Don’t leave the trouble-free operation of your model railway to chance. Follow this top 5 definitive checklist of quick and easy preventative maintenance tips to keep your trains running.
Regular preventative maintenance of your trains, track and electrics will keep your railway running smoothly. Ignoring these basics will, without doubt, result in problems for your trains and may result in time-consuming and possibly expensive to fix faults occurring.
Here are the top 5 most common preventative operations – from track and wheel cleaning to engine lubrication – and how and when to carry them out.
#1 Wheel cleaning
Without regular cleaning grime, crud and oil can build up on the wheels preventing the smooth transfer of power from rails to the engine, resulting in sluggish or juddering train movement.
There are a variety of techniques for cleaning your model train wheels and all share the same basic techniques.
For the slight build-up of grim, put some Isopropyl Alcohol cleaning liquid or lighter fluid on a kitchen cleaning cloth and lay this across a section of track and with the power applied, run the train over the cloth as demonstrated below.
Note: some people have queried using IPA for this, stating correctly that it can leave residue behind. This is undoubtedly the case if not done correctly but using a cotton tip or cloth and running the wheels for a while, in my experience, removes the residue. It’s not been a problem for me but if you’re in doubt, mineral spirit (white spirit) can also be used.
If you have substantial dirt caked onto the wheels a more rigorous approach may be needed. This is essentially a case of applying power to the wheels (remember to use the right controller if you have DC and DCC locomotives) and very carefully rubbing the wheels with a fibreglass pen (available here from Amazon) against the wheels as they turn.
For heavy build-up of crud, the blade of a flathead screwdriver can be held against the wheels. This – and a great tip about creating a powered section of track for cleaning – is shown in the next video.
This does have the irritation that the dirt that comes off the wheels can fall back onto them and the gears as the loco is held upside down while doing it.
For this reason, I prefer using a wheel cleaning brush. These make an otherwise laborious job much easier and quicker.
Depending on how often you run your trains, every 3 or 6 months.
#2 Track tidying
This sounds and is obvious, but it’s surprising how often track is just left unchecked with small debris building up between sleepers and on the rails that can stop or derail your trains.
Cast your eye over all sections of the track and remove anything you spot with a brush or tweezers. Typically, these will be small harmless items that will just cause stop trains passing but I once found a small screw poking up from between the sleepers. It had probably been dropped during recent work on a light fitting above the layout but regardless of where it came from it had lodged itself firmly between the sleepers and was waiting to rip into the undercarriage of the first train that passed.
If your railway is set up in a general living space — on a table or floor for example — or you’ve been carrying out work on the layout you should carry out a quick check before operating your trains.
#3 Motor oiling and lubrication
To keep the wheels, cogs and other engine parts moving freely all model locomotives have oil and grease in them but over time this gets used or soaked up and will need replacing.
Doing this is best seen rather than described so I’ll hand you over to Youtuber’s SMT Mainline and Con-Cor International who take you through it.
Within 6 months of first getting a new loco and then every three to six months depending on use.
#4 Keeping pickups clean
Power is transferred from the track to the wheels of your trains and from there to the motor. The transfer of electricity between the wheels and the motor is through a tiny metal, copper, plate that rests against the wheels and connects to the motor. Over time dirt will build upon this plate and wheels preventing electricity from flowing or in some cases the plate can become bent so it doesn’t make firm contact with the wheel, again stopping conductivity. Like engine oil, this should be checked regularly.
This is probably the most fiddly of the maintenance tips here but is actually easy once you know how. The guys at IC82 have done a great talk-through of it here.
I usually do this once a year but it would be worth checking more if you are having problems and none of the above solves the problem or my tips to keep your trains running smoothly don’t work.
#5 Railhead hygiene
Keeping rails clean is so important to smooth running trains I nearly started this list with it with pretty much every model railway forum and railway modeller providing tips here agreeing that it’s a must-do regular maintenance task.
I’ve written about this before in Cheap, Quick And Safe Track Cleaning.
Essentially, with an alcoholic wipe, or ideally a track abrasive block such as this Peco one, rub down the rail tops. Do this a few times and brush off the dust and you’ll be surprised how much better trains run.
I’m continually building and working on my layout and track at the moment so the rails get dirty easily and need regular cleaning – usually after each work session. Normally, however, every 3 months or so seems to be the general consensus of how often track should be cleaned.
Extra, Model Train Maintenance Resources
If you carry out the above preventative maintenance steps on your Hornby or other model trains it should run without problem for many years. If problems do crop up or you want to do more the following resources from across the Internet should help.
- Hornby service sheets
- Bachmann (Graham Farish) service sheets
- A handy guide to locomotive maintenance by Solihull model railway club
- A discussion on the best oil to use for model train lubrication
- Index and collection of Hornby service sheets by hornbyguide.com.
- Fine Tuning and Maintaining 00 Gauge Models, a comprehensive book on the subject.
And while you’re servicing your trains, don’t forget to give the exterior body a clean to remove dust and grime.
> 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.