Today, workers who need to access railroad tracks for maintenance and repairs typically reach the work site in a utility truck that has been outfitted with an extra set of special HyRail guide wheels that allow it to follow the tracks.
Through much of the twentieth century, however, dedicated railcars were in common use for bringing small groups of workers to remote stretches of railroad. Like many people, I first became aware of them through images — often humorous — in movies and on television of the old, manual versions known as handcars or pump trolleys. As an undergraduate geographer and avid camper and hiker in the 1980s, I would often fantasize about getting some friends together with some old handcars, packing them with some camping equipment, and setting off for some unique cross-country experiences.
As an undergraduate geography student, I had learned that the United States reached its peak railroad mileage early in the twentieth Century, because nineteenth-century settlement policies had encouraged redundant tracks that were not economically viable in the long run. As railroads consolidated and became more competitive, the total amount of track in use declined steadily, even as the amount of shipping dramatically increased. This gave me some hope that plenty of abandoned railroads would be available for exploration, and since most tracks have a very low topographic gradient, it would be an easy way to apply my strong interest in transects to otherwise little-known terrain. I never did actually find a handcar, and I also learned that when track is abandoned, it is usually removed in order to recycle the steel. Finding inactive track, therefore, is something that must be coordinated very carefully with active railroad operators!
In real life, I have still never seen the handcars, and I have only seen the motorized railcars in Mexico. During a 1989 summer term at the University of the Americas Puebla, I enjoyed walking into the town of Cholula each day, often to climb the famous pyramid there. It was near the pyramid that I would occasionally see a group of workers zoom past me in a motorized railcar. (What looked like one pyramid, incidentally, was known locally as las piramides, as the original array of four pyramids was buried by a single, large one, which was in turn buried two more times before being capped by a Catholic cathedral in a most dramatic example of sequent occupance.) They would zip by quickly, before I had a chance to get a photo, so I started having my camera ready whenever I was at the crossing. As far as I was concerned, they were living out the dream of independent rail travel! My preparedness paid off, and I eventually got just this one shot of four men, sporting shiny hard hats and a red safety flag. They clearly were not on a camping trip, but they had looks of satisfaction and purpose; they knew they had the coolest vehicle in town!
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed almost two centuries ago, civil society in the United States is remarkably robust, with an organization to be found for even the seemingly most obscure interests. I should not have been surprised, therefore, to learn of a nationwide network of people interested in these fun little carts. The Boston Globe article Dreams realized, On a Small Scale was my introduction to NARCOA, the North American Railcar Operators Association. Its 1,800 members share advice on finding and maintaining the vehicles — the classified ads on the NARCOA web site are most enticing! Most importantly, NARCOA members organize excursions, for which they carefully assure that clear track is available.
The Boston Globe article cited above describes such an excursion in New Hampshire, and the online version includes a video. The video conveys two important things to me: first, this is a great way to explore landscapes, at a moderate speed and from a unique vantage point. Second, the movement of these little machines can be just as spritely as I remember from the Cholula encounters.
1. Topographic maps. Identify any section of train track on a USGS topographic map at 1:24,000 or 1:25,000 scale. Look carefully at contour lines (and possibly benchmarks) to identify the elevation at each end of the section. Measure the length of the section and change in elevation to identify the average slope of the section. Then, identify the elevation at regular intervals along the track in order to graph a vertical profile of the track. The vertical axis of the graph should be at a different scale than the horizontal axis, to provide vertical exaggeration.) Repeat the process with streams and roads in the same area, to see how much effort may have been made to minimize slopes on the railroad. If the railroad passes through hilly or mountainous terrain, look for evidence of road cuts in the contours.
2. Railroads. Railroad museums can be found in cities and towns throughout North America, and are excellent places to learn the historic geography of a region or of the whole continent. From single box cars preserved on a town green to major installations such as the B&O Railroad Museum or the Golden Spike National Historic Site, railroad museums provide insight into the economic geography of the past, as well as patterns of migration and vernacular landscapes. (A small, extraordinary example is the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Tennessee, housed in a boxcar that had been used in the Holocaust.) Similarly, railroad hobbyists — from railcar owners to model collectors to trainspotters — have learned a lot about geography from the pursuit of their hobbies. Identify a museum and/or an association of railroad enthusiasts in your area, and pay a visit. Write a short essay about the local geography lessons you learn in the process.