Troubleshooting Model Train Problems

Model train derailed

The Spruce Crafts / Ryan C Kunkle

Nothing will kill your enthusiasm faster than a train that doesn't run like it's supposed to. Model trains are complex systems. If one little thing goes wrong, the entire system can shut down. Troubleshooting model train problems can take some detective work. Is it the power supply? The wiring? The track? The locomotive?

When real trains derail, investigators have to look at all the clues to find what went wrong and what could prevent it from recurring. Model train malfunctions may be a lot less costly, but they are no less frustrating.

Troubleshooting Model Trains

Many manufacturers include troubleshooting tips in the instructions and on their websites. Some also provide numbers to call for a service representative. Before you call or return the trains, it is good to know what exactly is wrong, or at least be able to adequately describe the problem and what steps you've already taken to try and solve it. A representative may walk you through some checks step by step. It helps to have the train in front of you when you call. Even better, be at your platform so you can try the recommended corrective actions while still on the phone.

Troublesome trains can be caused by equipment failure or just for lack of a little maintenance. Your performance problems are the first clue to diagnosing the problem. There are specific steps you can take to find and fix the problem no matter what your train is doing (or not doing.)

Fixing Your Model Train

  • Your train won't run at all: If your train won't move at all, you probably have a failure in at least one component: the engine, track, wiring or power supply. Since a problem in any one will yield the same result, the biggest challenge is to find the weakest link. Check carefully, it may be a broken power supply or as simple as forgetting to turn on the light switch. A shutdown could be the result of having a break in the power supply or an electrical short.
  • Your train doesn't run smoothly: If your train slows down in certain places, stalls and stops a lot, or if it doesn't run as well as it used to, it could be a construction issue like not using large enough wire or not having a proper wire bus. It could also simply be that your track and wheels have gotten dirty and need to be cleaned. Simple maintenance will go a long way towards keeping your trains running their best. If done regularly, these steps offer a big return on your time.
  • Your train won't stay on the track: If your train derails, you have a problem with the train or the track. A good rule of thumb is if the same locomotive or car derails at multiple places, it's probably a problem with the train. If multiple trains derail at the same spot, it's probably the track. Our trains are much smaller than the prototype, so naturally, they require a high degree of precision. Care in construction and some small adjustments will have you back on track in no time.

Derailments, maintenance and problem-solving are part of the hobby. You can't avoid it, but you can make the most of it. Be patient as you build and persistent as you maintain and you'll spend more time running and less time fixing. And as your skills improve you'll be able to diagnose problems more quickly.