Tips for Maintaining Your Model Train

People entering the world of a new hobby that has recently taken their fancy often find themselves wondering what tips a beginner might need before foraying in to this new and fascinating world. From building huge cities and towns from Lego in their basements or crafting exquisite pieces from a log of wood, to racing around diesel remote controlled cars or executing impressive stunts in the air with either a remote controlled plane, helicopter, or quadcopter. Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes.

One such hobby, a rather specific yet still quite interesting fascination, is the hobby of collecting and making model train sets that replicate real life train stations and train operations to the best of their ability. It can be quite a hit of dopamine when you have set everything up and see it all come to life and function flawlessly. The trains move around the intricate landscapes and track layouts you have crafted, and present to you a tiny world where everything is right. However, one cannot simply set up a model train and then expect it to function forever without running in to any issues. Like everything else in life, model trains require regular maintenance and care if you want them to keep zooming across your custom track.

Model Trains and Tracks Require Regular Cleaning

As is expected, model trains and their tracks get dirtier over time, and require proper and thorough cleaning if they are to be kept functioning normally. For the simplest way to keep your tracks clean, you can make use of track rubbers. These helpful little tools are quite simple to use; you merely rub them over the track like an eraser to remove dirt and grime. Track rubbers are quite efficient, and are recommended to people whether new or old in the model train community. The only downside to using track rubbers is that their manual use requires physical effort, which can get quite tiring if your tracks are on the larger side.

If you want to spice things up, you can also use a track cleaning car. These are designed like any other model track car, and are supposed to be dragged across the whole track via a locomotive (either by being pulled or pushed). These track cleaning cars have abrasive pads installed beneath them that rub along the entirety of the track and scrape off any dirt and grime. A good way of going about this method of cleaning would be to set aside a small model train specifically made for this purpose; i.e. a separate locomotive that pulls or pushes your track cleaning car along the tracks.

Electronic cleaners also exist for the cleaning of model tracks. These impressive cleaning gadgets detect any spot along the track that has a less than optimal contact between the train’s wheels and the track, and ionize the spot and burn off the dirt or grime that might be present there. And if you don’t have any of these tools or gadgets with you, and want to clean your model track in a hurry, common household items like liquid cleaners, rubbing alcohol, and transmission fluid can be used to clean the dirt and grime as well.

Now comes the trickier part; cleaning the trains themselves. The locomotive units are the most difficult parts of model trains to look after. Their inner workings are complex and require a bit of hands on experience before they can be understood properly. For this reason alone, new model train hobbyists are strongly discouraged from cleaning or maintaining the locomotives themselves until they understand them better. Fortunately, many hobby stores that deal with model trains also offer cleaning and maintenance services for said trains at very reasonable prices.

If you are going ahead with maintaining the locomotive yourself, this is what you have to do. For starters, lubrication between all the moving parts of a locomotive unit is essential to proper functioning. Lubrication should be carried out every hundred hours of operation, or whenever you feel the train has started to make louder noises than usual. Lubrication should be carried out very gently. Use small objects like cotton buds or screwdrivers to apply a very minor amount of oil to any moving pieces. You will have to be extra careful not to overdo it. A generally good rule of thumb is that if you can make out the oil on the piece it was applied to, it is in excess amount and needs to be wiped off. Furthermore, avoid getting any oil on the wheels, as that leads not only to poor traction between the train and the track, but also ruins the track by getting oil all across its surface. Getting oil on the body of the train itself is also bad, as cleaning it off deteriorates the quality of the body and its finish.

Cleaning and Looking After Other Components of Your Model Train

Though the locomotive unit and the track seem like the most important parts of the whole set, everything else requires regular cleaning and maintenance just as much. For starters, always remember to check the gears inside your model trains. Gears can often get a tooth chipped off, and in such cases it is highly recommended that you immediately replace the faulty gear with a new one because the broken gear will result in a very noticeable loss of traction.

The wheels also require regular cleaning because they are the part of the model train that bear the brunt of the required traction between the train and the track. Powered sets of wheels are easy to clean; all you do is turn the train car upside down, power the wheels so they start spinning, and then touch the wheels ever so gently with a track rubber. Easy and quick, this method reliably cleans the wheels quite nicely. However, for a set of unpowered wheels, the best bet is to make use of the track rubber once more and to rub it all across the wheel like an eraser until you’re sure the dirt and grime has been removed.

Commutators (the copper bits found on the ends of the armature of electric motors) can be cleaned with a cotton bud if you take care to not get any cotton inside the motor. Black gunk and deposits of dirt are often found on commutators, and cleaning them regularly is a good practice to adopt. Keep in mind however, that different models of trains have different ways to access the commutators. Refer to whatever manual you received with the product, or ask your hobby store for help. Carbon brushes will also need to be replaced when they get worn out. These tiny brushes are pushed against the commutators via springs, thus caution should be exercised when removing their covering plate to avoid having the inner springs fly out. Also, when replacing carbon brushes, be sure to install the flat end of the brush first, as that is the only way these brushes can be and should be installed.


Keep your model trains and tracks clean and well maintained, and you’ll never run in to any problems. And don’t worry about messing up, you always have to start somewhere. And before you know it, you’ll be knowledgeable enough to be teaching other newcomers about looking after their trains. After all, this is a hobby in the end, and what’s a hobby if it isn’t fun.