Articles - Track: Track Cleaning
09/22/2012
Track cleaning is essential if you conduct electricity through the rails to power your locomotives. I have tried an eraser, the Walthers "Bright Boy", Aztec track cleaner car (N-scale version shown below), and baby lap pads. The eraser works, but it leaves a lot of material behind on the layout and it tends to spread the muck on the track to another location on the track. The "Bright Boy" is also good, but it scratches the tops of the rails. When I modeled in N-scale, I used the Aztec track cleaner car with and without liquid. I am now convinced that cleaning track with a liquid is bad. This tends to be a contentious issue in the model railroading community, but my personal experience has shown that moist track attracts dirt like a magnet. I continued to use the Aztec track cleaner car when I modeled in N-scale, but only as a way to wipe up dust from the track; without liquid. It has a magnet underneath the car to pick up errant metal pieces (this feature is very effective, especially during a first-run after laying track). The downside with a track cleaning car is that the car has to go to every piece of rail you have on your layout, including dead-end spurs. This is hard to do. On club layouts during shows, these cars are great as a part of a regular train consist.
Track Cleaning
For removing paint and glue from the rail heads, a flat eraser or Bright Boy is good. However, for regular cleaning, I will only use "Babycare" lap pads. It is a dense, 100%-cotton pad that is used under the baby when he/she is changed. You should be able to get these at any general merchandise store, such as grocery stores, Target, Walmart, etc. One package will last you for many years. Because it is a dense pad, it doesn't tear apart or get snagged by rail joints. I usually cut about a 1"x2" rectangular piece (about the size of large, flat eraser) and rub it along the track, using the eraser on top of the lap pad. The eraser helps hold the pad in place and also keeps it horizontal as it moves over the two rails. You will notice a difference on how the pad interacts with the rail. If the pad doesn't move freely, it is a clear indicator that there is a layer of muck on the track.
In the January 2003 edition of Model Railroader magazine someone mentioned the idea of using metal polish to keep the rails from oxidizing so quickly. This is a problem for DCC since constant communication with the decoder is essential for locomotive operation. I finally decided to try this method. My S-scale layout's track work was in good shape at the time, but I started experiencing stalls like I used to experience in N-scale. That shouldn't happen, because S-scale engines are heavier and have a larger contact surface with the rails (not to mention that all wheels provide for electrical pick-up). At the grocery store I picked up a bottle of Wright's Silver Polish for around $4. It is a liquid paste-like substance. To apply it, I cut a piece of baby lap pads just larger than the flat eraser shown in the photo below. I apply a drop of the polish on one side of the pad piece and spread it out using a toothpick. I then put the pad on the track (polish side down, of course), and use the eraser to push the pad over the track. The eraser keeps the pad fairly flat so that the polish is applied to the top of the rails, not to their sides or to the ballast or ties. I firmly rub the pad several times over a section of track, changing the position of the pad's angle to the track at every pass. You will notice that the black muck from the rail accumulates very quickly. I then flip the pad over and use the clean side, again under the eraser, to buff out the polish. The rails are now nice and clean. I can go months without cleaning the rails after this treatment. Be sure to wipe up any polish from the side of the rails and scenery, because as it dries it becomes harder to remove (and it is unsightly).
Track Cleaning