If your American Flyer train slows down on part of your layout, you’re experiencing voltage drop. Fortunately, there are things you can do to lessen the effect of voltage drop and give yourself a smoother running layout. Some of them won’t even cost anything. Here’s how to reduce American Flyer voltage drop.
Make sure you use a thick enough wire (thicker than 18 gauge, generally), run feeder wires every third or fourth track section, have a good electrical connection between each rail, and treat any rust present to ensure good, consistent electrical conductivity throughout your layout for smooth running trains.
Run enough feeder wires
You need feeder wires every 3-4 track sections to ensure consistent voltage through your layout. Start over with your count after every switch. This does more than anything else you can do to reduce voltage drop on your American Flyer layout.
You can use track terminals or you can solder wires to the track. Soldering wires is less convenient, but it ensures a better electrical connection than the terminals and in the long run it’s less expensive. Resistance from the terminals themselves can introduce a small amount of voltage drop, though less than a long track run does.
Be consistent with which wire goes to which rail, so you don’t cause a short. Follow my transformer wiring diagram if it helps.
Use thick enough wire
Using thick enough wire is also critical to reducing voltage drop. Thin wire introduces resistance over long lengths, cutting 1-2 volts from your power and introducing heat. In extreme cases, when a motor is pulling a lot of amperage such as when it’s pulling a long train, the heat can cause insulation to melt. You don’t want that.
If your wire runs are between 4 and 16 feet, you need 14 gauge wire. For runs longer than 16 feet, you need 12 gauge wire. For short runs less than four feet, 18 gauge wire is adequate, but don’t go below 18 gauge for trains. Wire thinner than 18 gauge is only suitable for powering accessories. I’ve melted insulation on 20 gauge wire even on short one-foot runs. It’s very disconcerting to see smoke coming from your layout wiring.
If the thick wire doesn’t fit in the track terminals, splice a short length of 18-gauge wire onto the end. A short run of 18-gauge wire coming off a long run of thicker wire won’t introduce enough voltage drop to be noticeable.
Bend out track pins slightly
Bend the pins out about 1/8 inch before assembling the track, like the diagram to the right. This will force a good electrical connection between the pins and the rails. Since the pins are slightly thinner than the rails, it’s possible to end up with a small gap between the pin and the rail, causing intermittent conductivity. Angling the pins slightly ensures there are two connection points where the pin solidly meets the sides of the rail.
Treat corrosion on the pins
If you have any rusty pins, treat the rust on them or replace the pins entirely. Rubbing the pins with aluminum foil is an effective way to remove light rust.
For ongoing maintenance on an already assembled layout, apply a drop of Rail Zip to the pins about once a year. Just a drop is enough, don’t overdo it. Rail Zip will help treat any corrosion that’s there, prevent further corrosion, and enhance conductivity. You can apply a drop of Rail Zip to the pins either before or after you assemble the track, though it’s easier to not get it on the rails if you apply it before assembly. But you can apply a drop to an assembled layout as part of your ongoing maintenance. Some people use it on the tops of rails as well, but it’s the pins where it makes the biggest difference. Be careful using it on the rails themselves, as it damages traction tires on locomotives.
Treat any rust on the track
Treat any rust on the track. I’ve had great success treating light rust by rubbing the rust spots with a ball of aluminum foil. It’s abrasive enough to remove dirt and the aluminum readily steals the oxygen ions from rust, converting it back to iron.
If you bought Rail Zip to use on the pins, you can also try applying a drop of it to a rusty surface and wait a few hours. Rust typically responds well to Rail Zip, and you can often wipe it away with just a paper towel after treating it with Rail Zip. To remove the Rail Zip afterward, wipe the track with a microfiber cloth.
Unlike Lionel track, postwar American Flyer 2-rail track is just steel, so you can sand it without harming it. But sanding should be a last resort, as the scratches attract dirt in the long run. If you do sand, start with a heavier grit and progress to finer grits to reduce the amount of scratching.
Apply conductivity enhancer to the track
If you apply a bit of No-Ox ID A Special to the track, you’ll rarely have to clean it, if ever. This is an old secret of HO and N scale railroaders that has somehow eluded larger-scale railroaders, but it works really well on S scale trains too. A one-ounce container should last a lifetime.
To apply it, wipe down your track with a microfiber cloth to remove any dirt and oil that’s already present. This will probably be the next to last time you ever do this. Then put a little dab of the No-Ox ID A Special on every fourth or fifth rail section, in a different place on each rail, but get a bit on the top and on the inside of the rail. Then run a train over the layout for about 30 minutes to spread it out. It comes in a grease carrier, so if you’re concerned about loss of traction, wipe the track down with a microfiber cloth 24 hours later.
After treating the track with No-Ox ID A Special, you’ll find the trains run smoother with less arcing. While you will eventually see some dirt on the track, most of it will be conductive so you won’t have to worry about cleaning it off.
Use a big enough transformer
You don’t need a 30B transformer for a Christmas tree layout or even a 4×8 or 5×9 layout. But don’t expect a 45-watt transformer to power an empire. If you have at least a 4×8 layout, it’s not a bad idea to graduate to at least a 100-watt transformer. You should be able to get one for around $30-$35, shipped.
If you have a larger layout, an American Flyer 12b tends to be a good value, since it’s 250 watts and doesn’t have the popular dead-man’s handle on the throttle. You’ll always pay a premium for the largest, fullest-featured transformer any train maker made. So going for the Buick instead of the Cadillac tends to be a good value play.