The Importance of Track Cleaning

The Importance of Track Cleaning

By Roger Heid


If you have been with this hobby for some time, you have certainly become familiar with the black goo or gunk that builds up on the tracks, after you have run your trains for some time. Most likely, you also have found your own personal method how to deal with this situation.

If you are new at electric model railroading, beware of the black gunk. Here I would like to give you some hints and advice. I will avoid lessons in the sciences of physics, chemistry and electricity. However, I will say that much: This black gunk is a result of a chemical/physical reaction that occurs when two unlike metals interact, more so in an electrical environment. Very rarely will you find the metal of the tracks being of the exact same type the wheels are made of.

The degree to which this reaction can go to depends on several factors, such as humidity, airborne pollution (cigarette smoke, kitchen grease, candle soot e.g.) and physical touch of pollutants to the rails directly, such as oily skin components left on the track by hands, fingers and forearms. Other sources of additional pollution may exist in any given environment. But even in the cleanest of places, the reaction described above will still take place, no matter what.

If this black gunk is allowed to build up for too long, it will interfere with your railroad operation. This is especially true on a digital layout, where the power applied to the tracks is not just plain AC or DC, but it also contains a very complex signal such as is used by computers, in general. In a digital environment, very good connectivity throughout the entire system is imperative to ensure reliable operation.

The symptoms of too much gunk can vary. If a loco has to pull a heavy train, it may be spinning wheels instead of taking off smoothly. Then, it may be running slower than normal or may run erratically, sometimes stopping for a moment, to eventually quit running altogether. It may also not start at all.

Some of these symptoms can also be attributed to poor or lack of loco maintenance. These issues I will deal with in a future blog. For now, let us just concentrate on how to keep your tracks clean. I will keep it as simple as possible.

First I will inform you of the No-nos. Never ever use anything abrasive like fine sand paper or the likes of such. This will do two things: 1) The build-up of gunk will increase. 2) It will eat up the traction tires most all European manufactured locomotives are equipped with.

Never use any cleaners that are used in the automotive maintenance industry. Never use any turpentine and acetones. They will attack all plastics and polymers. Someone once recommended WD 40. Don’t do it. It is a rust remover, not a cleaner.

Warning: Do not use gasoline. You may wind up needing a fire truck much larger than the one that may be on your layout.

Alcohol works, but it tends to evaporate before it can effectively perform the clean up. It may take several applications before the job gets thoroughly done. In most hobby shops, you can find some kind of track cleaner, usually in too small a bottle at too high a price. I found White Spirit to work exceptionally well. It is available in most all hardware stores at a very reasonable price, considering the amount you receive.


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Any strip of soft cloth will do fine to apply the White Spirit to the tracks. But there are also mechanical devices available such as the one shown below, made by Proses, available from Reynaulds.


Proses Item # TC-001

Roco offers some sort of cleaning pad as shown below. It is reported to work quite well. It is not abrasive and can be cleaned, soaking it in the appropriate cleaning fluid.


Roco Item # 10002

Then there are the so-called Track Cleaning Cars, offered by several manufacturers. They work very well, provided you learn just how to use them.


Maerklin 46042


Roco 46400

The cleaning pads, at the bottom, come off for cleaning. Soak them in your preferred cleaning fluid for a while, gently scrape off any gunk residues with your finger nail, and they will be as good as new. Replacement pads are typically available from the maker of the car.

It is said that leaving one or more of these cars on your trains permanently will keep the tracks clean. Let me tell you, this is an unfounded theory, far from the truth. You see, as the pads pick up the gunk from the tracks, they will eventually become contaminated to the point where they will actually give some of the gunk back to the tracks. When the strip of gunk on the pad looks real shiny it is high time to clean or replace them. I use four of these cars. I have enough pads to be able to rotate them.

I heard about track cleaning cars that will actually hold the cleaning fluid in some sort of a holding tank inside the car. I am not familiar with those. Maybe someone can leave a comment with some information.

Undoubtedly, there are other successful methods of track cleaning. Comments with more wisdom are welcome, but, please, do not ask any questions. The Blog System is not designed to give answers. Any questions should be posted in the Forum, under the appropriate topic.





2 Responses to The Importance of Track Cleaning

  1. Peter M. says:

    I tried the white spirits you suggested and it worked a lot better than the alcohol I was using. It took one major cleaning (not to bad) and after that I found the regular use of the white spirits was a better cleaning agent and appears to keep the track cleaner longer. Thanks for the article.

  2. Peter M. says:

    For hand cleaning I use shot gun cleaning pads (12 gauge) all cotton pads (approximately 3″ X 3″)dipped in the the white spirits (a small amount), using two or three together. Using these to wipe the track is a good way to get an initial heavy cleaning before using the car mounted pad cleaners for regular cleaning. The pads are made by Tipton and are white, this helps in determining how much gunk is coming off the track. I do this every three months and find it really keeps the layout clean and the engines running well. Tipton pads can be ordered online from Gun Websites or from sporting goods shops. I could probably do it less often but I enjoy getting the track clean.

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