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.

Evaporust
Evaporust

Rust

If your track has rust, the fastest way to take care of it is 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.

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 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.

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.

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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