CONWAY — Traffic slowed in town last Friday, not only from the usual onslaught of weekend visitors but also because of the dozens of small motorized railcars that took over the Mountain Division tracks on the east side of North Conway.
Many motorists were pulling over to appreciate the sight of the 29 colorful little cars that looked like they had escaped from a circus.
Owned and operated by members of New England Railroad Excursions, the procession of cars first headed south to Redstone, then north again to the Conway Scenic Railroad station in North Conway Village.
The Redstone excursion was actually a side trip of a much longer tour that had started that morning at 7 a.m. at Hazen’s near Whitefield, then traveled 94 miles down through Crawford Notch to North Conway and Conway, over rails maintained by Conway Scenic Railroad.
Members came from around New England and as far away as Pennsylania, New Jersey and Ohio. They stopped at Fabyan’s in Bretton Woods for lunch and again in Crawford Notch for a break.
Going down to Redstone, the group stopped near Crest Chevrolet on Route 113, at the end of where Conway Scenic Railroad currently maintains tracks. There, they could use a mechanical turntable to turn the cars around for the return journey.
Known variously as crew cars, track cars or motorcars, and sometimes more colorfully as speeders, rattlers or hit-and-miss cars (for the two-stroke engine of some early models), the cars were once ubiquitous across the country as maintenance and inspection vehicles used by railroad companies.
They replaced hand-pump maintenance vehicles but were phased out in the 1950s in favor of more modern vehicles (today, you’re more likely to see a pickup truck adapted to rails for maintenance work).
Now, the cars have become collectors items for railfans, and clubs routinely arrange tours around the country, using tracks owned and operated by railroad companies.
“There are a lot of these clubs around,” said Conway Scenic Railroad Operations Manager Derek Palmieri, who coordinated the excursion with NEREX, which is the New England affiliate of the North American Railcar Operators Association, which has more than 1,800 members worldwide.
NEREX does monthly excursions in the region, usually visiting Conway once a year.
“These clubs do a great job of promoting safety and enjoyment of the hobby,” Palmieri said.
“It’s a fun hobby to be in," he added. "The members like to part of clubs that are active and have good safety and notifications. NEREX is very good; they are on time, they have a good safety record and good communications.”
Trips like these take a lot of coordination and require a pilot to lead the group who is trained in rules and details of the local tracks.
If the club doesn’t have a pilot, they have to hire one from Conway Scenic.
But Palmieri said NEREX has several trained board members who can serve as pilots. NEREX member Dan Peck led last weekend's excursion.
The trips must also be carefully scheduled, and like any train, must run on time.
“We still had trains running. We had to make sure they stayed out of our way,” Palmieri said. “The biggest concern we have is people trespassing, just putting cars on the rails and running them.”
If a car breaks down, they have a short period of time in which to fix them. If they can’t be fixed, they can be hooked up to other cars and towed until there is more time to top and fix them.
The Redstone Branch, as it is known to CSRR, doesn’t see routine use, and drivers aren’t used to having traffic on the rails, so Conway Scenic provided a staff member to direct traffic at busy road crossings on the North-South Road when the cars came through.
After a long day, they parked on the tracks outside the Hampton Inn in North Conway at about 6 p.m. The club members spent the night before returning to the Conway Scenic Railroad station at Schouler Park on Saturday morning for a briefing and then making the 41-mile return trip to Hazen’s.
There, the club packed up the rail cars and rounded out the weekend by heading back south to visit the Cotton Valley Rail Trail Club in Wolfeboro.
Palmieri said Conway Scenic Railroad has primarily worked on excursions with NEREX and Cotton Valley Rail Trail Club, which is also very active and usually visits Conway twice a year.
But he said the trips are becoming very popular, and he wouldn’t be surprised if motorists are pulling over to view the cars of more clubs in the future.