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Track troubleshooting tips and tricks, Part 3: Checking track power

Lack of power and failing electrical connections are causes for concern of model railroad tracks

Track troubleshooting Volt meter
Check the track voltage using a multimeter. The voltage reading should be the same along each powered track section.
Paul J. Dolkos

So long as your rails are clean and your rolling stock is fine-tuned, it's time to inspect your right-of-way for problems. This is the third of five quick articles on how to check for and fix common mechanical and electrical track problems with model railroad track.

Checking for track power problems
As I run my test train along my layout, I watch the locomotive carefully. I note any spot where the locomotive hesitates or its headlight flickers. In those locations I’ll first wipe down the rails with a clean cloth to make sure I didn’t miss a dirty section when I cleaned the track. If that doesn’t help, I’ll run another locomotive over that section to make sure that the problem isn’t poor power pickup on the first locomotive.

After I’m satisfied that the problem isn’t with dirty track or a faulty locomotive, I’ll check the track section with a multimeter, also called a volt-ohm meter or VOM. This is a portable electronic testing device that reads voltage, DC polarity, resistance (measured in ohms), and current (measured in amps).

To check the voltage of a track section, I’ll first apply power to the layout. Then I’ll set the multimeter to read DC voltage and touch the positive lead (red) to the rail with positive potential and touch the negative lead to the rail with negative potential. The meter will show the voltage from the power source that’s reaching that track section.

For a layout wired for Digital Command Control, I set the multimeter to read AC voltage. The multimeter won’t give an accurate voltage reading but will show the presence or absence of track power as well as the relative voltage.

When using a multimeter with DC power you’ll need to be aware of the polarity of the rails. If the meter reads zero, switch the leads to see if the polarity of the rails is reversed. If the meter still reads zero, then no current is reaching that section of track.

Power losses are more common if you use metal rail joiners to conduct current from a single feeder wire to adjoining rail lengths. Metal joiners can loosen or oxidize over time, weakening the current path. If you find that the current doesn’t pass through the joiner, attach a separate feeder to the dead rail length. I avoided this problem on my layout by attaching a feeder to each track section.

The solder joint between the feeder and the rail could also be broken or cold. A cold solder joint often occurs if the feeder or track moves before the solder can cool, resulting in a weak bond on both surfaces. When you wiggle the problem feeder you may see the multimeter indicate an intermittent connection. Re-melting the solder should reset the joint and fix the problem. If it doesn’t, then install a new feeder.

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