How to clean model train wheels, fixing a train that stops and starts. UPDATED for 2024

You’ve found it. Abandoned in your childhood, a long-forgotten Hornby loco has been rediscovered. A childhood memory is reborn. You dust it off and plant it on the track. The expectation builds.


You apply the power. And…

Nothing.

The train doesn’t move.

Deflated but hopeful you try again. You give it a nudge. It splutters into life but dies again.

This is an all too common tale. One that I’ve experienced myself just recently.

A while back my dad* came across an old Southern loco from my youth (which, oddly, I didn’t recall having) but on trying testing, it ran, stopped, started and stopped again.

These symptoms are usually caused by a common maintenance issue.

Our trains pick up the power needed for their motors from the rails but over time the wheels can get dirty and this muck impedes the flow of electricity from the rails.

And in extreme cases, where the dirt deposits build up all the way around the wheel it will stop the train from moving completely.  More often, gunk builds up at one point on the wheel circumference and the train runs until this point comes into contact with the rail and then cuts out as the electricity flow gets blocked. A train stopping and starting every few inches is likely a sign of dirt on part of the wheels.

And dirt and muck will build up not just on locos in storage but also those in regular use. Wheels just attract dirt. It’s annoying but just something we have to live with, especially if we don’t clean the tracks.

Luckily, the remedy is easy

Pick up your loco, turn it over and examine the wheels.

On most engines, you’ll see pickups — little strips of metal resting against the inside edge of the wheels. In the above photo of one of my locos, these can be seen on the front and rear lower wheels. These transfer the electricity from the wheels to the motor inside the locomotive.

It’s the wheels with these pickups that you want to focus on.

Look closely at these wheels. Is the surface that rests on the rails isn’t shiny or is there a noticeable build-up of dirt on them?

If so, they need cleaning.

What to clean model train wheels with

If the build-up is slight, you can probably get away with just wiping the wheels with  Isopropyl Alchohol. This fluid works great although it can get expensive if you need to do a lot of cleaning.

A cheaper longer terms solution and one that’s particularly useful for heavier deposits of dirt, grime and muck — as might have built up if the loco has been in storage for a few years or it hasn’t been cleaned for some time — is the Trix cleaning brush which while labelled for HO will work perfectly on OO gauge locomotives too. It’s also available for N gauge and in America, links are below.

These are wonderfully simple little accessories that will scrub wheels clean and shift pretty much any dirt.

They are placed on the track and the loco is seated on the metal brushes. Current is drawn up from the track so the wheels turn and as they spin they rub against the metal brushes, dislodging caked-on grease, grime and dust. Dirt doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s much quicker and easier to use than any other wheel cleaning technique I’ve come across, and cheaper in the long run too.

And as mentioned by one of the reviewers on Amazon, where it gets 5 stars, it also has the not-inconsiderable advantage that the displaced dirt falls downwards and away from the wheels and gears. (When cleaning with a screwdriver or fibreglass pen, the loco or tender — in the case of tender-powered larger locomotives — is held upside down while the wheels are scraped. The problem here is that dislodged dirt then falls into the wheels and gears, creating even bigger problems. With the Trix this doesn’t happen).

Here’s a video by a model railway Youtuber showing it working.

The only thing I’d add is NOT to use it with locos that have rubber traction tires, it’ll destroy them in seconds, but for all other wheels, it’s now my preferred cleaning technique.

I’ve been using the Trix cleaning brush for both my N and OO gauge locos for a while now and wouldn’t be without it. It’s easy, simple and effective and got my old Southern 0-4-0 running in no time.

> Since this article was written my dad has passed on, read my tribute here.


> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
 

Full disclosure: The reviews I share here come from hands-on experience establised over many decades of making and building models and model railways. I personally test each product, often for weeks or months, before writing about it. For this review, I purchased the product myself at the regular price, and the seller had no idea it would end up featured here. No special treatment or behind-the-scenes deals – just honest feedback on my experiences of using this product.

 

 

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

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.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
12 comments
  1. andy
    i have some 60 year old locos and when you put them on track they dnot but when you power direct to the brushs they go. any ideas whats wrong
    thank you
    barry

    • Hi Barry, it’s great that the motors are working! It sounds like there’s something stopping the power getting from the rails to the motor and most probably this is dirt on the track, the wheels or contacts. If you’ve cleaned these I’d look at the pick ups, slips of metal that are held against and the inside of the wheels to pick up the electricity and pass it to the motor. Slide a sheet of fine fine sand paper (1000 grade) between the wheels and picks a few times and see if that helps. Cheers, Andy

  2. Thanks Andy. Since I posted my question I have found some listings for the same cleaner # 66623 that states it can be used for both N and Z gauge. Are they wrong?
    Cheers!

    • Hi John, I haven’t tried it but I doubt it. Z gauge is a much smaller gauge than N and I can’t see them fitting on an N gauge cleaner. Andy

  3. Hi Andy,
    I would like to try the MiniTrix wheel cleaner. I have only found the one (#66623) that is marked for Z gauge. Do you think it will work on my N gauge Fleischmann engine? I’m just beginning my journey down the track. so to speak.
    Thanks

  4. My wheel cleaner is the no-cost option but identical in principle – a wire brush with insulation down the middle and two leads with croc clips that go on the track. If I could find a way of sharing a couple photos I would!

    • Hi John, that sounds really interesting. I’ve just created a Facebook group so we can share photos etc more easily. Would love to see you there and see some photos? Details of the group are here. Andy

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