Track Cleaning Tips

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I don't intend this page to be a complete report on every way possible to clean track, or to avoid cleaning it. I will describe the method that I have settled on as it provides adequate results with minimal time and effort.


The Problem

About 70% of large scale railways use track power. Many of these railways are indoors where track power has no special problems as large scale trains are much more tolerant of non-ideal track conditions than their small scale brethren. Most HO layouts have converted to nickel silver rail because maintenance of brass rail was such a problem. However, brass rail seems to work fine for large scale indoor railroads. I clean my track indoors maybe once a year if it needs or not.

Outdoors operation presents an entirely different set of problems. To allow reliable operation with track power, the track must be cleaned periodically. There are about as many methods to cleaning track as there are outdoor layouts.

I use brass track primarily because it was fairly inexpensive and it is very robust. However, brass oxidizes and the resultant film is essentially nonconductive. Other materials such as stainless steel and nickel silver oxidize less, but oxidation is only part of the total problem. All rail materials are subject to contamination by dust, dirt, grit, snail slime and millions of crushed ant bodies (ants seem to like to use the rails as freeways). Contamination varies by region, areas that get lots of rain will have a higher oxidation and snail slime problem. Lots of wind will increase the grit problem. Very cold weather may result in an ice problem. Here in sunny Southern California, track cleaning is not a particularly big deal so that track power works quite well. In other areas, there might be a significantly different story to tell.

One major contaminant is plastic that wears off plastic wheels, especially Bachmann wheels. This is a special problem with sun heated rail which softens the wheels and makes them wear faster. Once the material gets pounded into the rails, the sun will melt in place and it gets really hard to get off. Continuous operation of locos with sliders (primarily LGB) tends to abrade this material off again, but the easiest way to minimize this serious problem is to eliminate the problem at the source. Switch to ALL metal wheels, it's expensive but it really does make a difference.

Dirty wheels can also cause problems that act almost the same as track problems. If your locos, especially smaller ones, run well in curves and stutter on the straight sections, then suspect dirty wheels instead of, or maybe in addition to, dirty track. In the curves, the wheel flanges bear against the rail and power pickup is usually improved as the flanges are usually scrubbed better and are cleaner than the treads.

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The Enemy

Most track contaminants can be dealt with by abrasive cleaning. However, each problem is a little different.

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Track Cleaning Methods

There are several methods for cleaning track, all involve some sort of work. The methods that is the most work but usually produces the best result is hand to hand combat with some sort of manually operated aid. A method that is less effective, but also less work, is to use a track cleaning car or (expensive) motorized track cleaning locomotive. Chemical treatments can be used with sometimes acceptable results.

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Track Cleaning Cars

I've used three types of commercial track cleaning car/accessory, the Aristo car, San-Val's Little Wheelie Worker, and the LGB 5005 track cleaning attachment. Of the three, the Aristo car is the clear winner and further, it can be improved. Richard Lepkowski has also written with a description of the LGB track cleaning loco.

070906_girr_mtn_wheelie_worker_1.jpgThe Little Wheelie Worker. San-Val sells an attachment called the Little Wheelie Worker that will fit on the trucks of many types of cars. It consists of a set of abrasive disks that are mounted off center from the rail head so that they rotate across the track as the car is pulled. San-Val claims that they add very little drag, which is true. San-Val doesn't claim that they will clean really dirty track, which is also true. San-Val does recommend that the device should be run in a train to continuously polish the track. However, polishing already usable track is not what I'm after outdoors. Since I can't keep my track in good condition all the time, what I want is to strip heavy junk off really dirty track to make it serviceable in a hurry. Outdoors, I really don't see the utility of a slow cleaning device.

070906_girr_mtn_wheelie_worker_2.jpgIndoors, the Little Wheelie Worker is another story. In this case, the track never gets really dirty so that continuous polishing may eliminate even the need for an annual cleaning. However, the Little Wheelie worker is sensitive to steps in track joints. The wheels will catch on even a small step and either bump or derail the car. The rails should be adjusted or filed to remove any steps.

I also found that the disks will catch on the point rails of each and every LGB 1200 turnout when running trailing point. The point rails are just a little higher than the frog and when the disk leaves the frog, it catches on the end of the rail. This can be fixed by tapering the end of the point rail with a small file. Only about two passes with a file are required, just enough to break the corner on the end of the point rail. File both point rails.

The Wheelie Worker will also bump over LGB 1056 uncoupling tracks, but doesn't seem to be much of a problem except that a couple inches of rail next to the ramp won't get cleaned.

070906_girr_mtn_lgb_track_cleaning_pads.jpgLGB Track Cleaning Pads. The LGB 5005 track cleaning pads mount under most any LGB 2 axle car. These little pads are made of the same stuff as the LGB cleaning block and they do take crud off the track. I use one set on my indoor layout when it comes time to polish the track. The pads add a considerable amount of drag and will tax the pulling power of most small locomotives. I really don't know how well they will perform in heavy duty service outdoors. I do notice that after a few runs around, a layer of crud packs on the pad. Light scraping with a screwdriver blade dislodges this crud.

070906_girr_mtn_aristo_track_cleaning_car.jpgThe Aristo Track Cleaning Car. The Aristo car is a bobber caboose with a weighted Brite Boy like pad dragging underneath. The car adds a significant amount of drag, so I usually run it alone behind an engine. It takes about a dozen passes, but this car will take track that is too dirty to run a train on and make it serviceable. It will not shine the track, but then again shiny track is not really required. I've found that the car's pad will crud up after a few hundred feet on dirty track and become less effective. I clean the pad off with a light spray of rubbing alcohol and shop rag every pass until the pad doesn't completely load up.

The effectiveness of the Aristo Track Cleaning Car can be increased by placing a drop of smoke fluid, WD-40, RailZip or ACF-50 on the leading edge of the pad where each rail bears against the pad. If the oil spreads out to a drop more than 1/4" in diameter, you've used way too much. The presence of the oil will cause the pad to collect crud faster so it should be cleaned more often. Oil on the pad will reduce the number of passes needed to make track serviceable by maybe a factor of two or three, but if you use too much oil, traction will suffer greatly and even if you use very little oil, traction will suffer some. It's a trade that you have to make.

The Aristo car will bump on Kadee uncoupler magnets so the top half of the magnets should be removed before cleaning. The pad will also hang on LGB 1056 remote uncoupling ramps. There's really nothing that can be done about this.

The pad will wear after awhile, but it can be replaced or refaced. Mine is over a year old and is pretty badly worn, but it still works. When it wears too much where it touches the rails, the center part of the pad will ride up on guard rails and frogs and the pad will not ride on the rails at those points so that the rails right there won't get cleaned. If the pad is badly worn, it can be rotated 90 degrees and used until a second set of grooves becomes too deep. Aristo sells replacement pads.

The pad can also be refaced with a mill file to produce another flat cleaning surface. However, USE AN OLD DULL FILE. The pad is highly abrasive so grinding on it with a good file will dull the file in a hurry. You don't need a sharp file to do this work as you are really grinding up the soft binder material that entraps the abrasive material.

With any track cleaning car, it may be desirable to push the car, especially for the first pass. Wind or water borne grit can stop an engine dead. Pushing the car will tend to sweep grit off the rails before the engine is impacted by it.

snow_plow.jpgThe Aristo Snowplow. If your problem is light snow, leaves or twigs, then the Aristo Snowplow car is effective in sweeping this stuff to the side. Put a brick in the car to prevent it from derailing on the heavier stuff.

The LGB Track Cleaning Locomotive. Richard Lepkowski writes: "The LGB Track Cleaning Locomotive is expensive, but is it worth the money? Here is my opinion. I purchased my LGB Track Cleaning Locomotive about a year and a half ago. I put it off for a long time because of the price. I paid about $450.00 for it a Trainworld. I have arthritis brought on by Lyme disease and track cleaning was getting impossible for me to do. The loco has 7 lights and looks like some kind of railroad emergency vehicle when running. There is a three-position switch inside the cab that is reachable through the open window. OFF, RUN WITHOUT CLEANING, AND RUN WITH CLEANING. When in cleaning mode the loco doesn't go forward very fast, so instead of making several runs around the layout you do just one to clean the track. When going down a spur and you get to the end you put it in reverse and can back out quickly. It is unbelievable to see this machine going down really filthy track and see shiny almost new looking track come out from under it. On the hood hidden under a small cap is knob to adjust the forward speed while cleaning your track. Your power pack controls the speed but now the cleaning wheels are engaged. With this arrangement you have full control the cleaning wheels speed and make forward speed adjustments using the knob on the hood. You will have to play with these settings to get optimum performance. It isn't tough though. You want to have to the correct forward speed and the correct cleaning wheel speed so you don't wear out the cleaning wheels too quickly and still get the track clean. The wheels are made up of the same stuff as LGB's cleaning pads. The wheels will wear down with time and the plastic flanges will prevent cleaning. It is unmistakable when this happens the flanges will ride up and over the tie strip rail holders and you will have a skipping effect on the rails. (clean, dirty, clean, etc.) I have saved my old wheels and intend to turn down the flange down a little to extend their life. The flanges are there to lift the abrasive wheels over the plastic frogs on the turnouts and not damage them. I wore out the first set learning how to use them, and showing off how well this little machine works. The first set lasted about two months, the second set is still going. You can also extend and enhance the wheel life by putting some smoke oil on the pads. I just put some on the railhead in front of it. Once you get the hang of it, you be sorry you didn't get one sooner. By the way, you don't have to have shiny looks-like-new rail heads but if you want them you can have them with this cleaner. I don't usually wait until my track is so dirty that my trains don't run. I do run the cleaner fast around my layout as a preventive maintenance. I for one do think it's worth it."

William Fincher writes: "I have a LGB track cleaning engine and have used it a lot. Here are some tips: Run the engine a complete circuit of the layout (around or point to point) then turn the engine around and run it over the layout again in the opposite direction. This will pick up any spots that got missed the first time and evens out gravity related issues. True the cleaning wheels before using them the first time. This can be done by turning the engine over at the workbench, applying power and holding a x-acto knife or equivalent lightly to the wheel. The stock cleaning wheels are often uneven and they will get more uneven as they are used causing a bouncing and intermittent cleaning. Truing the wheels prevents this. If the engine derails due to debris, bad trackwork, etc, the grinding wheels may continue to rotate even though the drive wheels are not. The power sliders may still be in contact with the track. The grinding wheels can cut a divot in the track if given long enough. For routine cleaning I used a dragger car with green scotchbrite pad."

There are other cleaning cars out there, but I cannot comment on them because I don't have any experience with them. If anybody else out there in cyberspace would like to write a paragraph or two about other devices such as the G-Clean car, the Centerline Products car or any other device, I would be happy to post it here.

There are other track cleaning cars that use a variety of methods to distribute chemical aids to clean track. I don't have any of these and have never evaluated them. Greg Elmassian has also evaluated a variety of track cleaning methods. You can find his results at his site at

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Track Cleaning Pads

There are a variety of abrasive pads and blocks that can be used to manually clean track more quickly than a track cleaning car. However, these methods are more physical work.

The LGB Track Cleaning Block. LGB made, and maybe will make again, the red track cleaning block. This is a foam like pad with embedded abrasive material attached to a red plastic handle. This tool is effective at cleaning and polishing track, but it requires that one stoops to the level of the track. This can be hard on the back for ground level track. I use one in my storage yard in my garage where the tracks are under a shelf and hard to reach with a pole sander (see below). The same material that is used on the LGB track cleaning car pads is used in the hand operated cleaning block. There are also track clean cars designed to drag along an LGB pad.

Sanding Sponges. 3M and others make sponge like blocks that are coated with an abrasive material. These can be found in the paint section of any hardware store. There are several grits, sizes and shapes available. They all work. They are not as durable as the LGB cleaning block and the corners will eventually break and the whole thing will fray, but they are inexpensive and can be easily replaced.

Sanding Pads. 3M also makes "Scotchbrite" felted fabric pads embedded with grit. These are intended for hand sanding. The most common variety is green in color and they work well. However the felted fabric tends to fray easily when the fibers catch on rail joints and other such features. Some people use these pads on homebrew track cleaning cars. There was also a brown "metal finishing" variety that I haven't seen for awhile. I liked these better than the green ones.

Sandpaper. Conventional sand paper can be used in a pinch, but sand paper is intended for flat surfaces and it doesn't hold up very well wen used to clean track. It can work well in small spots that may be missed by other methods.

Drywall Screens. See the next section for more information on drywall screens. In my humble opinion, the drywall screen combined with a pole sander is the best manual tool going.

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A Bigger Hammer, The Drywall Sander

When the track is REALLY DIRTY it may be necessary to break out a bigger hammer. My run away favorite is a drywall sander, also called a pole sander. This is a sanding pad mounted with a two way swivel at the end of a pole. On the pad is mounted a "screen." This is a coarse fabric embedded with grit. This little gem will SHINE track in ONE pass, no matter how cruddy it is. What's better, it is possible clean about 200' of ground level track in under a minute while standing up as long as you can walk along the track. I have an LGB cleaning block and it works very well, but not nearly as well as the drywall sander. There are some space restricted access areas where it is not possible to use the drywall sander. In these areas, the LGB block is preferred.

It is possible to mount other abrasive pads to the drywall sander. A 3M ScotchBrite pad (green) or 3M Metal Finishing Pad (brown) will work as well. I find that the fibers in both of these pads get hung on track joints, switch points and other sharp edges and the pads fray pretty fast. The drywall screen does not seem to have this problem and it is very tough. A screen will last 6 months or more. I do use the 3M Metal Finishing Pads for hand work, it functions exceptionally well in cleaning off rails in preparation for soldering.

You might think that a device that is this effective is hard on the track. If it strips off crud that quick, it must strip off metal as well. A drywall screen does remove metal but only at the rate of 5 millionths of an inch per pass on brass track. Tests with a piece of scrap rail and a micrometer show that it takes 200 passes to remove 1 mil of rail. Track could be cleaned once a week for 40 years with a loss of only 3% of the rail.

I think that reason that the drywall screen is so effective is that it doesn't fill up with crud. Both the LGB and Aristo cleaning blocks load up and become less effective over time. On the LGB block, simply scraping the surface with a straight blade screwdriver seems to dislodge the material that is binding to the surface. The Aristo block is easier to clean with a squirt of rubbing alcohol and a wipe with a shop towel. The crud that the drywall screen collects gathers in the spaces in the screen fabric and simply falls off by itself.

As the screen wears, the larger abrasive particles come off and the pad becomes less abrasive overall but it still works. Instead of grinding off contamination on the rails, it tends to polish the rail instead. This is a slower processes but it is easier on the rail. I use the screens until they shred from wear and literally fall off the pole sander. They are effective until the bitter end.

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An Effective Homebrew Track Cleaning Car

My trusty pole sander broke after a year or so of service. It was made of plastic parts and the swivel just couldn't take the load. On the way back from a run to Home Depot to buy a heavier duty one (I found a cast metal version of the same thing, I hope it holds up better) it occurred to me that the plastic sanding pad was still in good shape and still potentially usable. I found that the pad could be used under a car to be an effective track cleaner. It takes about 3 or 4 passes, but this car actually shines the track. Since I had all the bits and pieces laying around, this car cost me $zip.nothing out of pocket.

photo of Aristo streamliner converted to a track cleaning car Many years ago, the legendary John Allen used a masonite block with a couple of nails glued to it so that it could be dragged under an HO boxcar. I still see these things in use. The sanding pad is a little long and tall to fit under a boxcar, but it fits under an Aristo Streamliner just fine.

photo of bottom of streamlinerInitially I removed the equipment box and air tanks from underneath the car and drilled two holes on the centerline exactly 6" apart.

photo of pole sander padI also drilled two holes down the centerline of the cleaning pad exactly 6" apart and glued two 3" nails in the holes (after cleaning the rubber pad from around the holes to clear the nail head). Two 16 oz fishing weights provide enough weight to allow the screen to do an effective job. The car has quite a bit of drag, but any reasonably strong engine can handle it.

The car cleans the track quite well, however due to the long length of the Aristo Streamliner, the pad would be partially pulled off the outside rail in curves much less than 5' in radius and the outside rail will not be cleaned as well as the inside rail.

photo of underside of streamliner with leversI installed some styrene levers on the trucks that were drilled and slotted to accept the nails that were in the pad (the nails were cut short so that they didn't reach the car bottom anymore). As the trucks rotate, they slide the pad 1" either way so that the pad stays on the rails. The levers do interfere a little with the nuts on the pad ends (the original wing nuts were replaced with hex nuts) but it works fine. Actually it works too fine, the pad moves about 1/4" too far. If I rework this again, I would shorten the levers and use the bolts at the end of the pad for engagement. The existing bolts are now a little too short so that they would have to be drilled out and replaced with longer ones. This will eliminate the interference AND cause the pad to move sideways a little less.

photo of pole sander padWhen the pad swings, the "clamps" that hold secure the cleaning pad will interfere with the sides of the car so that they need to be ground down.

It is amazing to see the pad swing side to side as moves in and out of the turns. Now it cleans both rails very effectively. There is a noticeable improvement after only one pass and after about three passes, the track is plenty clean enough to run trains. To return the car to revenue service, just lift the car, remove the pad from the track and set the car back down.

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An Improvement to the Aristo Track Cleaning Car

I was standing in line at the Big Train Show at the Queen Mary and a guy named Frank recognized my name badge. He commented on the effectiveness of the pole sander and he also said that he used the Aristo car. Then he suggested that it might be possible to attach a drywall screen to the Aristo track cleaning car.

photo of modified aristo track cleaning padIt is indeed possible, and it does work. I took a regular drywall screen and cut the end off and glued it to the pad with a couple of beads of hot glue run close to the middle where the pad will never ride on the rails. The screen is stiff enough so that the ends can be bent up so that they won't catch on track obstructions. The car carries enough weight to make the pad effective. It still takes a dozen passes or so, but now the rail ends up shiny clean instead of just clean enough. This car isn't as effective as the "Improved Track Cleaning Car" described above, but it works better than the stock Aristo car.

weighted cleaning blockAt the expense of additional drag, the car can be made more effective by adding a little weight to the cleaning block. The block can be removed by removing two screws from one side of the block and it will drop out of the bottom of the car. Then a few ounces of lead weights can be glued on top of the cast iron weight that is already there.

091114_girr_aristo_track_cleaning_car_more_weight_7883.jpgThe original weighted block weighs 10.9 oz. I added 6 oz and it cleaned better, but the streamliner has more weight and cleaned better yet. So I added the weight that I took out of the front of an LGB 2060 to make room for batteries. That one weighs 13.9 oz after some grinding to clear interferences under the car. This brings the total weight of the block to 30.8 oz, or nearly the weight that the streamliner cleaning car carries. Now it does better but the drag is even higher yet. The cleaning block is shorter than the streamliner so that the actual pressure per inch of rail is higher and the shorter pad can get into some of the dips that the longer pad on the streamliner bridges over.

With the additional weight on the Aristo car, I find that it is nearly as effective as the longer heavier pad on the streamliner. Both do an adequate job in as little as three passes. I've been running my USAT Speeder as a check following both track cleaning cars. Without any cleaning, the Speeder won't run at all. After one pass, it sort of runs. After two passes, it runs pretty well and after three passes it doesn't stall anywhere.

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Pulling The Track Cleaning Cars

Ok, what now? You've got a track cleaning car and the track is too dirty to run a track powered loco. What to do?

I have only three DCC throttles so that limits operations to three operators and up to six trains. I did four battery conversions so that I could do initial track cleaning and allow more operators. Adding some battery power locos to the mix allows more operators and a battery powered loco simply doesn't care how dirty the track is.

Unfortunately, these track cleaning cars have LOTS of drag and they simply overpower some of the smaller locos. My LGB 2060 would barely pull the Aristo car before I added the last weight, not it can't deal with the load on a grade. It is just not heavy enough. The Aristo Center Cab Switcher handles the Aristo Track Cleaning Car well enough, but it can't handle the Aristo Streamliner, again, not enough weight. The Aristo FA handles the Streamliner but it strains and groans under the load of both of them together. Poor Thomas doesn't stand a chance.

What to do? I either pull just one car or I pull out a bigger hammer, an Aristo SD-45 that has been converted to DCC. This loco doesn't seem to care if the track is covered in crud and it pulls the two cars without feeling the load. The loco is so heavy that the wheels seem to press through the crud on the track and it has so much power that it doesn't strain under the load. It does seem counter intuitive to use a track powered loco to clean dirty track, but it works.

When the track is only moderately oxidized, I use an DCC RDC to pull the streamliner. An RDC often pulled a trailer. I leave this consist ready to go on the ready track in the garage, it is usually the first one pulled out. Actually, it MUST be the first one pulled out because it fouls the yard lead.

I also use a DCC Doodlebug to pull the weighted Aristo car. I had to add 8 oz of lead in the baggage compartment (over the driven truck) so that it had enough traction. It still slips in spots on the first round or two because dirty track under the cleaning pad has considerably more friction that even moderately clean rail. After the 2nd pass, it doesn't slip anywhere. The Doodlebug is moderately sensitive to dirty track as it has only 6 wheels that pick up power, but it does well enough most of the time.

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An Improvement to the LGB 5005 Track Cleaning Pads

photo of modified lgb5005 cleaning padThis same modification that works on the Aristo car is also practical on the LGB 5005 Track Clean Pad attachment. When the original foam pads wear out they can be replaced, or small patches of drywall screen can be hot glued over the old pads. The best place to apply the glue is on the END of the pads so that the folded up end of the screen is held up and the glue won't foul the working part of the screen. The car is much more effective in stripping crud, but it also has much more drag. A weighted LGB Porter is just about at its limit when pulling just this one modified car.

It is important that the ends of the screens be turned up or they will catch on turnouts or any other step in the rail.

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Chemical Treatment

You can treat your track with smoke fluid, WD-40 or some other light solvent oil. This really does make a short term improvement, but don't expect miracles. I use a material called ACF-50 which is an aircraft corrosion inhibitor and it works OK. This stuff looks, feels and smells like WD-40 so I expect that it works the same as well.

One caution, you don't need much. One SMALL drop on each rail once in awhile is plenty. Let your train wheels or track cleaning car spread it around. The thin oil film inhibits oxidation and tends to break up oxides that are already there making it easier to clean them off but it does impact traction. If you already suffer from wheel slip, you'll want to avoid oil treatments.

Over the long term, the lighter components of the oil will evaporate and leave a film of heavier gunk behind that has to be cleaned off. I find that after a period of time, cleaning with oil on the track cleaning car pad isn't entirely effective and I have to go over the track with the track cleaning car dry a dozen times or so (or the drywall sander once) to clean everything off.

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Another Tool, The Swiffer

Greg Elmassian mentioned that he had been using a disposable wet mop, the Swiffer, to clean his stainless steel track. After he had done a lot of tests with various chemical treatments, he found that he had to get that stuff back off again. He found that the Swiffer wet mop cleaned all that dirt and organic crud off his track very effectively and left virtually nothing behind.

090928_girr_drywall_sander_and_swiffer_7762.jpgThe Swiffer (right) is a mop head mounted on a two way swivel similarly to a pole or drywall sander (left). It can be used on ground level track while standing up. The Swiffer uses disposable wet mop sheets that easily attach to the mop. These are intended for a single use and when then become heavily soiled, the sheets are discarded.

After Greg mentioned his good results with the Swiffer, I realized that I had one in my trailer, never unboxed, so I tried it out.

Greg uses stainless steel track, mine is brass. He doesn't have an oxide layer to deal with, I do. I wanted to see if it would do anything to the oxides of brass. The short answer is no. It will clean organic crud off the track quite easily and well, but it doesn't touch the oxides.

The soft pad on the Swiffer also gets caught in turnouts more easily that the stiff pad of the drywall sander but overall, it cleans a lot of stuff off the rails, just not oxides.

090928_girr_track_condition_7763.jpgThis is a short section of heavily oxidized track on a GIRR branch line that doesn't get a lot of use, therefore it doesn't get cleaned often. The lower part of the photo shows shiny brass rail that has been cleaned in two passes with a worn out drywall sander pad. Starting just before the rail joint is a section of track that has only had treatment with the Swiffer. I shot a short QuickTime movie of the response of a USAT Speeder to that section of track both before and after the oxidized section was cleaned with the Swiffer. In short, there was no significant difference. The Speeder would stop dead as soon as all four wheels got on the oxidized track.

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© 1997-2009 George Schreyer
Created Oct 11, 1997
Last Updated December 18, 2009