Cleaning and storing Lionel track is another common question when the subject of trains comes up. Now that you’re getting the electric train track out for Christmas duty, there are some things you need to do to get it ready. And when the time comes to put it away until next year, a little preparation then will leave it in better shape for next year.
First, a note: Since writing this piece, I discovered a miracle. I treated my track with a conductivity enhancer, and the difference is unbelievable. I haven’t needed to clean my track in two years.
This advice pertains to track that’s in relatively good shape, just a bit dirty. If there’s rust on the track, I’ve covered that topic before.
How you go about cleaning track depends on whether you’re trying to clean a layout without disassembling it, or you’re faced with a box of dirty track. But there is one rule that always, always applies. Never, ever, ever, EVER use steel wool on track! Some shards of the steel wool inevitably stay on the track, and once they find their way into the train (they will), they’re murder on the train’s motor. So keep the steel wool far, far away.
Cleaning inside the track isn’t a bad idea if the track has been stored a long time.
Cleaning a layout
Many track cleaning cars are available for this purpose, but the price understandably scares a lot of people off. It’s cheaper to just clean it by hand a couple of times per year, or as necessary.
The cheapest way is to just soak a rag with alcohol or mineral spirits (wear gloves if you’re using mineral spirits) and wipe it down by hand until no more grime comes up.
I have also used a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and I’ve been happy with the results.
For hard to reach areas, you can use a bathtub scrubber of some sort.
Some respected hobbyists recommend Life-Like track cleaning fluid. It contains an agent that inhibits arcing, which encourages track cleaned with it to stay clean longer. As one longtime hobbyist says, the more you use it, the less you need to use it. It’s extremely difficult to find now, unfortunately. Here’s the best alternative I can come up with today.
Some hobbyists, rather than buy a track cleaning car, will take a cheap gondola car, drill a couple of holes in it, attach a couple of long bolts to a 2″x2″ piece of thin plywood or hardboard, then tape a piece of kitchen scouring pad to the board. Then they put this aparatus under the car, through the holes, with a couple of light springs on the bolts to hold the pad down, and put a couple of pounds of weight in the car. They can then run the car behind a locomotive for however long it takes to get the track clean.
Whenever possible, I prefer the least abrasive approach that I can. The reason for this is that pits and grooves in the track caused by abrasives trap buildup, which inhibits conductivity and causes arcing, which attracts more buildup, creating a vicious circle.
Another cool trick is putting a drop of Rail-Zip on each track joint to help conductivity between pieces.
Cleaning individual pieces
Cleaning individual pieces may not be any less time consuming, but you have more options.
Besides the methods outlined above, there’s nothing wrong with just dumping a bunch of it into a tub of soapy water, scrubbing it, rinsing thoroughly, and then drying it thoroughly, whether that means setting it in direct midday sunlight, or putting it in an oven set at around 200 degrees for a few minutes.
A few minutes in water isn’t long enough to cause it to rust, and as long as you dry it thoroughly and promptly afterward.
How clean does it need to be?
Of course, the first time you use it, it’s going to start getting dirty again. If it looks clean, chances are it’s almost clean enough. The easiest way to know is just to run something on it. If you still see arcing, it’s not clean enough.
Clean the wheels on the cars as well. Scrape off any heavy, caked on dirt with a small screwdriver or knife blade. Then soak a paper towel with cleaner, set it on a length of track, and run the car over the track by hand. As it gets dirty, reposition the towel. Repeat until the towel doesn’t pick up any more dirt, then move on to the next car. When the towel is completely filthy, start again with a new towel.
What you need to do really depends on where you’re storing the track. But there’s no need to make it overly complicated.
In closets and basements
If you store track in your living space–where temperature and humidity will most likely be controlled, there isn’t much you have to do. Put it in a cardboard box, label it so you can find it again when you need it, and put it in a closet. If you store it in a basement, ideally it should be on a shelf rather than right on the floor, where dampness might get to it.
Theoretically it’s better off upstairs than in a basement, but I’ve stored my extra in my basement for 7 years with no ill effects. Not only that, I’ve seen track that appeared to be stored in basements for decades that emerged in good shape too. I’ve bought track from estate sales out of basements and turned around and used pieces from the box right on my layout with no ill effects. I can tell a big difference in track that was stored in a basement vs. in a garage.
In garages or attics
I’ve seen what happens to track that sat in a cardboard box in a garage or a tool shed for 20 years. Some of it emerges just fine, but there are almost always some pieces in the box that rust badly.
If it will be exposed to uncomfortable temperatures and potentially high humidity, the ideal way to store it is in something airtight: either a plastic container with a lid or a series of airtight plastic bags. Toss a silica gel packet in each bag, or if you’re using a large plastic container, put several in. The silica gel will absorb the moisture and keep it from rusting. Some people take the extra measure of spraying it down with WD-40 or another household oil to provide another moisture barrier. That measure can’t hurt, but you’ll have to remember to wipe it down with mineral spirits when you get it back out again.
Mineral spirits are available in the paint section of any hardware store. Silica gel packets are available at craft stores, in the flower section. (They’re used to dry flowers.)
Fitting it in the box
You can fit more in the box if you stack it in alternating right-side-up/upside-down fashion.