By Mark Preussler, MMR
Whether you call them putt-putts, motorcars, or speeders, the golden age of railroading had them by the thousands. For decades, the speeder provided a railroad’s section crew or signal department with a quick way to get from place to place on the railroad. With the advent of hy-rail trucks (usually a pick-up or other SUV-type vehicle with small railroad wheels for traveling on the track), the speeder vanished as the railroad realized the hy-railer’s were dual purpose and much more flexible for moving men and equipment. With no plan for using them in the future, the little speeder cars were scrapped, given away as retirement “gifts” to section crew employees, and like other railroad artifacts, some wound up in the hands of private citizens, especially during the 1970s.
At the start, many of these private owners would place the cars on a section of track, which they knew (or hoped) had no other train movements on it and went “joy riding” for several miles. These unauthorized trips were dangerous, to say the least. Enter the North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA). The organization was started in 1980 as a list of motorcar owners, known as The NARCOA Roster. In 1986, NARCOA organized the first private-owner motorcar meet ever held. The organization really came into its own in the 1990s as a way to legally travel across railroads throughout the USA, Canada, and Mexico.
I joined NARCOA in 1995, and then along with my brother Marvin and dad Merlin, set out to find a suitable speeder to restore. At that time, there was a good supply of cars coming out of Canada from the Canadian National railroad. We wanted a two to three person speeder and decided on a MT-19 model built by Fairmont, the main supplier of motorcars to the industry. We all pitched in to restore it. The stories I could write about that experience: two “boys” (well I was 29 and my brother 25 at the time) and their dad working together would fill TrainLife for months. Every new day brought a new argument, but also a chance to all work together on a common project. As my dad was in his retirement years – though still working part-time, I don’t think it was lost on us that this would be one of the last times we would all be working together on a project of that size.
By late 1996 we had it finished. A new coat of Imron paint and a complete mechanical overhaul made our car one of the best on any trip we participated in. Speeders are transported to the site of a trip on a trailer, much like an ATV or snowmobile. The cars have either a turntable or long handles to turn the car. Cars are turned or placed on the rails at a road crossing in today’s world, but years ago a speeder car was assigned a section of railroad and a setoff (along with a speeder shed) was provided, usually near a depot or important signal installation. A setoff is basically just a series of planks around and between the rails to allow the car to be taken off a main track and placed onto a set of rails that ran into the shed. It’s another simple detail to add to your model railroad if your layout is set in the speeder era.
We took advantage of our good standing at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay for several shake down runs each spring and participated in other events at the museum giving rides to the general public in our car.
The highlights, however, were the official NARCOA-sponsored trips we went on throughout WI and MI during the summers of 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Trips on the Wisconsin Central, Wisconsin Southern, and the Lake Superior and Ishpeming were made each year. We had to pass up several dream trips such as the Algoma Central in Canada due to the fact that we all had jobs and vacation time was hard to come by.
Speeders, like a modern hy-rail truck are invisible to signals. Therefore great care has to be taken when crossing roads as signals don’t activate and drivers often ignore the group of railcars. It is standard NARCOA practice to flag when coming to a stop and to equip the speeders with brake lights. They are very safety conscious.
You have to experience a speeder ride yourself, as it’s not like you might imagine. It’s something that’s loud, usually hot, and bumpy, since none of the cars are well sprung, if at all. The group of 20 or more cars is led by a railroad employee, usually in a hy-rail to stay in radio contact with the dispatcher. The group of cars moves over the line like a train, staying somewhat close to each other, though the group is spread out over several blocks. The group stresses adherence to strict operating rules, which makes the journey (usually around 80 miles round trip) more work-like than a joy ride.
A speeder owner will see the host railroad like an employee does. Usually shop tours are on the agenda if the group passes through a yard with facilities. You will meet oncoming trains and take sidings. On the LS&I trips, we rode our car onto the Presque Isle ore dock and watched a boat being loaded with taconite. We even got a ride at a huge former WWII ammunition plant, Badger Ammo outside of Baraboo, WI! Things that no railfan gets to see, especially in today’s world, are on the schedule of a speeder/NARCOA meet.
Mergers, insurance, and life changes brought my participation in NARCOA and speeders to an end in late 2001. After 9-11 and the CN purchase of the WC, the railroads in my area were not too thrilled about letting anyone on their property anyway. We sold the speeder in early 2002. It was a bittersweet day as I was happy the car was going to a young couple that both enjoyed speeders and railroads, as well as the outdoors, but I felt sad for my dad who poured so much of his time into the project and now watched it rolling out of his driveway. In hindsight, I’m glad we did sell it, though I wouldn’t rule out buying another speeder in the future if my situation would allow it.
If you are mechanically inclined and have the means to do it, I would certainly suggest getting into the speeder/rail car hobby. The North American Rail Car Operators Association is still very active. If you visit their website, you will be able to get a good idea of rides in your area. Overall, it’s a great group of men and women who share a love of railroading. I have included several pictures from various trips. Things I would have never seen if I didn’t have my little speeder!
For more information, contact Mark Preussler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The restoration is starting on CN MT-19 Speeder #10074. It’s early 1996 and the car would sit in my garage until the fall when it was finally ready to hit the rails again. The car was powered by an Onan brand 2 cylinder engine that was connected to the wheels via a 2-speed manual transmission and chain drive. This is why the “MT” moniker appears in the model number. This model had a floor clutch, similar to an old car in its action.
The restoration is complete and author Mark Preussler has the car loaded for a trip to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, WI for its first shakedown. Speeders are transported like an ATV. The trailer tilts and a hand winch or come along is used to roll the car onto the trailer. It is made easier by using a set of 2”x 4”lunber rails which are bolted onto the bed. The car is secured via chain and tensioners as shown.
We’re on the rails in 1997 at Brandon, WI. This track is operated by the Wisconsin Southern and was once a branch line of the Milwaukee Road. Today’s lineup included 19 cars. Many owners paint their speeders into a favorite scheme like the NYC car pictured while others try to restore the car in its original paint, usually orange or yellow.
West of Eagle Mills on the LS&I Railroad, part of the group is rolling in for a pit stop. That’s right, if we’re out in the wilderness and no mini-mart or restaurant is available, NARCOA orders out a Porta-Potty for its engineers! We usually pack a lunch and drinks as well. While it looks relaxing, temperatures were in the high 80’s outside while the temperature in our cab, even with the windows rolled down approached 100 degrees. The LS&I rides were very popular and the railroad went out of their way to show us a good time.
The LS&I allowed the entire group onto its Lake Superior Ore Dock at Presque Isle. What a thrill to be able to ride the approach and then view a boat being loaded. The taconite pellets were like marbles. Many of the older members on the trip, both men and women, were afraid to step out onto the dock itself even with their safety shoes on.
The dock at Presque Isle can load on either side. Here we are looking down towards the deck of one of the massive ore boats. This is a newer boat, about 1000’ long. The boat was about ready to depart.
Author Mark Preussler (l) and Dad Merlin Preussler (r) pose in front of the speeder at the Badger Ammunition facility near Baraboo, WI. The facility was mothballed at the time (1998) but could have been re-activated by the US if needed. The facility had miles of trackage in it which eventually formed a loop, quite convenient for a group of railcars. Two railroads serviced “Badger Ammo” when it was last used during the Vietnam War.
Dad was quite proud of his handy work on the restoration of the speeder car including adding the vintage MoPar electric “Trumpet Horns” he donated; which made the car sound 10 times bigger. He even bought a CN hat for operating it with us! Though we would continue to enjoy all sorts of smaller father-son projects through the years, the restoration of this car turned out to be the last big project we worked on together. Merlin passed away on 2-14-10.