5 Easy Maintenance Tips for Smooth Operation

One of the great things about model railroading is the ever-increasing durability of available products. Most new or recent locomotives, rolling stock, and track, will likely yield many years of enjoyable use, with minimal maintenance required. However, to ensure a long lifespan for your collection, some basic TLC will always be needed. By keeping on top of a few easy but essential maintenance practices, you’ll have a smooth operating layout for years to come.

Here are five easy maintenance tips that will keep your model trains running smoothly.

1.     Cleaning Those Wheels


This video we produced a few years ago serves as a good visual representation of how to clean your locomotive’s wheels. 

Although the wheels on locomotives will clean themselves, to an extent, as the result of the friction generated by rolling over the rails, they will eventually need to be manually cleaned as dirt, grease, and oil residue starts to build up. If your locomotive is shorting out or is stuttering over relatively clean track, this is one of the most likely culprits. 

If your locomotive has all-wheel pickup, the easiest way to clean your wheels is to dampen a paper towel with isopropyl alcohol or windex, and lay it over the rails. Then turn the power on, and hold one end of your locomotive lightly in place over the towel, while letting the other end draw power from the rails. This will allow all sides to be cleaned, as the wheels turn in place. 

If your locomotive doesn’t have all-wheel pickup, or rests on a single set of trucks, the easiest way to clean your wheels is to dampen a cotton swab or cloth with the same cleaning products as above. Turn your locomotive over, and lightly rub the wheels to remove any dirt as necessary. To access all sides of the wheels, simply clean the exposed side, then run the locomotive an inch or two on the layout to reveal the uncleaned sides. If your model has a thick buildup of dirt or dust on the wheels, hold the model at a 90 degree angle to ensure that the removed or loosened gunk doesn’t fall into the locomotive’s mechanisms. 

For three-rail O Scale locomotives, ensure that you check the rollers too. A spray contact cleaner will usually be enough to remove any grease or residue from these.

How often you’ll need to do this will depend on the frequency of use, and the environment that the trains run in. For most locomotives running on fixed layouts, this is usually only necessary when you start to notice performance issues with the engine. However if your layout or storage location is particularly dusty, it might be a better idea to stay more regimented with your cleaning. For trains that are running on the floor or on temporary setups, cleaning should be done on a regular basis, as the model will likely pick up more dirt and dust in these environments. 

*As a rule, we always recommend keeping trains off the floor if possible. They should never be run on carpets under any circumstances, as fibers and hairs can get clogged in the wheels and gears, which in-turn can damage the motors and render the model inoperable.  

2.     Oiling and Lubrication

Oiling and lubricating your locomotive’s motor and other moving components is also recommended for long-term, smooth operation.

Apply lubricant to the ends of the motor armature, axles, and any side rod screws if you’re running steam locomotives. You will only need a little oil on the axles! Ensure that you’re using an oil which is compatible with plastic, as others could corrode the mechanisms and surfaces over time. You should also aim to apply grease to any exposed gears.

This is one task which doesn’t need to be done routinely. Under normal running circumstances, every 6-12 months should suffice. Of course if you’re running your trains far more than the average modeler (say at a club or display layout), the frequency should be increased. 

3.     Gauge Checking

Yes, model trains can come out of gauge. A derailment caused by an alignment problem can quickly become expensive if it occurs at the wrong spot on your layout!

As part of your regular maintenance checks, you can use a caliper to check the wheels’ gauge and alignment. While this is more common with plastic wheels, metal wheelsets, which are more prevalent in recent models, do still have the potential to warp or get bent out of alignment.

If you have older models with wheels on a fixed axle, the wheel centers can wear and lead to the car becoming unstable. If this happens, you can usually replace the wheel set to restore smooth operation.

Again, this is recommended only as needed, when you notice performance issues with a particular piece of rolling stock. 

4.     Keeping the Rails Shiny

Cleaning the rails themselves is straightforward, but is perhaps the most important practice for keeping your railroad running. Many manufacturers offer track erasers which will easily and efficiently clear the rails of gunk and residue simply by being pushed by hand. For tougher spots, you might need to go back over the same segment a couple of times. You should do this at least once a month to keep your track as pristine as possible, as any dust, dirt or residue on the rails can quickly translate to dirt and residue on your locomotive wheels. For a deeper clean, you can supplement this process with a conductive track lubricant which can be applied using a paper towel.  

To incorporate this job into the operations of your layout (and to make it a little more fun), you can purchase a track cleaning car, usually decorated to look like a piece of maintenance equipment that would be seen on a full-size railroad! The cars feature an abrasive or felt pad fixed to the underside of the model, which will do the same job as a track eraser. These can be particularly handy for cleaning hard-to-reach locations such as inside tunnels, although they will likely still need to be supplemented with some hands-on cleaning for tougher spots. 

Of course cleaning the railheads is just half of the process. If your layout is under construction, you could have anything from sawdust to screws and nails left lying around. Even more complete layouts can shed small pieces of scenery material that could easily be sucked up into a locomotive’s mechanism. Look out between the ties and within the gauge to avoid your locomotives being derailed, damaged, or dirtied by these offenders. 

5.     Contact Cleaning

Keeping your contacts clean is essential for helping your trains run smoothly. You should use a specialist cleaning product rather than another type of cleaner, as general products may damage your locomotives.

Checking and cleaning contacts can be awkward, but the good news is you should only need to do it on occasion. However, as with gauge checking, if you’re having ongoing performance issues with a specific locomotive, one of the first things you should do is clean the contacts, especially if wheel cleaning and clearing the track hasn’t helped. 

Maintaining a Smooth-Running Model Railroad

Spending a small amount of time cleaning your locomotives and track can make an enormous difference to the operation and longevity of your model railroad. While it might not be the most fun aspect of the hobby, it will help to maximize the overall enjoyment of your layout, and should keep more significant and stressful problems from arising. If your layout has seen more use than usual in these last few months, undertaking some basic maintenance will be even more crucial. Remember – it’s better to spend time proactively maintaining your collection, than having to spend time repairing preventable problems.

Set up a plan for maintaining your layout today. Everything you need to ensure basic maintenance of your railroad, including cleaning materials and replacement parts, can be found right here at Modeltrainstuff.com!