A RAILWAY motorcar, or railcar, is a peculiar, no-frills, gasoline-powered vehicle not much bigger than a golf cart and not much more powerful than a riding mower. The seats do not have much padding, if any, so the rider feels every clickety-clack. A railcar ride is not like a trip on any comfy old commuter train.
That is actually one reason the railroads once used railcars, which are also called speeders, jiggers or putt-putts. Tracks needed inspecting, and supervisors felt the bumps and peered through holes in the front of these cars to spot defects. Then bigger railcars, carrying track workers and equipment, were dispatched to make repairs.
About 25 years ago, railroads phased out railcars in favor of pickup trucks fitted with carriages that can adapt to railroad tracks. Railcars became collectors? items, like antique automobiles. Now, collectors use these vehicles on excursions that offer views of remote scenery on rented tracks meandering miles away from the nearest roads.
?You can see countryside that you don?t see from a car,? said Bob Knight, a railcar owner from Sandwich, Ill., who takes excursions as often as twice a month in warm weather.
One such excursion, involving 35 railcars, lurched from Petersburg, W.Va., on Saturday, heading out on the South Branch Valley Railroad for Greensburg, W.Va., where the cars were turned and ridden back to complete a 102-mile round trip. The 14-hour excursion started at dawn and ended at dusk, and the railcar operators were pummeled by rain twice, but it was an exhilarating ride. ?It?s absolutely phenomenal scenery,? said John Gonder, whose group, Appalachian Rail Excursions, oversaw the trip. On this excursion, through thinly settled, rugged land, the railcar operators made their way on the Trough, a gorge cut by the Potomac River that is essentially accessible to only two types of travelers: those in kayaks and those in railroad cars. Putt-putting along at 10 to 15 miles per hour, they spotted wildlife including half a dozen bald eagles, which sometimes accompanied the entourage and at other times swooped into the river to nab fish. Cattle, unrestrained by fences, wandered onto the tracks, and the excursion had to clatter to a stop. ?They have the right of way, and they know it,? Mr. Gonder said, laughing.
Not every mile of a railcar excursion is so lovely. Sometimes, being close to the tracks means seeing ?that railroads have become a dumping ground for America?s garbage,? said Mr. Gonder, who pilots a yellow Union Pacific railcar. But often enough, the excursions pass green cropland, blooming woods and small towns. Saturday?s excursion included a stop for ice cream at the Potomac Eagle, a refurbished excursion train parked at its home base of Romney, W.Va.
Mr. Gonder lives in Ruffs Dale, Pa., near Pittsburgh, and heads Appalachian Rail Excursions, one of many groups that put together events that are certified by Narcoa, the North American Railcar Operators Association. Narcoa has about 2,000 members, and about 200 new members sign up yearly. Most railcar owners, naturally, are train buffs, and part of their enjoyment comes from looking at the signal lights, switches, even the sturdy ties and the rails themselves ? all of which seem larger when viewed up close.
?When you get out there, you can?t believe the infrastructure,? said Carl Megonigle, a retired fighter pilot from Holland, Pa.
Dozens of excursions, or ?runs,? are scheduled every year in the United States and Canada. Some are lengthy journeys. An 11-day, 984-mile Alaskan excursion in June began in Anchorage, and included sightseeing stops in Seward, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. (Railcar operators carry their luggage with them and stay in lodging within a bus ride of the tracks.)
Others are a lot less ambitious, like the one early this season that began and ended in Strasburg, Pa., winding for five hours over 18 miles of Pennsylvania Dutch farm country. Mr. Gonder led that one, getting things started by reaching up and pulling a lever on his railcar?s ceiling to make the horn atop the car belch out three throaty toots. Railcar excursions tend to draw crowds, and soon drivers began to park next to crossings, climbing out to take a longer look.
?Right here,? Mr. Gonder said, ?is how we get people into this hobby.?
A man wearing a John Deere baseball cap, his hands jammed in his pockets, stood at the crossing and gazed at the procession. Mr. Gonder waved at the man, then said with some degree of certainty, ?This guy ? I?ll see him soon.?
On this particular day, the railcars made two round trips on the 4.5-mile stretch of track owned by the Strasburg Railroad, a popular heritage line that offers tourists rides (for $12) on trains pulled by mighty steam locomotives.
THIS excursion made lots of stops. Railcars usually weigh less than 2,000 pounds, so they do not set off the automatic gates at grade crossings. The procession halts so an operator can climb out and stop traffic while the railcar entourage chugs past. When the procession reaches the end of a trip, railcar owners disembark and turn cranks on hand lifts, or lift tables, attached to the cars to hoist the cars off the tracks and turn them around. There is time for a lot of chit-chat on a railcar excursion. Bonds form, something like those in a bridge club. ?Even in the wintertime, when there aren?t any runs, we all get together for lunch,? said Harold Hinkle, a railcar operator from Shippensburg, Pa., who was at both last weekend?s run in West Virginia and the earlier one in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Hinkle and his wife of 44 years, Erma, bought their first railcar seven years ago because, as he dryly put it, he could not afford his own steam locomotive. He paid $3,500 and, without too much trouble, restored the car and sold it recently for $7,500. He keeps another railcar for his excursions and also collects Model A Fords.
Traveling by Railcar in West Virginia
The excursion that began at Strasburg proceeded to Paradise, Pa., where the tracks met the smoother sets of rails used by Amtrak. As the railcars were about to turn around to head back to Strasburg, a commuter train en route to Lancaster and Harrisburg whooshed by on adjacent tracks about 100 feet away.
When the railroads began using pickup trucks, railcars were plentiful and relatively inexpensive, costing as little as $500. Last week about a dozen cars were for sale on the Narcoa Web site, NARCOA - North American Railcar Operators Association, for an average price of about $6,000. (The site also has details about membership and scheduled excursions.) The value of the cars is going up. Mr. Megonigle paid $1,200 for his railcar eight years ago.
?You find them in all states of repair, from restored cars to parts and pieces,? said Mr. Knight, who owns three railcars. ?Guys put a lot of time into it.?
Owners carry their railcars on flat-bed trailers, usually behind pickup trucks (although one Volkswagen Beetle hauled a railcar to Strasburg), to the excursions, where the cars are set on the tracks. Things usually go without a hitch. Drinking, carrying guns and rough riding are prohibited. Narcoa members risk expulsion if they ?bootleg,? or trespass on rails without the owner?s permission. Mr. Knight, who monitors safety for Narcoa, said there are few accidents.
Hitching a ride is encouraged, as long as the coordinator of the run is contacted first and someone has an open seat.
It is mostly a man?s hobby, or a hobby shared by couples, many retired. Mr. Knight encouraged his daughter, Karen Wendeler, and her husband to accompany him and his wife, Laurie, on the excursion that started and ended at Strasburg. Mrs. Wendeler already seemed to understand what the fuss was all about.
?Wherever Dad would hear a train whistle, our car would go,? she said, laughing.
She had just gone where automobiles generally can?t go ? past the backs of farms where mules lumbered away from the procession, on tracks framed by bright orange flowers, past young Amish men walking to Sunday worship, over an old bridge that appeared to have been in place for 100 years.
Warren Riccitelli, the president of Narcoa, said the average railcar operator stays in the hobby for about 10 years. And the railcars, it turns out, are remarkably fuel-efficient, managing 35 to 40 miles a gallon at a slow, leisurely pace the riders seem to love.
?Some of these guys bring their wives, and they either love it or hate it ? there?s nothing in between,? said Sally Badger of Morgantown, W.Va., who goes on as many as a half-dozen excursions a year with her husband, Chuck.
They have been on runs in places as far-flung as Canada, Georgia and New England. For them, the trips are not just about clickety-clacking down the tracks. ?It?s for the companionship,? she said. ?You meet a lot of nice people. It?s all an adventure.?
I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost