Jeff Zeleny



Last week our speaker was described as a “hobbyist”. Little did we suspect that Jeff Zeleny had developed an interest and expertise in the arcane world of the motor car, something, I always thought, we all had in the garage but no – it was revealed to be a vehicle also described as a “railroad speeder”. To provide us with background on how these machines evolved, Jeff showed a video. Railroads depended on the pick and shovel in the old days but during the Civil War hand propelled carts were developed that could bring materials relatively quickly to the work site. In the 1880’s, the railroads began to modernize these with gas driven engines. By the 1920’s hand cars were no longer in use and the Fairmont Railway Company dominated the business with improvements that included 4-cycle engines and hybrid vehicles – cars with drop down wheels that ran on the rails. In the 1980’s new track laying equipment was developed and in 1992 all so-called overhead lines were discontinued.

Resuming his talk, Jeff said that from 1985 to 1990 thousands of abandoned motor cars were sitting idle in sheds and people started buying them up and running them for fun. The National Association of Railcar Operators or NARCOA was formed for the benefit of enthusiasts. Jeff visited a show in Massachusetts in 1998, saw a 1984 MT 14 and bought it for $ 3,000. A few days later a 1,500 lb. “motor car” arrived on a truck at his home in Fairfield. His wife was horrified and he was faced with the challenge of how to unload it. He worked on the machine, that he said was originally a “wreck”, and eventually loaded it onto a truck and took his first ride in it in New Jersey with his wife and 3 children. He described how, to get it onto the tracks, the car would be deposited sideways on a level crossing and then swung around.

A slide show followed, that featured outings by members of NARCOA and the sort of scenery and remote locations that enthusiasts visited and enjoyed. The cost of a car, ready to run, was relatively affordable at about $5,000. For a week end event, a fee of $150- 175 was paid to the railroad for insurance. The club offered great camaraderie and the ability to enjoy scenery, be it urban or wilderness, in almost every State. The cars were not favored with right of way at crossings and members went forward as flaggers to warn approaching traffic.

In Q and A, Jeff was asked how they managed switching. The lead car had switch keys and would make radio contact with the railroad to warn that they were on their way.

How comfortable were they? Not very, being made of basic sheet metal. Wives usually sat on some form of cushion.

What did they do for toilet facilities? If the outing was longer than a day, one of the cars was designated to pull a trailer with a port-a-potty on it.

How many enthusiasts were there? 1,800 members in the US and Canada. On any one outing there could be as few as 4 and as many as 60-80 cars.

This was a well presented talk and, for me, surprisingly interesting. On the Peter Knight scale of 1-10, Jeff Zeleny scored an entertaining 9.