Track Layout

Locomotive Maintenance for The Non-Engineer

If you’re crazy about your railway and its smooth operation then you need to get to be an expert in cleaning and maintaining your locomotives. It’s hard to feel proud of your railroad when the locomotive lurches and jerks its way onto your tracks, thus doing it to all the cars behind it; nothing very real about that sight. (When was the last time you saw a locomotive jerk or lurch in real life?!) Here we will look at how you can avoid heartbreaking scenes like this, and just how to go about cleaning and maintaining your model railroad locomotives.

Unless you’ve got a lemon of a locomotive, (and there are some out there, believe it or not; you get what you pay for!) then the best thing you can do to keep your rail line running smoothly is to make sure that your locomotives get the regular care and attention they need. If you are stuck with a poor designed model, that has locomotion problems all of its own making, then you might consider modifying or transferring the body to a more efficient engine mechanism.

That said, most of the time your problems lie in the dirt. Literally. Dirty tracks and wheels are the most often identified source of problems to a well running locomotive. To test things out, it’s often useful to have a short section of track dedicated for cleaning and testing. Here you can put your locomotive and see how it performs on a (hopefully) clean section of track.

It will become clear very quickly what needs to be done next. Since cleaning your track and wheels is a regular maintenance task anyhow, you can do this with commercial cleaners available from your hobby shop, and some abrasive pads. Cleaning the wheel is a little more difficult and more time consuming. Special brushes and methods, such as the paper towel soaked with cleaning solution method work well. If the locomotive passes your test, and the wheels are also clean, start rounding up the usual suspects, which in this case would next be the power pack.

Model train locomotive
If you suspect it is the power pack, then you can have it tested or simply invest in a new, more powerful unit. Many times the power packs sold with inexpensive train sets are simply underpowered, and you need to get rid of this anyhow. Or there could just be a problem inside the unit, and it that case also; you’d need a new one.

Some of the tools you need for a operation like this will include needle nose pliers, some small files, tweezers, a small soldering iron, tiny screwdrivers and screw stickers, and some sort of foam cradle that you can either make or buy that will free your hands and help keep the engines finish free from too much oils from your hands. Once you take one of these babies and tear them apart, remember how you did it so you can get it back together again! If you have a schematic or diagram of the engine, that’s ideal.

Once you’ve got your engine ready to be cleaned, begin the task. I find one of the best things to use is denatured alcohol. Very common and inexpensive, it rips through oil and grease quickly, drying quickly and cleanly. Toothbrushes and Q-tips are also helpful applicators for this cleaning agent. Now that you’ve got all the oil and grease cleaned up, (quick, aren’t you!) you can apply the new lubricants. Try and use special lubricants for your model railroad engines and cars, as most other commercial lubricants are too heavy. Us e these lubricants judiciously: a little goes a long way! Sometimes even a toothpick can apply all that you need. Too much lubricant and you may end up with more of a mess than what you started with!

Make sure to take special care with the axle bearings and gear shaft bearings. Take particular care with the motor bearings, as these are notorious for drying and emitting a howling sound to let you know about it! Again, use the lubricant sparingly, as too much is just as bad as not enough!

Once you feel as though you’ve the locomotive properly cleaned and lubricated, then it’s time to test it and see just how good a job you’ve done. Try running your engine on the section of test track you’ve prepared, and if you’ve done a great job, as I’m sure you have, everything will run smoothly. If the motor refuses to run well, check some of the electrical connections to see if maybe there’s a loose wire, or connection, or poke around to see if you can find anything else that looks amiss, that perhaps you’d have a shot at fixing. If you find something and feel confident to take it on, by all means do so. For most of us however, if the engine refuses to “get well”, it may mean a trip to the hobby shop or internet to find a replacement motor. Hopefully this won’t cost an arm and a leg, and the motor will fit properly without too much modification to the frame.

If your motor purrs sweetly when you don’t put any strain on it and balks when you do, the problem may lie on the mechanism itself. Check the gears and see if they are too worn or seem to be catching. You may have one that is too tight, and needs to be loosened up slightly.

If you find that you’ve got some electrical problems, there are a few things you can do. Use some test leads and try and isolate the area that either not conducting or receiving electricity. It may be a wheel that isn’t getting juice and needs some adjustment. For problems of an electrical nature, patience is your best tool as it can take some time to find the culprit.

Keeping your locomotive clean and well-lubricated is by far the best way to head off motor problems. Make sure you make locomotive maintenance a scheduled job around your railroad!

About the author

Bill Murphy

Bill Murphy

Bill Murphy is an avid model railroader, offering advice for model enthusiasts on the YourDiorama website. For more helpful tips and information, visit

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