The Sharge UK Track Cleaner
I am coming round to the idea that DCC is a 'good thing' but there are some downers, and in particular clean wheels and tracks are critical for good running.
I have a theory that the reason that running is so erratic in DCC with dirty wheels is that the chip loses the connection with the command station. Imagine using the TV remote to change channels, and that you are changing up a channel every two seconds by pressing the 'channel up' button. Then a friend stands between you and the TV. You continue to press the button every two seconds but the TV remains on the last channel selected before your friend stood in front on it. Your friend moves away, and assuming you are still pressing the button, the channels start changing again.
Now if we assume the crud on the rail has taken the place of your friend, then we have a similar situation. The loco is running on full throttle, and when it hits the crud, the command signal is interrupted but NOT the traction current. This results in the loco heading at full speed towards the buffer stop, but the command for speed reduction is not received, hence why locos appear to be unresponsive or erratic: either they wont start or wont stop!
Whether I'm right or not, there is no doubt that with DCC, there needs to be a cleaning routine as part of the regular layout maintenance which is carried out weekly and across the fleet and main running lines.
Woodland Scenics market a wheel cleaner which is a tray with two strips laid at the appropriate track gauge on which the locomotive stands on. These 'cleaner' strips lie on top of two copper strips that are conductive, and are connected to the power supply so that the locomotive is powered and the wheels rotate against the 'cleaner' strips. In the Woodland version, the strips can be swapped out, depending on what is required to be done.
To assist users Woodland have provided a handy video to show how it should be operated. I have the Gaugemaster equivalent, but this seems to take a long time and it seemed to be polishing the crud-encrusted surface. Having used it on a couple of locos, they did run a bit better, but it was only after the cotton bud and meths were applied that their original vigour was restored. This item (Dec 2014) is currently priced at £34.95.
I have some Portescap-fitted (RG4) locos, for which the electrical Relco track cleaner s are unsuitable, but pre-Portescap, the Relcos did work. I tried Railzip - this is a red glupe that you put a drop of on each rail and then run a loco round to spread it. I have to say the results were inconclusive, and I still found myself rubbing away with the old track cleaning block.
Of track cleaning blocks there are 3: Hornby, Peco and the Double O Gauge Association. The Hornby one is made for a hard, durable material and wasn't terribly effective; the Peco one is effective but leaves a film on the rails (there's also a suggestion that they scratch the surface); whilst the Double O Gauge Association one is OK.
BUT using blocks on modern loco wheels is not good, as they rub the chrome finish off the wheels - particularly on the Hornbys. This is more critical with DCC, where clean wheels and rails are essential. The answer seems to be isopropanol applied with a cloth - the perfumed version is good old surgical spirit.
This is particularly good for loco wheels. I now 'shine' the rails up with the Double O block, and then clean the surfaces with isopropanol to remove the film. But this leaves the problem of cleaning the rails of a large loft layout with the odd tunnel.
Having read the various alternative forums (RMWeb, et al), the conclusion seemed to be a heavy brass tanker car sold in the USA that dispensed isopropanol through a washable pad on the bottom of the car, but this was quite expensive.
Then in a recent 'Railway Modeller' there was a reference to the Sharge UK offering at £50. As track cleaning is now problematical, I bought one.
This is what you get in the box: the tanker wagon; a syringe, spare pads and a page of instructions. Track cleaning fluid is not included, and there is a list of things that should NOT be used. Interestingly, there only two things which are recommended. So as surgical spirit is not on the banned list, and is generally liked by the fraternity, we went with that.
The tank car is mounted on two free-running BR Mark 1 bogies, with good quality metal wheels and modern tension lock couplings. These are permanently fixed to the bogies.
The block is kept firmly on the rails by a set of springs; the weight of the tank ensuring firm engagement.
The instructions recommend that the car is propelled, and despite the appearance that it is being towed, a wrong line running order is in operation whilst the car traverses all our main running lines.
It should come as no surprise that the car works, but here is proof that we started the first run with a clean pad...
This is the state of the pad after using a full load (10Ml) of cleaning fluid and having traversed some 160 foot of trackage.
The instructions do say that the pads should/can be washed frequently.
Initial thoughts are that the car rides well and makes positive contact with the track. Whether locos work better with regular use, or whether we will have to resort to spot track cleaning will be the acid test, and that can only be judged over time...