Fix or restore Lionel track

It’s that time of year again. Time to get that old Lionel (or Marx or American Flyer) electric train running before the holidays sneak up. More often than not, the track isn’t in the best of shape. Fortunately, it’s not all that hard to fix or restore Lionel track.

Believe it or not, you can effectively remove rust from old Lionel track with a ball of aluminum foil. A small ball of aluminum foil plundered from your kitchen and five minutes of your time is likely to be enough to restore a loop of Lionel track from rusty, unusable junk to reliable operation.

Rust

There are several ways to deal with rust. A surprisingly effective trick is just to rub a piece of rusty track with a ball of crumpled aluminum foil. By rubbing a moderately rusted piece of track for about 30 seconds, I was able to restore it to a point where trains can run on it. Aluminum oxidizes much more quickly and readily than iron, so when you rub a piece of rusty track with aluminum, the aluminum steals the oxygen atoms, leaving clean iron behind.

restoring Lionel track
I pulled this rusty O27 curve out of my junk box and rubbed the topmost rail three times with aluminum foil. Just three strokes with aluminum foil made that rail noticeably cleaner than the other two.

Just rub the foil back and forth against each rail, and also rub it back and forth against the pins. You’ll see the rust gradually disappear. The derusted track won’t be as smooth and shiny as new, but it will be clean enough to work well.

restoring Lionel track
It took 30 seconds of rubbing the rails with aluminum foil to make the track piece above look like this. While there’s still some rust on the ties and the sides of the rails, this track is completely usable.

The upside to restoring rusty track with aluminum foil is that it disturbs any remaining tin plating on the track less than using chemical methods, and it won’t affect the coloring on the ties. You can leave the ties as-is or you can remove the rust from them with the foil as well.

At 30 seconds per section, I could derust an oval of Lionel track in about five minutes. Since American Flyer track is 12 pieces to a circle, it would take seven minutes to derust an oval of Flyer track. That’s still not bad.

Chemical rust removal

If you have a lot of rusty track, it may be faster to soak it in Evaporust. Don’t forget the pins. 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.

What about vinegar?

There’s a guy on Youtube who tells you to soak your rusty track in vinegar. Vinegar does indeed dissolve rust, and it does it faster than some commercial rust removal products. I’ve tried it, and a number of other acquaintances have tried it, but we got mixed results. If you don’t get the conditions just right, the track will flash rust again soon after you remove it from the vinegar. The layer of rust is thin, but enough to cause problems.

I find the aluminum foil method faster, cheaper, and more effective than vinegar.

Cleanup

Bar Keeper's Friend
Bar Keeper’s Friend

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 the traditional method. It’s effective. It can remove dirt and even light surface rust, and leaves the rails bright and shiny. But I would try the aluminum foil first.

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.

I have some more tips on cleaning Lionel track if you need them. And if the track is really old, you may need to clean the inside of the track.

I like to do one more thing. There’s an old, old trick with No Ox ID to enhance conductivity and keep track clean. Try it. You’ll love it.

Checking out the insulators

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. Here’s how to test the track with a multimeter before using it.

Caring for the pins

Rail-Zip
Rail-Zip

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. Pay extra close attention to anyplace that feels loose.

Caring for the ties

If the ties have lost their blackening or have chipped paint, you can touch them up. If you disassemble the track you can just spray paint the ties, but I prefer not to disassemble if I can avoid it. I usually just touch up the track. I like to use Rustoleum enamel on black ties. On brown ties, I have to use acrylic paint from craft stores. The shade of brown has varied a lot from time to time so I just take a piece of track to the store and eyeball it.

Don’t go too crazy

Remember, 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.

And once you have functioning track, if you want to fasten it to the table, here are the screws I recommend, or a quieter option with zip ties.

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