Everything on model trains, model railroads, model railways, locomotives, model train layouts, scenery, wiring, DCC and more. Enjoy the world's best hobby... model railroading!

Brand New! Just Released! 15 Background City Buildings To Download and Build

Dirty Stuff On Rails

Kev writes:

“I’ve only been running my trains for a short time and already there is black stuff building up on the rails. If I don’t clean it away my engine loses some power. I don’t think it’s grease, oil, or the paint I used on the ties and rails which I shined with bright boy. What is it and the cause, and how can I prevent it from coming back? Do others have this problem?”

Post your comments below, or have your own question published by using the ASK A QUESTION link.

15 Responses to Dirty Stuff On Rails

  • Jim Johnston says:

    #1/ Please DON’T use the Bright Boy. It’s is abrasive as all get out and will scar your rail tops. #2 Clean with mineral spirits to remove oily deposits and dust. #3/ Apply a very, very tiny amount of electrical contact grease to the rail tops and let your cars spread the love. Your motive power will love it!

  • Frank B says:

    It is normal for track and loco wheels to need occasional cleaning, from the dust that settles from the air. Under most circumstances, just wipe over the rails with rails with paper towel or (better) lint-free cloth.

    I agree with Jim, abrasive track cleaners are rubbish.

    Most modern track is nickel-silver and does not need any special cleaning agents. To remove oil and grease, use a light solvent like lighter fluid or isopropanol or ethanol on your cleaning cloth, because they evaporate quickly and leave no trace. (But they are flammable, so power off, no smoking or naked lights !).

    But I disagree with oiling track, as it reduces traction, and causes dust and dirt to stick.

  • David Stokes says:

    See the recent Marklin of Sweden Youtube video on track cleaning – lots of options and advice.

  • Phillip Collins says:

    I use Spanjaard electrical contact cleaner/lubricant sprayed onto a cloth wrapped around a piece of wood. Only if it is very bad do I use the Peco track cleaning block (which is mildly abrasive). IUsing this requires open windows as it is volatile (and flammable, although there is a more expensive non-flammable version).

  • phil johnson says:

    If you’re using plastic wheels there’s part of your problem. I’ve seen Wahl oil, alcohol, mineral spirits, and abrasive pads (homasote) used with varying effect. I have found that oil and tranny fluid work but the trade off is markedly decreased tractive effort (grades). I’m personally not impressed with mineral spirits. I do like denatured alcohol. I also use a bright boy. There’s my take. FYI change to metal wheels if you haven’t done so as time/money allows


    A good quality electrical contact clean that is safe for plastic is the best. Apply with a soft cloth and wipe lightly. No bright boys!!!!

  • Gary Byard says:

    I am a late in life learner, however I have found an electrical spray compound called Ipron works a treat. Take a look at Fishplate on yyoutube. The look for track cleaning. He is entertaining but an engineer by profession

  • Noel R Crawford says:

    Usually the cause of dirty tracks are dirty wheels on locomotives and rolling stock. The best thing to do is clean the wheels of all that are placed on the rails after cleaning the rails with alcohol as mentioned here. Cleaning wheels is an arduous job but it pays off in the long run. Then occasionally check the wheels of rolling stock and locomotives to see any build up the clean immediately.

  • Morgan Bilbo says:

    THE BEST TECHNIQUE: There are several ways to clean rails. I use Mineral Spirits. I wipe with an old tee shirt, and keep wiping until they shine. Then (and this is the most important thing you can do!) Is to dab a bit of graphite. I use an old pencil that is soft lead. Dab a bit, say an inch. Do so every 6″ to a foot. When you get 3′ or 4′ done, run a car or two over the 4′ and spread that graphite. Note: Only a very light coat. The graphite is a conductor of electricity and you only need a very little bit. I’ve done tht and it’s been 6 months with out trouble. It may be necessary to dab a bit more, but only if necessary. The No-Ox that has been mentioned is also good. Alcohol is not the best. Do NOT use acetone. So it’s either mineral spirits or No-Ox. Your choice. Also, graphite can be bought in a hard block. That may be better, but I still use my pencil. That pencil will last forever. But bottom line. The graphite will make all the difference in the world. Proven by a lot of modelers.

  • Morgan Bilbo says:

    OH yes. I forgot to mention. How clean are your wheels? Loco and car wheels must be cleaned too. For them, I use alcohol or mineral spirits. Put a paper towel across the track, dribble the liquid along the rail. Place a car on that and run it back and forth. There are YouTube videos showing this technique. And once this is done, and your track treated the way i just recommended, you may never have any trouble again.

  • Anthony Germagliotti says:

    that black stuff is grease comming off the gears of the engine the simple fix that I found instead of
    buying track cleaner is fantastic cleaner which you can buy in the your locai store not only does it clean your track it makes it not slippery and it works for my 3 rail layout try it it beats the cost of track cleaner and a little on a rag and wipe the track and you will see also clean the wheels on your rolling stock they pick up grease too good luck

  • Jim Kennedy says:

    When I first started looking at building a layout, a modeler friend told me that the first thing all railroad modelers should have is a pencil eraser (the kind that is big and nothing but an eraser. It is good for removing all kinds of things.

  • Ron Scannell says:

    Clean the engine wheels by putting a lintel free cloth on the tracks, soak it with your track cleaning liquid, place the front truck on the cloth and run the engine, when clean do the rear truck.

  • Timothy Morlok says:

    One thing that could be adding to your dirt problem: if your engines have traction tires on their wheels that are old and degrading. I personally never use them.

  • Jay says:

    While all of the above advice is good, it’s a pain to wipe down all of your track, if your layout is large and has tunnels. They do sell these freight cars with wiping pads on them that you can run in a train. Running those on occasion will help to limit the gunk that builds up. As for the locomotives: Locomotive with brass wheels have to be cleaned all of the time. I’m guessing that it may be caused by the electrical contact with the rails and dust. Chrome wheels stay cleaner much longer. For cleaning my loco wheels, I use the Trix? upside down wire brush, that you set on the track, and mount your loco on. When you power it up, the wheels turning against the brushes cleans the wheels. Another method I used is q-tips and isopropyl alcohol, with my loco sitting in a soft cradle, and power clips clipped onto the power access points. With the wheels running, I ride the q-tips against them to clean them off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add a photo or image related to your comment (JPEG only)


Download Your Free Catalog

Use Tiny Railroad Micro Controllers

N Scale Track Plans

Watch Video

Model Train Help Ebook

Model Train DCC HELP


FREE Tour Inside Club

Take a FREE tour inside the club.

Scenery Techniques Explained

Scenery & Layout Ideas

Model Railroading Blog Archive

Reader Poll

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.