On June 15-16 when the North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA) brought its special form of transportation to the Minnesota Prairie Line and rode its “speeders” down the track as far east as Winthrop and as far west as Hanley Falls.
For years the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad was a source of transportation for the communities through which its tracks ran. People would board the train heading for another destination along the line.
In more recent years those tracks had fallen into disrepair, and decades had passed since anyone had ridden on the line.
That all changed June 15-16 when the North American Rail Car Operators Association (NARCOA) brought its form of transportation to the Minnesota Prairie Line and rode its "speeders" down the track as far east as Winthrop and as far west as Hanley Falls.
After being given permission to drive its railroad motorcars on the tracks from the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority – the multi-county organization which owns the rail itself – more than 30 members arrived in old North Redwood for the excursion.
David Voeltz, a member of NARCOA and the excursion coordinator, talked about the hobby as he drove his machine from North Red-wood to Fairfax.
The motorized vehicles themselves, he explained, were originally used for railroad maintenance work, and they got the name speeder because they could get to places on the track quickly due to their size.
"They actually are not that fast," Voeltz said, pointing out he was going about 20 miles an hour.
Production of the vehicles ended in the 90s, and that is when the hobby began.
"Twenty years ago I bought my first car," said Hal Johnson of Minneapolis, "and I have been going ever since. I've been everywhere in North America. We get to see things most people don't get to see. It's been great."
NARCOA, said Johnson, has about 2,000 members, and the hobby is continuing to gain in popularity.
"You can find cars for as little as $1,500 or for as much as $15,000," Johnson said, adding, however, they are becoming more scarce.
Among the guests who were able to go along for the ride was Gene Short, who has spent several years working to get the rail line viable again.
"It's exciting to be part of this," said Short, adding he has always envisioned there would be a day when people would be able to ride the short line again.
Unlike trains, the smaller speeders are more manageable and can easily be transported to rail lines on a trailer, and Voeltz said they are easy to maneuver. In fact within seconds of arriving at the Fairfax Depot each car was turned around right on the track for the return trip.
According to Julie Rath, who is the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority administrator, events like this help to show people the rail line is viable. She also said it was good for her to be able to get out and see parts of the line she had not seen before. Rath added, however, before one thinks about getting on the line and riding they need to have permission to do so.
Voeltz said getting that permission is key, adding there are some who do go on the lines without permission. Those people, called bootleggers, are kicked out of NARCOA if it is discovered they were doing it.
Rath said many of the hobbyists are also rail experts of some sort or another, and she said this provided an opportunity to make connections with those who might be able to help find ways to continue the line rehabilitation.
"I was impressed with what I saw," said Voeltz. "The view was great, and I hope we can do this again sometime in the future."
One may learn more about NARCOA and the speeder hobby online at www.narcoa.org.
Find out more about the local line at www.radc.org.