The Case for Clean Track

by Dan Wexler

Editor's note: This article concentrates on the CMX Clean Machine+. Go to the Manufacturer Links page for links to other track cleaning equipment and supplies manufacturers.

We model railroaders go to extreme lengths to keep our trains running smoothly and dependably. For instance, at the Santa Susana Pacific Railroad we are obsessed with clean track. Our obsession starts with allowing only metal wheels to touch our track. It has been proven to us time and time again that plastic wheels set up a static charge that actually attracts dirt. Metal wheels do not attract dirt and seem to keep the track cleaner while trains are moving. We spend far less time maintaining and cleaning our track and wheels now than when we used plastic wheels. 

There are Brite Boy type track cleaners in every yard for cleaning yard tracks. Our operating rules mandate that the first train out every operating session is a track cleaning train. This train typically consists of two or three Centerline roller cars and one or two cars equipped with sliders. We route it over the main line in both directions, and on the sidings.

Regular visitors to my column know that from time to time I review and recommend kits or supplies I've used and believe will help other modelers in their quest to do things right and keep it simple. Recently I've added the CMX Clean Machine + from Tony's Train Exchange (TTX) to the arsenal of track cleaning equipment on my own Hamlin & Valley Central Railway. I am evaluating it for recommendation and possible purchase by the SSRHS. 

The first decision I needed to make about using this cleaner is what type of fluid was I going to use in it. Here at the SSRHS we've been having an ongoing debate as to what type of fluid we should use to clean track. TTX has included with their Clean Machine track cleaner the most comprehensive and concise list of track and wheel cleaning methods I've seen some time. I want to thank Tony for giving us permission to use it here. All opinions expressed in the following are those of TTX (but I can't find fault with many of them).

Semi-abrasive Pads

Brite Boys, Masonite pads, ink-type erasers, are just a few of the inexpensive semi-abrasive cleaning pads that are available. These pads all remove oxidation and maybe some contaminants but have one serious drawback. As soon as you start using them, the pads begin to load up with organic contaminants and eventually they will spread a thin layer of these contaminants on your track. You know the rest!

There is an inexpensive non-loading alternate. Your local paint supply or hardware store should have a special sanding mesh that's used for sheetrock. This sheetrock sanding mesh is like fiberglass window screen with a #250 grit bonded to the mesh. Because it's a mesh, it won't load up. You can staple it to an appropriate block of wood and you're all set. It's easy to replace and one sheet will last years. Use gently applying light pressure. 

Cleaning Chemicals

Chemical Deoxidants and Conductive Enhancers Products such as Zip, Wahl's Clipper Oil, and others fit this category. You generally apply these compounds to sections of track and run the locos around the layout to disperse the compound until it is uniform. My understanding is that traction is poor for awhile but then improves. I have no personal experience with these materials and personally have reservations about adding organic material on the rails.
Solvent Cleaners Water soluble type Most track cleaning liquids are water-soluble degreasers similar to Fantastic or 409. While safe to use and environmentally friendly, these cleaners are weak degreasers and can leave a residue. You will have to use these often to maintain clean track.
Alcohol and slow solvents Alcohol is often used in common liquid track cleaners as described above. Alcohol is a weak degreaser, leaves a residue, and is flammable. Solvents like paint thinner, naphtha, and Goo Gone have a moderate evaporative rate, are moderate degreasers, flammable, and environmentally restrictive. Slow solvents are not very effective in removing silicone or residue from loco tires.
Fast solvents Nail Polish Remover, Lacquer Thinner, Acetone, MEK, Toluene, and Zylene. Fast solvents when properly used, are superior for track cleaning. These solvents are aggressive and virtually vaporize all organic matter, leaving no residue. CAUTION: These solvents are volatile and flammable. Read label carefully and follow all instructions for use.

Track Cleaning Cars

Rolling Pad Cars This type of car retails for about $60,00. The cleaning pad is a roller that rotates while the car is moving. This type of car can only use slow solvents because the roller pad is the reservoir and fast solvents would evaporate. However, the rolling pad does not scrub the track because the pad is rolling. While this product is in widespread use and is effective, it will fail the white glove test when compared to a tank type car.
Liquid Dispensing Cars Tank type with pad dispenser (see pads). IHC, Walthers, Rocco, and others sell one for about $20.00. These plastic cars have a metal pad mount, needle valve, and reservoir. The small reservoir needs frequent refills on large layouts. Because the car body is plastic, it is not compatible with some the slow solvents or any of the fast solvents.
The Clean Machine + This is also a liquid dispensing tank and pad cleaning car. It's all brass, except the trucks, and weighs about one pound. The tank has a large 9cc capacity and should clean most layouts on one fill-up. Because it is brass, it works well with all fast solvents.

Cleaning Pad Materials

TTX has found all cloth type cleaning pads supplied by hobby stores to be inferior. Your best bet is a corduroy type of upholstery fabric with backing. It will not unravel. Orienting the ribs perpendicular to the rails assists scrubbing action while minimizing pad loading. NOTE: You can convert all liquid pad cars to the same mesh TTX described above or fine 600+ emery cloth.

Wheel Cleaning

Diesels with all-wheel drive  Soak a strong paper towel or light cloth with any commercial alcohol (91% by volume) and lay it flat on straight section of track with the power on. Place one truck set at a time on the cloth. Power up the loco to spin wheels on the cloth. Repeat for the other truck set. When complete, place the loco on a clean towel to let surface dry. CAUTION: Alcohol is flammable.
All other steam/diesel locos and all rolling stock Dip cotton swabs in acetone or preferred solvent. Apply the solvent to the wheels and rotate them until visibly clean. CAUTION: Metal and Nylon/Delrin (most plastic wheels) are not affected by acetone, but plastic car bodies and parts can be dissolved, etched, or bonded by acetone. Observe cautions stated in this article.
Crusted wheels After many hours use without cleaning, some wheels accumulate a thick crust of gunk. The best way to remove it is to scrape it off with an appropriate X-acto type knife, followed by a swab dipped in acetone. NOTE: Use wire and nylon brushes used on Roto tools with caution. The brushes can melt plastic wheels and remove nickel plating from metal ones.

My Tests

Much of the track I would be cleaning for the initial test of the Clean Machine + was on infrequently used industrial spurs. So I decided that an aggressive fast cleaner was in order. Lacquer thinner, acetone, and especially MEK, toluene, and zylene are way to volatile to use indoors; so I selected nail polish remover, which is heavily diluted acetone. (I am also very found of 91% alcohol for cleaning track and Goo Gone for cleaning wheels on locos. I used to clean loco wheels with alcohol but after a couple of cases where the paint came off the locomotive, I opted for the environmentally friendly Goo Gone instead.) 

With the supplied 3CC syringe I filled the Clean Machine tank with about 9CC's of nail polish remover and adjusted the drip to about 12 drops per minute. At first nothing happened, but once I backed off on the filler knob it dripped nicely. TTX recommends pushing the Clean Machine. With a full load of juice in the tank this thing weights in at almost 18oz. So with two NW-2s at the rear I proceeded onto the main line. I first ran the train over the main line then again through all the passing and yard sidings. After the second pass I checked the fluid level in the tank; it was down about 2/3 so I added another 3CCs of cleaner and proceeded to do all the industrial spurs. At times I would run around the Clean Machine so that it would always be in push mode. After cleaning every inch of track on the railroad I gave the track the "white glove test;" It passed with flying colours. Everywhere I tested the glove remained clean. One thing I did notice was that unlike when track is cleaned by a Brite Boy, the railheads were not shiny but they were definitely clean.

The next step, of course, was to take a train out on to the railroad and see whether or not I could do my switching assignment without interruption. (It's a rotten job but somebody has to do it.) I'm happy to say I went through the entire switch list in all parts of the railroad without once having to touch the locomotives or thump the benchwork. I'm sold and am recommending to the Society we purchase two Clean Machines. My plan is to start every operating session with one at the west end and another at the east and clean sidings and yards as they go along. Since we'll be using alcohol in the cars we'll include a Centerline car in the consist to soak up any remaining fluid. 

If you hate cleaning track and are serious about operation I recommend the TTX Clean Machine + to you also. 

Final Thoughts

One last thought about track cleaning. Cars equipped with Masonite track sliders are an excellent idea; they do help pick up the gunk that our trains leave on the track. However, you must often clean the bottoms of the sliders with a few quick passes of a piece of sandpaper. Failure to do so only smears the stuff on the track--negating all the effort we put into getting the track clean in the first place.

Finally, in a conversation about track cleaning one member told me of a club he was in 30 years ago where they once used ether to clean track. Nobody remembers or cared whether the track got clean or not; BE CAREFUL with whatever you use.

Here's to clean track and smooth running . . . Dan

copyright 1997-2005 by Santa Susana Railroad Historical Society.