Filthy track can look clean
The dirt on rails and wheels is usually a mixture of oxidation, lubricants, and dust that isn’t particularly visible. And the problem is that this invisible mix is an insulator. And if it gets transferred to the treads of our locomotives’ pickup wheels, the problem is compounded.
The Achilles’ heel in the circuit that powers our locomotives is the tiny footprints between the pickup wheels and the rail. This is true for locomotives in all scales, but even more so for N scale because of its small size. The footprints are about the same in any scale, but the larger scale engines weigh more and so the wheels press down harder, giving better contact. (An HO engine of the same prototype weighs about eight times as much as its N scale equivalent.)
An irony here is that the more realistic a wheel is, the smaller the contact footprint. A prototypically correct model wheel has a tapered tread (the relatively flat running surface of the wheel) and a fillet (a curved surface that completes a smooth transition from the tread to the flange.)
All the wheels in a train have these characteristics, and without them the cars wouldn’t be able to negotiate curves smoothly, if at all. On a curve, the outside wheel must travel farther than the inside wheel in the same period of time. It does so by riding up on the fillet, which in effect makes the wheel radius larger.
Learning the basics. How do modelers learn about this problem and how to address it? They can ask at their hobby shop or ask model railroading friends, if they’re fortunate to have either of these precious resources. They can also ask Siri or her ilk on online devices, or they can buy a book or two on model railroading basics. (Ahem, it just so happens that MR’s publisher, Kalmbach Media, offers several.) When you’re starting out in this hobby, you need a lot of information, and you need it fast.
My friend and fellow N scale layout builder Steve Miazga [See “Missabe Junction revisited” in the September 2018 Model Railroader – Ed.] told me that when he was starting, his dealer told him to do nothing but read for six months. I think that was good advice, although probably a few months less might suffice. You might find direction, and you’d almost certainly learn how to clean wheels and track.
Many solutions have been offered for keeping track clean, but my go-to over the years has always been the Bright Boy cleaner sold by Walthers. It looks rather like an ink eraser, and you just rub the track with it. Every now and then you need to vacuum the track, as tiny crumbs of rubber tend to fall off onto the roadbed. In N scale these can prevent a switch point from closing completely.
The best way to keep wheels clean is to keep your track clean. Still, you’ll find yourself having to clean wheels now and then, especially if you’ve been working on the layout. Paint, glue, plaster dust, sawdust, and soldering flux all like to find their way onto locomotive drivers.
I clean drivers with the old tried-and-true paper towel and isopropyl alcohol method. First, you moisten with alcohol a part of the towel near the edge, then lay that wet part across the track and spin one set of drivers on it while powering the locomotive from the truck that’s still touching the rails. If the wheels are especially dirty, you may have to scrape some crud off the driver treads just to get them going.
I then run the wheels on a dry part of the towel so no liquefied gunk will set up and put me right back in the dirty wheel situation.
Once track and wheels are clean, the best part is keeping them clean by running your trains a whole lot, which is a lot more fun than cleaning track and wheels!