Speeder cars: When a train set is not enough

The vehicles, which formerly transported railroad crews, are the delight of train hobbyists.

This is no tightly packed commuter-mover, gliding through the somnolent suburbs. Steel wheels rumble right beneath my seat. Through the windshield lies a straight track – a remnant of the original transcontinental railroad, no less. To the sides it's open air, with a whiff of creosote.

There's a slight side-to-side motion, called "hunting," as our flanged wheels feel for the inside edges of the rails. At 20 m.p.h. our hard-sprung, one-ton ride delivers a jolt.

"Little rock on the rail," says Pat Coleman, hand on the throttle as his voice crackles though my headset. "It'll bounce ya."

We're on an early morning sweep prior to a rare event in this rustic canyon amid brown hills 35 miles east of San Francisco. The public has been invited here – to an 1885 depot beside a short trestle spanning Sinbad Creek – to sample what normally is an exclusive hobby: the running of "motorcars" or "speeders."

Before track-riding Hy-Rail pickup trucks were brought in by railroads for maintenance duties – and after the slow, hand-pumped cars that they replaced – speeders ruled the rails. About the size of a small SUV, they carried crews of about six men, who sat legs-out along a center console.

The speeders were sold off by the mid-1990s. Many were modified for private, weekend use in sanctioned trips by members of a clubby subculture not content to play with HO-gauge train sets.

Some 900 speeders are now registered with the North American Railcar Operators Association (NARCOA), says Mr. Coleman, the current president. The group has 1,700 members, he says – a mix of railroad buffs and the mechanically inclined.

Many speeders were built in the mid-1980s. Others date back to the '50s. Typical powerplant for a two- to four-passenger speeder: a 20-h.p., four-cycle Onan gasoline engine that can get a speeder up to about 40 m.p.h. Initial investment used to be as low as $3,500. But basic originals are now nearly impossible to find.

"I know guys who've spent $11,000 or $12,000," Coleman says. Owners get creative. Al McCracken, chief station agent at Sunol and a speeder operator, once saw a $17,000 motorcar clad in diamond-plate steel, with a powder-coat paint job.

"Even the dipstick was chromed," says Mr. McCracken, also secretary of the Pacific Locomotive Association, which is charging $5 today for rides that will help maintain its 10-mile length of track (it runs parallel to a live Union Pacific line).

Today, operator Don Stuff of San Jose, Calif., backs up a trailer to unload a distinctive, fiberglass-bodied speeder painted orange, with Canadian National markings.

At a preride safety briefing, McCracken's tone is light. "It is considered bad form," he tells the assembled operators, "to run into the guy in front of you." But with this much moving metal, rules are important. Because the speeders can't legally trigger crossing gates, they employ a stop-and-go tactic. Speed is carefully governed, as is following distance.

Speeders can pull small train cars – one owner posted an image online of an outhouse mounted on a flatbed – but most run unencumbered.

Operators clearly tire of outsiders' questions about Wile E. Coyote moments – the light at the end of the tunnel being that of an oncoming freight train.

"What happens when you meet a train?" McCracken repeats, shaking his head. "You don't. You don't just buy one of these and put it on the rails. That's trespassing."

Sometimes permission is granted for trips on active lines. Hundreds of unused spurs of old rail lines also exist, though speeder proponents lament that many are being pulled up before they can acquire and repair them.

Today's 2-1/2 mile trip is a backward run to the halfway point, then a forward dash back to the depot. The effect is much more old-time railroad than theme-park ride. Beside the track sit abandoned circus cars and locomotives of the Algoma Central.

Local resident Paul Vistica, here today with his two young children, has come to Sunol before for scenic trips on the steam and diesel trains of the Niles Canyon Railway. "But it was nice to do it this way," he says.

Unlike these public events, NARCOA-sanctioned excursions are frequent. A list at www.narcoa.org lays out mileage and special requirements (orange vests, for example) for events in most states and Canada. "If you're really into it you can go just about every weekend," says Don Hineman, from San Carlos, Calif.

Participation fees often run from $30 to $40, says Coleman. Some cost $5,000 or more. As much fun as it is to turn heads in a place like Sunol, trips through such scenic areas as Mexico's Copper Canyon have become the speeder-owners' dream.

"It's eight days on the rails," McCracken says wistfully, "87 tunnels, 35 bridges," one of them a towering 200-footer. "That," he says, "is the ultimate speeder trip."

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