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Riding the Rails in a Speeder

by and on August 22, 2016 5:00 AM

On Aug. 14, an unusual railroad excursion took place in Centre County. Instead of riding in trains, the participants rode in diminutive, four-wheeled powered vehicles called track cars, motorcars or speeders.

These vehicles run on railroad tracks, and were used decades ago for track inspection and light maintenance tasks. The track cars were used by railroads until the late 1960s, when they were replaced by Hy-rail vehicles, which are conventional automobiles or pickup trucks fitted with retractable flanged wheels allowing them to travel on rails or on roads. The track cars are sought by railroad enthusiasts today, and they gather to run them in groups.

The owners and operators of the cars are members of the North American Railcar Operators Association. The nonprofit 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 rail car operators pass a written test and demonstrate their ability to operate the cars before they are allowed to participate in the group's events.

George Baney, a retired Bellefonte postmaster, is a NARCOA member. He owns a track car and invited me to ride along with his group of railcar owners. I gladly accepted.

I arrived at the Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad engine shop in Coleville at 7 a.m. to find Baney and others already setting their cars on the rails. The cars weigh about 1,000 pounds, and are unloaded from their trailers at a road crossing, sitting sideways on the tracks.

Rotating the cars to get them on the track is done by one of two ways. Many were equipped with a retractable turntable on the car’s undercarriage. The turntable extends, and the car is rotated and set on the track, then the turntable retracts. Other cars use a simpler method, employing extendable wheelbarrow-like handles which let the owner lift up one end of the car and pivot it around to align it with the tracks.

Once all 25 participating cars were set on the rails, the group leader called a safety meeting to go over the rules of the excursion. NARCOA stresses safety in their operations. We all had to wear over-the-ankle leather shoes and bright green safety vests. Operators are not permitted to use any electronic devices, including cell phones and cameras, when operating a track car. The cars carry fire extinguishers, first aid kits and tow bars (in case of breakdowns). They have brake lights like an automobile, and must observe minimum following distance standards.

I climbed into Baney’s car and realized how simple these vehicles were. A small gasoline engine of about 20 horsepower drives the rear axle through a chain and sprockets. Transmissions have forward and reverse gears, many with just one speed, but George’s machine has a two-speed transmissions for greater efficiency. In the cab, small vinyl seats flank a center console which contains the car’s controls, and covers the engine, drive train and fuel tank. No heaters, air conditioners or radios are to be found. The rear-hinged “suicide” doors on Baney’s car were opened 180 degrees and locked in place to give us ventilation, assisted by two small fans near the windshield.

As we left Coleville, heading for Bellefonte, I discovered that comfort was not the forte of the speeders. The engine was loud and made lots of vibration. At 1,000 pounds, a speeder is a featherweight in the railroading world. The muffled “click-clack” on the rail joints you hear on a train became a butt-shaking, loud “clank-clunk” every 39 feet … for miles.

We rolled through Bellefonte, taking in the beauty of the Gamble Mill, Talleyrand Park and Spring Creek, across Willowbank Street, and on behind the aging buildings of the old Cerro Copper and Brass mill. From the tracks, I saw views I had never seen before. We passed the fish hatchery in Pleasant Gap, then crossed the overpass above Route 144, and headed toward the lime plant east of town, where we turned the cars around.

Back we went through Pleasant Gap and Bellefonte again, then on to Milesburg. The original plans were to get on the main line at Milesburg, and go westward, down Bald Eagle Valley to Tyrone, but the railroad wouldn’t let us on the main line because of the extreme heat of the day. The main line contains much welded rail which expands in the heat, and can cause “heat kinks,” which can make the rails bulge and go out of gauge, causing derailments.

At Milesburg, in the oppressive heat of the afternoon, we called it a day and backed into Coleville to end the excursion.

My experience that day was hot, noisy and bumpy, but it was great fun for a guy who likes planes, trains and automobiles. Along the way, my mind wandered, thinking of those railroad workers who might have ridden in that little speeder 50 or 60 years ago, heading out to face a day of hard work replacing ties or sections of rail in the hot sun, sweating and sunburned, and on the edge of heat exhaustion. They had a tough life compared to mine and that of most people these days, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for keeping America moving through the years.

Those little speeders were an integral part of that life, and I’m grateful to the NARCOA folks for keeping a piece of railroad history alive.

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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