JEANINE STEWART THE GAZETTE
Railroad fan Gus Mocilac and his 2-year-old grandson Ian stand at the Colorado Springs and Eastern Railroad track, west of Powers Boulevard, grinning as they board on a sunny Saturday morning. They step into a motorized railcar and wave as they head down the tracks.
Also known as speeders, pop pop cars, and motorcars, these cute golf cart-size cars originally transported railroad maintenance workers.
These days, they’ve become the object of affection for thousands of collectors and railroad buffs around the country.
Hobbyists buy them, restore them and run them on unoccupied railroad tracks. Sometimes these tracks are out of use. Other times, the hobbyists have to work around train schedules. In either case, railcar enthusiasts must obtain permission from track owners.
Railcar owners typically belong to organizations such as the North American Rail Car Operators Association. Through NARCOA they arrange excursions that last anywhere from half a day to a few weeks. They pay a NARCOA affiliate for the expense and the railroad for using the track. The excursions cost $64 to $350.
Motorized railcars offer railroad fans such as Mocilac an opportunity to play train whenever they want. The cars are collectors’ items, toys, social outlets and a link to the railroad industry’s romantic past. Interest is growing, and it’s bringing business to Colorado.
Railcars began to be collected in the 1980s when production slowed. Collecting railcars has become a hobby similar to collecting classic automobiles.
The railcars can be good investments. NARCOA area representative Jim McKeel, who lives in Kansas, estimates his former Missouri Pacific Railroad car has appreciated in value by 400 percent.
Like collectors of classic automobiles, enthusiasts love to transform run-down cars. Because railcars typically date to the first half of the 20th century, enthusiasts replace each part. In the end, the car is a piece of history and a work of the owner. Railcar accessories can include strobe lights, radios and devices to load cars on an off tracks.
Enthusiasts Doug Summers, of Pueblo, and John Spiro, of Falcon, bought an intercom system. Two headphone sets with mouthpieces allow them to communicate over the engines’ noise, which is just loud enough to drown out talking.
Then there’s the social aspect. “The big thing is you fill up a picnic basket and go out with a dozen of your friends and everyone eats out of everyone else’s picnic basket,” NARCOA member Stephen Patterson said.
Mocilac’s love of railcars grew from an interest in railroad history. His dad worked for the Santa Fe Southern Railway, among others. At an open house at the Pueblo Railway Museum in 1998, he saw his first railcar. He took one look and said, “This is it; I’m selling all my model trains and I’m getting one of these.”
Mocilac enjoys sharing his pastime with his family. “My grandkids love the darn thing,” he said.
The hobby is gaining popularity, judging by membership in NARCOA, which has gained 25-30 members each year for the past five years, according to Patrick Coleman, group president.
“We’re all baby boomers, and we’re all at the age when we want our toys,” said Mary Mocilac, Gus’s wife.
Colorado’s scenery makes it a prime area of interest to railcar enthusiasts looking for new excursions.
Mocilac, who became president of the Rocky Mountain Division of NARCOA in February, hopes to get permission to use more of Colorado’s railroads. “I
get e-mails all the time, phone calls all the time, from people all over the country. They want to know what’s going on in Colorado… It’s going to open a floodgate (of tourists),” he said.
Mocilac recently received the official OK to run excursions on the Aspen line, from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale. The trips are planned for later this month or September.
He is particularly excited about plans to run an excursion on La Veta Pass, which takes riders into beautiful countryside between Alamosa and Fort Garland, via the Santa Fe Southern Railway.
Sometimes persuading railroads to allow railcar excursions is a challenge. Mocilac wants permission from Union Pacific to organize an excursion on Tennessee Pass near Leadville, but Union Pacific refuses to grant it because of liability concerns. Mocilac remains hopeful. “You’ve got to find the right contact,” he said.
Persuasion helps. “You finally convince them that we can bring some revenue into their town… and that seems to be a pretty good driving force right there… (we’ve) got to have a place to stay,” Mocilac said.
Rob Sarr, general manager of Santa Fe Southern Railway, said he’s excited to allow NARCOA to use the line because “so many people have so much fun.”
Enthusiast Patterson said traveling through Colorado’s mountains in a railcar is better than seeing it from a car. For one, track routes periodically go into uncharted territory. Also, “the wind is blowing in your face, so you get to smell everything.” Riders view the wilderness in a way highway drivers cannot.
Mocilac beams as he rides down the track, honking the horn of his four-passenger 1980 Fairmont MT19A. “I don’t have to, but it’s fun,” he said. “I’m the engineer.”
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TO LEARN MORE
North American Rail Car Operators Association: www.narcoa.org
Information on Fairmont, a railcar manufacturer: www.whippanyrailwaymuseum.org/wrym/equipment/tc1
Information on Kalamazoo, another manufacturer: http:// motorcar.winkworth.us/kalamazoo/kalamazoo_co.htm
The latest on track maintenance technology: www.fairmonttamper.com/ default.htm
Canadian Association of Railway Modellers: www.caorm.org
Information on local railway events: www.durangotrain.com
Excursions and more links: www.geocities.com/MotorCity/Track/4592
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