Lower rolling resistance for tin trains

If you like long trains, you want them to roll as easily as possible. Lionel figured out a bunch of secrets to lower rolling resistance in the 1970s. If you like tin like me, Lionel’s needlepoint axles and delrin trucks won’t help you. But there are things that can. Here’s how I get lower rolling resistance for tin trains.

De-rust the axles for lower rolling resistance

lower rolling resistance for tin trains
After soaking these wheels, axles, couplers, and other parts for 30 minutes, they just need to be wiped off and they are ready to go.

It’s not uncommon at all for the axles to have rust on them even if the rest of the train is in nice shape. Rusty wheels and axles can still roll, but not at their best. When I get a tin train car, I routinely pry the wheels out of the trucks, take the wheels off the axles, and soak the axles in a small plastic container of rust remover for 30-60 minutes. If you’re only doing a few cars, you can pick up 8 ounces of Krud Kutter Rust Remover for $5. Eight ounces isn’t a lot, but if you save it each time you use it, it lasts quite a while.

This is also a good time to straighten the axle if it needs it.

I always de-rust the axles. I’ll skip things like wheels and couplers if they have any shine left in them, as the rust remover will dull them. Clean, dull wheels look better than rusty wheels. But if the wheels are just a bit dirty, I’ll clean them up with a bit of metal polish instead of soaking them.

Lubricate the side of the truck

Wheels rubbing against the sides of the truck can increase friction. Spray the inside of the truck with a bit of silicone spray lubricant. The silicone is slippery but won’t attract dust and dirt, making it ideal for this application.

Lubricate the wheels and axles

It’s much easier to lubricate the wheels and axles while they’re still in pieces. I line up all four axles next to each other and apply one drop of oil to each end with a needlepoint oiler. Then, one at a time, I pick up each axle. I pick up a wheel and put it on the axle backwards, then take it off and put it on the right way. This helps spread the oil out and get more work out of the single drop. You don’t want excess oil on the axles, because the train just flings that extra oil onto your track. The dirt doesn’t matter if you know one of my other tricks, but it will affect your locomotive’s traction.

Spin the wheel a few times. You should find it spins freely on the axle. If it doesn’t, spin it some more. If it just won’t spin freely, add another drop of oil. Once the wheel spins freely, move onto the next wheel. Once both wheels spin freely, replace them in the truck assembly.

What oil should you use?

The oil to use, or whether to use oil at all, tends to be a touchy subject on train forums. We have better choices today than what the manufacturers recommended decades ago. I use Labelle 107 oil most frequently. It’s synthetic so it doesn’t gum up. It penetrates into any remaining rust and cuts through it. It comes in a bottle with a nice needlepoint tip. It works well and a half-ounce bottle lasts me more than a decade when I buy one.

Now, I realize I can buy a full quart of Mobil 1 10w30 for the cost of half an ounce of Labelle 107, so I’ll probably refill my Labelle bottle with some kind of synthetic motor oil when I run out. I think most of the most outspoken proponents of motor oil forget that everyone had to overpay for oil once to get a bottle. Since we use our oil literally every time we run trains, buyer’s remorse over oil is something I have a hard time understanding.

Marx recommended Vaseline. Lionel recommended sewing machine oil. American Flyer recommended 3-in-1 oil. Modern synthetic oils will give you lower rolling resistance than any of those choices.

Test run

lower rolling resistance for tin trains
This car went from rust bucket to good running condition in about an hour, and most of that was letting parts soak.

Enough about oil. Once you have your car de-rusted, lubricated, and reassembled, put it on the tracks. You should find when you give it a push, it moves further without stopping than it did before. It still takes a few trips around the track for the oil to really distribute itself and do its job. Run it a few times and you should see the car rolls much better than it did before, and your train can pull more cars, even if it hesitates at first.

Ongoing maintenance

As long as you store your cars in your living space, you shouldn’t ever have to deal with rust again. But eventually your cars will need oil again. How often depends on your oil and how often you run your trains. I have cars I treated five years ago that still roll freely and the wheels still spin freely, so I leave those alone. When your locomotive starts struggling to pull lengths it didn’t used to struggle with, that’s a good sign it’s time to lubricate your cars. When I change a consist and swap in a car I haven’t run in a while, I set it on an empty stretch of track and give it a push first. If it can roll a few feet on its own without much effort, I’ll run it. If the car fights me, I give it some oil.

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