Track Cleaning in the Garden
Summary: Keeping the track clean is important. This article focusses on outdoor railroading, but is applicable to indoor railroads.
Many railroads using DCC in the garden use track power, so keeping electricity flowing to our trains, some cleaning is required. The frequency and degree of cleaning is a direct result of the track material that was selected for the track. For example, stainless steel requires no cleaning except removing bird droppings and other debris. Brass and other metals will require removing the oxidization layer that prevents the flow of electricity.
There are many different methods of cleaning track, and each one has its pros and cons.
Types of Track
Periodically and gently hose off the track to remove any of mother nature's left overs, such as bird droppings, leaves, dust, etc. Stainless steel doesn't oxidize, so using abrasive cleaning tools and products is not only unnecessary, but it if done harshly, could cause damage the rail surface.
Many use brass track because it was fairly inexpensive and very robust in the outdoor environment. Brass rapidly oxidizes and the resultant oxide layer is non-conductive. All rail materials are subject to contamination by dust, dirt, grit, and bug deposits. Ants seem to find rails very handy to travel on, and their crushed bodies add greatly to the mess we seem to have to deal with. For example, summer Florida rains add to the oxidation of the rail along with washing dirt and grit onto our track.
Gunk Which Stops Trains
There are many items outdoors that can cause trains to stop, or work erratically.
Another contaminant of our track is the plastic that wears off the wheels of our rolling stock. Between the heat of friction and the sun, wheels soften and wear faster leaving a nice insulating deposit of plastic film. The sun then helps to bake this oily film into a material which is hard to remove. The easiest way to minimize this problem is to switch to all metal wheels on all your rolling stock. Plastic deposits on track can be removed using track cleaning fluid or smoke fluid. It may take some scrubbing, but these two liquids will eventually soften the deposits so that it can be rubbed off.
Grit on your rails can be handled by any track cleaning device to sweep it off the rails. Grit in the points of your turnouts will prevent them from throwing, or jam them. Sometimes the easiest solution is canned air and a small brush. Available at most office supply stores, and in conjunction with a small stiff artist brush, this method can easily clean turnouts of grit, dirt, or stray pieces of ballast
Leaves, Litter, Sticks, Oh My
Leaves, litter, tree sap, bird droppings, twigs, nuts and other debris require removal by hand. If your ballast is glued down, a leaf blower works wonders along with a large wet/dry vac. Many people use both before any operating session on layouts that have trees around that like to drop presents.
Oxides on the track must be abraded off to promote electrical conductivity. This can be done using any or several pieces of equipment that are available commercially. Most of us have used the LGB track cleaning block which is expensive, but does a good job of removing crud. Its use requires a great deal of "elbow grease" when track is extremely dirty. An aluminum car with one of these blocks mounted on it which needs to be pushed around the track for cleaning has been used on several layouts. This works well on fairly clean track, but was not effective on extremely oxidized sections. The car also had an attachment for a video camera, and was more effective for photography purposes than track cleaning in the outdoor environment.
Track Cleaning Cars
Manufacturers have attempted to make cleaning cars.
LGB makes a track cleaning locomotive which works quite well providing you have excellent electrical conductivity between your track sections. It has two motors, one to move the loco, and one to drive the cleaning wheels. It is a "power hog", and will not run in a section that has weak conductive rail joints. The replacement pads are expensive, but are fairly easy to change. This unit does not run well over turnouts, re-railers, and crossovers because it has a tendency to bounce when it hits the shallow flangeway on these track parts. Because of this, you will have to clean these areas by hand. The advantage of this cleaner is that it does seem to do its thing on your railroad while you are free for other tasks.
The Aristo track cleaning car is a bobber caboose with a weighted Brite-Boy pad dragging underneath. The car has tremendous drag, so it should be run behind a locomotive by itself. It seems to take about a dozen passes to clean the track. The pad has to be cleaned often, but this is easily accomplished with some rubbing alcohol and a rag. Some Railzip or WD-40 on the leading edge of the pad will increase the cleaning effectiveness, but will cause the crud to build up faster on the pad. Some have found that attaching dry wall screen to the pad makes it a more effective track cleaner. The downside of the car is that it will snag on all of your Kadee magnets, and will hang up on LGB uncoupling ramps.
Really Dirty Track
When track is really dirty, the good old drywall sander is the weapon of choice. Also called a pole sander, which can be purchased at any hardware store. This tool will shine your track on one pass no matter how cruddy it is. The main advantage is cleaning can be performed while standing, like you would when using a broom. It is possible to mount other abrasive pads to the drywall sander. A 3M ScotchBrite pad (green) or 3M Metal Finishing Pad (brown) will work as well. It has been noted that the fibers from these pads get hung on track joints, switch points, and other sharp edges. The drywall screen does not seem to have this problem and is very tough. In spite of the abrasiveness of the drywall sander, it does not damage your track, and is the quickest way to clean large sections of track with minimal muscle strain.
One note of caution here: materials that are higher in abrasives clean faster but leave micro scratches in the surface of the track. These scratches allow for faster oxidation of the track in the future thus requiring more cleaning. Less abrasive approaches may take a little longer but in the long run will lead to fewer cleanings.
One way to remove the micro scratches is to follow an aggressive cleaning with a metal polish such as Brasso or another product. This is a lot of hard work, but you get really shiny rail, and the micro scratches are now a lot smaller, if not gone completely. Be sure to wipe any residue from the rails with a cloth pad dampened with your favorite cleaning liquid.
If your track has been sitting for a long period of time, here is a suggestion on an order of things to do get your track clean quickly. First, run the leaf blower and shop vac to get up all the debris, then the pole sander to thoroughly clean the track, touch up sidings and turnouts with the LGB track cleaning block, clean out all turnout points using canned air and a stiff artist brush, then run a train around with either the Aristo track cleaning car or one that has the attached track cleaning block. A lot of initial work, but a guarantee that your trains will run.
Also read the article on Track Cleaning regarding solvents to be avoided and those which are effective.