Cleaning track - it's like washing the car or vacuuming the carpet - it never ends. Since none of us ever has as much time to spend in the hobby as we'd like, housekeeping chores like track cleaning usually don't rank very high on our list of projects.
Fun or not, cleaning track is a vital part of making sure those hours you do get to run trains can be enjoyable. Of course you can clean your rails by hand, but we've all looked for a better way. And there have been many manufacturers that have tried to help.
Most of those products, no matter how well intentioned, are usually far less effective than promised. There is one rail cleaner however that has developed a reputation for success for over 20 years, and it's made by Centerline Products.
"The Ones that Work"
I first saw one of Centerline Products' cars nearly two decades ago at a train club. The other members raved about it. And these cars have been reviewed in several magazines, all with similar endorsements.
Finally, after watching the car in action and having a very pleasant conversation with the company's owner, I decided it was time to give one of these a try for myself. And I will simply say that this product did not meet my expectations - it greatly exceeded them.
The secret to the cars' success really lies in their simplicity. The car is nothing more than an aluminum (or brass depending on the model) frame on trucks with a weighted roller free-floating in the center.
The car drags the roller around the track. This is actually a patented design and the real beauty of the car. Because the roller is not attached to the car, although it does roll, there is a little bit of drag. This drag allows the roller to both roll and slide, picking up the grease, dirt and grime instead of just rolling over it or smearing it around.
The roller can be used wet with your choice of cleaner, or dry. Many modelers purchase a second car and run one wet and one dry in a train. From my experience with the car thus far, I think that with regular use, a single car will suffice.
Most of the failed products on the market suffer from over-engineering, complicated designs, or at the very least difficulties in replacing the cleaning surface. No such issues with the Centerline cleaners.
A Cleaner for Every Track
Perhaps most impressive about the line of cleaners from Centerline Products is the variety in which they are offered. There are 20 different versions!
The models all use the same basic cleaning technology. The biggest difference is in the wheels and couplers.
In addition to the trucks and couplers, the cars themselves are made out of either aluminum or brass. Some have credited the brass cars' weight as being part of the secret of their success. Actually, since the cleaning is accomplished by the roller, the weight of the car is relatively irrelevant. The aluminum car is heavy enough to track well and just as effective at guiding the roller.
Looking the Part
One complaint I have heard about these cars is that unlike some other products, these don't "look like" a real train car.
Personally, I'm much more concerned with how a tool like this works than how it looks. And while I'd probably make sure it was out of the way if I was taking photos of the layout or a train, cleaning the rails is usually a job best performed when the railroad is not being shown to visitors anyway. (After all, those are the times when you really want it to work!)
The aluminum body cars do have a smaller profile. You could possibly mount a boxcar or other shell over the top if it bothers you that badly. This thinner car may also be a better choice for railroads with very tight side-to-side clearances like tunnels and bridges. Since those are the areas where manual cleaning is hardest, getting the cleaning car in there is critical.
At the end of the day, I couldn't be happier with the Centerline track cleaner. As they say, it is the one that works.
It's also nice to know that these cars are made by a small family-owned business here in the United States.
These cars are not cheap...prices range from $47.50 (N Scale Model D-10) to $199.95 (G Gauge). Price differences are based on the wheels and couplers. Brass cars are also more expensive than the aluminum simply due to the cost of materials. For the same reason, larger scales are more expensive as well.
For a small layout, even the owner of Centerline admits that this may be a significant investment. I would argue however that for even a modest size pike, especially one with lots of hidden tracks or one in an environment that seems to gather dirt quickly, this tool is more than worth the investment.
Like so many other tools (and that's what this is, a tool not a toy) you can buy imitation after cheap imitation. But if you want to get the job done, spend the money to get the right tool up front. In the long run, you'll be saving money. More importantly, you'll actually be able to get back to enjoying running your trains!