Inspect the Rails in a Motorcar
(from "Cross Ties", 4th Quarter 1997)
By Eric Schwandt

Editor's Note: Eric Schwandt works in the Track Department at Livemois Yard in Detroit .

eric_photo1.jpg (32023 bytes)An interesting way to collect, enjoy and use railroad history is collecting railroad motorcars. These pieces of equipment that were vital to the railroads until a few years ago are a user-type hobby. Once a motorcar has been restored and made mechanically safe, it is time to get it on the rails. I must add - legally on the rails!

eric_photo2.jpg (38018 bytes)A motorcar is a small car used to inspect track and used by section gangs to get to work locations. They replaced the pump cars as used on TV shows such as Petticoat Junction. Motorcars, in this country, were first mass produced by the Fairmont Company of Fairmont, MN. I would guess that 80% of all motorcars produced in this country since 1910 are Fairmonts. In Canada, the Sylvester pre-dates the Fairmont by three years. A Sylvester motorcar is very rare and a desirable collector piece. Fairmont cars were basically unchanged from 1910 until the middle 60's. The same engine design, a two-cycle, one-cylinder engine was designed by Horace Woolery in 1907. In the mid 60's, Fairmont started using a two-cylinder air cooled engine due to the railroads expanding section gang and track inspector's territory. By the late 70's, the hi rail truck had pretty much replaced the motorcar. In Canada, motorcars survived until the mid nineties. At this time most of these cars have been sold off to scrap dealers and collectors.

eric_photo3.jpg (36618 bytes)To get started in the hobby is relatively inexpensive. A fix-it-up car price will start at $500 and up to $5,000 for a deluxe restored enclosed car with seats, radio and heat. A snowmobile trailer will suffice to haul it. The cars weigh from 600 to 1,800 pounds. Extension handles make it possible for one person to lift them on and off tracks.

There are two national organizations that promote the hobby: both stress SAFETY AS THE #1 PRIORITY. Safe, legal operation has opened many railroads in the US and Canada to motorcar excursions. An operator must demonstrate that he/she can properly run the car, and if the meet is sponsored by the North American Railcars Operators Association (NARCOA), the operator must carry a $10 million liability insurance policy. At the present time, there are about 1,000 NARCOA members. The Motor Car Collectors of America (MCCA) has several hundred members. Both groups have a newsletter several times a year that includes ads, how-to tips, history of long lost companies, and motorcar meets.

eric_photo4.jpg (34448 bytes)The price of a meet is usually a few dollars. Meets can be from five miles to several hundred miles and several days long. One enterprising enthusiast started a motorcar tour business that features runs to Mexico's Copper Canyon, runs to the Northern parts of British Columbia, and trips on the Algoma Central from the Soo, Ontario to Hearst, Ontario, Canada.

eric_photo5.jpg (51487 bytes)During the summer months, there are meets nearly every weekend in the Midwest. This past weekend, October 19, I had the pleasure of running from north of Atlanta, Georgia, into Tennessee through the western Great Smokie Mountains. The tracks dated to the Civil War times. It is now the Georgia Northeastern Railroad, and a twenty mile section is owned by the State of Georgia. This section of track had not seen a train in twenty-two years. It is being opened up for a tourist train operation next Spring. Living in the flat land of southern Michigan makes me appreciate the mountainous states in the Southeast.

eric_photo6.jpg (31143 bytes)One of my favorite runs was on the old Clinchfield Railroad from Marion, North Carolina, to Erwin, Tennessee. This line intertwines with the Blue Ridge Parkway up the spine of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are so many tunnels that you can be in one, see through the next one and see the entrance to the third. This is now CSX trackage. My all time greatest experience was running a motorcar from Bennett Lake, British Columbia, to Skagway, Alaska, on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad.

eric_photo7.jpg (35670 bytes)Many of the older lines that Conrail found unprofitable have been purchased and operated as shortline roads. A lot of history can be seen by motorcarring on these lines. A lot of them were the original mainlines when the railroads were first laid in the mid 1800's. I've been over many miles of tracks in the present Dearborn Division that at onetime were the mains that formed the Lake Shore, Pennsylvania, Michigan Central and New York Central systems. By following the older routes, it is easy to understand how the rail routes of the 1800's opened up the Midwest . Basically, if a town wasn't on a railroad line, it wasn't much of a town for long.

eric_photo8.jpg (42423 bytes)When I hired in on the Penn Central, there were a few motorcars around the Detroit area, but I never worked where one was used. By the time Conrail took over, they had disappeared. Some of the older fellows who remember them all seem to have the same memory of them -they were cold and smelly. I can agree. Two- cycle oil fumes keep the bugs away. I prefer the old cars with no roofs or windows -open cars. I've been rained and snowed on in several states and Canada.

If you like old mechanical machines, riding on the railroads, and railroad history, you sound like a motorcar candidate to me.

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Last Edited 09 March, 2004