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Back Roads Bill: Putt-putting with vintage railway motorcars

This week Bill has a contemporary, but unique look at back the north’s rich railway heritage

From near or afar they seem almost “toy-like, that’s why people like them so much.” Maybe you have seen them in the past and recently?

Their un-muffled, Fairfield one-cylinder two-stroke engine has that distinct, almost loveable sound. Mostly yellow, they are vintage railway motorcars of the 70s and 80s and are called “putt-putts,” speeders and track maintenance cars.

It’s a hobby alright and the North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA) members will tell you many of them started with model trains. Twenty-two cars and 45 people departed from the railway station in North Bay Sunday (Sept. 9) for a five-day, 617 mile (993 km) return trip from Cochrane with a sidebar trip to Rouyn-Noranda.

In the early 1900s came the three-wheel velocipedes and four-wheel track cars were either powered by hand cranking, a pumping action or pedaling, the motion being transmitted to the wheels by chains and gears. Then came the motorcars. In the late 1980s railroads began using specially customized trucks with hydraulic track wheels on them (the industry refers to them as "high railers") which can switch from track running to road running in a matter of minutes

On the rails

Mike Ford is NARCOA’s Excursion Coordinator for this trip, and hails from Planfield, Indiana. He said there will be 22 motor cars, one member-owned hy-rail.

“People are coming from SK, ON, QC and from the US states of TX, AL, NC, MI, WI, IL, PA, VT, and VA,” he said.

He has run this trip several times in the past.

Mike said, “North Bay is a convenient central point to meet, a good place to set-on and park autos and trailers for the weeks. Most days about 120 to 140 miles on the rails which is doable.”

Logistics are time-consuming. He said a one-day excursion might take several hours to plan, spread out over several days or weeks. This trip takes a bit longer (spread out over several months) because I need to work through logistics such as hotels en route, rest stops (and getting portable toilets for some) lunch arrangements for the group, and bus transportation from the rail to the hotel and back the next morning. On this trip, a bus was needed in New Liskeard and Rouyn-Noranda, QC.

Mike was busy when I first shook his hand at Saturday’s “set on” – motorcars on the tracks - session at the Ontario Northland shops.

“I have enjoyed railroads since I was three years old and grew up in the Detroit area. I have been in this hobby since 1996 and have been coordinating excursions since 2001," he said. "The longest trip I coordinated was last year. The Pas, MB to Churchill, MB...7 days... and about 1,150 miles. I usually coordinate 4 to 6 trips in any given year. I like the hobby for the people we have in it, for the nice people we meet along the way, for the scenery we see, and for being able to share this hobby with the public."

Another thing I learned was that these “putt-putt” engines are reversible, in that you could set the position of spark ignition and then crank the engine in the required direction of travel, that’s neat

There was time to talk to others.

Lorna Kingsland is one of the few Canadians on the trip and is the NARCOA Area 8 Director representing international members she said, “It is a fun hobby.” With husband Grant, they are both certified operators.

“We both have an interest in trains both collecting and preserving. In 2009 we had a friend of ours pick it up with his trailer and drop it off at our home. That winter, this same friend, took the motorcar to his shop and overhauled the engine.

“In the NARCOA organization, there are trips planned and posted on our web page once the Excursion Co-ordinator confirms plans with the Railway we are operating on. It is a wonderful network of people in NARCOA.”

Ontario Northland

Kate Bondett is the Communication and Issues Management Specialist for Ontario Northland.

“Riding in a motorcar provides a rare experience of rail travel that most people never have the opportunity to enjoy.

“Members of the North American Railcar Operators Association (NARCOA) operate their motorcars on excursions in almost all parts of the U.S. and Canada. Many of these excursions are in wilderness areas that are impossible to see from the highway, providing an experience unique to this type of transportation."

She said this excursion is an opportunity for Ontario Northland to engage train enthusiasts and showcase the vast territory of our short line.

“This activity caters to a niche tourism group who contribute to local economies throughout the tour -- and also pays homage to traditional rail practices that many community members along the corridor still remember.”

The NARCOA group has been taking part in this tour for over five years. Group members are from across the United States and Canada, with a total of 25 cars participating in this year’s excursion.

Safety is our highest priority at Ontario Northland. Teams from across each of our rail divisions have been engaged to ensure we uphold the highest standards of safety during this tour.


Mike Robin was not a participant, but he is a real railway enthusiast from North Bay, he has never worked on the railway. On his Facebook page, he displays photographs of large railway diesel engines.

“These speeders were a very integral part of the railway industry at one time. These little machines were pretty much the only way Maintenance of Way crews could inspect track, provide important repairs, and move employees along the line to sites in a fast manner. Maintenance of Way, Signals, and Telecommunications used them. Around the early 80's, once the popularity of high rail trucks caught on, it was the beginning of the end of the speeder.

"There are many enthusiasts and retired railroaders who fondly remember the era of speeders which is why expeditions like this are so popular not only for the participants and the railroad hosting them but for the general public. I think everyone who lived along a track over the last 60 or so years, can remember these little machines with crews waving as they scurried along the tracks.

“My history as a railway enthusiast dates back to my childhood when my father took me down to the train yard where I got to meet the yard crew. These guys took me under their wing and showed me how everything worked in a modern railway environment. As time went on I would meet Maintenance of Way workers and Shops workers who all would happily show me around and humour the little kid who liked trains. I never forgot that and now that I'm 55 years old, my great childhood (thanks to my dad and a great bunch of ONR people), has created for me a real passion for all things Ontario Northland along with providing a wonderful backdrop for my very fulfilling hobby of railroad photography.

“I'm sure different folks have all kinds of little nicknames for them. I think it all stems from how these motorcars look to people, they seem almost toy-like. I believe that is why people like them so much.”

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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