Railcar operators soak up Schuylkill County scenery
POTTSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — It’s not about the destination, but the journey, railcar enthusiasts insist.
Fifty members of the North American Railcar Operators Association from across the nation joined at Pottsville’s Union Station on Saturday for the first leg of a two-day excursion in Schuylkill County.
Their colorful railcars, historically used for track maintenance, created a spectacle for passersby.
“We’re not trying to get anywhere,” Joel Williams, Lock Haven, former NARCOA membership secretary, said. “You feel like you’re doing something inclusive, that no one else has done, and you’re seeing scenery that no one else sees.”
Williams’ late parents, Erwin and Verla, were from Tower City and Minersville, respectively, although Saturday was his first time in Pottsville, like many of those on the trip.
Gary Shrey, with the Northern Central Railcar Association, coordinated the excursion on the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad. It’s the fourth annual trip in the county.
Allen and Barbara Wright, 10-year NARCOA members from Paris, Kentucky, rode in their Fairmont MT-19, two-cylinder railcar.
“It’s probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” Barbara said.
“You go places you’d never see driving on the road,” Allen said. “The bridges are cool. You’re looking 100 feet straight down. It’s not like a passenger, foot bridge. The first time doing it can be kind of scary.”
Although their railcar can travel up to 35 mph, 33 is the fastest they’ve ever traveled, Allen said. They want time to savor the sites on the trip and usually travel 20 to 25 mph. The couple previously lived in Georgia and had taken railcar excursions in the southern states before moving to Kentucky.
They’ve seen plenty of wildlife on their trips, they said, including a wild boar in Georgia.
Charles A. White has been a railcar operator for more than 20 years.
“Gary (Shrey) is one of the top coordinators in the country,” White, Van Wert, Ohio, said of why he joined this excursion. White’s 1985 Fairmont car was 19 horsepower with a two-cylinder engine. It was manufactured in Canada.
He said all operators are mentored, tested and have liability insurance. Each operator must carry an insurance card and a rule book.
“Safety is paramount,” White said.
Most railcar owners brought their vehicles in trailers and parked along the track bed before unloading. You “set on” when your car is properly placed onto the track, White explained.
The Wrights said some of the railcar etiquette includes maintaining a safe, 100-yard distance between cars and using flags to alert operators in front and back of slowing down or stopping.
According to NARCOA, the railroad motorcar is sometimes called a speeder. They were used routinely to inspect many miles of track for defects and track maintenance.
“Motorcar owners belong to several clubs which obtain permission from railroads to operate on their tracks. These clubs are under the organizational umbrella of the North American Rail Car Operators Association,” the website said.
“We’re always happy to host them on our railroad,” said Matt Fisher, RBM&N Railroad general manager in the passenger department. Fisher was at Union Station on Saturday as the operators set on, beginning at 6:30 a.m. The railroad coordinates with the Port Clinton dispatcher to make sure everything’s in place for the excursion according to the planned itinerary, he said. There’s a safety meeting held before the trek begins. He said there’s cooperation between the city and Pottsville Area Development Corp. for the event.
This year’s trip includes a rare passenger run to Good Spring.
“We haven’t run a passenger train there in 20 years,” Fisher said. Someone from the RBM&N leads the railcars both days on the line.
Each day of the two-day excursion was to cover nearly 100 miles. The railcars set on in Pottsville on Saturday and traveled to the end of the line at Good Spring, then headed to Schuylkill Haven, North Reading and back to Pottsville with a side trip up the Middleport line.
Shrey and his wife, Eileen, helped get the operators who had preregistered checked in and ready to ride. Although this is the fourth excursion, it’s the first time the trip started in Pottsville, he said.
“I picked parts of the line that we had not ridden before,” he said. The trips are so popular that there was a 25-person waiting list. Operators have come from Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and New England.
Shrey, New Freedom, has been an operator for about 20 years. The railcars can date from the 1930s up to the 1980s, and can range in price from $3,000 to $15,000, depending on accessories like fancy seating and lights.
Eileen said her husband was named a coordinator of the year and puts a lot of time into planning the excursions.
Several people stood on the Mauch Chunk Street bridge to watch the speeders depart or stood at the rear of the KFC restaurant to catch a glimpse.
“I never saw anyone do something like this and I was wondering what they were,” Elizabeth Greiss, Pottsville, said. She said she grew up near the Reading Railroad in Berks County.
Jim McGuiness and Vito Galle, both former neighbors from Pottsville, watched the railcars exit the station.
“I think it’s really neat and I didn’t know they did this,” Galle said.
After watching the fun, McGuiness said he wants to become a NARCO member.
“I’m a real train buff and am into Lionel trains,” he said. “One of the guys had a railcar for sale for $5,500, and I’d like to get it.”
Information from: Pottsville Republican and Herald, http://www.republicanherald.com