If you want to re-use track that has ballast glued to it you’ll probably be wondering how to recover the track and remove the ballast. Here’s how I solved the problem.
If you’ve been following the progress of my layouts, you’ll know the track plan has undergone a few changes.
One of these necessitated changing a section of track to which I’d already glued the ballast — D’oh! — Pulling the track up revealed some royally messed up track, with ballast stuck to sleepers and rails and worse on the underside of the sleepers making it difficult to relay the track flat.
For real, full-size, railways getting rid of ballast is hugely expensive and time-consuming. Network Rail, the UK’s national rail infrastructure operator, has spent £500million buying a huge complex but very frankly awesome machine to clean the ballast on full-size tracks.
A video of a track laying and ballasting machine is below and is absolutely worth watching if you like big machines.
Thankfully, it’s a lot, lot, lot cheaper and easier for model railway enthusiasts and after several attempts at discovering how not to remove ballast 🙂 I worked out the following 5-step technique to remove the ballast from “accidentally” laid tracks.
These steps work on Hornby, Peco or other manufacturers’ N, OO or HO gauge tracks and to clean up old or second-hand track that has ballast and other debris from previous layouts stuck to it. It leaves your track clean until you come to ballast it again — don’t forget to check my how to ballast guide when you do 🙂
#1 Dampen The Track
Assuming the track is in place on the baseboard, gently apply a coating of water – remember to disconnect the electrics first! Let this soak in for at least an hour but no more than 2 hours. You want the ballast damp but not so wet water soaks into surrounding areas and ruins the trackside landscape.
Initially, I used a water sprayer but couldn’t get keep the spray area confined to just the track. I then used the techniques I used to apply the ballast glue in the first place, using a syringe but this time filled with water and applying it to the central track bed and sides.
This gave the best results, allowing me to precisely control where the water went but do be careful with amounts or there’s a risk of soaking the baseboard too much.
#2 Brush Off Surface Ballast
Next, run a stiff Nylon brush or old toothbrush over the track to free up surface ballast and loosen the rest. Don’t use the wire bristle type brushes as these will scratch the rails and sleepers. Then run over the area with a small vacuum cleaner to clear the track.
With my eye on saving money, I brush the loosened particles away from the track area and reuse them for rock falls at the base of cliff faces.
#3 Lift The Track
Assuming your track is glued down, gently prise it up. If tacked down, carefully pull the tacks with pliers and lift the track section in question free.
A flat-head screwdriver or wallpaper scraper (if you have space at the sides of the track) can be useful to get under the sleepers and pry it free. This is the part you need to be most careful about, use too much force you could end up with bent rails or snapped sleepers.
Another technique I’ve learnt is to cut the rail joiners between track sections rather than trying to lift and separate the track with the joiners intact.
Although the track can be lifted and joiners removed, I’d rather buy a few new joiners than put a strain on the more expensive rails and bend them out of shape.
#4 Soak The Track
With the track now free of the board and most of the ballast left behind, courtesy of step 2, soak the track in warm soapy water for a few hours.
#5 Work Off Residual Ballast
With the Nylon brush scrub the track and sleepers to clean off the remaining ballast. You may also need to scrape parts of the track and sleepers. Initially, I used the scalpel to do this but only ended up leaving horrid marks on the sleepers. On the second attempt, I used a small watch-makers or jeweller’s flat-head screwdriver. This gave much better results without the damage inflicted by a knife.
One last tip, don’t forget the underside of the track. The top side is naturally where you want it to look best but anything stuck to the underside of the sleepers will prevent the track from lying flat when it is laid again and cause problems getting the rails to line up.
And that’s it. The track is now back to near original condition and without a £50 million super machine!
As can be seen in the picture right, there’s little difference between the new track (top) and the de-ballasted track using these steps (middle). In a short time, your old track will be ready to be used on your next layout or new track plan. Before you do so however I’d give the rail heads a good clean in case any dirt got onto them during the ballast removal. See how to clean model railway track for tips on this.
If you liked this tip, I recommend one of these excellent model railway books which are packed with tips and advice like this for building and running your layout.
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Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.