As with any hobby you invest time and money in to, model trains and their respective model tracks need regular and thorough maintenance and cleaning if they are expected to keep running without any unwanted hiccups. Fortunately, when it comes to model tracks, they are much easier to look after when compared to the model trains that run on them.
We already have a detailed post on how to look after model trains, especially the complex inner workings of the locomotive unit, so now we’ll focus exclusively on caring for the model tracks you have set up. Model tracks require frequent care simply because they are always out in the open and exposed to the elements, even if they are indoors.
What Kind of Maintenance Do Model Tracks Require?
As model tracks are relatively simple in their construction – they are after all simply tracks with not many individual or concealed parts – it is quite easy to look after them as the only thing they really need is to be kept clean and free of any unwanted gunk. Compared to the complicated and delicate procedures of oiling and replacing moving parts in the model trains, model tracks are a breeze to keep maintained.
As with the wheels on model trains, it is crucial that the model tracks be kept squeaky clean along their entirety. This is because the most important factor in getting a model train to function properly is striking a perfect balance of friction between the tires of the cars and the railway track itself. Just a single tooth missing from a gear in a model train can lead to inadequate friction and thus loss of acceleration and velocity. So, you can only imagine how worse your train would perform if the wheels and the tracks had grime on them and lost friction because of that.
Tools You Can Use to Clean Model Train Tracks
As mentioned above, it is very easy to care for your model tracks. Though there are special tools on the market made solely for the purpose of cleaning model tracks, you can also use common items found around the house to clean your model tracks. But before you arm yourself for a thorough cleaning session, the first step should be to figure out what kind of cleaning your model tracks actually require. For this, there are simple and effective tests you can do in literally seconds.
Checking Your Model Tracks for Any Needed Cleaning
The most common type of mess that can accumulate on your tracks is also the most expected one; dust. Dust can settle down on model tracks in multiple ways. It might settle on the tracks because they haven’t been used for some time. It might also get tracked along the track’s entirety from the wheels of the train cars that pass above. Or, it can simply accumulate over time even if you keep your trains running regularly and also keep the cleanliness of their wheels in check.
Dust can slowly form in to grime over time, and lead to very large amounts of friction loss between the tracks and the tires. To check if your model tracks have collected any dust or grime since their last cleaning session, simply take either a white kitchen towel, a paper towel, or a cotton bud, and run it along a part of the track with your fingers. If the towel / cotton bud picks up any greasy gunk (most likely black in color), it’s time for the track to be cleaned.
Another form of dirtiness that can form on a track is leftover paint or glue that was never cleaned. This also leads to loss of friction, and in some cases, a bumpy ride. Tarnish can also be a problem if the track has been sitting unused for a long time. And lastly, oil can cover the tracks and completely ruin the friction. Oil can get on tracks if you incorrectly oil your train cars and they leak it over the track. Again, refer to the post linked above for instructions on how to correctly oil your train cars.
Cleaning Model Tracks
There are a handful of different ways you can go about cleaning your model train tracks. If lacking proper equipment, household items like rubbing alcohol, transmission fluids, and common liquid cleaners can do the job in a jiffy. Simply use a static-free cloth to rub any of the above items along the track until you are absolutely sure it is now clean.
The most preferred method of cleaning a model track however, is probably by using a track cleaning rubber. These rubbers function like pencil erasers, and have been designed specifically for tackling dirt and grime on model train tracks. All you need to do is use it across the whole track as you would an eraser to erase pencil etchings, and you’ll have cleaned off the entire dirt and grime in no time at all.
A cooler method of keeping your model tracks clean is to automate the process by getting yourself a track cleaning car. With abrasive pads installed underneath the carriage – or solvent being fed to the underbelly of the model carriage – these cars are intended to either be pushed or pulled along the track via a locomotive unit. The pads rub along the tracks and remove any dirt and grime that has accumulated there. A preferred method of making use of these track cleaning cars is to assemble a separate train just for the purposes of cleaning the track. The locomotive plus track cleaning car combo can be stored away and brought out whenever the track needs to be cleaned.
Lastly, there are electronic cleaners that are probably the fanciest method of cleaning a model track out there. These units run along a track while scanning the surface of it underneath them and, whenever they come across an abnormality like a spot of gunk that ruins the optimal friction balance, the cleaner ionizes the spot and simply burns away the impurity.
Those were all methods to clean a model track that has accumulated dirt and grime. But, if your model track has become tarnished in places, you would need to rub a fiberglass stick across the track. Do this gently as to not damage the track, and to slowly but surely remove the tarnish. Tarnish is an unwanted condition on model tracks because it makes model trains pick up electrical currents from the track below them, which can of course damage the train itself.
If paint and glue is found on the model tracks, you can remove it with grade 12 dry paper. Wet paper also works fine however. Oil on model tracks needs to be cleaned off with a static-free and absorbent cloth, whereas small amounts of light vacuuming is also fine for removing tiny impurities like dust bunnies. And finally, if your model tracks have switches and the like installed too, be sure to regularly search for and remove any junk that might have made its way inside the holes. Splinter of wood and other garbage can prevent the motors from successfully switching tracks fully, and might lead to a crash if the track only switches about half of the way.
Like we said, it is very easy to look after model train tracks. Much easier than the model trains themselves at the very least. The list of above-mentioned cleaning items and methods might seem a bit daunting to you if you’re new to this hobby, but all you’ve got to do is find a method you think suits you well, and stick to it. These methods of cleaning don’t need to be applied all at once; you just need to decide on one that you find works well.