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Railroad Track Car Enthusiasts Gather for Centre County Excursion

by and on May 21, 2014 3:45 PM

A group of railroad enthusiasts gathered in Centre County recently for a different type of rail excursion.

Instead of riding in trains the participants rode in small, four-wheeled powered vehicles known as track cars, motorcars or speeders.

They run on standard railroad tracks, and were used decades ago for track inspection and light maintenance tasks.

The cars travel at a speed of around 25 miles per hour.

They were called speeders because they were much faster than the human-powered handcars they replaced. The track cars were used by railroads around the country until the late 1960's, when they were replaced by Hy-rail vehicles, which are conventional automobiles, SUV's or pickup trucks fitted with retractable flanged wheels allowing them to travel on rails or highways.

The Sunday morning gathering was held along the tracks of the Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad in front of the former Corning Glass plant at Dale Summit. About 27 track cars were trailered in from all around Pennsylvania and several neighboring states.

Four of the track cars were from the Centre County area. George Baney and his wife Gloria of Bellefonte rode their orange fiberglass-body car made in Canada. One local car was painted in the gray and green colors and markings of the defunct Bellefonte Central Railroad, and another featured Nittany and Bald Eagle colors and markings. Other railroads represented included the Pennsylvania, Reading, New York Central, Rio Grande, Canadian National, Union Pacific, and several others.

Baney says that some railroads sold the track cars for low prices when they went to the more modern Hy-rail cars.

"Some people had the foresight to buy them up in bulk," he says.

Many of the cars have been restored to like-new condition, with shiny new paint and refurbished mechanics, but some still retained their weathered patina, looking like they might have when they were in regular service 50 or more years ago.

The track cars weigh about 1,000 pounds. They were unloaded from their trailers at the Corning plant entry crossing, and set sideways on the tracks. Rotating the cars to get them on the track is accomplished by either a retractable turntable on the car's undercarriage or by extending two wheelbarrow-like handles on the cars which let the owner lift up one end of the car and pivot it 90 degrees to align it with the tracks.

The cars are propelled by small gasoline engines driving the rear axle through a chain and sprockets, or a belt. Their transmissions have forward and reverse gears, many with just one speed, but some have two speed transmissions for greater efficiency.

The most popular engine is an Onan two-cylinder industrial engine of about 20 horsepower, but many of the older models were equipped with single-cylinder two-stroke engines. Some cars have fully enclosed cabs, while some have just a windshield and roll-up cloth side curtains, and a few have no cab enclosures at all.

Interiors of the cars are spartan, with small vinyl seats flanking a center console which contains the car's controls, and covers the engine, drive train, and fuel tank.

The planned excursion route took the riders from Dale Summit eastward behind Pleasant Gap through Bellefonte, and on to Milesburg, then followed the Nittany and Bald Eagle main line westward through Bald Eagle Valley to Tyrone and back.

The owners and operators of the cars are members of NARCOA, the North American Railcar Operators Association. This non-profit organization is dedicated to the preservation and safe operation of railroad equipment. It was formed in 1980, and has approximately 1,800 members worldwide.

NARCOA sponsors track car excursions nationwide, and provides insurance for its members. It also requires that all track car operators pass a written test, and demonstrate their ability to operate the cars before they are allowed to participate in NARCOA sponsored events.

Safety is stressed by the group. The track cars are required to carry fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and tow bars (in case of breakdowns). They must have brake lights like an automobile, and observe minimum following distance standards.

The railroads often send their own employees to the excursion sites in Hy-rail vehicles to drive ahead of the cars, and serve as flaggers at road crossings. Unlike trains, the track cars must yield to automobile traffic at crossings.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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