Little known to most people, there are a significant number of Americans keeping alive a piece of American history by way of an unusual hobby.
They own and operate vintage railcars.
Thanks to a friend of his, Houston resident Richard Bratton Jr. recently got a chance to experience traveling through portions of Missouri in the passenger’s seat of one of the vehicles.
Bratton and Mike Taylor, of Munford, Tenn., became friends through a shared love for auto racing. Taylor is race director for the National Auto Sport Association Mid-South Region, and both he and Bratton have been avid competitors on the circuit for years.
But Taylor is also an active member of the North American Railcar Operators Association (NARCOA) and took Bratton on a pair of excursions hosted the organization’s First Iowa Division on back-to-back days in late September.
“I’m a big rail fan,” he said.
Vintage railcars come in varying sizes and were designed for use by “maintenance of way” (MOW) crews of two to six workers. They’re sometimes called MOW cars, “jiggers” or “scooters,” and the majority in the NARCOA fold were made in the 1960s or earlier by Fairmont Railway Motors, a company founded in 1909 in Fairmont, Minn.
The first trip enjoyed by Bratton and Taylor on Saturday, Sept. 27, included 23 railcars on a 34-mile jaunt from Columbia to Centralia and back on a former Wabash track. The following day, close to 40 railcars (and their owners and passengers) took part in a pair of 20-mile round trips on the old Fort Leonard Wood Spur.
Taylor said being a NARCOA operator means following numerous safety guidelines.
“You have to pass a test administered by NARCOA and you have to be insured through NARCOA,” he said. “Then you have to be mentored for about a year and signed off before you’re allowed to operate a railcar on the railroad. Federal regulations that apply to railroads also apply to us, and we typically have railroad representatives with us on excursions.”
Before an excursion, participants gather for a safety meeting with organizers and officials.
“There are a lot of ways to get hurt,” Taylor said. “Safety is paramount.”
Bratton said the scenery along the Fort Wood line was spectacular and the route took the railcars across 13 bridges.
“I didn’t have any idea about all this,” Bratton said. “I had seen the car at Mike’s house, but I really didn’t pay any attention to it. But it was great; the cars are a bit loud, but it was a pretty smooth ride most of the time. It was a little rougher on the Columbia ride, but that’s because the track was older and the government isn’t taking care of it.”
Bratton said the two excursions he experienced went off with barely a hitch.
“We had no breakdowns,” he said. “But a couple cars got a little hot going up a hill toward the end of the second day. But these guys are fanatics about their cars and I was very grateful for the opportunity.”
NARCOA is split into 11 areas, 10 of which span the U.S., while the other encompasses Canada and other parts of the world. Setting up an excursion for railcars can be complicated, sometimes requiring extensive coordination with railroad companies or with private entities that own lines no longer used by commercial freight or passenger trains.
“There are a lot of regional railroads and short-line railroads that don’t operate on weekends,” Taylor said. “If we’re going on an active line, we’ll go when it’s not in use.”
Bratton said he may not soon be a railcar owner, but he now understands what the hobby is all about.
“That was one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time,” he said. “A lot of the track we were on was very isolated. It was a pleasure to be out there going through that countryside.”
To view photos of the railcar excursions attended by Houston resident Richard Bratton Jr., click on this link:
To learn more about vintage railcars and excursions, log onto the North American Railcar Operators Association (NARCOA) website at www.narcoa.org., or the NARCOA Area 7 First Iowa Division website at www.firstiowadivision.com.