Track Cleaning

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Summary: This article presents opinions on effective methods of cleaning track.

Video

See the Video.

There are many opinions on the best methods for cleaning your track. This page has links to articles and videos available on the internet. Debates on this topic have raged for years, with no end in sight.

Cleaning your track will improve operations and reliability. Every environment presents its own challenges to track cleaning. Fine dust is always present in the air, which will settle on everything. Some will end up on the rails…

Operation using analog power will have a space charge created by the voltage on the rails. Over time the rail and ties will become polarised with a slight positive or negative charge. This increases the potential for airborne contaminants to be attracted to the rail's surface. The nature of the Digital Command Control signal reduces the potential formation of a space charge.

As the DCC signal presents full power (voltage and current) to the track at all times, it can overcome common issues like oxidation of the rails much more readily than analog control which limited both the current and voltage supplied.

Plastic wheels contaminate the rails with mould release compounds and lubricants from the manufacturing process. Over time the plastic will also sweat, releasing additional contaminants which are transferred to the rails. Metal wheels can have lubricants and cutting fluids remaining from manufacture, but once clean they are inert. Wheels will pick up contaminants and move them around as the car travels the layout.

Some contaminants, like flux residue remaining from soldering feeders or adhesives used during tracklaying and scenery application, should be removed immediately to avoid the wheels picking them up and transferring them to the rest of the layout.

Regular maintenance should include cleaning wheel sets to reduce transfer of contaminants by locomotives and rolling stock. Reducing or eliminated cigarette smoke and other indoor airborne pollutants also helps to keep the track clean.

Electronic Track Cleaners

Electronic track "cleaning" devices have been on the market for about 40 years. They claim to improve operation using a high frequency electronic signal. The most common electronic track cleaner was the RELCO unit from the UK, wired in series between the track and analog power pack. These devices required clean track to begin with, as their mode of operation was to blast through any corrosion at the point of contract between the wheel and rail head. They would not work with track contaminated with oils, residues or dirt. If anything, they delayed the need to properly mechanically and chemically clean the track.

Electronic track cleaners:

  • RELCO
  • Guagemaster HF1
  • Electrak

One description of the RELCO device was it monitored the electrical continuity of the circuit, and should that change due to dirt or oxidation on the track it would inject a brief 50V pulse of high frequency energy into the circuit to overcome the additional resistance. The others probably operate on a similar principle.

These devices should never be used with DCC. Their high voltage output can destroy decoders and booster outputs. Caution should be exercised with coreless motors on analog layouts.

Mechanical Track Cleaning

Mechanically removing corrosion and debris from the track can be done using semi-abrasive track cleaning pads such as the Brite Boy, ink erasers, or Masonite pads. Another alternative is drywall sanding mesh These should be avoided unless absolutely necessary as abrasives scratch the railhead. These abrasions trap more dirt and corrosion, requiring more frequent track cleaning. Additional cleaning will only make it worse by adding more scratches.

A magnet is a useful tool, as it will pick up any ferrous metal debris that may be included with the ballast, or particles from tools, etc. Prior to ballasting the material used should be scrubbed with a magnet to remove any metal debris which may be present.

Chemical Cleaning

Chemical cleaning by the application of friction and a solvent is very effective. The solvent loosens and dissolves deposits, and mechanical action removes them by breaking the bond between the rail and the deposit. The friction created by a scrubbing action helps spread the solvent and remove the unwanted surface contaminants. Using a soft cloth or paper towel will minimize scuffing of the railhead.

These solvents break down into three groups:

  • Water soluble
  • Alcohols and other slow evaporating solvents
  • Fast Solvents

It is important to use a solvent which is completely removed, leaving no film or residues on the rails. Many products marketed as "contact cleaners" leave behind a lubricant film. When the contacts close, the film is displaced. The purpose of the film is to protect the surfaces from corrosion. It has no conductive properties or enhancements.

Lubricants should be avoided. The solvent will evaporate, leaving behind a lubricant film. This film will attract and hold dust and other contaminants. Products such as WD-40 are meant for water displacement, and leave a coating of silicone. This attracts and holds dirt.

Many track cleaning solvents are water based. They are weak solvents and often leave residues. Alcohol and similar slow to evaporate solvents are more effective, while often leaving residues and they can be flammable. Examples include paint thinner, naphtha, Goo Gone. While more effective than water soluble solvents, they evaporate slowly and are effective degreasers.

Fast solvents, such as acetone, lacquer thinners and MEK are volatile and flammable liquids. They are much more aggressive, dissolving most organic materials, and leave little to no residue. Very effective, but read and follow the safety and usage instructions. These solvents may also attack plastics, so use sparingly.

Polar and Non-polar Solvents

Solvents can be divided into two categories: polar and non-polar. This is related to its dielectric constant, where a higher number indicates the solvent's polarity. Those less than 15 are considered to be non-polar, while water, with a dielectric constant of 88 at 0ºC, is considered to have strong polarity.

There has been a lot of discussions about solvents, in particular those which are non-polar. Non-polar solvents have less electrical attraction to other substances, such as the rails. This prevents the solvent from bonding with the rail at a molecular level and attracting dirt. See the MRH article link below for more discussion and a table of recommended non-polar solvents, and those to avoid.

Deoxidants and Conductivity Enhancers

These products are usually applied as a few drops on the railhead, then a train is used to distribute the product. Not recommended for the reasons mentioned above.

Graphite

Another technique to improve conductivity is the application of graphite. It is in the form of a pencil, available from artists supply shops. A light application using a soft graphite pencil is applied to the inside face and top edge of the rail. Doing so fills in minor imperfections in the surface for better contact.

Less is More! Too much graphite will have the opposite effect, as well as forming a lubricant layer on the rails. Do not apply it to the railhead.

Track Cleaning Accessories

There are a number of tools available for cleaning the track. They can be low-cost track rubbing blocks and chemical treatments to expensive dedicated rolling stock.

Rolling Stock

One option is rolling stock with a cleaning device slung beneath it to clean the track. A locomotive will tow the cleaning car around the layout to clean the track. The advantage is that the mainline will be completely covered after a few trips around the layout. It is possible to construct one using a boxcar and a piece of Masonite.

There are a number of cleaning cars commercially available. Many use a dry abrasive or a soft cloth pad. Others use hard rubber or cloth covered rollers to scrub the track. Others have been manufactured with a small vacuum to clean up dirt and debris from the roadbed as they travel the layout. A small hand-held vacuum can also be used.

Examples:

  • Aztec Trains (No longer in business)
    • Track Star
    • Annihilator
    • Monsoon
  • Centerline
  • CMX
    • CMX Clean Machine

Aztec Track Star

The Track Star uses a freely turning roller which scrubs the railhead when in motion. Can be used in either direction. Roller may be used dry or with a cleaning fluid. The entire mechanism is enclosed within the car body, so clearances are not an issue. The car can be run as part of a regular consist, as it blends in with other cars.

Aztec Annihilator

The Annihilator employs two free rolling canvas rollers, a magnet and a fluid reservoir enclosed in a gondola. The first roller is wet, the second dry, with the magnet following to pick up any ferrous metal debris.

Centerline

Centerline makes a number of wet roller cleaning car kits in various scales. They come as a complete kit with the car, trucks and couplers, brass roller, bands and roller covers.

CMX Clean Machine

  • Brass construction, for heavy weight
  • Leak proof valve and fill port with large fluid reservoir
  • Drag pads won’t catch on switch points, frogs, and any other pieces of trackwork
  • Multi-directional (push or pull)
  • Controllable fluid dispensing rate

Do not place the Clean Machine on a live track without the cleaning pads installed as that will create a short.

Cleaning Vehicle Wheelsets

Wheels can be cleaned using solvents or mechanical means.

For locomotives with all-wheel drive and pickup, a solvent soaked paper towel or rag can be laid across a section of track, one truck placed upon it, the other truck on the rails, and by applying power the wheels will spin on the cloth and the dirt removed. Repeat for the other truck.

Rolling stock can be cleaned with a brush or cotton swab dipped in a solvent and pressed against the wheel tread. The wheel can then be rotated to clean it. Stubborn deposits may require mechanical removal first. Be aware that some solvents will damage or soften plastics.

Avoid using wire or nylon brushes with a power tool. The resulting heat build-up can melt and deform plastic wheels, and nickel plating on metal wheels can be removed. In the case of locomotives, it could expose a brass wheel, resulting in corrosion and poor electrical contact.

Articles and Videos Regarding Track Cleaning

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and/or presenters.

Publishers Musings on Polar and Non-polar Solvents

Model Railroad Hobbyist 05-2019

Track Cleaning Videos

The opinions expressed in the following videos are solely those of the presenters.

The Science Behind Track & Wheel Cleaning

I get together with Tony from SteamsoundsAU of Australia to discuss one of the common issues facing model railway operators, that being dirty track and wheels. We have the answer for you.


Well Used Rail Examined Under Microscope

A further short follow up to my track cleaning videos, I managed to get my microscope to work downstairs on the model railway, so we now take a very close look at some heavily used Hornby Set track. At least 7 years of hard use. Note the surface is not scratched or pitted, it looks like well-used rail, which it is :) Myths Debunked?


Track Cleaning "Do's and Don'ts" ...A Year Down the Track! And Why I Don't Clean My Wheels!

It's been a year since I posted the very popular "Track cleaning do's and don'ts." It's helped many people get their trains running better than ever… but also ruffled just a few feathers! Old habits die hard, so here's an update and answers to a few questions I've received over the last year.