There are any number of approaches to cleaning American Flyer track, and the right way to do it really depends on whether the track is on the layout and can or cannot be removed, and whether the track is just dirty or if it is also rusty. So here is how to clean the track to get it working and something you can do so you may not ever have to clean it again.
Abrasives versus liquid
One of the great controversies is whether you should clean with abrasive or use liquids. Proponents of abrasive are you that it does a more thorough job, and using liquid leaves more of the dirt on the track.
The downside to abrasives is that it roughs up the track and leaves places for dirt to accumulate.
Acknowledging that neither method will please everyone, I tend to favor liquid. For most people, alcohol is the typical go-to, although mineral spirits will generally do a better job. Just make sure you wear gloves when cleaning track with mineral spirits. It’s frankly not a bad idea to wear gloves when using alcohol, either.
If you need to get abrasive, avoid steel wool. You don’t want shards of steel wool working their way into the motor. Use a non-metallic abrasive such as a kitchen scouring pad. Some people will use fine sandpaper, but I think a scouring pad is just as effective and less harsh.
Dealing with rust
There are people who will tell you not to bother with rusty track, and I agree if the track is badly rusted, it may very well be more trouble than it is worth. But you can deal with rust, especially if it is light surface rust, and some people do like the challenge. So rather than tell you not to do it or that you can’t do it, I’ll tell you how you can do it, and you can decide if it’s worth the time and effort and expense.
Some of that advice was based on things that aren’t necessarily true anymore. There was a time when you could go out any Saturday morning and get a box full of secondhand American Flyer track very cheaply at a flea market or garage sale. And that is harder than it used to be.
Bar Keepers Friend
For light rust, you can clean track with a bit of bar keepers friend mixed with water. You can buy Bar Keepers Friend at most grocery stores and even at some home centers, in the cleaning supplies aisle. It is a combination cleaner/polish/rust remover, really intended for stainless steel, but it works well on most metals. Whenever I buy a can of it for train use, someone else who lives with me always reappropriates it for other household uses.
Simply mix some up into a paste with some water, apply to the affected area, let it sit for a few minutes, and polish it off. For large areas, use a rag, but for treating small spots, you can use a cotton swab.
While I wouldn’t want to treat a whole layout or a big box of rusty track this way, for light surface rust, this approach can be effective, both in terms of time required and cost. A can of Bar Keepers Friend costs less than $3 and if nothing else, you’ll use what’s left to clean your kitchen sink. Or those black rings that furniture sometimes leaves on your hardwood floor. It’s versatile stuff.
If you have a lot of rusty track to treat, the least time consuming way to treat it is with a product called Evapo-Rust. Many hardware stores and auto supply stores sell this or a similar competing product. It generally comes in a gallon jug, and you pour it into a tub, put your rusty stuff in the tub, let it soak for 24 hours, then remove it, pour the remaining liquid through a coffee filter back into the can, and you can use it again at a later date.
Let the track dry thoroughly and wipe off any discoloration. The track will probably be a little dull, but rust free.
This is a more expensive option, as a gallon costs around $30, but it is passive. There is a lot of wait time, but the prep time is only a few minutes, and the cleanup is only a few minutes. If you only have a small loop of track it may not be worth $30 to clean it this way, but if you have a lot, this is the fastest, lowest-effort way to clean a lot of track and make it usable again.
Another popular option is soaking the track in vinegar. The problem I ran into is flash re-rusting. You can avoid that, but I don’t find vinegar much more cost effective than using Evapo-Rust, and the Evapo-Rust is less likely to cause me problems.
Vinegar makes for high engagement YouTube videos, but as a practical solution, you can do better.
Depending on how deep the rust penetrates, you can just use abrasives to scrape the rust off. You can use a scouring pad, a wire wheel, or whatever you prefer. If you use a wire wheel with a power tool, where I protection and gloves, and try to do the work outside. Shards from the wire wheel can be painful for children and pets.
Treating track so you don’t have to clean it again
I know this sounds too good to be true, but you can apply a treatment to the track so that it stays clean. I don’t know who invented this, but long time Model Railroader editor Lynn Westcott advocated it, and he said he never cleaned the track on his layout after doing this. Besides helping to keep the track clean, it will also inhibit re-rusting.
Apparently this isn’t much of a secret with N scale and HO scale hobbyists, but somehow a lot of larger scale railroaders haven’t heard of it.
The product is called No Ox ID A Special. The only place I know to buy it is eBay. A small tub costs about $10, which seems expensive for the size of the tub, but it will last more than a lifetime. I treated all of the track I own with it, and probably didn’t use 10% of it.
I haven’t had to clean my track in five years, but if I need to treat my layout again, I have plenty. The tub I bought will last my life time, and if my kids decide to keep my trains, it will last their lifetime as well.
Using No-Ox ID A Special on American Flyer track
What you do is clean your track for the next to last time. Then you apply a thin layer of the compound to the track. By far the easiest way to do this is put a small glob on every second or third track section, alternating rails, and being sure to get some on both the top and the inside sides. Then run your train for about 30 minutes to spread the compound around the layout. This also treats the wheels on your rolling stock, which helps to keep them clean too.
Let it sit overnight, or better yet, if you have the patience, for 24 hours. Then remove the train and wipe the track with a soft clean rag.
You will notice that the train arcs a lot less, the track stays cleaner, and when the track does get dirty, it doesn’t affect performance.
The substance is a conductivity enhancer and has anti-arcing properties. These types of products can be controversial, but generally speaking, when they cause problems, it’s because you used to much. When applied sparingly, this stuff is great. It may be the best $10 I’ve spent on train supplies.