Compact motorcars roll out big scenery


Photos by Matthew Busch/The Herald
Norman Snyder, left, and his wife, Kathy, and James Dragstrem and his wife, Gloria, all of Kokomo, left in their motorcar from the Jasper Train Depot bound for French Lick with a group from the North American Railcar Operators Association on Saturday. Each of the cars is owned and operated by individuals who travel for these types of trips to different cities. The regional club, Great Lakes Railcars, sponsored this event.

Herald Staff Writer

JASPER — The train depot was abuzz Saturday morning with hobbyists starting up their motorcars and spectators watching the hobbyists indulge in their interest.

Jim Boone, of Bunker Hill, rolled his motorcar — a small, box-shaped, two-seat railcar — onto the second set of tracks behind the Spirit of Jasper train. His car, like the 19 others that soon peppered the track, is about half the height of the train.

The motorcar operators are part of the North American Railcar Operators Association. They rode their cars round-trip from Jasper to French Lick — a daylong trip, since the cars average 20 to 25 miles per hour. Along the way, they stopped to take photos of the countryside and had a lunch break in Cuzco.

Jim’s wife, Bonnie, stood to the side near the depot and supervised the action while talking to some of the other motorcar hobbyists who had put their cars on the track or were waiting to do so.

“My husband is a railroad buff and has collected railroad stuff for years,” she said. “We’ve been doing this since 2005. I’m always along for the ride.”

The North American Railcar Operators Association is a national group dedicated to maintaining the little cars and their history.

Rita Trueblood of Salem, left, and her husband, Steve, pushed their motorcar down the track as they talked to David Staggs of Bedford before a motorcars trip by the North American Railcar Operators Association from the Jasper Train Depot to French Lick and back Saturday.

Railroad companies stopped using motorcars about 30 years ago. Prior to that, the cars were used by signal operators and railroad workers who had to zip quickly along the tracks to make repairs. Now, hobbyists collect and restore them; many join organizations to use their motorcars on tracks as recreation.

The national association has several chapters that organize rides to which members can bring their motorcars. The Great Lakes Railcars affiliate organized Saturday’s ride.

“We haven’t been on this track for years,” ride organizer Mike Ford said. “This is a leisurely run covering beautiful ground. So this is a good one for people who are coming out for their first ride.” Most of the group members had been on other rides, though, Mike said.

The organization emphasizes safety above all, Mike said. So his role as organizer is to make sure that the owner of a track — in this case, the Indiana Railway Museum — consents to the group using it. “We accommodate the railroad trains, and get out of their way when they’re using the tracks,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to work with the track owner. We know when a train is due to come through and we stay in constant communication with the owner during the ride.”

When a train is due to come through, the motorcar riders stop early on, get out of their cars and lift the cars off the track. When the train has passed and the riders get the all-clear, they put the motorcars back on the track and continue on their journey.

“If you get two or three people to help, you can move off the track pretty quick,” Ford said. “We all work together to make sure everyone stays safe. And we travel only as fast as the slowest car. We stay together as a group.”

Mariah Lou, an 11-year-old beagle, peaked her head out of her owners’ motorcar before a motorcars trip by the North American Railcar Operators Association from the Jasper Train Depot to French Lick and back Saturday. Connie and Lyle Zerla of Dillonvale, Ohio, own the motorcar, which was built in 2003.

Many of the hobbyists have traveled all across the country and to Canada with their motorcars for rides. They like that they get to see the countryside and nature in its rawest form, without the intrusion of modern amenities, like motor vehicles.

“You get to see everything from a different vantage point,” said Bruce Frye of Unionville. He has been riding the rails in his motorcar for 20 years.

“From my motorcar, I can look out 360 degrees and see everything,” he said. “You can’t do that in a car or railcar.”

Loretta Anderson, who rides with her husband, Walt, agreed. “We get to see beautiful scenes,” she said. “You get to see things that other people can’t see from the highways.”

The Andersons, of Danville, knew many of the other travelers Saturday since they had been on rides together before. “You try to congregate before the rides and when you make stops to visit and catch up with each other,” Loretta said of how they maintain these friendships that exist solely because of the shared hobby.

The motorcar riders also visited with the spectators who gathered, like Bob and Paulette Elrod of Jasper. They were at the Jasper train station to see their nephew and niece, Steve and Rita Trueblood of Salem, who were among the motorcar riders on the trip. Paulette went down the line of cars to admire the different styles and talk to some of the operators.

Paulette recalled seeing these cars as a child living in Georgetown, Ky. “I would go out and watch the workers work on the rails. So to see these here, I’m all excited,” she said.

Contact Candy Neal at

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