When it comes to crud on rails and
wheels, Iíve learned a thing or two over the years.
- The number-one producer of rail &
wheel crud is the electrolysis effect of passing current through
dissimilar metals. Where our current-drawing locomotive wheels (of one
metal) meet the rails (of another metal), a very fine powdery oxide is
formed. In "a Perfect World", this oxide would just powder
over the edge of the rails and never be a bother to anyone. These
days, most of our rails are made from nickel-silver because the oxides
of this metal are a bit more conductive than the oxides of brass and,
therefore, nickel-silver just seems to stay cleaner longer. You all
have probably seen advertisements for locos with nickel-silver wheels
and the ads from Northwest Short Lines for replacement/substitute
nickel-silver wheels. This is, generally, a very good trend because it
puts both rails and wheels of the same metal at the point of current
pick-up and minimizes the oxide production. (Nickel-silver wheels on
non-power rolling stock donít really prevent anything, but theyíre
nice to look at).
- In our Non-Perfect World,
over-lubrication, humidity, cooking vapors, smoking, forced hot air
heating, wood stoves and fireplaces all contribute to an environment
in which the oxides tend to bind together and also to wheels and
rails. Conditions vary, from layout to layout, and the mess can be
seen as decreased engine performance, headlight flickering, scratchy
sound systems, spotty DCC operation, film thatís almost invisible, a
thick "tire" on rolling stock wheels and, in some cases,
crossings and switches that stall out the engine because the points
seem to concentrate a build-up of crud in those places.
- "Normal" house dust, dander,
baby dust bunnies, cat hair, smoke particles and sawdust all get mixed
into the formula and bind with the oxide crud to, in some cases,
create a truly impressive challenge.
- Scratches on the rail heads or wheels,
from abrasive cleaning, gives the crud a place to "root" to
and build up from there and will be seen as patches of crud in various
places along the way.
- Non-powered rolling stock wheels (metal
or plastic) are a vast storehouse of accumulated crud. I agree that
plastic seems to accumulate faster than metal, but itís all a matter
of degree. A thorough cleaning of the rails is a positive thing, but
with dirty wheels, the effect is negated very quickly because of
re-deposit back onto the rails.
My solution, for many
years, to all of this has been to use non-abrasive rail & wheel
cleaners. The most efficient arrangement has always been to run a
"wet" one ahead of the engine, to ensure that it never has the
opportunity to stall on crud spots, and a "dry" one at the back
to pick up all that dislodged wheel dirt that was loosened by running
through a film of cleaning fluid. The drivers are automatically and
thoroughly cleaned and the following storehouse of wheel dirt is
eliminated, as well. It usually takes several passes (and in worst case -
several roller covers) to get it all.
NOTE - It doesnít do much
good to clean only until the engine runs well - and then not finish the
job. (Do the job right and get ALL of the rail and wheel dirt).
There has been controversy
for years as to what fluids are best, but here are some researched
- Water based fluids sort of work. ĎProblem
is - they leave residues that donít go away, that tend to bind the
oxides together and then harden and only cause the need to clean more
often. This class of fluids includes Windex, 409, Fantastic, Simple
Green and that "blue stuff" that you see in hobby stores.
Some of that stuff can corrode rail joiners and the pivot area of
switches where it has seeped inside or underneath.
- Oil based fluids can be very useful, if
the right oils are used. First rule of oils is to NEVER use an
automotive lubricant. As an example, the removal of 10W30 from the
rails and wheels is nearly impossible and that stuff is really
slippery. The best oils to use (if you like oil) are ones like Wahlís
Clipper Oil, Sewing Machine oil or Starrett oil. These are all highly
refined mineral (instrument) oils, are relatively thin and will NOT
lead to corrosion problems. There is a "legend" that these
oils are conductive, but that is absolutely not true. What IS true is
that these oils tend to soften or liquefy the cruds that we contend
with so that locomotive wheels do get good direct electrical contact
with the rails through the oily film. These oils take
"forever" to dry, so the effect is fairly long lasting. A
light film of any of these oils can be quite useful in preventing
oxidation of the rails on a layout that will be left unused for some
time in a corrosive atmosphere (laundry room, salt air, etc.) and
these oils can easily be removed from rails and wheels with a good
(solvent) track cleaning fluid.
- Solvent based fluids are, usually, the
most efficient to use and (good or bad) there are a great plenty to
choose from. Some solvents are just plain dangerous to use and/or can
attack the plastics that are an integral part of model railroading.
These "bad" solvents include lacquer thinners, acetone,
naphtha, tri-chlor, carbon tetrachloride, etc. and are, of course, to
be avoided. Fast-evaporating solvents such as Tuner Cleaners,
alcohols, Contact Cleaners, etc. work well for as long as they are
fluid but, by their nature, they are gone again almost immediately. I
have found that the best solvents to use are the (non-toxic and
non-explosive) slowly evaporating fluids such as mineral spirits,
white spirits, Goo Gone, Aero-Locomotive Works Fluid, etc. These
fluids stay fluid long enough to do the job well and leave a clean
metal-to-metal contact for the locomotive drivers resulting in maximum
traction, excellent electrical contact and great slow-speed operation.
The idea is to clean your rails and wheels right down to the
"molecules" (without harming anything) and not leaving any
unwanted or harmful films or residues.
Smooth slow speed operation of trains is a
combination of many factors, not the least of which is clean rails and
wheels. Over the years, Iíve had several "cheap" locomotives
that would do two-ties-to-the-minute speed and this is how I do it.