Fixing Model Trains That Won't Run

Model railroad, diesel shunter
onfilm / Getty Images

If your train won't run at all, the first challenge is to find what is wrong. If the problem only started after you made recent changes to the track or trains, start there first. If you have no idea where to begin, the six steps below will walk you through the most common problem areas.

Some problems are easy to solve. If you have a broken locomotive or power supply, or if your model trains are no longer made, you may want to find a professional to make the repairs. For many current sets, it is cheaper to replace than repair.

  • 01 of 06

    Is the Locomotive on the Track?

    With some locomotives, it may not be obvious that all of the wheels are not on the track.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Your engine gets its power through the wheels. Make sure all of the locomotives' wheels are on the track by sliding it back and forth gently. Try moving the engine to a different part of the track to rule out a loose rail joint or electrical connection.

  • 02 of 06

    Check All Electrical Connections

    This track section will help put trains on the track. It also has a plug-in for power feeders from the power supply. Make sure the connection is tight.

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Start with the connection between the wires and the track, then the connections between the wires and the power supply. Make sure nothing is loose, and the wires don’t touch. Make sure the wires are connected to the terminals for the track and not accessories. Inspect the wires themselves to make sure they are not frayed or split. Check the electrical plug and socket, too. Is the outlet turned on?

  • 03 of 06

    Clean Track and Wheels

    A variety of specialized and common cleaning supplies are available to help keep your track and wheels shining

    Ryan C Kunkle

    If you’re setting up for the first time, you can probably skip this step entirely. Dirty track and wheels usually result in rough stop-and-go running, not a complete loss in power. If you’ve had the trains put away for a long time, especially in a damp environment, you could have corrosion or dirt build-up heavy enough to prevent operation altogether.   

    If you do notice heavy dirt or corrosion, it can usually be removed with some special abrasive cleaning blocks and liquid cleaners available at hobby stores. A strong eraser and rubbing alcohol will also work. Do not use steel wool. The steel shavings can be drawn into your engine's motor. 

  • 04 of 06

    Check the Power Supply

    Check the output of your power supply. Make sure you used the correct outputs

    Ryan C Kunkle

    Being sure that the power supply is working is important. The surest way is to use an ammeter to read the electric current. If you don’t have an ammeter, a simple test tool can be made with a low voltage light bulb and two short pieces of wire. 

    If you don’t detect any current at the supply outputs, disconnect the wires to the track and test again. If you get a light, then you probably have a short in the track or wires. If not, then the problem may be a faulty power supply. Contact the manufacturer or a local hobby shop for a qualified service or replacement.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Check the Locomotive

    A working headlight, or a lighted passenger car or caboose, is a good indication that your power supply, wiring, and track are working properly

    Ryan C Kunkle

    If everything checked out at the power supply, retrace the wires to the track again and test here. The ammeter will work, or if you have a second locomotive or even a lighted passenger car or caboose, try putting it on the track. 

    If you are getting good results with this test, the problem is probably in the locomotive itself. If you are just starting out, your best option is to return the locomotive or find a local service location. If you don't get a good light or a second locomotive won't work, then the problem is probably on the track or the wires.

  • 06 of 06

    Check the Track and Wires.

    Color coding helps prevent crossed wires. Organized and secure wiring under the table prevents chaos above

    Ryan C Kunkle

    If you have detected a short circuit in the track, check your wires again. A short circuit can occur any time one rail or wire touches the opposite rail or wire. If you have more than one set of power leads, make sure they aren't crossed. It is a good idea to color-code your wires.

    If you are using the 2-rail track, make sure you haven't created a short in a reversing loop or wye. Switches and crossings can also cause a short if the opposite rails touch without an insulated break. If you've just changed or added track, start searching there. Remove the suspicious piece and see if the short goes away. Continue disassembly until you find the problem. If you are building a large layout, it is a good idea to test as you go.