided how to clean model railway track be sure to refer to the guides in our train set series for more information and advice on train set maintenance tips.