Standing at the Gills Neck Road rail crossing June 14, Dan Herholdt kept getting the same question over and over, “What are those?”
They were rail cars, box-shaped railroad vehicles traveling through Lewes at a leisurely 5 mph pace. About a dozen rail car owners from six different states rode the rails from Georgetown to Lewes. All were members of the North American Rail Car Operators Association.
“You have to be a nut to do it," said Boomer John Schmidt of Springfield, Va. “We can do it quite frequently – according to my wife, every weekend."
A rail car is a railroad vehicle, often called a speeder, used by maintenance workers to travel to their work destination. Two seats, sometimes four seats, rail cars are often highly sought after when railroad companies retire or scrap them.
Boomer John owns six rail cars, building up his stock over the last nine years.
“If you have one, you're all right, but when you get two they start to breed,” he joked.
Schmidt worked as a brakeman one summer while going to college in Ann Arbor, Mich. He says he wouldn't call himself an expert, just a railroad fanatic. He often travels hundreds miles to take part in a rail car event.
Get togethers are organized nearly every weekend somewhere across the country. A list of several hundred events can be found on the association's website.
Delaware hosted three such events June 13-15. The group rode the rails near Milton June 13, then Georgetown and Lewes June 14 and ended the weekend in Wilmington. Herholdt said some of the larger events draw up to 60 cars and can span several hundred miles.
“What I've found is that these people are great,” Herholdt said. “It's like people with a sports car collection, but instead they have these.”
Rail cars can be bought for $2,000 to $7,000 on the association's website; some others are more collectible and sell for much more.
Some rail cars can reach top speeds of 50 mph, but they often travel at lower speeds. Lewes does not boast a high-quality railway; it was not conducive to opening up the throttle, Schmidt said. The city's many railroad crossings also prevented the cars from getting up to speed. Rail quality has a lot to do with speed, Schmidt said.
“The issue is not how fast can they go; it is how good is the track?” he said. “The track is what steers you and keeps you going. If some track is all torn up and the joints are apart, you're lucky if you can do 5 mph.”
No other excursions are scheduled for Delaware this year, but events are slated for neighboring states later this year. For more information about NARCOA, go to www.narcoa.org.