Railcar travelers spread holiday cheer
It was no “Polar Express,” but a convoy of 19 railroad inspection vehicles still aimed to bring holiday cheer to children along the tracks from East Huntingdon to Hempfield on Saturday.
The small, self-propelled inspection vehicles, many decorated for Christmas, were part of a 40-mile excursion organized by the North American Railcar Owners Association.
They collected toys and donations along the route to benefit Toys for Tots.
“We've been out here all day and we'll probably end up with better than a pickup truck full of toys and quite a lot of donations,” said organizer John Gonder, 67, of Ruffsdale, whose railcar pulled a small trailer full of donations.
The convoy traveled from the former Sony plant in East Huntingdon along the Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad, stopping in Mt. Pleasant, Scottdale, Tarrs and Youngwoodbefore stopping and heading back down the track in Hempfield, just off North Greengate Road.
People brought donations up to the convoy at railroad crossings and stops along the way.
This was the group's first excursion in Westmoreland County.
The four-wheeled railcars were primarily used for inspecting and maintaining rail lines. They had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, bridging the gap between the people-powered handcars and modern “hy-rail” trucks, which have a set of railroad wheels that can be raised and lowered to run on tracks, Gonder said. The vehicles are small enough to load on and off of trailers, and most run on gas or diesel.
Enthusiasts can buy them from railroads or scrap yards and fix them up for private excursions, organized through groups like NARCOA and rent time on active tracks for sightseeing or special events like Saturday's collection.
Gonder said all the operators have to be trained and certified to run their railcars on active tracks, which they shared with an idling cargo train at their turnaround point in Hempfield on Saturday afternoon.
“We don't usually get so close,” Gonder said of the Norfolk Southern engine dwarfing his railcar and trailer full of toys.
Participants said the trips with NARCOA give them a chance to do charitable work while enjoying the sights along routes that few people get to see, now that so few lines are traversed by passenger trains.
“You get to see America from a completely different point-of-view,” said Joanne Simmerman of Van Werth, Ohio, traveling in the convoy in a 1959 Canadian Pacific railcar with Jerry Mazur and her 10-year-old grandson, Jacob Kitson.
“You see things you never see from the highway, or the air,” said Mazur, 76, who said he was also a pilot and the mayor of Van Werth.
NARCOA will hold another Toys for Tots excursion in Northumberland County next weekend, Gonder said.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.