Greenbriar, Delta & Rutland
An  N-Scale Empire want-a-be
N-Scale The Normal Scale©
This topic has as many methods as there are model railroaders and I have tried different methods of track cleaning over the years and have settled the following method.  The method that I use works for me and may not work for you, I just want to pass it on.  

My arsenal of cleaning tools consist of the following

  • Cleaning blocks: 1 non-abrasive and 1 fine abrasive.
  • Wet cleaning car: 
    • The "N-2" from Centerline.  The N-2 roller is covered with replaceable cleaning cloths.
    • CMX
  • Dry cleaning car.  The "Eliminator" from AZTEC with the Cratex® roller 3 brushes and a bar magnet.
  • Cleaning solution: 70% Alcohol
  • Microbrushes

Cleaning method
The best cleaning method that I use is to run my trains regularly.  By regularly I mean weekly if possible, but this is not always the case.  When that can not happen and things need some help I use the dry cleaning car that  is being pushed by the locomotive behind the locomotive I have the wet cleaning car.

Mainline and passing sidings
Using the CMX car I push it around the layout with a couple locos. This also cleans the loco wheels and after a few passes all is clean. In the case of heavy dirt I will use the N-2 behind the locos dry as a scruber/drier. With less dirt the CMX is used alone. For light cleaning I'll run the Aztec car.

Stub end sidings
Stub end sidings are not so easily done since getting the wet car in means when backing out or if I push it in the loco is running in wet 70% Alcohol both can cause mud to get onto the locos wheels which is counter productive.  With the stub end tracks I will usually just push the dry car in  and pull it back out a few times.  There are times when I have to get the cleaning blocks out.  They usually come out of retirement for just a couple reasons.  Installing new track.  That's right new track needs to be cleaned.  You don't have any idea how many dirty, sticky or oily hands have been handling it.  Furthermore if you are like me you may have a supply of it and it has oxidized while being in storage.  Another reason to use the cleaning blocks is to remove any of the scenic materials that may have gotten on the track while working in the area.  Some times there is a spot that the cleaning cars can not get the job done, I'll use the blocks there. When I have to use the blocks I always start with the least abrasive one first.  Even a fine abrasive can scratch the rails (see the don'ts below).

Dirty wheels
My wheels are never dirty.  If you believe that then we need to talk about some beach front property...I know that all of the wheels get dirty but at this time I want to concentrate on only the locomotive wheels.  When the time comes and it does every so often the wheels on the locos need to be cleaned.  My favorite method is taking the loco to the bench. I'll inspect the wheels under a good light and if needed a magnifier.  Using a set of clip leads I attach the track power to the loco in question.  With the wheels turning I dip a clean microbrush into the 70% Alcohol.  Placing the microbrush on a wheel.  Most times the microbrush turns black instantly.  Using a second microbrush I will place it dry on the wheel to remove the mud that is now soft.  Using a third microbrush I'll place it on the wheel with some 70% Alcohol to rinse the wheel.  Using a forth microbrush I'll remove the excess 70% Alcohol, and put the loco back in service.  This method cleans the wheels without scratching like a knife or a brush will.  Also it does not harm traction tires.

For the wheels of cars I use the following

  • A scrap piece of track
  • Paper towel or a coffee filter
  • 70% Alcohol

I apply some of the 70% Alcohol to the paper and place it over the track and roll the car over it. Just a couple of passes and the wheels are clean. I then roll the car over a second paper to help remove any excess 70% Alcohol.


The following Do, Don'ts and Try's are my opinion and are not carved in stone.
  • Run your trains.  This is the best way to keep the track clean and the rails polished.  The prototypes keep the rails polished by running their trains.
  • Use high quality track cleaning devices, i.e.., cleaning blocks, cleaning cars both wet and dry.
  • Clean the wheels of the locos and rolling stock after cleaning the track or you will just transfer the dirt back to rails.
  • Use sand paper.  This will cut groves in the rail which makes it harder to keep clean
  • Inexpensive chemical track cleaner.  See 1 below.
  • Use highly abrasive cleaning blocks.  The same result as sand paper.
  • Scrape or use a wire brush on wheels
  • Both dry and wet cleaning methods.
  • 70% Alcohol
  • Alcohol
  • Use transmission oil or "Marvel Mystery Oil"  Believe it or not this works. see 2 below
  1. I have a friend that has a N-Scale layout that is about 20 X 24 feet.  The major feature on it is the 20 or so track yard that is about 18 feet long.  For years he had been cleaning his track with a chemical track cleaner and an abrasive block.  He noticed that every time he wanted to run his trains the rails were BLACK and the locos were intermittent in their ability to run.  Furthermore the plastic ties became brittle and with the normal contraction and expansion of the rails due to temp changes the rails were coming off of the ties because the "spikes" were snapping off.  He spent hours cleaning the track and never got to run his trains.  He was becoming very frustrated with his layout.  After many years of suggesting different methods to him we visited a layout that had been featured in Model Railroader.  The owner explained that he uses transmission oil to keep his trains running.  Then about six months later I visited my friend and his layout (he is many states away) and we cleaned his track using a cleaning block and applied some transmission oil.  He now has his trains running with very little work each time he wants to run, and the rails are no longer black.  He and I both feel that the chemical cleaner was causing the track to oxidize and turn it black.

  2. I had read many years ago that a thin layer of oil would work as a conductor.  I tried it and the trains ran excellently for that session.  The problem I had was the location of my layout (see the History page) and the next time they did not run at all.  My problem was that with all of the dirt falling on the layout from the floor above, the dirt was sticking to the rails and I had oily mud.  The thin layer of oil does work and the key word here is THIN.  To use oil it must be a very thin oil like transmission oil or "Marvel Mystery Oil" and the track HAS to be CLEAN as well as the wheels of the locomotives and cars.  The idea is to use a cotton tipped swab or a microbrush to apply the oil to about 6 inches of track.  Running the trains through this section will transfer the oil to the rest of the layout.  If the layout is very large then you may need to apply oil in a few locations around the layout.  Periodically the oil may need to be reapplied.

Below are track cleaning methods used by other Model Railroader
The "Gleam" method submitted by Darrell Gwinup
The "Gleam" method. I didn't invent it and I wish I could give proper credit. The Gleam method involves cleaning the rails using VERY fine wet/dry sandpaper or emery cloth, 600 grit or finer. Once the rails are cleaned, use a stainless steel washer to burnish the railheads. The fine sandpaper leaves a nice surface, but the burnishing really smoothes out the rails. Use stainless steel only; regular metal washers don't burnish well enough. Finally, apply a very light coating of metal polish to the railheads and polish it in well. track switches require a bit more effort, but you'd be surprised how easily little locos can negotiate the track switches without stalling! I tried it on a little used siding on my current layout. No matter what I sent down the siding, it always worked! Gleaming the entire layout was a 3 or 4 day long process (on a SMALL layout!), but in the end it was worth it.

I gleamed nearly two years ago and haven't cleaned the track since. Haven't used the Bright Boy at all!! My layout goes for long periods of time without any activity and it was always frustrating trying to run a train around the layout. After gleaming, no matter HOW long the layout has sat idle, the trains run just fine! I do experience some spots or problem areas from time to time. All I've ever done was apply a little more metal polish and some buffing and I was back in business.

If anyone has another method and would like to have it posted here please contact me via the Contact Me page