This past weekend I was lucky to experience a unique journey through southwest Oklahoma. I wasn’t on Route 66 this time, nor was I sitting behind the wheel of my Mustang. This journey put me in a vehicle that was altogether new to me on a path quite a bit older than any highway: the railroad!
NARCOA (North American Railcar Operators Association) is a network of members that operate their own motorcars (also known as speeders) on railroads throughout the country. These motorcars were originally used by the railroads themselves to inspect the tracks. Today, that task is performed by officials in hybrid road/track vehicles (ever see a pickup truck with railroad wheels on it?) Excursions planned by NARCOA can include dozens of these cars from all across the country. My friend Bill brought his vintage car from Kentucky for the weekend event and invited a crew to join him.
Bill’s car is Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad Motor 9, a 1946 Fairmont A3D motorcar that served as the Superintendent’s inspection car. The little 5-seater speeder entered service when steam was still king of the rolling iron. The K&T – originally a coal and lumber hauling operation – is the oldest short line railroad in Kentucky. Today the sixteen-mile railway takes passengers to the historic coal mining town of Blue Heron, Kentucky and switches a little freight now and then.
In the 1990s, after about half a century of service, Motor 9 was sold. Bill was the buyer; he was an engineer for K&T/Big South Fork Scenic Railway for several decades. After the sale, it remained active on the line and lived in a barn next to the diesel locomotive shop. “Whenever I had guests at the railroad,” Bill recalled, “after we put the train away, we’d hit the drive-through at KFC and pick up dinner to go, roll Motor 9 out of its shed, and then head down the mountain and have a picnic next to the banks of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.” When Bill left the railroad in 2014, Motor 9 (which had not left the K&T rail system iall that time) followed him home. The November 2021 excursion from Clinton marked the first time that K&T 9 had ever been west of the Mississippi River.
Also on this trip was Bill’s friend, Jim McCall. Jim is a welder and machinist that worked on the Chesapeake & Ohio (Chessie) Railroad. He fabricated a special turntable for the underside of Motor 9 that could lift and spin the one-ton motorcar to face the opposite direction. Although the car can run the same speed in either direction, this sure makes it easier and more comfortable than looking over your shoulder for miles and miles. Also with us was my friend Nic, who I’ve chased several vintage locomotives with over the years. Due to some last-minute scheduling changes by NARCOA, my friend and Route 66 aficionado Jerry McClanahan couldn’t make it out. We all missed him!
Two trips were planned on the Farmrail system based in Clinton: Saturday took us west to Erick on what was once part of the Rock Island Mainline — in several cases literally alongside Historic Route 66. Sunday took us south on the former Frisco tracks. Nic and I met up with Bill and Jim down at the Farmrail yards at sunrise on Saturday. Motor 9 was loaded onto the tracks alongside nine other speeders – all of them smaller, newer models compared to Bill’s car.
Bill handed me a pair of earplugs as we got underway — and boy am I glad he did! Riding in an open car on the rails, even at 25 mph, is loud! It also feels a lot faster since you’re close to the ground in a fully open vehicle. The control arms and lights at railroad crossings don’t trigger for these little cars – most of the crossings we encountered were little rural roads with no arms anyway. It’s one person’s job to hold the flag out to alert other cars on the track when the car is slowing down or stopped. It’s everyone’s job to stay alert and help the driver keep an eye out for hazards. A little emblem inside the car simply stated, “The Best Safety Device Known is a Careful Man.”
The tracks from Elk City west to Erick weren’t currently in use at all – Farmrail had no customers out that far at the time. Some of the crossings were rough but it was great to be riding the rails right alongside The Mother Road for much of the way. Old telephone poles told their own story. Whenever we’d pass through a town, people would stop and look at the car quizzically. When we’d stop for a break, there would inevitably be someone driving by that would pull over and ask what was going on or an old timer would get out of his truck to reminisce about his time working for the railroad. It was a lovely day for a ride.
Unfortunately, on the way back to Clinton there was an incident. Two of the operators got out and stood as flagmen at a particularly busy crossing in Elk City. An old lady in a brand-new Dodge Ram pickup decided to proceed even though the flagmen were waving emphatically for her to stop and it caused a collision with one of the speeders. The impact knocked it off the track and bent an axle. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. It was a real bummer – the couple in the speeder had been out of the hobby for five years and this was their first run back. The police arrived, paperwork was filled out, and several of the other operators served as witnesses. We didn’t get back to Clinton until sunset.
Due to the Daylight Saving Time change, Sunday’s trip south on the old Frisco line was cut short by about 20 miles. It was better to not have to load the speeders back on their trailers in the dark! Our car also picked up another passenger: Jordan Green of Blackwell. He is a reporter and part-time railroad worker working on his own speeder; he was really excited to be there! Our second day had no accidents, thank goodness – though we did have several mechanical issues on the way to Roosevelt and back. Such is the way when antiques are involved!
After two days of traveling the old-fashioned way, it was time to high-tail it back to Tulsa. Nic and I said our goodbyes and hit the road. It’s a weekend we’ll never forget. Nor will my backside – I’m most thankful for shock absorbers!