Maintenance, Repair, and Restoration

Getting Your Train Fixed- General Rules

Due to personnel shortages and work demands, beginning May 1st, 2016, Rail Tales will only take repairs for:

1) Vintage Lionel (pre 1970)

2) All Marklin locomotives and rolling stock (only- no control systems or accessories)


3) Any item sold through the store and items necessary for the operation of layouts we are constructing for a client.

We deeply regret having to take this step and if we should find suitable personnel in the future (or if my health improves to where I can go back to working 12 hour days), we will attempt to serve the general public again. Thank you for your understanding.

Given those limitations, if you have Lionel or Marklin items:

1) We take repairs from all over the United States. We do not take repairs from outside the United States, nor do we take payment from non-US sources. You may also drop the item off at our retail location…

2) If shipping, please pack the item carefully-if it rattles at all, you need to pack it better.

3) Include a letter with your contact information and a description of the locomotive (preferably with a part or cab number).

4) Include a brief description of what you want done; ex: “diagnosis, repair, clean and service” or “clean and service, train works” 0r “repair broken details, no service” etc. If you have any questions, contact us first.

5) If shipping, send via FedEx or UPS (NOT USPS!) and include a return pre-paid sticker. This ensures that we will ship it to you with the same conditions, insurance, etc as you ship it to us and it will save the time needed for us to price the return shipping.

6) If shipping, mail to: Rail Tales/705C Dale Ave/Charlottesville, VA 22903

7) Our ‘standing estimate’ is $30-60 for the work, including normal parts and supplies. If the amount will be more than this or if the train is worth less than this (once fixed), we will let you know before proceeding. There is a minimum $10 charge for evaluation if you do not go ahead with the work.

8) We keep common parts and supplies on hand necessary to perform most service and minor repair work. If we need something unusual, we will give you the option of providing us with the part(s) yourself or we will attempt to obtain them ourselves. In addition to the cost of the part(s), there may be a search charge for difficult to find or obtain parts. This charge will never exceed the actual part cost (including shipping).

9) Once the work is completed, we ask that you pay by cash or check made out to Rail Tales. We will call or email you the amount. As soon as we have the check, we will send it back to you. If the check is no good for some reason, we reserve the usual remedies and penalties. With prior arrangement, you can pay by PayPal but a surcharge applies, typically 10%.

IF and only if you are paying in person, you can pay by Credit Card. No surcharge applies.

10) Allow 4-6 weeks including shipping time plus any time it takes us to get special parts that we don’t have on hand.

Maintenance of your trains

Model trains are working machines and need to have their working parts kept clean for maximum efficiency. The wheels and contact points need to be clean to pick up electricity and the moving parts need to be kept clean and lubricated to move smoothly and not  cause unnecessary friction. Failure to keep your trains clean will eventually cause damage!

Rail Tales will help you maintain your model railroad product in top condition. All locomotives should be subjected to a regular maintenance schedule based on how often and how intensively they are used. All model and toy train track systems should be subjected to regular cleaning and maintenance as well. In fact most ‘train’ problems are really ‘track’ problems.

Rail Tales can perform maintenance services for the customer or teach the customer how to do it themselves. Maintenance contracts for fleets are available.

Just because it runs doesn’t mean it’s okay! Older trains have higher current draws and so can ‘soldier on’ even on dirty or rusty track with dirty wheels and motor pickups and poor lubrication. These conditions are harmful to the locomotive! Many older trains were built to take it but they don’t like it and will eventually fail. As a general rule, if the train is making sparks anywhere, something is wrong!

High quality trains, especially ‘post war’ Lionel and almost all Marklin products, which are properly maintained and which are operated on properly maintained track can be kept running indefinitely.

Due to very high demand, we generally cannot do maintenance or service while you wait except in special circumstances. It is okay to ask if you have some special circumstance.

We only do maintenance on Marklin, vintage Lionel, and trains belonging to customers for whom we have built a layout.


Maintaining Your Trains

New Trains:

Most locomotives made since 1995 (and many made before then) are nearly maintenance free and need only light lubrication of the axles and motor bearings along with a good cleaning of the wheels and removal of accumulated debris from the moving parts. Once or twice a year for casual users and once a month for heavy users is usually sufficient. This type of maintenance can easily be performed by the customer with the proper equipment and materials. However, improper materials or techniques can damage or destroy a model. If you aren’t sure, ask…

“New Trains” usually take about a half hour to clean and ready for service. We can sell you the equipment: the primary equipment is some sort of wheel cleaner and fine plastic friendly oil. We use ACT brand lubricants for most model railroad equipment. Some trains require regular greasing of the gears and gear boxes (see your manual). Most of our cleaning is done with either alcohol or ACT track cleaner. On trains that have traction tires, do not get lubricant or cleaning fluid on the tires!

Older HO and N Scale Trains:

Many locomotives made before 1995 and most made before 1970 have ‘open face’ motors which can be (and should be) disassembled for maintenance and which have replaceable motor brushes. These types of motors need regular cleaning and eventually may need replacement of the brushes as well. On most locomotives, the brushes last a LONG time, possibly decades, but they should be inspected when the locomotive is serviced. Older trains also usually require regular greasing of the gearboxes.

Note that some motors have ball bearings so extreme care should be taken when opening them. The bearings are important and can be repacked in grease after service.

We see a lot of older trains that have been run until they stopped operating. Most of the time, extensive cleaning and re-lubrication will return them to service but it is best for the locomotive if it is kept in good condition all along.

Servicing vintage trains usually costs between $25 and $50, depending on how dirty they are and what minor fixes may be required.


Marklin Locomotives

In addition to regular lubrication and cleaning, nearly all Marklin trains require the changing of motor brushes and traction tires periodically. These are regular service items. Failure to keep the brushes in good condition can and will damage the motor and possibly the other electronics as well. Failure to change the tires will damage the wheels and track. Rail Tales will perform this work and/or show you how to do it yourself. Rail Tales has access to factory replacement brushes and tires for most models. We replace these items as part of our regular service program.

Some newer Marklin trains have maintenance free motors which never need service but they still need lubrication and tires.

Most Marklin trains requires about an hour to service, including brush and tire replacement and lubrication. Our usual charge is $35 including parts (bulbs extra).

Marklin brand oil is safe around children but can break down over time and turn into glue. We no longer recommend or use it, preferring the ACT lubricant family instead. However, these must be applied carefully to Marklin systems.


Vintage O Scale Trains:

Most Post-war Lionel trains (1946-1970) can be cleaned and serviced for $60 depending on how difficult the dis-assembly. Note that servicing the tender of a locomotive is a separate item (usually $30)!


Traction Tires:

Many trains both new and old are equipped with ‘traction tires’ (essentially rubber bands on the tires to improve traction). These wear out over time and have to be replaced. On many models this can be done by the owner and some locomotives include instructions for this procedure. However, some disassembly is typically required and some replacement procedures are not obvious, so Rail Tales is happy to perform this service for the customer as needed.

Locomotives designed for traction tires should NEVER be operated without them!

Traction Tire replacement can take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes or longer for a set. Rail Tales has access to most available factory and after-market replacement tires. The usual charge to replace the tires is $10.00 plus the cost of the tires themselves.



Please do not under any circumstances apply WD-40 or similar products to any model train except in very localized areas to remove rusted parts. These types of products are very harmful to electrical motors, rubber gaskets, light bulbs, and many plastic surfaces.

Please do not use graphite powder to lubricate any locomotive. If it gets into the electrical working parts, it may cause short circuits. Graphite powder may be used on some parts of non-powered rolling stock in some cases but is not ideal.


Maintaining Your Track

The average casual user and many model enthusiasts are unaware of just how dirty model railroad track can get and just how severely this harms train performance. Dirty track may cause locomotives to run erratically or not at all and is especially impairing for digitally equipped models. Regardless of scale, keeping the tracks clean and free of debris is important to any railroad operation. Rail Tales sells a number of products to assist the user in cleaning track and also offers both a class in this vital skill and a maintenance contract to do it for you.

Most train operation problems are really track problems.

A light cleaning can be accomplished by a track cleaning car or by simply rubbing the tracks down with a track cleaning pad or rag lightly wetted with isopropyl alcohol or track cleaning fluid (we use ACT brand). Rail Tales recommends a cleaning car for larger layouts but for small layouts, the cleaning pad or rag is fine. Make sure to be careful around those small details!

A thorough cleaning requires a heavy track cleaning pad appropriate to the rail type and some kind of track cleaning fluid plus a vacuum.

If your models have traction tires, you will need to lightly clean your track weekly and the more often you run, the more often you will need to clean the tracks. You will need a thorough track cleaning 1-4 times per year depending on how often you run your trains and how diligent you are with the light cleaning.

Lightly cleaning a layout by hand typically takes a half hour per 32 square feet (a typical 4×8 size layout). However, track arrangement and scale will alter this, so each layout will be different.

Thorough cleaning a dirty layout typically takes 1-2 hours per 32 square feet depending on track complexity and scale. This includes cleaning the scenery.

If your models have plastic wheels (instead of metal ones) you will need to lightly clean your track weekly and the more often you run, the more often you will need to clean the tracks. You will need a thorough track cleaning 1-4 times per year depending on how often you run your trains and how diligent you are with the light cleaning.

If your models have no traction tires and have all metal wheels and you keep them clean, the more often you run your trains, the LESS often you will need to clean the track. You can probably lightly clean the tracks once a month and be fine. A thorough cleaning once a year should be sufficient.

Marklin trains have a third center rail or series of studs depending on the track type. A pickup ‘shoe’ slides along this rail for power transfer and at the same time, effectively cleans the rail or studs. For this reason, Marklin trains are largely self cleaning on the center ‘rail’ if they are run regularly and the more they are run, the cleaner the center ‘rail’ gets. However, the outside rails require the same maintenance as any other track. Marklin trains have metal wheels but use traction tires.

Lionel, MTH, and most other O gauge track have a third center rail which is contacted by a roller system. These rollers do not clean the center rail like the Marklin skid shoes. However, O gauge trains tend to operate at higher voltages and amperages than HO and N scale trains which makes the effects of the track dirt less obvious- the higher power levels can ‘work through’ a certain amount of dirt. This is not good for them and can cause ‘arcing’ that damages wheels, rollers, motors, and computer chips.

If you see sparks underneath your trains, either track or the power pickups or both are probably dirty and the ‘arcing’ you see is damaging the track and trains!

Warning: Do not under any circumstances use steel wool on any type or brand of track. Small metal bits can get inside the locomotive and severely damage the motor! Surface rust may be removed from steel track using Scotch Brite brand or similar plastic based pads.



If your train or accessory doesn’t work, we can probably fix it. However, due to the restrictions previously mentioned, we can only do repairs on Marklin and vintage Lionel and items bought in our store at this time.

Sometimes model trains break, either through mishap, accidental misuse, or just plain wear and tear. When that happens, Rail Tales is here to get those models up and running again. We repair most any brand of O, HO, and N gauge trains and we can also do some repairs on other gauges as well. Repairs can be simple and inexpensive or complex, expensive, and even (rarely) impossible. We can evaluate a train and let you know approximately what it is worth so you can decide if you want to go ahead with the work. We do have a minimum charge of $10-15.00 if you elect not to proceed.

Typical repairs are often actually service and maintenance issues. If the train isn’t being properly maintained, eventually it will stop working.

Most basic repairs can be accomplished in 1-2 hours, including updating the maintenance on the item. Replacement parts are often required for repairs. If factory or aftermarket parts are not available, Rail Tales can often fabricate a workable part or modify an existing part to serve.

VERY few trains cannot be repaired with sufficient time and effort. ‘Very few’ does not mean ‘none’, however. Sometimes trains are manufactured in such a way so as to not be repairable. Also, some repairs may cost more than the price of replacement. Rail Tales will tell the customer if in the opinion of Rail Tales staff, the item is ‘not worth fixing’.

The most common irreparable item for HO and N scale trains are cracked delrin (plastic) gears. Unless an exact match can be obtained, this is a ‘death sentence’. This problem is especially common with N scale equipment.

The term “repair” for purposes of Rail Tales includes electrical and mechanical systems but not cosmetic or structural damage. Cosmetic and Structural damage is handled by Restoration because while mechanical and electrical repairs rarely alter the collectors value of a piece, any sort of external or structural work does alter the collection value (if any).



If something on your train or model is broken on the outside, we can probably restore it.

Sometimes models sustain external damage through any number of causes. When that happens, restoring the appearance and structural function of a model to its original or near original condition may be desirable. Rail Tales performs all manner of restoration services from simple replacement of parts to paint touch ups and glue work to part fabrication to complete repainting.

Rail Tales often works on items of significant value in the collectables and antiques market. The first priority for Rail Tales in these cases is to determine if the proposed work will negatively alter the value of the item and if so, make the customer aware of this fact before work is begun. In most cases, priority is given to making repairs with appropriate factory parts of the correct period and manufacturer if possible. The second priority is to make sure all restoration work leaves no outward trace to casual observation but to also make sure that any careful inspection of the item will easily spot the restoration. In some cases, restoration work will not affect the value of the item while in others it may drastically change it.

Rail Tales will not be a party to any attempt to deceive a third person as to the condition of the item being restored for purposes of value!  

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