2B or not 2B :: Fighting dirty rails

Graphite 2B stick - track cleaning photo Graphite_zpsc30ba3b7.jpg

There’s no question: Model railways are only fun if the trains run – and run reliably. And unless one is using a battery-power system, reliable running depends on excellent electrical contact between rails and wheels.

Over the years, modellers have tried many things to improve the electrical path – from additional wipers on locomotives, to hair clipper oil, to special circuits designed to burn away non-conductive contaminants. The one that works for me is the above graphite stick (of 2B hardness), purchased from an art supply store more than a decade ago.

I learned about applying graphite to the rails from a local modeller. Brian Fayle is best known in these parts for his figure-painting techniques (which I also use). But while talking at a train show he mentioned that rubbing graphite on the rails improves electrical performance and – since I was working in On2 at the time, and suffering from terrible performance, I decided to give it a try. What a difference! I’ve been a convert ever since.

After painting the rails, I clean the tops of paint with various tools – anything from a piece of strip wood dipped in thinner to a fine emery board. Then, I simply rub the graphite stick over the top. (Be careful around switch points – you don’t want to catch one with the graphite stick and tear it off the head rod.) It can be rubbed flat or used on end: Look at the above photo again and you’ll notice a notch at the left end of the stick, which I’ve worn into the stick while dressing the rails.

And that’s it. In seven years of running my On2 layout and more than a year of running trains on Port Rowan, I have never needed to do routine cleaning of track or locomotive wheels. (I do engage in a bit of cleaning after applying scenery in case I get water or glue on the rails – then reapply graphite.) Electrical contact has been super-reliable, and I have not noticed any loss of pulling power as a result of applying graphite. (That said, I run short trains on a layout with no significant grades, and my train room is a relatively clean environment. Your mileage may vary.)

Applying graphite to the rails is a popular solution amongst modellers in the UK. To read more about using graphite and other methods of fighting dirty rails, I recommend a presentation by Mike Walton. He’s a member of The Platelayers Society, a local group for fans of UK modelling, and he did an excellent presentation at one of their gatherings. The slides from that presentation are online as a PDF called Go With The Flow.

10 thoughts on “2B or not 2B :: Fighting dirty rails

  1. Ok I’ve been modeling for over 40 years and have never read or heard of this! Can’t wait to give it a try! Thanks Trevor for passing this along.

    • Hi Jim:
      It certainly works for me. Just make sure power to the rails is off when you apply the graphite. It produces a really good puff of smoke, otherwise…
      Cheers!

  2. This has me wondering about using other graphite products for conductivity. I have been using P-B-L Neolube for lubing coupler pockets, journal boxes and axle ends (journals), truck centre plates, and switchpoints. I know that this stuff is conductive, and have noticed that it flows very freely.

    Even with the obvious black deposits on railheads, might Neolube be useful where a graphite stick can’t be used?

    But I am going to run out and buy a graphite stick anyhow.

    Once again, you’ve proven the value of looking beyond North American outline railway modelling for good modelling ideas.

    • Hi Steve:
      I wouldn’t worry about coating all of the rails. Do the ones you can reach, and the wheels will spread the graphite to the rest. Graphite on the rails adds a nice (graphite coloured) finish to wheel treads that looks a lot better than bright nickel silver…
      Cheers!

  3. Graphite is conductive and helps to prevent oxidisation of the rail heads. However, be aware of one issue, that it also acts as a lubricant – it is used to lubricate doorlocks and padlocks. I use it to lubricate the bearings of my O gauge models wagons and coaches. This doesn’t have much of a negative effect on relatively flat layouts, but if you have steep grades and long trains it can be problematic. In any case, we often expect our models to haul more than prototypical loads. If you want the benefits of graphite, you can coat the tyres of your model locomotives with the stuff – especially on the backs of the wheels where the pick-ups contact the wheel treads. Graphite will extend the working life of the contacts. This also has the advantage of helping trains run through points more smoothly.

    • Hi Martin:
      A valid observation – thanks for the input. I haven’t noticed any reduction in pulling power, but I’m running modest-length trains on a flat layout. That said, there’s been no trouble with shoving several cars up a short but steep grade at the coal dealer siding in Port Rowan, either.
      As with so many things in this hobby, an individual’s milage may vary and it’s usually prudent to do some controlled testing before deploying any technique system-wide. That’s equally valid whether it’s graphite on the rails, static grass application, wiring a layout for DCC, pouring water, etc…
      Cheers!

  4. This reply comes so late that it’s likely few will read it, but here goes anyway. Artist’s graphite is a matrix not only of graphite, but baked clay as well. (According to Wikipedia, the clay used in drafting pencils was so special that prior to WWII, America stockpiled it from Germany so that correctly-textured pencils could be made available to American draftsmen!) So when “drawing” on the rails, in addition to pure graphite, tiny bits of broken, abrasive clay are also laid down, to eventually be pressed into the metal wheels and rails. This might well provide mechanical traction, just like the stuff found in prototypical sandboxes. So, has anyone tried neolube, and do your engines slip?

  5. Trevor,
    Thank you for this information. I look at the post in front of my own and see that was made in 2015, I found this a few weeks back and forwarded it to the membership of our local club, this is timeless info. We in S gauge also suffer from poor electrical contact on the rails at times and have tried many other cures for the problem. This may well be the best solution for us also.
    Ray

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