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Why Do My Loco Wheels Get Dirty So Quickly?

Aaron posted this question:

“I run two Atlas GP38s that can operate on DC or DCC according to the jumper setting. I have no problems with the engines but the wheels get dirty quick after about 5 minutes of running so they then start to run erratically. I share the track with others but haven’t heard of similar problems with their locos. When I clean the wheels I use a disposable tissue and mineral spirits. Feedback appreciated.”

Submit your suggestions on keeping Atlas wheels clean by pressing the COMMENTS link.

15 Responses to Why Do My Loco Wheels Get Dirty So Quickly?

  • henry niersays:

    If i am correct, mineral spirits has a oily base. You are better off using denatured alcohol. That is all i use on mine. Use a cotten rag, i use old, t shirts and clean the track. You will be surprised how dirty the track can become. On loco’s, use paper towel wet with alcohol and place the front wheels on towel, rear wheels on track. This will clean wheels. Repeat this with the rear trucks.

    • Tom roisesays:

      Good advice above. Disposable tissue sheds. Hold it in sunlight and rub it. You will see a dust cloud. Use cotton cloth as stated. Old t shirts are perfect.

    • john gouldsays:

      where is the your location of your layout?. I have a similar problem here in Panama because of fine dust settling on the layout . I don’t want to be a clever/smart ass but a regime of a cleanup with a fine brush and a vacuum cleaner works well, Also try to keep all or part of the layout covered with dust sheets . I use a fine brush like the ones your daughter/wife would use to put their blush makeup on to highlight their cheeks etc. to give a good loosen of dust on scenery without damaging fixtures etc. As a last resort if a section of track proves to be a problem maybe a poor contact or erratic operation may be the cause. I do try not to use solvents on my track but if necessary a little alcohol will work as a cleaner, my layout is 18x8ft won’t go into details but believe unless you are in an sterile environment airborne dust is a problem not only to the trains but also to scenery

  • W Rusty Lanesays:

    Usually dirty track causes locos to run erratically. As suggested above clean yer wheels with denatured alcohol or use some 91% alcohol. Mineral spirits will leave an oily residue on the wheels to attract dust and grime from the track. Sounds like yer operating on a club track and you should suggest that the track be cleaned periodically with some alcohol.

  • Jim Cottrellsays:

    There are multiple ways to get your track clean. Some folks use RailZipp2, some use the denatured alcohol and some will use wheel cleaners like the ones offered by Woodland Scenics, Faller, etc.. It seems to me that someone in your club has used too much lube and it has gotten all over the track. Try to run rail cleaning cars and get you club members to do the same. As for your locos, you can do exactly what the gentleman above said about using a paper towel or gauze stretched over the track and put the cleaner of your choice on the towel, gauze, etc. and run the wheels on it as well as change the paper out frequently till your wheels run clean. I hope this helps but remember that y’alls track needs routine maintenance.

  • John Lightfootsays:

    One of our goals has been to learn what causes the black gunk we get on our track and wheels and also how to inhibit its formation.

    If we can slow down the process that’s getting our wheels and track dirty the better
    according to one club they were using Isopropyl alcohol to clean their tracks and wheels much to their dismay they found the harder they cleaned things the more quickly they got black gunk build up again.

    After some experimentation they discovered cleaning the track and wheels with mineral spirits resulted in things staying cleaner longer.

    The story reminded me me of the Wahl Clipper oil claims that surfaced several decades ago.
    The claim was cleaning the track and wheels with Wahl Clipper Oil actually reduced the frequency of the cleaning.

    Something seems to be definitely happening here and it cried for a more in-depth investigation.

    Several years back a model railroader submitted dirty track for an in-depth chemical analyses of this black gunk and he reported the results on the MRH forum and the bottom line is that the black gunk is mostly metal oxides formed from the micro arcing between the wheels and the rail, even though this contact point is quite small.

    Essentially the electricity flowing at this contact point triggers a chemical reaction in the wheels and rails this electrical current in effect “explodes off” metal alloy molecules from the wheels and rails,
    It oxidises these metal molecules, forming a fine dark grey powder.

    So the key to slowing down the buildup of metal oxide is to inhibit the micro arcing and having
    discussions with a chemist who understood electrical contact cleaning such as in relays and contacts explained the concept of polar Vs non-polar solvents.

    Delving into polar Vs non-polar solvents something interesting emerged, moleculary speaking you can use whats called the substances dielectric constant to derive its molecular polarity.

    The chemist said that non-polar solvents work best to clean electrical contacts by inhibiting micro arcing, apparently polar solvent molecules get trapped in micro pits in the metals surface leaving an “electron Charged” microscopic residue.

    This electron charged polar residue encourages micro arcing in the presence of an electrical current, quickly forming new metal oxides on the surfaces in electrical contact, but non-polar solvents do the reverse, they actually protect the metal surfaces from forming new new oxides because they inhibit micro arcing.

    I list the dielectric constant for a number of solvents, contact cleaners track cleaners and the like.
    To make this chart I assume a dielectric constant of 3.0 or less constitutes a non-polar solvent for our purposes, I assume a dielectric constant of 10.0 or more means the solvent is polar, anything in between is semi polar.

    The best solvents for track cleaning are the non polar ones, the worst ones for track cleaning are the polar solvents. How may of us have used IPA, lacquer thinners or acetone for track cleaning? Also notice all the wonder cleaners are non-polar.

    The other thing I notice is that not all contact cleaners are created the same, CRC contact cleaner and protectant is CRT’s lowest dielectric constant non-polar product.

    While CRC 2-26 is often recommended on modelling forums for cleaning it’s actually semi polar, its far better than IPA or the like but the CRC contact cleaner and protector is better still note that CRC QD contact cleaner is actually worse than IPA.

    From the list you can see that kerosene, WD-40 contact cleaner CRC contact cleaner and protector, Deoxit D5 Never stall and mineral spirits are all excellent solvents to use for cleaning track and wheels.

    Solvents to avoid include ISP, MEK, acetone and lacquer thinner .


    As per the list the polar/non-polar, graphite is a very interesting substance.
    Microscopically thin layers of graphite are actually very non-polar and greatly inhibit micro arcing.
    But thick layers of graphite get increasingly polar, the “layers don’t bond” nature of graphite is what makes it work so well to counter friction, the layers of graphite freely slide right over each other.
    But these extra natural layers also dramatically dielectric constant .

    When applying graphite to your track to help keep the rails from micro arcing, more graphite is not better, in fact what I tell people is one quick swipe on the inside of the rail-head is all you need, you don’t want to see it. If you can see the graphite then you have applied way too much, just one quick swipe with moderate pressure is needed.

    At this point I think non-polar Vs polar solvents finding suggest a clear direction for better track and wheel cleaning and how to reduce the amount of re-cleaning needed by inhibiting the build up of fresh black gunk on the wheels and rail head.

    It appears that you want to clean your track and wheels with a non-polar solvent then treat the inside of the rail-head with graphite to further reduce your frequency of cleaning.

    Kerosene 1.8, WD-40 1.9, CRC contact cleaner & protectant 2.0, DeoxIT D5 2.0, Petrol 2.0, Neverstall 2.0, Diesel 2.1, Mineral Spirits 2.1, Wahl Clipper Oil 2.1, Turpentine 2.2, Carbon tetrachloride 2.2, WD-40 2.4, Graphite (thin Layer) 1.8 – 3.0.

    CRC 2-26 4.6, Auto Transmission Fluid 4.8, Rail Zip 4.8, Bachmann Rail cleaner 4.8, Butyl acetate 5.1, Butyl cellosolve 5.3, Ethyl acetate 6.0.

    Graphite (thick Layer) 10.0 – 15.0, IPA 18.0, Methyl Ethyl Ketone 18.9, CRC QD contact cleaner 20.0, Lucas contact cleaner 20.0, Acetone 20.7, Vinegar 24.0, Ethyl alcohol (vodka etc) 25.0, Ammonia solution 31.6, propolyne glycol 32.0, lacquer thinner 33.6, glycerine 47.0, hydrogen peroxide 60.0, water 80.4.
    In closing remarks I can almost hear people crying out not WD-40 or Kero it will deform the plastic, and yes it may but we are talking about very very small ammounts on a damp cotton bud, if you have the mind to use a great splash of these maybe you should look at taking up knitting.

    • Geoffsays:

      I don’t know about polar vs non-polar solvents, and I can see that this is a complete list of solvents probably copied from a website, but looking at the “best” list, personally I would avoid using kerosene, petrol (aka gasoline in North America), diesel, turpentine and carbon tetrachloride due to their explosive and/or poisonous nature.

  • Franksays:

    What has been suggested above is sound advise. I have made my own track cleaner wagons by using tap washers with seals removed and glue ply to them and drill holes through the base of the wagon. These are pulled around with other wagons cleaning the track. To clean the ply just rub on from me glasspaper until the black track marks are removed and if you go again. And only use 91% alcohol. I don’t have any trouble with dirty track now. And only clean the loco wheels periodically. Job done.

  • Nigelsays:

    I’m not an expert on this sort of thing but if your locos are affected and those belonging to others aren’t, it may point to a problem with the locomotives, or specifically their wheels, rather than the track. If your wheels are in some way damaged – for example tiny scratches invisible to the naked eye – it’s possible that they will pick up and hold dirt rather than just running over it.

    What I don’t know is how best to diagnose and deal with it so perhaps others could chip in?

  • Geoffsays:

    From what I have heard on this topic, there are almost as many different ways to clean track / wheels as there are modellers! If you are the only one with this problem, then it’s either something on your rolling stock – as Nigel says – or you are doing something different from them. (You don’t say if you have a layout that only you use, and how your locos perform there.) I would ask them how they clean their locos, and then do the same. I suppose it’s remotely possible that there’s some sort of interaction between the mineral spirits left on your wheels and whatever solvent the others use for their locos. Or whatever solvent they use for cleaning the track.

  • Jaysays:

    I get lots of dirty track due to the fact that on my layout, I run hoppers full of ballast, and operating loaders. I love operating accessories, and have many all over the layout, but it is messy. I run cleaner car trains (vacuum & wipers) often to clean the tracks. I like to use Go-gone to manually clean wheels, and follow that up with Isopropyl Alochol. I have noticed that the Alcohol seems to have a reaction when I also use it on the rails. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I know I need something better, I’m open to trying the suggestions listed above.

  • Patsays:

    use w2 to clean track? I would be afraid that it would cause the engine wheels to slip. Perhaps I am wrong.

  • Billsays:

    The science is sound and the list of solvents is simply a list comparing their polar values. I concur with Geoff in that a lot of the low polar value solvents are not much use to model railroaders due to their flammability or toxicity issues. I use odorless mineral spirits and I only have to clean the track twice a year. When using IPA (alcohol) I was noticing power issues within two weeks of cleaning the track.
    Aarons issue is more complicated than track cleaning. First I would ask others running on the same track if they are experiencing the same issue. Just because they don’t talk about it doesn’t mean they are not experiencing it. If they are all or mostly experiencing the same issues then track cleaning may be your problem.
    Second, get rid of the tissue. Use a piece of cotton rag. If you have used abrasives on your loco wheels in the past then you may have scratched the wheel surfaces and they are holding the metal oxides that are laying on the track. If so you may be looking at replacing the wheels.

  • Glennsays:

    Has anyone tried using NO-OX from Sanchem Inc. I’ve heard that it works very good by applying a very small amount on the rails ,but have not had the opportunity to try it yet as my layout is not completed yet.

  • Morgan Bilbosays:

    All I will do is say what I use. Alcohol works, but: It’s fast drying. I use a nail polish acetone that has only minor odor and no oil. It cleans fast, dries just a little slower than the alcohol. I have a small layout so do it all at once. Then, use graphite. Little dabs about an inch long and about a foot apart. Let cars spread it. That you can do 6′ at a time. Or like my small layout, I can do the graphite all at once like I cleaned. These two steps are all I need. The other idea is to be operating as much as possible. For a club, try to operate at least once a week. But you also need to get to each and every track. That’s a situation where multiple people and hands make a difference. On a large layout where dust and such is a problem, a tarp can be used, but you need to be sure it don’t disturb buildings, telephone wires, or catenary/sp. Some sort of a prop is needed. Hope this helps.

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