How to Clean Model Railway Tracks

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How to Clean Model Railway Tracks

Track cleaning is one of those jobs that has to be carried out on a regular basis if you want to have your trains run well.

This is especially important in the smaller scales. You can get away with less cleaning on large G scale layouts, but even there good electrical pick up is vital unless you are using battery power.

And it’s also obvious that good electrical pick up on DCC layouts is even more important than on DC track. Silent and sound decoders are susceptible to a small amount of dirt on the rails.

There are several major reasons for poor electrical pickup. One is dirt and crud that is picked up by wheels and spread around the layout. The other is oxidation of the rail head. This is assuming that you’ve already cleaned any glue or paint off the railheads when you installed the trackwork.

Many modelers feel that plastic wheels pick up dirt faster than metal wheels.

You should use a metal brush in a Dremel to spin-clean the wheels whenever a “bad order” car comes to the workbench for maintenance. Sometimes one needs to use the back edge of an X-Acto knife to scrape off the built-up caked crud. If the wheels aren’t clean the dirt gets spread around the layout after you’ve gone to the trouble of track cleaning.

Brass rail is more troublesome than nickel silver rail. Steel rail is a brute, but it is seldom used anymore. you should be cautioned that chemically pre-blackened, weathered rail can be a problem.

Bright Boy eraser can be used for general track cleaning. Some modelers feel the abrasive blocks from Walthers or Peco leave tiny scratches in the rail head that attract dirt. Maybe so, but the dirt is going to find a way to get there anyway.

The long-handled tool with the eraser in the photo I bought from Micro Mark. It’s great for cleaning in tunnels, bridges and other out-of-the-way spots.

Aero fluid can also be used on a piece of J-cloth stretched across the track and then you can run your DCC engines over it letting the wheels spin. You need to be careful to avoid getting the Aero fluid all over the locomotive while holding it, not that it will do any really damage if you do. You are to use this method before every operating session for all locomotives that will be running.

Oxidation barrier

Non-petroleum-based Labelle 101 lubricant is also a recommended choice. A few drops on the rails is all that’s needed. Wipe the rail head and let the trains spread it around. This tip is in the NMRA magazine, Scale Rails, August 2009.

This is a clever idea because it solves the problem of pulling the J-cloth or paper towel underneath the locomotive’s wheels. It would allow holding the towel taut so the couplers don’t snag as you move the engine across the cleaning pad. The other way you should use Aero fluid is on a piece of J-cloth wrapped around the metal roller in an Aztek track cleaning car. put the Aztek track cleaning car in a work train and make it part of an operating session.

track cleaning car


In the photo, a caboose-type car with a tank for track cleaning fluid is on the rear of the train. This type of car works by allowing the fluid to soak a pad underneath the car. There are several on the market.

There are also abrasive pads that can be inserted into the floor of a boxcar and pulled around the layout. These usually use very fine sandpaper.

Various track cleaning methods

Some modellers use citrus-based products like Goo-B-Gone or De-Solv-It. It was also at the NMRC club. But it was later discovered that it leaves residue on the rails so they no longer use it.

Others swear by hair clipper oil. This leaves a thin layer of oil on the rails to stop oxidation. Although it’s not really  a good idea. Methods like this interfere with the number of cars that can be pulled up a grade. Unless you like wheel slip or want to double- and triple-head those DCC locomotives of yours.

Another method to be used for DC is the Kadee wire brush that you clip to the rails and spin the engine’s wheels against. Because the wires are prone to causing short circuits as you spin the wheels. Another method for DC layouts is to put a high frequency pulse on the rails to break up the dirt.

Then, of course, you can just give up getting rid of the dirt and crud and take a “work around” approach. Large G scale locomotives often work better because they have shoes that slide along the rails, and they are much heavier to begin with. Lionel trains also used shoes. Taurus Products makes track sliders that you can attach to HO scale locomotives. This takes a little work and ingenuity.

Many of the older locomotives were made with “white metal” that is difficult to drill and tap for the screws you need to insert. I’ve got an old DC Varney Dockside 0-4-0 that uses these sliders.

And then there’s No-Ox. Works so well the product was discontinued because modellers only had to buy it once in a lifetime.

This is a paste that’s supposed to protect your track from oxidation for a very long time.

Track cleaning is one of those subjects that is as old and varied as model railroading itself. There is no best way, hope you find this tips useful and please do share with us if you have any other ideas.