It’s that time of year again. Time to get that old Lionel (or Marx or American Flyer) train running before the winter holidays sneak up. More often than not, that means fixing up the track.
If your track has rust, the fastest way to take care of it is to soak it in Evaporust. If the pins are rusty, remove them before soaking the track (give them a tap with a hammer, then tug at them with a pair of locking pliers, such as Vise Grips®, and they’ll come out) and let them all soak in a plastic tub. If the pins are rusty, chances are the inside of the track is rusty, so you want to make sure all the conducting surfaces get the chemical treatment. Just toss them in and check back every 15 minutes or so. You can pour the Evaporust back into the bottle and reuse it at a later date. Maybe you have other rusty old toys too.
For medium-duty cleaning, an old toothbrush and/or a Scotch-Brite pad with a paste of Bar Keeper’s Friend and a little water is effective. It can remove dirt and even light surface rust, and leaves the rails bright and shiny.
If the track is just dirty, scrubbing the surface with a Mr. Clean® Magic Eraser® or generic equivalent (the knock-offs from the local grocery or discount store work just as well) does an excellent job of cleaning away old grime without too much effort.
Before you assemble the track, make sure all the insulators are present. 3-rail Lionel, Marx, and Flyer track has one on the center rail at each point where it contacts the tie. 2-rail Flyer track just has an insulator on one rail. If any are missing, gently pry up the tabs with a small screwdriver, slip a small piece of cardstock under the rail, fold it over like the others, then cinch the tabs back down. Or you can steal insulators from any track sections that are damaged too much to be worth fixing–such as any that are crushed or bent beyond your ability to re-form them.
Before you re-insert the pins, apply a bit of Rail Zip to them. Just a drop is enough. Don’t overdo it; too much just hurts your train’s traction. Rail-Zip aids conductivity and inhibits re-rusting. If you didn’t remove the pins, apply a drop to each pin before assembling the track; it will cover the hidden part of the pin thanks to capillary action.
After re-inserting any pins you removed, cinch the track down over the pins. You can use an unmodified needle-nose pliers for 2-rail Flyer track. The best tool for 3-rail track is a cheap pair of dollar store needle-nose pliers with an appropriate-sized hole drilled in the jaws. Pinch the pliers jaws shut with a pair of locking pliers or a strong clamp, then drill a hole about 1/8″ from the edge of the jaws using a drill bit about the size of the track. 1/8″ should be good. Now you can use the pliers to pinch the rail tightly over the pins. After you assemble your loop of track, pinch the track at each junction, paying extra close attention anyplace that feels loose.
And that’s usually all there is to it. Used O27, O31, and American Flyer S track in usable condition is inexpensive (a dollar per section or less, especially in bulk) so don’t go too crazy trying to fix track that’s really far gone. But if you have a lot of track, it can certainly be cheaper to fix it than it is to replace it all. And you get the satisfaction of having fixed an old toy rather than just tossing it.