Last Updated on April 7, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
For some people, the only enjoyable part of cleaning Lionel track is arguing about how to do it. The rest of us don’t even enjoy that part. Recently I unearthed a decades-old secret that mostly eliminates the need to clean track. Sound too good to be true?
Why cleaning Lionel track is necessary
The surface of the track and your train wheels is never completely smooth. It’s also not perfectly clean. Both of these things lead to imperfect electrical contact. Imperfect contact means sparks flying when electricity is flowing. Sparks pull in dust from the air like a magnet and deposit it onto the track. So as you use your track, it naturally gets dirtier.
But what if I told you I haven’t cleaned my track in about four years? And I got away with it?
An old cure from an unlikely source
Linn Westcott, the original editor of Model Railroader, used to treat his train track with No-Ox ID A Special and stated he knew other people who did as well, and they never had to clean their track aside from occasionally vacuuming up debris. This Ebay link is the cheapest place to buy it; a 1 ounce tub of it costs around $5 and will last decades. No-Ox ID inhibits moisture and claims to bond to naturally occurring oxides and make them conductive.
This helps break down the vicious cycle of track cleaning. Track gets dirty because of electrical arcing. The spark deposits dirt into the pits in the track. The dirt inhibits conductivity, which creates more arcing and more pitting.
Eliminate oxidation as a source of arcing, and you break the vicious cycle. Once you break the vicious cycle, you don’t have to do much to keep the track clean. Cleaning Lionel track becomes a thing of the past.
The process for applying No-Ox ID A Special
The small-scale guys have an elaborate procedure for treating their track. Since O and S scale/gauge trains are bigger and heavier, you can take shortcuts. It’s a good idea to wipe down the track first but truthfully, I didn’t. If your track is visibly dirty, wipe it down.
Put a bit of No-Ox ID on your fingertip. Rub a small amount along the inside and top of the outer rails and the top of the center rail. If you can see it, you’ve applied too much.
Apply enough that the track feels different, but not enough to see.
After applying, run your locomotives on it to spread the grease around and treat the locomotive wheels. I ran a few of my locomotives for about an hour. I would avoid using traction tire-equipped locomotives for this.
Let everything sit for 24 hours, then wipe the excess off your track. If you have locomotives with traction tires, use a cloth with alcohol or mineral spirits to dissolve the grease. The grease is just a carrier, and after the chemical reaction is done, you don’t need the grease on the track anymore.
And as best I can tell, you only need to do this once. I treated my main layout in 2016 and haven’t cleaned the track since.
You really can use too much. As a test, I applied what I thought was a small amount on a single track section. The engine stalled on that particular track section. After I ran the engine over it a few times, it came back to life.
Even though it takes 24 hours for the treatment to fully kick in, after a few laps, I noticed a difference. Trains always used to slow down on the hardest-to-reach area of the track. They don’t anymore. The speed is more consistent, and I see less arcing.
Marx locomotives tend to arc a lot more than Lionels. But each time I grabbed a Marx locomotive off the shelf and put it on the track, it stopped spitting sparks after a few laps.
I won’t take the layout apart to do this, but the next time I have to take up any track for any reason, I’ll apply just a touch of No-Ox-ID on the track pins before I put the track back down. That will help with continuity too.
I liked the effects of the No-Ox ID A Special so much, I set up a loop of track to use it to treat locomotives as I maintain them. I just grabbed enough curved pieces out of my box under the layout to make a loop and put them together. Then I applied a bit of No-Ox ID A Special on each rail, then hooked up a transformer.
Finally, I grabbed locomotives that haven’t had the treatment before and ran them on this loop of track. After a few minutes, the wheels stopped throwing sparks. I let each one run for 15-30 minutes, then gave another locomotive a turn.
I found that in addition to less arcing, the trains performed better at low voltage. This makes sense; if the electricity flows more freely, the trains have more power.
As I acquire locomotives, I plan to just put a dab of No-Ox ID A Special on each rail, then run the locomotive as part of my break-in process before I try it out on my layout. This is especially beneficial for Marx locomotives. I don’t know what it is about Marx’s driver wheels, but they arc a lot. And I’ve seen Marx engines fail to run, but come to life just by cleaning the wheels. Treating the wheels with No-Ox ID A Special greatly reduces that problem.
I wasn’t sure what to think of the stuff at first, but I figured for five bucks I didn’t have much to lose. I’m a believer now. Cleaning Lionel track isn’t something I expect to have to think about anymore.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
10 thoughts on “How to avoid cleaning Lionel track”
I actually wanted to leave a big “thank you!” on your post: “all about the Lionel 1033 transformer” (but couldn’t find a way to leave a comment — too old a post, maybe?) I had no idea how to hook the transformer up to create a test track and your article was exactly the answer I needed! (It IS good to know how to clean up the grungy track that I’m using, as well, so thank you for this article, too!)
You’re welcome, I’m glad it helped. Yes, comments close on older posts. Thanks for letting me know, and if you have other questions about these old trains I hope you’ll stop by.
Do you coat the entire track layout with no-ox or just sections?
Thanx, Steve Frederick
I coat the whole layout, because it doesn’t take a whole lot. If I can’t reach part of it, such as inside a tunnel, running the train will get enough of it into the unreachable parts.
Any tips on cleaning Lionel fastrack? I have reoccurring rust and despite repeatedly cleaning it, the rust comes back.
What are you using to clean the track? Simple Green is known to cause Fastrack to rust. I would suggest cleaning the rust off with something like Evaporust, then applying either Rail-Zip or No-Ox ID A Special to it to inhibit re-rusting.
I bought about ten sections of used trap that were in rough shape. I figured that I could get them into usable condition with a little effort. I’ve used isopropyl alcohol, bar keepers friend , and krud usher and a track eraser on rails. The tracks have cleaned up rather nicely but after a few days the rust and oxidation begin to return to the tracks and I have to start over again. I was going to try the NO-OX-ID. What exactly does the chemical reaction do?
It inhibits oxidation and appears to make any existing oxidation conductive. After a few months of having it on my track, my track is definitely a bit dirty but the trains run just fine on it even though it’s dirty. I figured I’d try it and it wouldn’t do any good but it’s crazy how well it works.
i’m saying thankyou for your reference to no-ox-id “a special”
it does go a long way.
Thanks for letting me know it worked for you! I really wish I’d learned about No-Ox-ID A Special a decade before I did. It’s great stuff.
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