Clean track and repel critters: I’ve been running my garden railway for about nine years. While operations have been successful, I’ve had to deal with two recurring challenges that seem to affect other large-scale operators as well, namely connectivity and Mother Nature.
Connectivity issues usually means either bad joint connections between pieces of track or bad connections between the top of the rails and the wheels of an engine, usually due to dirt or oxidation. Bird droppings, insect trails (large ants regularly use the top of the rails as their highway), tree sap, dirt, and dust would cause dirt to build up on the rail tops. This would eventually isolate the top of the rails from the wheels, causing the engines to hesitate and stop. I never imagined that Mother Nature would stop my trains in their tracks.
I pulled out the big guns and sent my track cleaning engine around the track a few times. This worked well for a while. However, the more I used the track cleaning engine, the less effective it was in cleaning the tracks. The portion of the engine where the abrasive cleaning wheels are housed began jumping up and down as it rolled on the track. This left the track unevenly cleaned. When I checked the polishing wheels, they were clogged with dark gunk.
I thought about replacing the cleaning wheels, but it occurred to me that the same thing would happen again. I bought some brass cleaning solution and tried to shine the tracks, but no matter how much I rubbed, the oxidation would not come out.
A new critter problem
Around this time, raccoons had begun to visit the railway and were leaving behind their droppings all over the tracks. At first, I’d pick up the droppings and flush the tracks with the garden hose. However, the more I cleaned up the tracks of their droppings, the more they would return to use the tracks as their latrine.
I tried pellets recommended by a garden center. I tried oily spray my neighbor gave me. I bought a battery-operated water spray triggered by a motion sensor, but nothing worked. The pellets and the oily spray would work for a day or two. Forgetting that I had installed the automatic water spray, I got caught in the jet of water twice, while raccoon droppings kept appearing on the tracks.
Someone suggested electric fences, but I had been resisting for fear of hurting the raccoons (I don’t want their droppings, but I don’t want to hurt them either). Since everything had failed so far, I ordered a system designed to keep critters away without harming them. Since I have a toddler running around the trains, I could not install the wire for this system all around the railway, so I installed it in the area where the raccoons usually did their business. I tested the system by touching the wire, and I got a shock that was mild, but I believed it would discourage the raccoons.
To make the wire part of the railway scenery, I built telephone poles with plastic insulators for the wire.
For a couple of days, I did not find any raccoon droppings in that area. On the third day, when I was getting ready to celebrate victory, I found that the raccoons had moved to a nearby area where there was no wire and took care of their business there instead.
A “Fantastik” solution
To get rid of the smell from the raccoon droppings, I had bought a spray bottle of Fantastik all-purpose cleaner, and after using it for a couple of times on the tracks, I noticed that the trains were running much smoother over that portion of the track. The light bulb went on. The Fantastik had dissolved the gunk that coated the top of the rails!
I also began to realize that the raccoons were not doing their business in the spots that I had cleaned with the spray. The light bulb went on again. It seemed that raccoons don’t like the smell of Fantastik!
Now I clean the track by walking around with a pad at the end of a pole, soaked with Fantastik, using a back-and-forth motion over the tracks, spraying the pad as needed.
Note: It is worth clarifying that the tracks still have the dark patina that forms naturally on brass. The cleaner does not remove that patina, it just dissolves the gunk, which is absorbed by the rag on the pad. I don’t need shiny tracks to ensure good connectivity, just gunk-free tracks.
Also, for the article, I re-installed the poles, wire, and power source on the tracks for the photos. With the success of the cleaner as raccoon repellent, I don’t need the wire on the railway anymore.
I’m happy to report that there no more raccoon droppings, and no more hesitant or stopped trains.
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