How to clean model train tracks

One of the most important aspects of keeping your model railway in good, functional working order is the subject of keeping your track clean. Now, this is something that a lot of model railroaders have mixed opinions of, and you’ll find if you speak to people at your local model railway club there will be people who would strongly advise you not to do certain things as well as swearing by others.

What we’re going to do in this article is go through every conceivable way you can clean your track safely, while also going through some of the things you shouldn’t do to avoid damage to your layout.


Why does track need cleaning?

Two reasons primarily - oxidation, and electrical contact. A dirty track can be a significant problem if you’re trying to run trains, because as dirt, dust and oil accumulate on the rails, electrical conductivity between the rail and the wheel suffers. This can lead to a lack of smooth running, flashing lights, jerky movements and unrealistic, poor performance.

Additionally depending on the type of track you have, you can be in for a nasty surprise when your trains run really poorly and it’s not immediately clear why. If you are running brass track, over time a layer of oxide will develop over the rails. This layer will not conduct electricity and you might struggle to get good conductivity when trying to run trains. Additionally brass is softer than the usual nickel silver that’s used to make most modern track, and therefore is perhaps a little more vulnerable to picking up dirt and debris.


Regular maintenance

I will say that if you don’t run your trains regularly, you’re more likely to have this problem. In my experience, the best track cleaner there is is just to keep trains running over the track on a regular basis - this prevents dirt from building up and harming electrical conductivity. However, if you’re not able to run trains too regularly and your layout might go a few days or weeks without seeing a train run on it, you’ll want to have a track cleaning regimen in place to ensure smooth operation of your railway.

My advice would be to pick one of the methods below and just do it every other month - it isn’t something you need to obsess over, and if you do it this way you’re very unlikely to ever have any real problems with dirty track and electrical conductivity.


Four ways to clean your track

Cleaning the trains as well

Before we begin, it’s absolutely worth mentioning this - if the wheels of your trains are dirty, you’ll need to ensure you clean them as well before putting them back on your nice clean track; otherwise your track cleaning efforts will be wasted. While there’s multiple ways to clean track, I’d recommend only one method for cleaning your train’s wheels, and that’s isopropyl alcohol on a sponge. The reason for this is because you can cause damage if you’re too aggressive with a track rubber, as loco and wagon bogies and wheels can be delicate. 

The way you need to do this is apply a small amount of alcohol to a soft sponge or cloth, and run the bogie of your train over the cloth back and forth a few times to ensure the entire wheel is cleaned. You could also use vinegar on a cloth, but you want to ensure that your wheels are completely dry before running them on the layout again, and isopropyl alcohol will flash off much quicker than vinegar will. 


Track cleaning wagon

This is probably my favourite method of cleaning track and it’s the one I’d recommend. Most of the major model rail manufacturers have produced track cleaning wagons available for purchase. They’re usually painted in a variety of liveries, so you’re bound to find one to fit your layout. They are basically a regular freight or passenger wagon, but have a removable track cleaning pad on the bottom. The idea is that you run it as part of a regular consist, and the track cleaning pad cleans the track as the wagon moves around the layout. There is even a motorised example by Dapol that you can run around without a loco.

I will say this is an excellent solution if you have areas of your layout that are either under cover or in long tunnels, where you have no hope of getting in there with a track rubber or a cloth without some serious layout deconstruction. 

The downside of this is that you have to run the wagon over all of your track - although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as I’m sure you would prefer to be running trains rather than scrubbing your track with a track rubber all day; but it’s something to consider. It could be a tedious exercise if you have a fiddle yard and you have to get into every single siding with the wagon, for example. Additionally, you might want to check loading gauge; if you have particularly tight corners where you can only run certain trains in areas of your layout you’ll just want to check the wagon fits around them without fouling areas of scenery, or platform edges. However this shouldn’t really be an issue on 99% of layouts.


Isopropyl alcohol on a sponge

We’ve already touched on this, but it’s my second most preferred method if a track cleaning wagon is not possible for whatever reason. Isopropyl alcohol is very safe and won’t damage either a brass or nickel silver layout. All you need to do is take a soft, non-abrasive sponge or cloth, add some alcohol and run it around your layout. Ensure the cloth doesn’t get too dry, and keep turning the cloth over to ensure the rails always make contact with a clean piece of cloth. Make sure you go for something around 70% alcohol - I’ve heard stories of wheels arcing when track is cleaned with stronger alcohol as it leaves the rails very dry.

The downside to this method is that you really need all the track to be open and not in tunnels. If you have large sections of your layout underground, in tunnels or you have something advanced whereby for example your switching yard is at a different grade to your main layout, you’re going to struggle with this as it requires you to be able to easily access the track. Additionally, if you have complex station layouts, especially ones with an overhead canopy, you will find yourself needing to do some dismantling before you’re able to clean your track with alcohol. Of course, this is less of a problem for those of us with temporary layouts, or where there aren’t any tunnels or complicated stations.

Some recommend using a cotton bud to apply isopropyl alcohol - I wouldn’t do this as it takes such a long time. 


Vinegar on a sponge or cloth

In much the same vein as isopropyl alcohol, you can also use vinegar to clean your track by applying it to a soft sponge or cloth and running it over the rails. Personally I wouldn’t choose this option as I feel isopropyl alcohol is a far more logical choice for this kind of thing, but if you’re not able to get hold of isopropyl alcohol, vinegar will probably do just as good a job. Remember to use distilled white vinegar, and remember not to saturate your cloth or sponge, or the room your layout is in will smell like a fish and chip shop.

One thing I would say with using vinegar is to ensure you run a dry cloth over the rails after cleaning, just to make sure they dry properly before you start running trains. The reason for this is that isopropyl alcohol will flash off by itself, but vinegar won’t, and you want to ensure your rails stay as dry as possible for good electrical conductivity.


Track rubber

Track rubbers can also be a good option - although I personally wouldn’t use one. They are a cheap alternative to a track cleaning wagon, but in my experience while they’re good at removing large chunks of dirt from the rails, they can also spread it around and potentially make the problem worse.

If you are going to go for a track rubber, I’d really recommend you go for a branded one such as Hornby, Peco or Gaugemaster - don’t just take a pencil eraser out of your pencilcase. You’ll also want to keep a hoover nearby, as the track rubber will likely leave eraser shavings all over the place, which is something you’ll want to remove before running trains as it could damage your train if left on the track.


How not to clean model train tracks

Sanding

I’ve seen some suggestions of using a fine grit sandpaper to run over the rails to remove layers of dirt and oxidation. I’m sorry but in my opinion this is really not a good idea. The reason you should steer clear of sandpaper is that sanding will introduce fine grooves and scratches into the railhead. You might not be able to see them, but they will be there, and will be much more likely to pick up dirt and debris. 


WD-40

WD-40 is often seen as the go-to tool for fixing almost anything that moves. Your bike chain is seized? WD-40. You can’t break off a bolt when changing the brakes on your car? WD-40. It is amazing stuff - but it should never be used on model trains or on track.

The reason for this is that it’s oil based, and it will leave a greasy residue on anything you spray it on. This is advantageous if, as in the previous example, you’re trying to remove a stuck bolt, as it’ll get in there and lubricate and help you get the bolt out, but if you try and use it to clean model rail track, it will leave a greasy residue that will attract more dirt and make the tracks very hard to keep clean. Additionally it will affect traction - imagine if you spilled oil on a real railway track and then a train attempted to take power while travelling over that track; the wheels would just spin, as there would be no traction. This is pretty much exactly what you’re doing when you use WD-40 on your model railway track.

Additionally it can have some unintended effects on rubber components, such as traction tyres - they can rot, fall off or break into pieces as they’re not designed to withstand a coating of WD-40 due to the petroleum concentration in the formulation. And this goes for any formulation of WD-40 - not just the classic stuff. It will also damage plastic parts, such as your sleepers. Trust me - WD-40 has no place on a model railway, and you should not use it to clean your track.


Oil

I’ve seen some weird suggestions for cleaning track, but this one was a bit out there. There are lots of reasons why you wouldn’t do this, and many of them are similar to why you wouldn’t use WD-40 to clean track. Oil will leave a coating behind on the track which will impact conductivity and is very difficult to remove. Additionally an oil-based cleaner could also stain your ballast - meaning you’ve ended up with dirtier and worse looking track than when you started. 

This goes for anything oil-based, by the way - I’ve seen recommendations of such things as fuel injector cleaner, lighter fluid and nail polish remover - all products I’d really recommend you avoid.


So - what should you use to clean your track?

For me the answer is simple - either a track cleaning wagon, or isopropyl alcohol with a sponge. Although to be honest - if you’re running regularly, you’ll likely not have to worry about this too much. In my opinion there are a lot of better things you could be doing than worrying about how to clean your track; and running trains regularly is one of the best things you can do to keep your track in tip-top shape!

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