Track & Wheel Cleaning

Overview

Note: my personal conclusions and recommendations are at the very BOTTOM of this page

This is a topic that is a source of constant discussion and differing opinions.

There are basically three different things that affect running trains:

  • Physical contamination - dirt, oil, bugs, sap
  • Physical obstructions - twigs, leaves, rocks, etc.
  • Oxidation or corrosion - brass or nickel silver or aluminum or steel oxidation, a non-conductive surface

For battery powered people the last situation is not an issue, unless it affects traction or reliable running.

People from smaller scales normally are experienced with only the oxidation issue, and combating it, although some of their methods apply a coating to the rails that affects traction somewhat.

I run track power, and after 10 years in the hobby, made a kind of startling discovery, that the organic contamination issue was greater than I thought.  I have track power and run DCC and have stainless steel, so oxidation is not an issue. But I still had to remove the physical obstructions like the battery people.

Still, I found myself cleaning track to get good running qualities. What was going on? It looked clean enough.

Here's what I learned:

  • Many of my locomotives are Aristo-Craft. Aristo uses a cheap (as compared to other manufacturers) plating on their loco wheels, it's not even claimed to be chrome or nickle. Under this kind of blackish/silvery plating is a copper plating and under that is steel! Yes, your wheels WILL rust if you have the right moisture conditions and your plating is worn (just a matter of time)
  • I used a wire brush on a Dremel This removed the rust, but created another problem that was not apparent at first (next bullet). The rust was removed and the locos ran well again. I'm working on replacement wheels of stainless steel.
  • Many of my cleaning tools (including my wire brush) were just "spreading" a greasy film. Running abrasive cleaners like scotchbirte did NOT remove and absorb this film. Once I learned this, I hit upon a great set of solutions.

So what was the answer? DEGREASE the rails.

My first revelation appeared after noticing that no matter how much I "cleaned" my rails, there was a black film on the rails, just rubbing my finger on the rails gave me a stripe of black grime on my finger. Where did it come from? Many theories, carbon from arcing, dead ants, dust, moisture, whatever.

It's there. I'm constantly looking at different track cleaning methods, but the ones that "wiped" the rails seemed way too expensive, and the cleaning pads got dirty quickly, meaning too much work.

I did clean my inner loop very clean once and then after running a train, it was dirty again. So, it was clear that the wheels were dirty. I happened upon the "Wheel Doctor" and gave it a try. See below, it is a unit that rotates the wheels on a sponge. What was the recommended cleaner? Fantastik! What? not a solvent but a household degreaser? I tried it, the wheels were sparkling clean!

OK, so maybe what I thought was something to be scraped away was a greasy goo that spread everywhere.

On that thought, I went out and got a Swiffer. It has a rotating head on a long handle and the pads just clip on. They make a "wet" pad that has what I guessed was a cleaner/degreaser, water based.

Well, I have to tell you that this works unbelievably! My rails are extremely clean, and I just push the swiffer one lap of the rails. The wheels on my cars actually cleaned up (I guess they transferred back to the clean rail!)

What a revelation! No more solvents. Track cleaning consists of one lap of Bill Wilcox' sweeper car to knock rocks and leaves off the rails, and then one lap of the swiffer pad.

For people with track that can oxidize and run track power, you will probably still need to run an abrasive type cleaner, that has a rubberized block, wheel, or scotchbrite or sandpaper.


The following 3 sections describes the 3 types of contaminants that you will find and fight:

Dust, dirt, pollen - other dry material

Most of these things can be swept away. You do not need anything abrasive. (In general you want to avoid abrasives, they can put scratches in the rail that help trap dirt and grit)

Track power can often make a fine carbon "dust" on different rail types, and it's different for everyone. I believe it has to do with a lot of factors, current draw, type of metal on the wheels, length of trains. No one has satisfactorily characterized this in my opinion, but I've seen the dust and many people have reported it. I think the electrical arcing of currents helps produce some kind of carbon or oxide "dust".

Also, plastic wheels have been known to abrade to a fine dust also, and also when hot the dust has combined with other factors to adhere more firmly.

In most cases these two above are usually easy to remove. 

You can often also wash these  containments off with a hose.

Leaves and larger items might need a broom, or a sweeper car: Click here for info on a sweeper car

To clean these types of items, you can use a track cleaner that has a cloth or something like ScotchBrite (like the green scrubber on your kitchen sponge)

You can also use solvent-based cleaners, but you do not need to be careful of leaving a film behind.

Gooey dirt, bugs, etc:

Dead bugs, tree sap, snails, etc, are a bit tougher.

I've had success with a track cleaning car with ScotchBrite, since the open weave will help "collect" the junk, not smear it around.

"eraser" type cleaners will just clog, they are not a good solution.

Bad tree sap might need a solvent. If you use solvent cleaners, be careful you do not use something that will attack the plastic ties. I would recommend alcohol. Not that it is a big deal, but rubbing alcohol has a bit of glycerin in it, so pure methyl alcohol is better.

As above, fine dust from electrical current and/or plastic wheels can combine with moisture, oil, track cleaning fluids, bug sprays, mildew sprays, and sap to make something that is harder to remove. Solvent is usually the best way to get rid of it.

In the smaller scales, it's very important to finish a cleaning with a solvent. If you get a lot of dirt, or gunk on your rails, look to do "wet cleaning".

My recommendation is try the Swiffer wet pads like I use.

Oxidation and/or Corrosion:

This is normally the big bugaboo. It is most prevalent on brass track, but can affect almost any metal track given the right (or wrong) conditions.

Oxidation is caused by the oxygen in the air combining with the metal to form a new compound. Normally oxides are an insulator. Pollutants in the air can cause this process to happen faster.

One way to remove oxide is mechanically. You actually scrape the surface off to reveal "new" metal. In the smaller scales, a rubberized compound is typically used. You may remember the "Brite Boy" block. Most of these are a mix of rubber and an abrasive like silicon carbide. See the brand name "Cratex" for this.

The stuff comes in many shapes. You can put it on a sanding block, like the LGB hand block.

There are companies that make track cleaning cars (like Aztec) with rollers of this material.

This stuff is a relatively mild abrasive, so it may take several passes around the layout, but will not leave big scratches in the rail head, or excessively wear the rails.

Another way is to use something much more abrasive, like the open mesh "drywall sandpaper" which looks like window screen with silicon carbide on it. This will "clean" rail very fast, but it will remove a lot of material, and in my opinion, scratches the rail, and the scratches help cause oxide to form more rapidly.


Wheel Cleaning

 

Kadee wheel cleaner - good for powered wheels

Pros: cleans rust, and heavy gunk

Cons: does not take greasy stuff off the wheels, when the wires get greasy they can smear it on the wheels, only works on powered wheels

 

 


Dremel and small wire brush

Pros: easy to use, hold at angle to non-powered wheel to spin the wheel

Cons: really none, the wheels eventually wear out, but good ones last a while (get the dremel brand, and the stainless one)


The Wheel Doctor  *** Recommended ***

Obstruction removal: not applicable
Oxidation removal: not applicable
Grease/organic removal: excellent - buy one! easy and fast!

https://www.bachrus.com/wheeldoctor.php

 

There is a powered roller that turns the wheels by contact with the flanges. It looked really for rolling stock, the first unit I have seen that turns the wheels. The unit has a toothed belt and a high torque motor to turn the wheels.

The price is $70 and I was happy to pay it.

Here's a video demonstrating mine:

update: Due to a doubling in price of the motors, they have decided to no longer manufacture this great product. I hope the situation can reverse in the future.


Gumbuster

Obstruction removal: not applicable
Oxidation removal: not applicable
Grease/organic removal: excellent - probably the best cleaner for locomotive wheels made

Distributed by F. Skidmore

Below are the 2 old links, which seem to be dead, but can be used for wayback searching:

https://www.cleantrains.com/index.htm
https://www.fskidmoreproducts.com/gumbuster_wheel_cleaning_tools_.htm

gumbuster24

gumbuster foam

Have not tried it, but it has a foam pad with slits so the foam cleans the backsides of the wheels as well as the treads.

It looks very effective. The original units were just the foam pad for doing rolling stock, but he added the metal plates to power the trucks. It takes power right from the rails.

About $120 for the largest 36" model. I intend to buy one for my locomotives.


Notes on "Scotch brite"

Lots of discussion on the type of scotchbrite.

https://academic.evergreen.edu/projects/biophysics/technotes/fabric/finish.pdf

https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/company-us/all-3m-products/~/All-3M-Products/Abrasives/Industrial-Abrasives-Finishing/Hand-Pads/?N=5002385+8692962+8710644+8710812+8710964+8711017+3294857497&rt=r3


Track cleaning products - who makes what, and my opinion: (in alphabetical order)


Aristo-Craft:

Obstruction removal: poor, runs over or derails
Oxidation removal: fair to good - if cleaned on a regular basis, not very aggressive
Grease/organic removal: poor - clogs and smears easily

Aristo made a track cleaning car, it is a bobber caboose with the cupola off. It has a weighted block underneath. The surface looked like masonite/hardboard at first glance. I now understand that mine was packed with goo, and it's a rubberized compound like cratex

It does not clean quickly, and has very low abrasion. You need to clean the block often because it tends to smear gunk on the rails when it gets dirty. Soapy water is recommended.

Some people claim to clean it (quickly) with Goo Gone. Solvents will break the block down. Do not use aggressive solvents on it.

Not a bad choice for general, everyday use if kept clean. It is one solid block, so does not do well with track magnets.

I have one. I don't like it because is smears anything greasy like oil or ants.

You can see the block below, and it is on the standard 2 axle chassis. 


Aztec:

Obstruction removal: poor, rolls over or derails
Oxidation removal: good - takes a while, not real aggressive
Grease/organic removal: poor to excellent - the rubberized roller clogs and smears, but using the canvas roller can clean well, but needs a lot of cleaning.

Aztec (http://www.aztectrains.com) makes some of the best track cleaning systems in the smaller scales. They recently made a unit in large scale, often in a shorty Aristo box car. They have a roller in a beautifully machined and hard anodized holder. There is also a magnet in it. The roller is not exactly perpendicular to the rails, so there is a light scrubbing effect as well as the constant rolling of the unit. You can also get them to custom make a roller with canvas for you if you wanted to "wet clean" your rails.

Very high quality, probably cannot be used on track with a bunch of dirt and leaves. Should do a great job, I will report back, I bought one but have not figured out how to make the roller easy to change.

One disadvantage, you have to unscrew the unit from the car to remove the block with the roller, and then unscrew a side plate.

(Aztec notes: to replace canvas on roller, put it in lacquer thinner or acetone, that will loosen the cement. Use contact cement to apply the new canvas. Clean the roller with a tooth brush and warm soapy water, let air dry)


Bridge-Masters:  *** Recommended ***

Obstruction removal: fair - if you add weight it will knock almost anything our of the way, otherwise it derails
Oxidation removal: excellent - you can select any type of scotchbrite or sandpaper you desire
Grease/organic removal: fair - the scotchbrite will smear pretty quickly, you would have to change the pad a lot

This is a metal framed car with a free floating block that you can clamp a piece of ScotchBrite on, or even drywall sandpaper. I like it and run it to remove large pieces of junk on the rails, scrape up bugs. If I had brass track, it would be my first choice. Now that I use a swiffer, I rarely need it.

It will go over Kadee magnets. I added more weight to mine, the frame is pretty light. I wish they would sell it set up for couplers on each end. I cut another notch in the other end to add another coupler. This way I can push my sweeper and the cleaner car AHEAD of the loco, not behind.  Link to their site

Pleae note that the picture above is an old picture, and the current production has 2 pins in the block per side, as seen below. The picture above shows only one pin in the center of the block. The new design, as shown below is better.

See the picture below for how I added a couple of fishing weights. The frame is so light that when it hits obstructions, it jumps up in the air, the weights help here, and also help keep it on the track if you are pulling it with a body mount coupler on a long wheelbase loco.


My friend, R.J. DeBerg did a much nicer job shown below, with some Aristo weights:

100 3776

I use the green Scotch-Brite pads, and there is an 8-pack of them (9" x 6") that is cheap. Each 9" x 6" pad can be cut into 3 pieces for the car, so one package yields 24 cleaning pads, nice and inexpensive.


Bill Wilcox's "sweeper" *** Recommended ***

Obstruction removal: excellent - hands down the best thing on the market - buy one!
Oxidation removal: not applicable
Grease/organic removal: not applicable

You need one of these, no matter battery or track power, or what type of rail.

Just unbelievable and a must have.

See my page on the specifics: The Sweeper Car


Centerline:

Obstruction removal: poor - it will just roll over most obstructions
Oxidation removal: poor to fair - very little abrasive ability
Grease/organic removal: excellent - easy to clean and replace the roller and to add cleaning liquid

Nicely built with a large heavy brass frame with free floating roller (what I saw was a cut and weighted section of a paint roller).

centerline

$199 list, expensive. https://www.centerline-products.com/

I like the fact that you can easily remove the roller and clean it, just drops in.


CMX Clean Machine:

Obstruction removal: poor
Oxidation removal: fair - the weights will allow some abrasive action. It appears you could use sandpaper if you wanted
Grease/organic removal: excellent - the controlled flow of cleaning solution is unique

cmx 2rail Gscale

I believe this is only distributed through American Hobby Distributors to other dealers. https://www.tonystrains.com/products/cmx-products.htm This unit has a brass tank with 2 weighted cleaning pads, and the cleaning liquid can be metered from the tank to wet the 2 pads. I have not used one of these, but they look very well built. This unit can do wet cleaning or dry cleaning. You can put different pads on the system. Basically you can do whatever you want.

The only shortcoming would be that the pads are small, thus could load up with gunk more readily, also the center of the pads are not cut out, so it will definitely bump over magnets and switches. It would be nice to be able to control the solvent flow to only one of the 2 pads, but this is a icing on the cake request.

The pads look relatively easy to change.

I would say this is probably the ultimate cleaner, but it comes with an ultimate price: $279.


 


MNP (Many New Products)

Obstruction removal: good
Oxidation removal: good to excellent - if abrasive pads are replaced on a regular basis
Grease/organic removal: poor - clogs and smears

They have a Aristo bobber caboose with 2 motors that spin 1-1/2" felt pads on the rails. The unit seems to pick up grease and light dirt, but not really things like tree sap, and I'm not sure about removing brass oxidation. They do mention in S scale people put brass cleaner on the pads... and they were pleased with the results... I would think that such a cleaning session would use 2 sets of pads each time (4 pads). 

About $165 at https://www.mnpinc.com/Home.htm I thought I saw another version by another company where the motors have up and down motion. Replacement pads are $5 for 6 sets (of  2). They get dirty quick. The unit has a small regulator board and can accept DC/AC/DCC up to 24 volts. There's also an Aristo "mu plug" to be able to run from batteries as well as track power (there is a track/battery switch).

They now have a new model with 4 motors in a USAT ultimate box car, $345

The pads apparently have a self stick on them, so changing them seems to be easy.


Norms Track Cleaner

An interesting design, but from many reviews, marginally effective. The marjor problem is while the angled wheels provide scrubbing action as they turn, the wheels can only work on the top of the cruved head of the rail. Since rail is not perfectly flat topped, and the "eraser wheel" is at an angle, the wheel will wear flat across, and will not conform to the curved top of the rail. Just simple geometry. The top center of the rail will be clean, but how effective it is depends on where your wheels contact the rail head.

norms track cleaner

 

Seems to be out of business, http://www.choochoostuff.com/ was the original link, out of Las Cruces NM


Proctor & Gamble "Swiffer" *** Recommended ***

Swiffer - a swivel headed sweeper/mop with disposable wet cleaning pads. Get it in the grocery store. You might find the one with the put together handle, or one all assembled. The put together one has a longer handle. Get the wet wipes too, not the dry ones. They degrease the track just great. You'll see by the junk you find on the pad. I use the standard sized one you find in the grocery store.

swiffer

You want to use the "wet mopping" cloths, which have a degreaser in them. The cloths attact the the head by poking the corners into the little green ovals on the corners of the mop head.

Below you see the "kit" that you buy, which has a handle that is build from sections that snap together:

swiffer1

When you get done you have a great cleaning tool. One tip: the heads wear out after a while, and when you buy a replacement set, you can make the pole longer by adding one or 2 sections. This allows you to reach further when cleaning. I'm tall, I added 2 sections.

 

 

 

This is hands down my find of the century. It will clean and degrease your track like you will not believe.

No oxide removal, just for getting grease and dirt and sap off the rails. Try one, you will be amazed. A must for stainless steel rail.


R&L Lines:

Obstruction removal: may be fair - I made one of these myself (see pictures below), the angled rollers did push some stuff out of the way
Oxidation removal: poor - no abrasive capability
Grease/organic removal: has the potential to be excellent - I say potential because I had trouble keeping solvents and cleaners from evaporating, the foam is not absorbent in the same way as cloth.

Actual product:

rllines scrubber

Interesting. Not pretty, but the rollers are inexpensive throwaway paint rollers. Nice inexpensive way to clean rails. You can drip some cleaning fluid on the rollers, not really convenient, but doable. Many good reviews. Wendell Hanks reports that the width of the Track Scrubber car -- with the foam rollers set at the angle received from the manufacturer -- is 4". He guesses that if the rollers were set "straight out" at a 45 degree angle, the car width would be 4 1/2 inches. Both height of the rollers and their angle is adjustable.

Below are pictures of my experiments:

track cleaner 1

track cleaner 2

$129.99G-Scale with Aristo-Craft trucks, knuckle or hook and loop couplers or MTH knuckle couplers (includes 4 rollers, cleaning solution not included, $3.99 extra)  http://www.rllines.com

 Apparently out of business, or at least no more track cleaning cars as of January 2015 http://www.rllines.com/index.html


Rail-Kleen:

Sort of a copy of the "Rail Broom", but with 2 pieces of sandpaper (or scotch brite) in the "drum". The issue here is if you have greasy track, will you just spread grease on the sandpaper?

It certainly will "polish" the rails and remove oxide, but maybe more than you want, and certainly not for stainless rail, or battery powered track.

Interestingly, the "flaps" generate a strong breeze, which will blow away debris like the Rail Broom.

Sold by Reindeer Pass trains.


Trackman 2000:

Obstruction removal: ok, heavy unit stays on track
Oxidation removal: excellent - nice large pads and only on the rails
Grease/organic removal: poor to fair - clogs and smears, but the large cleaning area should make it take longer to smear

Very nice looking unit: heavy, and with a synthetic pad that cleans the rails. They are about $135. The cleaning pad is suspended between the 2 trucks with a clever mechanism that keeps it centered over the rails. The cleaning pad block has the center cut out to help get over track magnets and switches.

The cleaning pads are made of something called "Bear-Tex". It is made by Norton, and looks identical to 3m's ScotchBrite, but tougher, and they say it's better and snags and shreds less. The replacement pads are $4.50 per set. It comes with Aristo couplers.

I recently purchased one, and will report back as I use it. This is nicely built. You can adjust the tension on the pads for a light dusting to a thorough scrubbing. I believe they would work very well, a trifle expensive for most. It does not do wet cleaning.

Apparently the original owner of the company has passed away. I was just contacted in July 2009 that Ludwig Dischner of The Last Train Stop   ( http://www.lasttrainstop.com/ ) has purchased the patent and they are currently in production to the same exacting standards.

In the picture below, you can see the mechanism (top bar and 2 shorter bars) that keep the block centered as the trucks swivel:


The picture below shows a closeup of the mechanism, and also of the nylon "buttons" that secure the cleaning pads

Here's the underside, where you can see that the pads only hit the rails, and there is clearance in the center for track magnets, and also so you are not grinding down frogs.

Here's an image of the HO unit until I receive a new picture of the G scale one:


Conclusions:

If your priority is money, then buy a pole sander from Home Depot, and put a piece of scotchbrite on it, or the drywall sandpaper if insist on the least effort and don't mind risking the rail surface if you use the sandpaper. Use the Maroon scotchbrite is my suggestion.

If you want something to kind of keep the rails clean and you do not have a severe oxidation or cleaning problem, get the Aristo-Craft unit and run it every time you run. Used this way and often, it will keep everything clean for cheap, and just clean the block fairly often with a rag with a mild solvent or with a stiff bristle brush.

If you have a lot of oxidation, or want to clean it faster, get the Aztec or the Trackman2000 or the CMX. Non is cheap, but they will all do a good job. The Aztec rolls over the rails so it can be in a long train, and does not need extra locos.

If you have a bunch of gunk on the track or weird buildup, get a Swiffer!. If you want a car, then I would use a solvent based machine, like the Aztec with a canvas roller, or the CMX or the R&L. You can get the rails squeaky clean if you clean/replace the pads often.

Remember, if you have gunk on the track, you do not want to just smear it around, it needs to be picked up somehow. Oxidation can be rubbed off with an abrasive.

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