|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)|
Track Cleaning 101Most garden railroaders use track power, so their trains don't run as well if the track gets dirty or oxidizes. My friends who use only battery power chide me because I have to wipe my right-of-way clean every few months to keep my trains running smoothly. That said, when I "clean my track," 80% of what I'm doing is clearing away weeds and invasive groundcovers, or wiping off sticky stuff from my evergreens or some such - things that battery users have to do anyway. The track cleaning part is quite easy, at least in the areas where I can easily reach the track. And that part is a design issue - not a maintenance issue.
That said, there are a number of different approaches to track cleaning, which can confuse the beginner, so here's an overview.
The Short VersionIf you've clicked onto this article because you have a crisis, bookmark it so you can read the details later, but here's the very short version of what it says.
Clean the top and inside edge of each rail. The first time you run a train, you'll notice some hesitation in a couple places. Usually there was something you didn't see the first time around like pine sap, but an extra effort on that section will usually do it.
When you're done running your trains today, and you want to learn more about how to minimize track cleaning in the future, come back and read the rest of the article.
Why Your Track Needs CleaningBrass and aluminum rail can get a layer of light oxidation (where a film of copper oxide or aluminum oxide forms on the rail heads and diminishes conductivity). But all track gets gunk on it. People who run track powered trains notice oxidation and gunk buildup much sooner, because their trains don't run as well. In fact, people who run battery-only trains or who have stainless steel rails never have to worry about oxidation on the track. But everybody gets gunk on their track.
Use Appropriate Cleaning MaterialsPlease read this whole section before you charge out into the yard. How you clean your track depend in part on what kind of gunk you have on your track and in part on what kind of rail you have. For example, if you have stainless steel rails, concentrate on chemical, not abrasive cleaning.
Automated Track CleaningSome folks who have a lot of track to clean or who run trains all the time, want a simpler, faster way to get the track clean. The most common of these is a track cleaning car, like that made by AristoCraft. A little replaceable abrasive pad hangs down from the middle of a somewhat weighted bobber (4-wheel) work caboose, scraping the top of the rail heads clean as the train goes around the track.
As you can probably imagine, it does the top of the rails pretty well, but not the inside edges - otherwise it would hang on more turnouts, crossovers, and rerailer/grade crossings than it does. Still, a lot of folks like to start out each session by having a locomotive drag one of these around the railroad a few of times, just to skim off any minor oxidation, tree groop, or plant or bug juice off of the track before running the "real" trains. Other folks who have let things get really "out of hand" like to keep one battery-powered locomotive on hand to drag one of these around and around the railroad until the top of the rail shines.
Garden Railroading expert George Schreyer suggests that you can get the Aristo pad to work even bettery by putting a drop of drop of smoke fluid, WD-40, RailZip or ACF-50 on the front edge of the pad right where it hits the rail. George has also experimented with adding a square of drywall screen to the bottom of the pad - which adds abrasion and reduces wear on the pad. For more informaiton about George's experiments with this car and other track cleaning methods, click here
It's not a total solution, of course - you will still probably have to get the inside edge of the rails on curves and turnouts yourself. But it helps, especially if you have a very long mainline. And it doesn't cost any more than the average boxcar, so you don't have to lay out a ton of money to see if it works for you.
LGB has also made a track cleaning pad (#5005) that would attach to the bottom of four-wheeled LGB cars and work about the same. I haven't any experience with it, but most folks seem to think it's similar to using the Aristocraft Track Cleaning Car. If you're an LGB user, this might be a good approach for you.
The most elaborate "automatic" solution I've seen is the LGB track cleaning locomotive. This is a powered unit that has powered abrasive wheels that actually buff the track. It is no longer manufactured, ands it wasn't cheap when it was made. But it was popular with museums, zoos, and amusement parks that had trains running several hours a day most days of the season (or year, if indoors). Folks with arthritis or other things that make it hard for them to clean the track manually love this solution as well.
Folks have also made all kinds of home-made solutions. For example, covering a wooden block with drywall screen or a Scotch Brite pad, weighting it, and dragging it behind or under a car. Or, for a non-abrasive chemical approach, using a thick rigid felt pad dabbed with lamp oil . . . . Your mileage on all of these options will vary, of course.
ConclusionThe truth is, track cleaning is relatively easy however you do it, and you shouldn't let anything in this article scare you off from building or (worse yet) maintaining your garden railroad. Most of the materials and methods are either very inexpensive or relatively inexpensive, so you should experiment until you find an approach or combination of approaches that works for you.
I'd be delighted to hear anything else you've tried to keep (or get) your track clean with relatively little effort. Of course, if you want some hands-on training, I'll always let you come over and practice on my railroad. :-)
Please contact us with suggestions, corrections, photos, etc. And, above all, enjoy your trains.
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