Driving on the Railroad

Railroad motorcar

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

The North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA) is an affinity group for people who own railroad motorcars (such as the one above) and like to drive them on a railroad once in a while. These antique vehicles were once used by railroad companies for track inspection but are now obsolete, having been superseded by Hyrail vehicles, which are everyday trucks with additional railroad wheels that can be lowered on demand.

The deluxe customized model above was advertised for $35,000 at the club web site, but generally you can buy a working model for $10,000. Most are sold with trailers so that you can haul them behind your pickup truck when you journey around the country to NARCOA meets.

Here’s an excerpt from the club’s FAQ:

“With permission of the railroads, members operate their motorcars on excursions ranging from one day to over a week in almost all parts of the U.S. and Canada. Many of these excursions are in remote and very scenic areas that are impossible to see from the highway and thus provide an experience not available by other means of transportation. . . . We rent the tracks for our outings from the many small railroad companies which have taken over former branch lines of the major carriers (as well as some large railroads in the U.S. and Canada). Often smaller railroads operate trains only on weekdays, so a group of motorcars on a Saturday or Sunday does not cause the coordination problems the larger lines would have.”

However, if you want to try before you buy, there’s a problem. NARCOA doesn’t allow paying passengers. You’ll need to ingratiate yourself with an existing member in the hope of hitching a ride.

I found out about NARCOA when I dropped in at a free Christmas turkey lunch at the Holiday Inn in Williams, Arizona and sat at a table with a bearded gentleman named Bob, who was wearing a cap with railroad badges all over it, and a T-shirt with a picture of a locomotive on the front.

Railroad motorcars can reach speeds of up to 35 mph, but during group excursions, an average of 20 is more typical. Retirees make up a significant percentage of NARCOA members.