Brass Rail, Dirty Track and a
Misguided Love Affair with Oil.
No matter where we live, no matter how hard we try to keep the dust away from our Model Railroads, we all do encounter dust.  Dust is without a doubt, one of the principal sources of problems to a Model Railroad.  The dust which falls anyplace except on top of the rail is only a minor inconvenience as it can be periodically vacuumed up.  It’s the dust which falls on the top of the rail which creates an electrical contact problem.  A far greater problem is the way in which we deal with this dust problem.

When I look back at the pictures which I took of my modeling efforts back some 40+ years ago, I wonder why I even stuck with this hobby.  Smooth operation of engines was with out a doubt, extremely difficult at best.  The popular rail of the day was brass and nickel silver was more expensive and not as good a conductor as brass.  The use of the Bright Boy was mandatory and very often with only limited results.

About this time I became a member of a fairly old, club which still used steel rail.  As I tried to keep my equipment ruining on my home railroad as well as on the club, I noticed that the steel rail, which was supposed to be a bad conductor of electricity seemed to be less susceptible to dust problems than the brass.  Hummm.  Then one day and quite by accident, I over oiled some of the wheels on a couple of my engines, and found that the contact problems were reduced significantly.  Hummm.  So the next time I wanted to run, I put a little 3 in one oil on the track and WOW everything ran great.  Hummm.  Could it be that this was the silver bullet I had been looking for?

Now that I thought that I had conquered the dirty track problem, I found it a lot more enjoyable to run trains and did so more often.  After a couple of months, a new problem arose, cars started derailing.  Upon a close examination, there was so much crud on the wheels of some cars that there was no flange.  Well clean it off with a sharp tool and away we go again.  A couple of months later the same wheels are curded up again,  Hummm.  Why is the crud building up on the wheels and track?

By this time, I had started to look further into what makes the wheels of the engine loose contact.  After many observations of the problem and with some consultations with a physicist from work, I came to the conclusion that the following process takes place.  Dust settles on the track, the engine roles over the dust and causes arcing which creates oxide on the wheels and track, the oxide then cause the wheels to arc more with the track, which creates more oxide and.............  Until the wheel has a layer of insulating oxide and can no longer pick up current from the track.  Adding the oil on the track would soften this oxide and allow it to be rubbed off by the action of the locomotive wheels slipping on the track.  The down side is that the oil will first hold the dust particles on the rail head, and then when mixed with oxide, create this crud which will build up on the wheels.  While the nickel silver rail was not as good a conductor, it is far less susceptible to oxide and arcing, and gives far better electrical contact between the rail and the pick-up wheels.

I also tried to use alcohol to clean the track and found that its cleaning abilities are very poor.  I also found that after using alcohol, the crud on the wheels became so hard you almost have to chip it off with a chisel.  Goo Gone is a mild acid and what you think is crud from your track is really your track being eaten away.

Interestingly enough, MR and MRC in the late 70's, early 80's, had several articles which pretty much stated the same findings and also discussed the problem that the oil caused the crud build-up on the wheels.  Could this be the Magic Potion liquid that will cure my contact problems?

By the mid 70’s, I had switched to nickel silver rail and at first continued to use oil on the rails.  As oil was never as far as I know used on the steal rail club track, the more that I thought about it, I decided to stop applying oil on the track and operate on dry track.  At first there were contact problems, but after wiping and cleaning wheels the contact problems started to go away.  After several months the trains were running smoothly, the crud build-up was gone and I could wipe my finger over a foot or so of rail and only get a light smug on my finger. 

For the past 20 or more years, I have used dry track on the CSWRR.  I keep all liquids off the track and never have power pick-up problems.  I seldom need to clean my track using a Bright Boy and then only when there is a problem.  Under normal operation, the locomotive driving wheels slightly slipping on the rail is more than sufficient to keep the driving wheels clean.  Only rarely do I need clean engine wheels and then usually after operating them on other Railroads.  If dust should settle on the track, usually from sawing or drilling, I will use a brush on the vacuum to clean everything up.  I may also run the "grinder train" which is 3 track cleaner cars with dry sliding pads.

Liquids on the track give dust particles some to stick to.  Why don’t you wash your car on a windy day?  Because the water sticks the dust to your car.  So then why put liquid on the track to give the dust something to stick to?

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