Cleaning Track Inside Tunnels

Maintaining track and keeping it clean is one of those jobs we all hate but has to be done to keep the trains running.  In this post, I’ll share with you how I clean the track inside the tunnel on my Tehachapi module.

Cleaning the track really only comes down to polishing the tops of the rails.  But there are lots of ways to do it and, depending on the severity of the dirt, some work better than others.  Under general running the nickel silver rails pick up all sorts of grime from the wheels as they pass over, whether plastic or metal.  Any rolling stock, such as locomotives or illuminated items that conduct electricity, cause a fine powdery oxide to form, due to the electrolysis effect; this is when current passes through dissimilar metals.  When you wipe your finger along the rails and get a black streak, that’s it.

The environment the layout is stored in also makes a huge difference.  If it’s in a dry space with a constant temperature, such as a spare room, the rails will stay fairly clean as the powdery oxide will simply fall off the rails.  But layouts in sheds, lofts, and cellars, where the temperature can drop or any dampness gets in, will cause the powdery oxide to bond together into a film and the rails will become dirtier sooner.

Also, any lubricants can run down and get spread over the rails causing locomotives to wheel spin.  Smoke oils and over-lubricated locomotives can cause this.

The stronger type of dirt on the track is usually caused by building the scenery.  Glues, paints, and lacquers will always get onto the track somehow and these take a bit more to remove.

Once I’ve finished the scenery I always give the track a good clean with an abrasive track rubber.  Lots of manufacturers make these; I don’t recommend using anything like emery paper or sandpaper as they are too abrasive. This initial clean is intended to remove any build-up that’s stuck on top of the rails.  If continually used the abrasive rubber, although very effective, will, over time, add lots of tiny scratches into the rail tops as it wears the metal down.  These scratches will hold the powdery oxide, and other dirt, onto the rails causing them to get dirtier even faster.  So for further cleaning, I use a cotton cloth and dipped Isopropyl Alcohol to wipe the railheads clean.  Proper Isopropyl Alcohol will evaporate leaving no residue.  Don’t use anything like WD40 as it will leave oil residue on the track.  Several companies make a solution specifically for this purpose.

But what about the tunnels?  As you may recall on my Tehachapi module I have a tunnel with curved track running through it.  The single track portal is too small to get my hand in so I can’t get a track rubber or a cloth in there.

My solution is to screw an old track rubber to a piece of long wood.  As the rubber is soft the screws sink in so they don’t stick out of the rubber and therefore can’t catch on anything, but it could also be glued on.

The rubber and timber want to be thin to allow movement inside the tunnel.

Using this I can then clean the rails inside the tunnel, first with just the rubber to remove any glue from the ballasting and later with the rubber wrapped in cloth and a drop of Isopropyl Alcohol.

I can get to all of the track inside the tunnel using this.  I just need to watch my hand on the signal which is close to the tunnel portal.

As we clean our track before each operating day at an exhibition I don’t want to forget the tool.  So I have built a holder inside the module to ensure it always travels with it.

Once you have good clean track another way to maintain it is to use track cleaning cars that you run around at regular intervals.  Some of these have abrasive wheels that run on the rails and some have cloths that you can add Isopropyl Alcohol too.  You can even get some with mini vacuum cleaners in.

Now that the Tehachapi module is mostly complete (I still have to finish the signals) I can turn my attention back to the 3D printed projects, some of which I’m hoping to finish soon and I’ll share them with you as they develop.