Articles - Track Tools
06/04/2017
This page lists a variety of tools I use to keep my track in good functioning order. I show examples of items built in a particular scale, but these tools can be bought or built for any of the model railroading scales. The following topics are covered in this page:
Track Cleaning
Scratchbuilt Rerailer
Track Inspection Car - S-scale
Track Inspection Car - N-scale
Track Gauges

Track Cleaning

Track cleaning is essential if you conduct electricity through the rails to power your locomotives. I have tried an eraser, the Walthers "Bright Boy", Aztec track cleaner car (N-scale version shown below), and baby lap pads. The eraser works, but it leaves a lot of material behind on the layout and it tends to spread the muck on the track to another location on the track. The "Bright Boy" is also good, but it scratches the tops of the rails. When I modeled in N-scale, I used the Aztec track cleaner car with and without liquid. I am now convinced that cleaning track with a liquid is bad. This tends to be a contentious issue in the model railroading community, but my personal experience has shown that moist track attracts dirt like a magnet. I continued to use the Aztec track cleaner car when I modeled in N-scale, but only as a way to wipe up dust from the track; without liquid. It has a magnet underneath the car to pick up errant metal pieces (this feature is very effective, especially during a first-run after laying track). The downside with a track cleaning car is that the car has to go to every piece of rail you have on your layout, including dead-end spurs. This is hard to do. On club layouts during shows, these cars are great as a part of a regular train consist.
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For removing paint and glue from the rail heads, a flat eraser or Bright Boy is good. However, for regular cleaning, I will only use "Babycare" lap pads. It is a dense, 100%-cotton pad that is used under the baby when he/she is changed. You should be able to get these at any general merchandise store, such as grocery stores, Target, Walmart, etc. One package will last you for many years. Because it is a dense pad, it doesn't tear apart or get snagged by rail joints. I usually cut about a 1"x2" rectangular piece (about the size of large, flat eraser) and rub it along the track, using the eraser on top of the lap pad. The eraser helps hold the pad in place and also keeps it horizontal as it moves over the two rails. You will notice a difference on how the pad interacts with the rail. If the pad doesn't move freely, it is a clear indicator that there is a layer of muck on the track.
In the January 2003 edition of Model Railroader magazine someone mentioned the idea of using metal polish to keep the rails from oxidizing so quickly. This is a problem for DCC since constant communication with the decoder is essential for locomotive operation. I finally decided to try this method. My S-scale layout's track work was in good shape at the time, but I started experiencing stalls like I used to experience in N-scale. That shouldn't happen, because S-scale engines are heavier and have a larger contact surface with the rails (not to mention that all wheels provide for electrical pick-up). At the grocery store I picked up a bottle of Wright's Silver Polish for around $4. It is a liquid paste-like substance. To apply it, I cut a piece of baby lap pads just larger than the flat eraser shown in the photo below. I apply a drop of the polish on one side of the pad piece and spread it out using a toothpick. I then put the pad on the track (polish side down, of course), and use the eraser to push the pad over the track. The eraser keeps the pad fairly flat so that the polish is applied to the top of the rails, not to their sides or to the ballast or ties. I firmly rub the pad several times over a section of track, changing the position of the pad's angle to the track at every pass. You will notice that the black muck from the rail accumulates very quickly. I then flip the pad over and use the clean side, again under the eraser, to buff out the polish. The rails are now nice and clean. I can go months without cleaning the rails after this treatment. Be sure to wipe up any polish from the side of the rails and scenery, because as it dries it becomes harder to remove (and it is unsightly).
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Scratchbuilt Rerailer

It was the day after a weekend train show. The wheels of every engine and car run on the club layout are invariably dirty. I usually bring all of my cars, and at least two engines. This past weekend I ran both my FA-2 and RS-1 engines. So, here I was facing the not-so-fun task of putting each engine and car on the track, one by one, cleaning their wheels. Getting the wheels to go on the track is easier than it was in N-scale, but it is still not trivial in S-scale. For N- and HO-scale you can buy a re-railer, but not so for S-scale. So, I decided that my first task should be to just build a simple one. I've seen many versions used, including someone taking an HO-scale rerailer, splitting it down the middle, and gluing it back together with a styrene spacer to make it fit the S-scale track gauge. However, with a few bits of styrene, I decided it might be fun to just make my own.
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I took a leftover piece of 0.040" styrene sheet, marked off where the inside of the rails come, and drew a line between the marks. I then drew another line width-wise at about ten scale feet in. I used the score-and-snap technique to break off a straight section and an angle section. After some filing, I glued the broken off sections back to the main sheet, at a slight offset, just enough to clear the outside of the rail. This holds the rerailer in position. Next, I took one strip of scale 4"x4" styrene, and formed the guide rails for the wheels. This was all done through experimentation.
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On the bottom of the main sheet, I glued a block of styrene, such that the working end of the rerailer rested on the ties of the track, providing a slope to gently guide the wheels onto the rails. The rerailer isn't going to win any beauty contests, but it does work.
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This was a fun, one-evening project, that helped me with the chore of re-railing a number of cars. Of course, the "chore" of cleaning the wheels still remains... By the way, one big shortcoming of this particular design was that it only supported one truck of a car at a time. I have since made a new, longer one out of wood. It works better in the sense that I can put a whole 40-foot car on the rerailer and it guides both trucks. The issue I found with that one is that I made the angle of approach to the track too tall, so the coupler hits the track before the wheels do for some cars. I am working on a new design. When I get it functional, I will update this page with my construction info.
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Track Inspection Car - S-scale

The idea of a see-through car for inspecting trackwork is not new. In N- and HO-scale you can buy them from various companies. However, I thought it might be fun to make one myself. A car like this is great for seeing how the wheels behave when they go over turnouts. This is especially important if you hand-lay your own track and turnouts. I built one in N-scale and later on one in S-scale. I'll describe the S-scale version first, and the N-scale version below. To be able to see how the wheels respond to the track, a see-through material is needed for this special "flat car". I decided to use some plexiglass that I had available. Using the table saw, I cut it to the typical dimensions of an S-scale 40-foot freight car (1-3/4 x 7-3/4 inches).
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The other parts needed for the car are two trucks and a pair of couplers. The couplers are optional, but I have found that additional track problems can be discovered by coupling this car to another car and then pushing or pulling this inspection car through a turnout using the other car (i.e. not directly touching this inspection car). That is why I decided to add the couplers. For the best results, use representative trucks and couplers that you use on your other cars. I am using a pair of Kadee #808 S-scale couplers for this car (these were later switched out to the couplers I now use for my layout's standard). I decided to use the S-Helper Service's "PRR D2-F8 50 Ton" trucks with code 110 wheels (part #00047). These are heavy trucks that roll beautifully.
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The trucks need to be mounted to the piece of plexiglass. Normal cars use a bolsters, but for this inspection car we don't need one. I found two bolts and matching nuts from the parts box and installed them onto the truck. The bolt needs to be long enough to allow the plexiglass to clear the wheels and then allow an additional nut to be placed on top of that. The two nuts are tightened against each other, which keeps them from moving up and down the bolt as the truck turns. Leave enough play to allow the truck to turn on the bolt.
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Next, a hole needs to be drilled at both ends of the "car" to take the bolts. I marked a drill point in the center and 5 scale feet away from the end. I first drilled a very small pilot hole before drilling with the final drill bit. I made the hole just wide enough to clear the bolt's threads. If it is too wide, then the car will wobble too much. Using a knife I cleaned up the debris from the drilling.
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The next photo shows a side profile of the installed truck. A nut at the top secures the truck to the plexiglass. And, we have ourselves an inspection car!
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I then assembled the Kadee couplers and glued them to the plexiglass car using 5-minute epoxy. I don't have the right size tap otherwise I probably would have used the couplers' screws to install them. The glue works fine too, though. You can manipulate the trucks' bolts to get the body to be at the right height so that the couplers will match other cars on the layout. (Update: I found out that the coupler screws are actually self-tapping. The glue didn't hold the coupler boxes for but two weeks, so I drilled a hole and put the screws in place. It works great now.)
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The next photo shows the completed car. Now it is time to start laying some track.
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Another good use for this car is to verify that track is level. Make sure that the wheels are even or otherwise the car will always indicate not level track. This is a rather simple project to build, if you have the parts. For my old N-scale car I had to add weights to the center of the car to have it track reasonably well (see below). I am using a removable metal bar for weight for this S-scale version. That way it doesn't interfere with the see-through feature of the car, and the weight can be used for other purposes when needed.
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Track Inspection Car - N-scale

For the N-scale version, the hardest part, in my mind at least, was how to mount the trucks to the see-through material. So I looked through my drawer that contains "stuff" that will never see the light of day on a layout, and found this old caboose from the Bachmann starter set. I removed the trucks and loosened the body from the frame.
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My objective was to salvage the bolster pin area from the caboose's frame. The frame's metal weight was in the way, so I cut it with a razor saw. Eventually the frame became weak enough to snap off the end of the frame. Here is a photo of the frame cut up into several pieces. The remaining parts, of course, go right back into the parts bin. You never know when they come in handy.
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Now that the demolition is complete, I needed to cut a piece of "Lucite" (clear plastic sheet, some sort of plexiglass). I bought this at Lowe's or Home Depot. An 8x10 sheet doesn't cost but a few dollars. Similar to the material I used above in the S-scale version. I took an average N-scale freight car and roughly measured it. Next, I cut a piece of this Lucite approximately 5/8" wide and 3" long. You can get fancy and make the sides perfectly smooth and round the corners, but this car is meant to be a tool, not to be run on the layout.
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The next step was to attach the salvaged truck mounts to the plexiglass. Where on the sheet to place these was roughly determined from the sample freight car. Five-minute epoxy was used to glue them down.
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I removed the trucks and metal wheels from a Micro-Trains car that I wouldn't run on my layout. These were attached with the screws from the caboose mentioned above.
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Here is the car in action, clearly showing how the wheels behave as they roll through a turnout.
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I lived with the car, un-weighted, for a while, but it just became too hard to keep it on the track. So, a variety of weights were added to get the car up to the NMRA spec of 0.95oz for this 3-inch car.
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The last photo shows the car in action. It is still somewhat easy to see what the wheels are doing when they run over a turnout.
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Track Gauges

External Reference:
For each scale, the NMRA produces a steel track gauge. You need one, unless you only buy commercial pre-fabricated snap-track. For everything else, including commercial flextrack and turnouts (and especially if you hand-lay your track), you need one of these for your chosen scale. For S-scale the NMRA sells one for Sn3, but not for standard-gauge track. There is a complicated history there*, but you can get the standard-gauge track gauge from the NASG, instead. The NASG now also sells the Sn3 gauge. These gauges help you verify that the rails are the correct distance apart from each other. They also have notches for verifying that the locomotives' and cars' wheels are spaced correctly so that they will ride on the rails correctly. Finally, they provide tabs to check the proper distances of the various rails of a turnout. When you buy the gauge, it will come with a sheet that explains how to use each of the measurements. The N- and HO-scale gauges also function as a clearance gauge.

*The history was that in the ancient days, the standard-gauge NMRA's track gauge was not accurate as compared to the prototype. The NMRA refused to make any changes, so the NASG developed their own which was accurate. Eventually, the NMRA finally decided to accept the NASG's standard (their Sn3 gauge was accurate), and so any modern S-scale standard-gauge product is made to the, now matching, NMRA/NASG standard.
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External Reference:
Although the above-mentioned gauge is the official authority on rail spacing, they are not easy to use when you are actually hand-laying rail. They are really more intended for checking existing track, rather than track construction. The gauge is not self-supporting, and the small tabs are hard to keep on the rails while you are handling other track-laying tools. So, most scales have manufacturers who make additional gauges out of various materials to help with this process. Shown in the photo below is a set of three code 83 S-scale track gauges I bought from Tomalco Track. I also have a set for code 100 rail. With these gauges, I recommend at least three. Three of them gives me reliable confidence that the rails are lined up correctly. Their flat tops are perfect for placing weights on them to weigh the rails down while you are working on the track. I also use these to lay curved track, although some people prefer the three-point gauges for that. Some people don't like that these gauges are made out of metal, because if the track is "live", they cause a short. Therefore some manufacturers make theirs out of a non-conducting material. However, the downside of some sort of plastic-based gauge is that if you have a soldering iron nearby to solder something to the rails, the gauge could melt. Both are valid solutions; you just have to pick the one that fits your working habits the best. I never have current applied to my rails while I am working on them, so metal ones are perfect for me.
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External Reference:
A "clearance gauge" is a handy tool to have as well. These make sure that nothing overhangs onto the track to interfere with the running abilities of locomotives and cars. You need one of these if your layout has structures near the track (to make sure the platform, for example, isn't too close to the track), and for tunnels. They might also be handy for placing trees, telephone/telegraph poles and their wires, etc. There are three clearance-gauge standards, so be sure to pick the one for the era you model (as railroad equipment got bigger in the real world, the clearance needed for tunnels, etc. had to be adjusted to fit that equipment). In S-scale, the NASG used to sell a clearance gauge, but production costs and relatively low demand for them, has led the organization to not produce any more when they sold out. Well, if you model in S-scale, you learn how to build things yourself. That is a big part of the appeal of the scale. The clearance gauge dimensions are readily available on the NASG web site (the NMRA has them for the other scales as well), so I set out to make one for myself out of 3/4" plywood. Any gauge needs to be dead-on accurate, so this photo shows the tools I used to actually construct what amounts to a small block of wood (in addition to the table saw).
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Here is my final build. One of the notched-out corners in the bottom of the gauge is supposed to be "filled" with a 45-degree corner, but I couldn't figure out how to do that with the tools I have. That 45-degree is used to determine the clearance of braces on deck girder bridges where the braces are used to hold up the side panels of the bridge. What I may do down the road is cut a 9/32" square piece of stock, and then slice it down its middle diagonally, and then glue that into the corner of one of the notches. Otherwise, it is just something I need to remember when I get around to building one of those types of bridges. The gauge is meant to be placed on top of the rail head, so there are no notches needed for the rail. In use, you do have to make sure that the gauge is properly centered on the rails to get accurate estimates.
Track Tools
External Reference:
When laying track for spurs, yards, or industry, where track parallels another track, it is important to provide enough spacing between them so that equipment on the track doesn't run into each other. Basically, on straight, parallel track, the track-center-to-track-center spacing should be at least 13 feet apart. If you hold operating sessions on your layout, and you have people managing staging yards (where the occasional human hand has to lend a hand after a derailment), the NMRA suggests a minimum of 15 scale feet of spacing. If you have ever seen a model railroad in action, you know that our curves are substantially tighter than track curvature in the real world. This causes equipment to hang over (i.e. away from) the track. If you have two such tracks next to each other, you have to lay the track in such a manner that two passing trains don't hit each other. This largely depends on the equipment you plan to run on your layout, and how tight those curves are. The NMRA has developed a table that lists the track-center spacing for various equipment types and various radii of the curves. I decided to make my own track-center gauge as I need one to build a coal tipple yard. I decided to make one just for parallel straight track. If I need others, they are easy enough to make. I took a 3"x1-1/2" block of solid wood (poplar in this case) and marked off where the 13-foot marks would need to be. Since center-to-center can be measured at any spot along the tracks, I made mine such that it has notches in it for a rail. These can be for either the two left-hand rails or the two right-hand rails of the tracks being measured.
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Because of the fact that this gauge needs to span a certain distance between two tracks, I don't know what kind of interference there might be between the tracks (scenery, ballast, etc.), so I decided to hollow-out the spacing in between. I left about a scale foot of material to either side of the 13-foot marks I made on the wood. I then carefully cut out a notch in the gauge, with a handsaw, where the rail is supposed to sit. I cut the notches to the outside of the 13-foot marks, because you want 13 feet between the "insides" of the two rail heads. The kerf of the handsaw blade was skinnier than the code 100 rail heads (the rail I currently use), so I had to carefully widen the notch by cutting the outside of the kerf again with the handsaw. The middle clearance is 1/2" tall. That I did with the tablesaw, simply nibbling away at the material (other tools can be used as well). As you can see from the photo below, this is how a track-center gauge is to be used.
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By making it out of 3/4" thick wood stock like this, it can be self-supporting while I am working on laying my tracks. I marked "13" foot on the gauge, so that if I build others in the future, I know which one to grab when I am laying track. This is an easy-to-make gauge, if you have the tools.
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