Railway infrastructure maintenance consumes very large budgets but is of crucial importance in order to obtain a well-functioning transportation system.
Just like on a real railway your own layout will require appropriate care and preservation to keep it operating properly – not just in terms of track upkeep but also associated railway real estate such as:
Track & Track Control Mechanisms
Culverts & Pipes
Terminals and Yards
Unlike an indoor layout the problems you may encounter on your model layout will tend to mirror those experienced on the prototype. Whilst this module will focus specifically on track maintenance other topics listed above will also be covered in their respective modules.
By common consensus your track will need constant maintenance if it is to perform to a reliable and “trouble free” standard. This can become a chore but if you don’t carry out regular preventative measures you are bound to experience derailments and “dead spots” which can frustrate an enjoyable operating session.
As we have already observed the problems you will encounter tend to mirror those experienced on the actual prototype, plus quite a few more thanks to the reduced scale, specifically:
Problem 1: Oxidisation All track, and in particular the rail itself, will change in appearance over time, whatever the materials used, due to continued exposure to the elements. Brass & Aluminium rail acquire a natural patina which can make them appear more natural and realistic but this is actually evidence of oxidation whereby a thin film or deposit of copper or aluminium oxide forms on the rail and gradually reduces conductivity. If you use stainless steel rails the degradation does not take place so it’s much less of a problem. Similarly, those of you who intend to operate using battery-power will also be unaffected.
Piko Track Cleaning Wagon
Until recently such devices were hard to find but you might still be able to locate an obsolete Aristo-craft Track Cleaning Bobber Caboose fitted underneath with a weighted rubberised abrasive pad. The caboose should be run by itself behind the loco to reduce drag. The unit does not clean points (turnouts) that well and you will probably need to clean these by hand.
Piko have also recently introduced a battery powered GE45 American profile model 0-4-0 locomotive for track cleaning (see images above and below). It is powered by 6 AAA batteries and runs in forward and reverse direction for about 2 hours when fully charged (better to invest in rechargeable batteries as they are cheaper in the long run). I acquired the early “free running” version before the Radio-Controlled update became available. Even after several circuits (20 or more) it still has power to spare but, to be honest, I could not detect any significant change in the rail surfaces but my experience might not be typical (see video contributed by Jim Zim). I believe this locomotive is probably better used for maintenance at regular intervals between more vigorous track cleaning methods.
Alternatively you could invest in the more recently introduced Piko version in European livery (above).
Piko MOW Clean Machine 38501 (early version) Piko MOW Clean Machine with R/C 38506
The following selection of videos (courtesy of YouTube contributors) will give you a better idea as to the capabilities of this locomotive.
Solution: The nature of the cleaning regime can depend on the type of material from which your rails are drawn. Brass rail track is robust in an outdoor situation but tends to oxidise quite quickly reducing its ability to conduct electricity over time. Like any other material brass is susceptible to contamination from any number of sources including seeds, leaves, insects, soil, dust, bird droppings, sea salt, etc. For brass track (and badly oxidised aluminium track) you will probably need to employ some form of mechanical abrasive material to “burnish” the rail-heads.
Stainless Steel rail, however, does not oxidise and just needs cleaning of organic detritus and any residue using a light blower or even a garden hose. Avoid using any excessively abrasive material as this can damage the rail surface.
If the rails are badly oxidised or dirty you may have to resort to a using abrasives as covered in more detail below. Fine Wet and Dry or Emery paper are invariably successful at removing such deposits but be careful not to exert too much pressure, especially if using a rotary sander.
For detailed advice on track cleaning I would recommend an article by Paul.D.Race (a regular contributor to Family Garden Trains ( great source of free advice on all matters relating to Garden Railways, Just click on the button-link below:
Whilst track cleaning is a very important, if sometimes a laborious activity, most of us would probably rather
run trains than spend time on our hands and knees manually undertaking this chore and prefer to adopt a less physical means of carrying it out. Fortunately there is a solution by which the whole process (or at least most of it) can be automated by running a special rail cleaning locomotive or wagon around the layout at regular intervals.
For another automated cleaning solution you can also now purchase a new LGB Track Cleaning Locomotive (Product 21670) for around £580, at time of writing, which has two powered cleaning wheels that rotate in the opposite direction of the direction of travel to achieve the most effective cleaning. It has two motors, one to drive the loco and the other to power the cleaning wheels. Length over the buffers 43.5 cm / 17-1/8". This red version supersedes the original yellow locomotive (Product No. 20670) which whilst discontinued in 2006 it is still available occasionally on the second-hand market.
LGB 20670 Track Cleaning Locomotive
LGB 20670 Track Cleaning Locomotive
Click either image to watch a YouTube video of the appropriate version.
The “Ultimate” Track Cleaning Car?
Relatively new on the block, at least as far as I am concerned, is a track cleaner from the USA which has been described as “awesome” and “the ultimate track cleaning vehicle”. I can’t substantiate these claims as my budget will not stretch to purchasing the G Gauge (F Scale) version at around £300 when shipped from the USA, but American modellers swear to its effectiveness on HO and N scale layouts (presumably indoor).
The Clean Machine looks a formidable and heavy vehicle and appears to be very well engineered for the purpose being of all brass construction.
The main features are:
Precision Solid Brass Construction.
Quick change non-unravelling pads.
Drag pads designed not to catch on switch points, frogs, and any other pieces of trackwork.
Easy Fill Design.
Leak proof valve and fill port.
Heavy weight for firm connection to the rails
Spill resistant design.
Solvent proof design.
Both solvent/abrasive options.
Multi-directional (push or pull)
Controllable dispensing rate.
Body-mounted Kadee couplers.
The reservoir can be filled with a variety of cleaning solvents including Isopropyl alcohol, De Luxe Track Magic Cleaning Fluid, Goo Gone, etc.
If you feel up to it you might also consider having a bash at converting one of your own wagons (cars) for the purpose or even building one from scratch. Most of these wagons benefit from the addition of extra weight and even springs so that the cleaning pads bear down sufficiently on the rails. The application of smoke fluid, Duck Oil or WD 40 to the pads (if fitted e.g. on the Aristo & LGB cars) is also said to assist the cleaning process but I would recommend that you try out these solutions on a piece of old track before carrying out any proper maintenance just in case.
Manual Methods of Cleaning Track
With a large layout automation may well be the perfect answer to avoid devoting much of your valuable spare time to manual cleaning but it comes at a price and is unlikely to eliminate manual cleaning entirely. In fact, the chances are that you will still need to manually clean points and crossovers and ideally the sides of the rails as well to improve electrical contact with the wheels.
If your layout is not that large it may just be a case of rolling up your sleeves and doing it by hand. This process will require some simple equipment and a fair amount of elbow grease. Suitable materials include proprietary abrasive track sanding blocks such as LGB (Product: 500400); Gaugemaster Track Rubber (Product No. GM27); or the equivalent Piko Track Cleaning Kit (Product 35211) all pictured above.
A dry wall sanding pad comprising some sandpaper on a pole to avoid having
to kneel down; Scotch-brite non-metallic green scouring pads or third-party
alternatives; sponge variants used for cleaning kitchen utensils or even fine grit
sandpaper mounted on a rubber or wooden block.
Scotch-brite non-metallic green scouring pads or similar brands; sponge variants
used for cleaning kitchen utensils or even fine grit sandpaper mounted on a
rubber or wooden block. I would tend to be wary of “Brillo” pads (other wire wool
cleaning products are available) as they might be too aggressive but, there again,
they don’t seem to cause any damage to aluminium saucepans.
On balance it is better to avoid using heavy duty sandpaper, steel wool or grinding stones which can cause more damage in the long run. However, I have to confess that I often resort to very fine sandpaper for badly tarnished rail. For solvent based cleaners see the “Gunk” problem later in this section.
This video link provides a useful guide as to the effectiveness of the various methods (including automated cleaning) to assist you in your decision:
Disadvantages of Using Abrasives
The main drawback to using abrasive techniques on your railway track is that it is likely to leave small micro fissures on the rail head. Little is really known as to the detrimental impact of these tiny crevices (which are not necessarily discernible to the naked eye) but it would seem likely that they will attract dirt and residues thus compounding an ongoing cycle of contamination which could prove more difficult to clean in the future.
The second shortcoming in using this method is that any deposits removed from the rail end up on the abrasive material itself and are likely to be deposited further along the track thereby negating effectiveness.
Once again there is no consensus and you will need to reach your own decision on which method to apply.
I tend use abrasive cleaning myself but am open to any suggestions as to how the onerous task could be alleviated.
Problem No.2 : AV Damage
Since the introduction of ultraviolet resistant plastics for the manufacture of sleepers (ties) there is less chance that your track will suffer from the sun’s powerful rays. However, in intense heat there is always the possibility that you track webbing could warp, break or even disintegrate due to harmful Ultraviolet damage.
Solution: To be honest there is really not much you can do to protect your plastic sleepers although it is said that painting them with plastic-compatible paint may help. Just choose a shade that looks fairly realistic as I have seen some awful botch-ups.
Problem No.3 : “Gunk No1”
A continual battle for all outdoor garden rail enthusiasts. This is the progressive build-up of sticky substances that appear to be widely referred to in the garden railway community as “gunk”. The term is also used in the automotive industry to mean a greasy or filthy substance but to my mind "gunk" is more of a dirt, grime or coating or indeed, any vague or unknown substance. Gunk can take many forms. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the main culprits as far as garden railways is concerned, is plastic wheels on your rolling stock which tend to leave a powdery residue. If left too long in the hot sun, it can eventually change to a sticky mess.
Solution: Firstly, change your plastic wheels to metal as quickly as possible. I realise that good metal wheels (certainly those with ball-bearings) can be many times the cost of the plastic versions but they run so much better than the cheaper and inferior versions still supplied by some manufacturers to keep the cost down. Bachmann are to be commended on their universal installation of metal wheels on their G Gauge rolling stock straight “out-of-the-box”. Why can't other manufacturers follow suite?
I would also recommend "Roll-Eze" metal wheels from San-Val USA as a replacement - especially the ball-bearing versions.
Secondly, remove the residue with a cloth or pad dampened down with methylated spirit or better still Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA) which is relatively non-toxic and widely used as a surface cleaning fluid as it evaporates quickly with virtually no trace. There are also recommendations in the model railway press for De Luxe Magic Cleaning Fluid and Track Magic so these might be worth trying.
Incidentally, the use of WD40 is NOT recommended - see why in the next section
Problem No.4 – “Gunk No.2” :
Another perennial problem if your layout is located anywhere near to trees – particularly the deciduous types or evergreen conifers. Sap or leaves can leave an oily residue on your track which can be difficult to spot but needs frequent cleaning of your track.
Solution: Some form of chemical cleaner may prove you best defence here but take care to avoid anything corrosive. Most forms of track gunk can be removed by the judicious application of a light oil-based solution such as lamp oil which is a highly refined sootless and odourless derivative of petroleum. This substance is a also a constituent of most “smoke oils” supplied by the model railway manufacturers for generating imitation smoke from locomotives.
Some enthusiasts swear by the application of LGB’s Smoke & Cleaning Fluid (Product No: 50010) which is fairly readily obtainable and is good for removing oxidation as well. Piko also market a similar kit comprising block, pads and cleaning fluid (Product No: 35311).
The next step up is the ubiquitous “sanding sponge or block” normally to be found on the same aisle as the paints in your local DIY store.
They normally come as a flexible hard foam block with 4 abrasive grit coated sides (choose a fine and extra fine combination to start with) and a courser grade if necessary. One major advantage of these versatile blocks is their ability to go around edges allowing you to clean the side of each rail and not just the top surface.
Gaugemaster also supply a similar product called a “ Track Rubber which comes in several sizes and whilst designed primarily for the removal of oxidisation are equally useful for getting rid of gunk!.
You might also try Brasso metal polish (a laborious process). Some sources recommend WD40 and although the latter’s formulation may well disperse water effectively it is likely to leave a greasy residue which reduces conductivity and attract dirt. There are various reports of this lubricant also causing rubber traction tyres to rot and plastics to soften. This is particularly relevant where plastic sleepers (ties) are involved which tends to be on most layouts these days.
One observer even compared using WD40 as equivalent to putting sand in you petrol tank! Safer to stick to meths or IPA (see previous sections) I feel but by all means experiment and find out what solution suits you best.
There is also a video on YouTube (which is possibly a hoax) advocating the application of tomato ketchup to clean dirty track but I’m not sure I would recommend this ploy without testing it first on a short length of disposable track - according too the contributor the knack seems to be to wash the sauce off after 15 minutes or so before the colourant dyes your track deep red.
One of the more popular solutions is said to be Duck Oil which is claimed to have beneficial properties in terms of preventing corrosion although once again it has no obvious value and its electrical insulation characteristics could well inhibit conductivity. I use it on my garage door mechanism as a lubricant but I would prefer not to use it on my rail heads.
With ground level installations and hard to reach places such as tunnels and under bridges you may need to use some form of extendable device to clean the track. One answer is sometimes referred to as a pole sander but a somewhat primitive, utility design far removed from the more sophisticated electrical drywall sanders frequently listed in the tools adverts. This version essentially comprises a ‘mop-type” assembly attached to a wooden or metal pole in which sandpaper, or other material etc. can be firmly clamped (See image). Cheaper plastic versions are also available for cleaning laminate floors which might also work.
Problem No.5 : Track Debris:
Your layout is likely to accumulate all manner of physical debris including
leaves, twigs, sticks, moss, tree seeds, discarded snail shells, dead slugs, etc.
Solution: Regular layout inspections are a must (especially before the first run
each day) to ensure that there is nothing on the line that could disrupt the
progress of your train and more importantly cause expensive damage.
This detritus can be removed by hand or for larger material (like leaves) you
can use a garden leaf vacuum if you are careful not to disturb the track or suck
up any track ballast.
As part of your maintenance regime you also need to visibly inspect points
(turnouts), etc. to check that the blades have free movement and are not
obstructed by any grit or ballast. It is a good idea to carry a small stiff paintbrush
on your person whilst making your inspection so that you can immediately
remove any stray ballast.
Problem No.6 : Track Movement & Distortion
So far, we have only covered clearing and cleaning the track but there are also other important aspects that need to be part of your regular maintenance cycle, albeit less frequently than some of the tasks identified earlier.
One constant problem with outdoor
layouts is that the track is much more
likely to move than on an indoor
layout. Hopefully you will not encounter
track heave on the scale shown in the
accompanying images but you never
Regularly inspect your layout to check that you track is even, has not buckled, kinked or twisted, and presents a clear path for your trains to negotiate. This can be carried out visually but your eyes can be deceived so it is usually safer to use a small torpedo level for accuracy across the rails or a longer level for checking laterally along the line.
Any unevenness or misalignment in the track can be a cause for poor running or even derailments and needs to be remedied as soon as possible and certainly before live running resumes. This is especially true of places where there are points (switches) and more complex permutations of track.
Take special care when examining points (switches or turnouts) with particular attention to the moving points as even a few grains of self-willed ballast can cause havoc and lead to derailments. So much so that some enthusiasts do not ballast their points just in case. If you do lay ballast use a stiff brush to clean anything away that might be invasive and ultimately cause trouble.
Problem No.7 : Animals, Pest & Other Problems
Unlike an indoor layout a garden railway is exposed to all manner of problems – some foreseeable whilst others may be less predictable. In particular layout may attract the attention of wildlife which inhabits the area- particularly at night. I have already mentioned the predilection that moles seem to have for exiting their runs underneath
your best laid track but there are plenty of other visitors, daytime and
nocturnal, which take a keen interest in your railway installation and
may cause damage. The inquisitive fauna may be mice; rats; squirrels;
foxes; aggressive birds and even badgers. Some can be tolerated but
few can be excluded so try to make your layout robust enough to resist
wildlife intent on mischief as much as possible. In rural areas you might
even get a visit form a larger animal such as a deer; sheep or even marauding bullocks and there is very little one can do protect against such events.
Family pets (both your own and those of your neighbours) have to be tolerated. It seems that cats are prone to sitting on the live track and chasing trains under the impression that they are potential prey whereas dogs are usually better behaved.
Solution: Apart from liberally spreading repellent sprays and substances or using sound deterrents (often ineffective) the preventative measures you can sensibly take are few in number.
I have it on good authority (well a contributor to G Scale Journal which is free with your G Scale Society membership) that being plagued by neighbours pussy cats who prefer to “go” in his garden (on the track ballast no less) rather than their own, he eventually had to resort to solar powered motion detecting devices that emit a high frequency to discourage his feline visitors, and finds them most effective. You may have your own favourite remedy.
It should be stressed that no pussies are harmed in this way.
Problem No.8 : Thieves, Vandals & Other Miscreants
It's a shame to say but one also needs to be alert to the unwelcome attention of individuals who are clearly not well intentioned. Some will only be interested in what your trains and track will fetch and the ease with which they can be purloined. Others may simply be intent on vandalism just for the fun of it (witness the ' mindless wanton destruction' perpetrated on an club 00 gauge layout inside Stamford Academy Gym near Market Deeping causing £30,000 worth of damage, not to mention destroying a "lifetimes work").
Solution: A garden layout is also vulnerable to such theft and vandalism and this needs to be borne in mind when determining what is left on the layout and where valuable items are kept safe. Alas, in practice their is very little one can do against a determined individual or group intent on mischief.
Now that the police are only likely to visit the scene of a crime on a Wednesday afternoon with an 'R' in the month and even then, only if you live at an even numbered property in a county name beginning with ‘S’, ‘J’ or ‘W’, you would be well advised to take your own precautions against such losses.
At the very least take out adequate special insurance cover as your household contents policy may not cover expensive items “left in the garden” for anyone to misappropriate. This applies even if you more valuable locomotives, etc. are kept indoors under lock and key as “high risk” items are often limited or attract a sizeable excess. For a list of companies that specialise in this form of insurance click here:
It is a good idea to keep an inventory of all your model railway possessions, ideally with a digital photograph and a record of the purchase cost (along with proof of purchase). You can also obtain specialised insurance from "hobby" insurers for your collection.
It is also sensible to construct your railway on a site that is not visible from the road or other highway or pathway. I acknowledge that part of the fun of building an outdoor railway is to put it on show to other people but the risks of
Problem No.9 : Tunnels
If you have tunnels on your layout you have another “duty of care” to ensure that any wildlife, such as hedgehogs, who may be overwintering in your nice, dry, welcoming “burrows” are encouraged to vacate the premises before you run your trains.
Solution: One or more inspection covers positioned along the tunnel run will assist you in this task and also provides access should you have to remove any derailed locomotive or cars from the tunnel.
Problem No. 10 : Buildings
Another regular inspection (at least once per season) is also recommended for any scenic buildings or railway structures enhancing the reality of your layout. These can suffer damage from exposure during the winter, and even in the heat of the summer, which, unless put on the repair and refurbishment schedule, are likely to deteriorate even further.
You might be wondering at this point when an earth you will get some time to actually run your trains as the list of “jobs” gets longer by the minute. The reality is that the more time you can devote to keeping your layout in “fine fettle” the more actual running time you are likely to enjoy when the occasion arises.
Problem No.11 : Ponds & Waterways
If your layout incorporates a small ornamental pond or water feature this will also require all year-round cleaning and maintenance. In fact, the smaller the volume of water, the more likely they seem to require attention to keep them healthy.
Solution: As a focal point on your layout the water
needs to be kept clear and free of algae whilst
surrounding planting must be prevented from running
Leaves and any other surface debris or decaying
matter needs to be removed and the liner checked for
There is a wealth of advice on pond maintenance on
the world wide web so I will not cover in depth in the
module but you might find this website link useful.
When contemplating a pond installation always have regard to the potentially hazardous nature of such a feature – especially with regard to the danger it poses to very young children.
Problem No.12 : Electrical Hazards
Electricity always poses a lethal threat especially if there are any "live"
electrical installations in the garden.
Adding water or moisture into an outdoor environment creates a potent and
potentially lethal mix to anyone (including pets and wildlife) who use or has
access to the garden. The power units supplied for garden railway operations
work on house mains voltages of 230 -240 Volts AC (110v AC in the United
States) for track power and are not designed to withstand the elements. We
may all be tempted to run our trains occasionally with these power units sited
outdoors, especially on dry sunny days, but one should not get into the habit
of doing so as it can make you less wary of the dangers.
Best practice is always to site your transformer or power supply unit safely indoors and fitted with a RCD (Residual Current Device) which can shut of current immediately if a problem is detected. Wires which only carry low AC or DC current are permitted outside but should still be protected from accidental damage and any switches, etc. should be waterproof. The layout of such wiring should ideally from part of your detailed planning activity when suitable conduits can be installed as track laying progresses. If you are not quite ready to install the wiring at the time thread a length of string along the tube (tieing a weight to one end simplifies the process and secure the string at both ends so it cannot disappear inside.
Point (switch) mechanisms also need regular inspection and maintenance (especially the judicious application of grease to the switch movements. If electrically controlled check the wiring and ensure that the covers are waterproof (or at least water-resistant).
Solution: Ideally there should be no mains supply cables in the vicinity at all but they are often used to power water features, etc. so where they are present (whether above-ground electricity circuits or underground installations they should be clearly identified with impermeable warning labels as such, buried at least 12" -24" deep according to local regulations, and frequently checked for any damage or exposed wires.
Of course, if you only intend running battery powered or steam locomotives this is less of a consideration but you may well need to install low-voltage cables to operate switches and power buildings, etc. Low voltage connections (less than 24 Volts) is unlikely to cause injury but it is produent to routinely inspect any above-ground electrical circuits feeding and operating the layout. Fit surge arresters on any mains circuits leading into your garden.
Problem No.13 : Public Liability
Nothing to do with maintenance as such but if you are likely to have friends round to visit, and possibly operate your layout, or even contemplate opening your garden railway attraction for charity make sure that that there are no hazards which could be avoided and that your domestic insurance covers you for Public Liability and adequately protects you and your charity in the event it causes injury to someone, or damage to third party property, due to its negligence. This could be, for example, a visitor tripping over cables, or falling down slippery garden steps.
There is much more information on electrical safety and garden railroading in the Module on Power.
If you have installed drainage inspect everything from time to time just to make sure that it is operating as intended and not collapsed or become blocked in some way. This type of maintenance can prove quite a difficult task if suitable access points have not been incorporated in your layout when originally constructed.
That just about wraps up this module but if you require further guidance these additional resources may well provide the answer:
However, in my view both the above products are over-priced for what they are and I suggest you try alternative proprietary products first. My advice would be to try using some generic lamp oil (which is a lot cheaper) and see how it goes. Apply with a soft rag or non-fluffy cloth to begin with moving on a to a stiff abrasive pad if the gunk proves particularly stubborn (Scotch Brite, widely used for pan scouring, are generally recommended as they are not too abrasive but other brands are likely to perform just as well.
If the gunk still won’t shift you might have to proceed to a more abrasive solution although there is always a risk that you could damage the rail if used to excess.
A Homemade Track Cleaner
There are a number of useful articles on maintaining your garden railway including Part 14: of Mark Found's television series which also features a segment on how to construct your own track cleaning car for a fraction of the price of a commercial solution. Once again just click the button to view.
Building a Track Cleaning Wagon:
Track Cleaning in the Garden: