Maintenance of Way Cars

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Necessity is the mother of invention. When the real railroads needed some special tooling to solve some kind of problem, they usually invented something to do it themselves. The same thing happens with model railroads. Every so often, something special is needed and the creation of a non-revenue maintenance of way (MOW) car will often solve the problem.

I don't intend to cover models of MOW cars that the real railroads used, but instead cover cars that don't have a prototype but are required to do some useful task on a model railroad.


A Screw Retriever Car

It was a fine Sunday afternoon and I had just finished converting my last heavyweight to 4 wheel trucks to reduce the drag and the testing was going well. Then, my Aristo Pacific began to wobble like mad. This could only mean one thing, another damn driver screw had come loose. Worse yet, it had fallen out. I thought that I had locked all of them with LocTite, but I probably did something stupid like only locking the ones that were loose.

Somewhere, out there, mixed in with millions of pieces of ballast was an odd sized, odd threaded machine screw. What was even worse, I knew that I didn't have another one. I could always get one from Aristo, but it would take weeks and a single screw would probably cost more than $5 after shipping. I was truly bummed.

screw retriever in action However, the day was saved. The GIRR MOW crew leapt into action. They grabbed the nearest available revenue car and modified it for temporary MOW service. In one pass over the railroad, the missing screw was found. Its lockwasher was found too, but separately. Another 4 screws were also found which could not be identified by the mechanical department. Even more iron bearing scrap was recovered from the line (wire clippings and such). The car was a total success. After its MOW service was over, it was quickly returned to revenue service.

However, during August 2009, a Lionel Atlantic threw a rod after running part way down the line. The pivot post on the rear driver split allowing the screw to fall out. This then caused the connecting rod to fall off and the valve drive rod also fell out too. The connecting rod was a large plastic assembly and it was easy to find. However the steel valve rod and the screw were nowhere to be seen. The mechanical department called out a center cab switcher to recover the passenger consist. After that was done, the screw retriever car was called out too. After one pass over the section of the line that the Atlantic had traveled, the screw retriever car had found the screw AND the valve rod. After a trip around the railroad, it found 3 more screws that had fallen off of something and more wire clippings.

screw retriever carThe car was constructed from an Aristo bulkhead flat car. A sheet of 0.060" styrene was cut to fit between the frame rails and attached in place with Zap-CA. A large very strong ceramic magnet which had been recovered from the magnetron of a defunct microwave oven was placed on the sheet and held in place by two smaller magnets placed on the other side. The magnet was mounted near one truck so that the magnet would stay near the track centerline on curves.

To return the car to revenue service, the magnets were simply removed with the styrene sheet left behind. It is not visible from trackside. The number of this car has been recorded by the MOW crew in case it should be called for MOW service again.

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A Curve Tester Car

curve test trainDuring the construction of the GIRR, the vast majority of the curved track was bent by hand and eye. The curves weren't guaranteed to be consistent. This curve tester was hacked together from two Aristo flat cars. One has a styrene strip taped to the bed. The strip extends over the bed of the other car. While the car was in no way calibrated for curvature, it was clear where the tightest curves were so that track could be adjusted.

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Track Cleaner Cars

A more common model railroad MOW car is a track cleaner. For those that use track power, track cleaners are real handy and they do work.

modified Aristo track cleaning carThe ubiquitous Aristo track cleaning car can be improved by simply gluing a piece of drywall screen to the pad. The car works much better and the screen doesn't have to be cleaned like the pad as the crud just wads up and falls off.

streamliner track cleaning carAn Aristo Streamliner can be converted into a highly effective track cleaning car. Details of this conversion can be found at my Track Cleaning Tips page. This car converts between revenue and MOW service in about 5 seconds.

../tips11/090606_girr_usat_speeder_7161.jpgOnce the track has been cleaned, it is reasonable to test the level of cleanliness. A small 4 wheel loco that runs reliably on clean track is useful to find the remaining bad spots. If a rail is slightly bent downward, it'll get passed over in that spot by the long pads of a pole sander or a similar cleaning attachment. This USAT Speeder has a short rigid wheelbase. It runs quite well on serviceable track, but if there is a heavily oxidized spot or grit on the track, it will find it. Then these spots can be worked by hand or maybe even fixed so that the track cleaning car will work there in the future.

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Track Level and Clearance Tester Cars

doodlebugThe MOW department has determined, through experience with wrecks, that there are two pieces of rolling stock that are the most sensitive to clearances along the right of way and to track that is ill conditioned. These are the self powered Aristo Doodlebug and RDC. Both of these cars are long and stiff. They both have quite a bit of overhang and are intolerant of changes in track level.

The widest part of the Doodlebug is over the front marker lamps. These will strike obstructions that other cars will simply pass by. The Doodlebug has a shorter wheelbase than the RDC, so it is sensitive to wavy track with a shorter period than the RDC.

RDCThe widest part of the RDC are the grab irons at either end of the car. These will strike the same obstructions that the Doodlebug will.

When either of these cars reach a track section that changes in level over a distance of 18 to 24", A wheel at either end may lift from the track and simply walk over it and derail. On the Doodlebug, the single powered truck is the most likely to lift. On the RDC, both trucks are powered but whichever one is in the lead seems to be the most likely to derail. The powered trucks are less flexible than the sprung trailing truck on the Doodlebug.

Since the wheelbase is different on these two cars, each may be more sensitive to a particular condition which doesn't seem to bother the other one. However, when either finds a spot that it doesn't like, it'll derail on that same spot every time. The MOW crew always finds that the track has drifted from level at that spot. Once the track is leveled again, the cars will pass through that spot without difficulty. When BOTH cars can make it over all the trackage without derailing, the right of way is declared safe for service.

lowered FAThis FA has been lowered to give it a more prototypical appearance. In the process, the pilot is lowered such that it is pretty near the track. The operating department has noted that this particular loco's pilot will scrape the track, making a horrible fingernails-on-the-chalkboard sound when the loco's front truck reaches a dip in the track. When this happens, the MOW crew is called out to reballasted that section.

Using these cars to find spots that need track work is much easier that manually checking the track. However, I wanted to find where the track was going to give me trouble before it did.

080812_girr_tilt_level_indicator_5503.jpgI have been using the beat up plastic pocket level to check for the level between the rails since the GIRR was built. I had learned from experience that by the time that the track got a full bubble off, I was in trouble and that section of track needed immediate work. The DoodleBug and RDC were good at finding the spots where the level CHANGED but if the track was out of level for an extended section (2 feet or more), they didn't care. I determined that a half a bubble on the pocket level was 1.5° by comparing it to a Craftsman electronic laser level which is a very handy gadget. The Craftsman level will provide an audible indication when the device is level, but I wanted something that would provide an audible indication when it was NOT level.

080812_girr_tilt_level_indicator_5501.jpgI hacked together this simple indicator from a pinball, some styrene sheet and some brass rod and strip stock. The rods are slightly bent so that the ball will roll to one side at 1.5°. It will then touch one of the brass contact strips. I can then use my Digital Voltmeter (which has an audible continuity setting) so provide an audible indication of when the device is about 1.5° out of level.

080812_girr_tilt_level_indicator_5499.jpgIt rides on a flatcar along with the meter. The two rods are connected in parallel. The two strips are connected in parallel. The meter is connected between the rods and the strips. The test train is sitting on level track here, the ball is in the center and the ohmmeter indicates an open circuit.

080812_girr_tilt_level_indicator_5500.jpgThis is a spot where the track level has reached the limit. The ball has rolled over to one side making contact to a brass strip. The meter indicates 4 ohms and it is beeping.

It turns out that the meter only beeps when there is continuity for about one second so that light touches don't produce an audible indication. However the ball is large enough so that it is easy to see from a distance so that even slight deviations from level are indicated. The train has to run slowly so that centrifugal force doesn't drive the ball to the outside in turns, but it works quite well. If the ball rolls from side to side, I know that the track is wavy. When I get either a visual or audible indication of a problem, I'll run the train forward for about a foot and check. Lo and behold, the track is out of level each and every time.

090223_girr_track_level_detector_car_6460.jpgAfter using the level detector more, I found that the meter was really unnecessary and the detector worked better on a short wheelbase car such that it can find a short dip without ambiguity of where it is. This car used to carry a fork lift in an LGB industrial starter set but the lift itself is long gone so I attached the level detector to it with some foam tape. I can use any engine to pull it, but in this case I was using a Bachmann Davenport that had been converted to DCC with an ESU LokSound DCC decoder. This engine has particularly good low speed performance. I need to take basically one lap around and stop the train whenever the ball rolls completely to one side. At that point, I can just adjust the rail immediately following the car until the ball rolls back to the middle and then proceed on to the next section as shown in this short h.264 video. As one gets older, bending down a lot can be a problem. This thing is a real back saver, I only have to bend down at the spots that need work.

Track Gauge Tester Cars

Track gauge can vary, sometimes it can change as a function of time or abuse. It is possible to use a real track gauge on all of your track, but this is a pain and 99% of the time, all you'll see is that the track is ok. Finding those bad spots by a less labor intensive method is handy.

../tips1/081205_girr_bh_bbt_pilot_truck_6024.jpgThis Bachmann Big Hauler has had a front truck conversion from Barry's Big Trains. This truck is free to slop around and follow wavy and bad track. However, one thing it is intolerant of is undergauge track. The truck is so light that if it finds an undergauge section, it will be simply squeezed up and derail. I use this loco to find those bad spots and then do something to the track in that section to fix it.

../tips12/110121_girr_pcc_front_9317.jpgThe lead truck on the Big Hauler was sensitive to undergauge track, but not as much as the AristoCraft PCC car.

The PCC car wheels have 20 to 25 mils wider back to back spacing that is recommended. I noticed the tendency of the PCC to hop at some specific places on my layout that the Big Hauler passed right by. This is shown in this QuickTime movie. After checking a couple of those spots I found that the track was undergauge for short stretches. The out of spec wider gauge of the trolly and the out of spec narrow gauge of the track were interacting. At those spots, the flanges would bind and be forced upward, resulting in a hop or wobble. When the track was fixed so that it was in spec, the problem went away.

Overgauge track can also be a problem. At one time I had some Gary Raymond wheels on my Lionel Atlantic tender and pilot truck. These particular wheels had a narrow tread and would fall through overgauge track. I removed and replaced those wheels long ago. I probably sold them. Having a car with properly gauged but narrow tread wheels on it is a good deal because it will easily find those spots that need work.

090912_girr_track_overgauge_checker_7742.jpgI went rummaging for the tender wheels but they were nowhere to be found. However, I found 4 axles worth of these narrow tread wheels that were pretty obviously intended for the Lionel Atlantic pilot truck. Two were used, two had clearly never been used. The used ones were probably the ones that used to live on the Atlantic pilot truck until they were changed out for ones with wider treads.

Some more rummaging resulted in a Bachmann pilot truck less wheels. This is likely the one that came off the Big Hauler that got converted to the BBT truck. I clipped the metal bushing at each wheel to allow these axles to be snapped into the Bachmann truck, added some weight and a pusher bar and I've got a track gauge checker. An RC Big Hauler truck will work as well.

This MOW car will not find track that is overgauge per the spec. But it is the most sensitive car on the railroad to overgauge track. If this car falls through the track, then some other cars are not far from falling through. Spots that fail with this car get fixed.

Aristo tie strips, which I use, have the noted inability to hold a precise gauge. In one pass over the railroad, this car found a dozen spots with gauge or level problems. The gauge problems were fixed with the aid of toothpick shims pressed under the rail tie plates on the outside to force the rails closer together. Level problems were fixed with ballast adjustments. The Gary Raymond wheels are not only narrow, but they have a semi-finescale profile with a smaller flange than the more common wheels. These wheels look better but the just do not track as well. This is why I sold them in the first place. They are just not tolerant of less than perfect track. I concluded early on that keeping the track perfectly level and in gauge in an outdoors environment was just not going to happen, so I settled on wheels that were more tolerant of less than perfect track. However, in the case of this car, that characteristic is just what it needed. This car derailed every time in spots where I had never seen derailments with the rest of my rolling stock. I can be pretty sure that if this car passes the track, my other stuff will have plenty of margin.

Another fortuitous characteristic of using the Bachmann pilot truck is that the wheels are hanging right out there with nothing blocking my view of their interaction with the track. This makes it much easier to detect what is wrong visually by running the car over a suspect section by hand.

I added some low "bumpers" made of coffee stirrers to both ends. These are sized to keep the axles centered, there was quite a bit of slop before which allowed the car to crab. It also allows the car to be pushed by my USAT Speeder. The higher bumper is positioned to allow it be pushed by a Kadee coupler.

In operation, the car will consistently derail at places where the gauge is a little wide or where there is a change in level of the track. After going around several times to find and fix the bad spots, and then using the pinball track level detector car and fixing longer spots that were out of level, it now runs pretty reliably. It is clearly FAR more sensitive to track irregularities than anything else I have. Sometimes it will derail at a spot just one time and I can't repeat the problem or see what happened or detect problems with a real level and a track gauge. I don't mess with the track unless the car consistently derails at a particular spot.

Overall, this car is a smashing success. It is quick and easy to use, finds the bad spots, was cheap to make (because I had the parts) and doesn't require me to bend down very often and it lets me run trains while checking my track. I would guess that any Gary Raymond semi-finescale wheelset and a freight car truck would do just as well in this service as these 133FS wheels.

I don't mean to bash Gary Raymond wheels here, they are very well made, consistently in gauge and concentric, the plating holds up well and they are better looking than the more typical metal wheels. However, they way that they are designed, they are also more sensitive to bad track than other, less visually attractive, wheels.

Debris Removal Cars

091102_girr_ivy_leaves_7835.jpgOne thing that every outdoor railroad needs is a method to remove nature's debris. My problems are pretty minor by comparison, the main problem is dried ivy leaves. The heavier equipment will either push these out of the way or grind them up underneath as the dried leaves are very brittle.

On other layouts, debris could include a thick layer of leaves every fall, acorns, pine needles, hedgeapples, or anything else that grows out of doors or blows with the wind.

snow_plow.jpgIf I have a lot of leaves, I bring out an Aristo snowplow to sweep them aside. Larger locos also do a credible job of pushing them off the track too. However, the smaller stuff will derail on these things every time so I either have to run the plow or something heavy before I can run the smaller stuff. For normal levels of debris, even the RDC that often pulls my streamliner track cleaning car will do an adequate job. The track cleaner itself will sweep off grit on the rails in a single pass.

Other folks have come up with other mechanical means for cleaning the track of debris. Greg Elmassian has a car with a rotating brush at the front that sweeps any loose stuff up and eventually tosses it over the side. I have see photos of "leaf blowers" mounted on the front of a car to blow junk off the track. There may also be commercially available contraptions to do this job, but I can't put my finger on any of them right now.

The GIRR is located in southern California where we NEVER get any snow, at least not in the 60 years that I've lived here. Therefore I don't need a snowplow to clear snow. In other parts of the country, the situation is slightly different. Snowplowing is a winter ritual. By the reports of others, this car is also good at plowing a few inches of real snow. However, it needs some ballast. A regulation brick in the gondola part will do the job.

Since I have no snow to plow, this particular snowplow has been converted into a video track inspection car.

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© 2000-2011 George Schreyer
Created July 9, 2000
Last Updated February 4, 2010