Last night, the Lionel train under our Christmas tree–a low-budget special, of course–started struggling. It had been able to pull five cars before, but suddenly could only pull four. Here’s how I fixed it.

The first thing that came to mind was that I’d never oiled any of the wheels on the cars. Oiling the wheels lets you pull 1-2 more cars than you normally could. Exactly how long you should go between oilings is a matter of religious debate, but I figured since I was having problems suddenly, that was a good indication that it was time.

But while I was oiling the wheels, I found the real problem. A piece of tinsel had gotten wrapped around the axle between the wheel and the truck side on one of the cars, so the wheel didn’t turn at all on its own. Rather than roll, the locomotive was having to drag it around the loop. It’s a wonder the locomotive was able to pull that car plus anything else, let alone three others. That’s an occupational hazard that’s unique to trains doing Christmas tree duty, but this time of year, I imagine it’s all too common.

Once I removed the tinsel, I went ahead and finished, putting one drop of oil in the right place. To find the right place, spin each wheel and see if the whole axle turns, or just the wheel. If the axle turns, put a drop of oil on the tip of the axle, where it meets the side of the truck. If the wheel turns, put one drop on the wheel where it meets the axle. Spin the wheel to distribute the oil, then put it on the track. My new favorite is, believe it or not, Quantum Hot Sauce, designed for fishing reels. Something about the additives in it makes the wheels spin more freely than any other oil I’ve tried. Then again, for these purposes, any oil is better than nothing–even WD-40, though WD-40’s lubricating properties are highly overrated. The advantage with Quantum Hot Sauce and hobby oils is that it’s guaranteed not to harm plastics, but if you can find some plastic-safe machine oil at an auto parts or hardware store, that’s perfectly OK to use.

This year I’m running Lionel, but the same principle works for any make of train and any scale.