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 Post subject: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 12:02 am 

Joined: Sun Jan 21, 2018 3:34 am
Posts: 3
I have been searching the web for handcar references and some of them took me here. I want to start this thread to comment on some of the concepts discussed in the past. I am not a frequent visitor here as I have my own discussion forum eats up most of my time. My son Mason Clark manufactures, operates, and has a sizable collections of seven vehicles. There are a number of museums that hold handcars in their collections, and some offer rides on them. While some here recognize that the public love them, I see comments in some discussion threads that others treat them with disdain. I want to share some tips about handcars, while encouraging their SAFE operation. Like any piece of railroad equipment, handcars can be deadly if not treated with respect. My son and I are rather obsessed with ensuring safe operation of hand operated rail vehicles as we fear accidents caused by unsafe operation will result in future regulation against their operation. Anyone know when the last handcar was built for railroad use? Answer at the end.

If not treated with respect handcars will kill you, but operated correctly they are safe modes of transportation. History has shown time and time again that handcars do kill when operated in an unsafe manner. My son and I have done extensive research on handcar deaths by researching old court proceedings (appeals by survivors) and also through newspaper articles back to 1890. My son has over spent over 2000 miles riding aboard handcars and I have about half that. I am going to share some of the items that led to fatalities and experiences that we have learned operating handcars:

1. Never ride backwards. A number of railroads prohibited this practice. We know this because payout request from surviving spouses were routinely denied if the worker broke a company rule that led to his death. Just because we see this in the movies does not signify this was done in real life. It is hard for actors to carry on dialog if they are not facing each other. The problem with facing backwards is if the rider loses their balance, they fall in front of the car, resulting in getting run over. The last handcar death was in 2015 during a handcar race in Washington where a woman fell in front of the handcar. Workers routinely rode backwards when it was cold, and there is at least one documented death by this means.

2. Watch out for wooden dowel handles. We have wooden handles on our handcars, but like a baseball bat you never know when they are going to break. Tremendous force is placed on the handles, especially when starting and on steep grades so be careful. The public may be unsteady or awkward because they are not familiar with the handcar experience and may not be prepared for a handle break. Inspect them before each use and for public participation consider replacing them with pipe.

3. When filling the handcar with participants be mindful of capability and where you place people. If you have someone elderly or a young child consider positioning them on the inside between handles. I often have them hold the side tool handles for safety. For people on the back, communicate with them about the danger of stepping off the rear and make sure they understand. We had a fella fall off the rear of our handcar last year. We were moving about 8 mph, and suddenly he was gone. No injury, but it was the first time it happened to us.

4. No photography while riding. People like to take selfies on handcars. We let people know this before we leave, while offering to take a photo for them with their phone or camera at the end of the ride.

5. Make sure the handcar will not move during boarding. As built handcars do not have a locking brake. This is actually is not compliant with current FRA regulations and we are in the process of modifying our vehicles to include a parking brake. When we board the public we tend to stand on the foot brake to hold the car steady. You can put chocks or rocks against the wheels, but they are not as effective.

6. Do not race handcars as fast moving handcars are a recipe for disaster. Cruising speed of a traditional handcar that geared 3.27:1 is about 10 mph. We have found the top speed at this gearing is 27 mph. At that speed the thing becomes a death machine as the handles whip up and down. Did that once and won’t do that again. There are a number of modern handcars designed by Bruce Carpenter. These are geared a bit differently than traditional handcars and top out at about 17 mph. They are actually better suited for museum work as they start easier than traditionally geared handcars. These cars have a cruising speed of about 7 mph.

7. If running more than one handcar concurrently do not run them on the same track. The last thing you need is for one to rear end the other. That rear position then becomes the death spot. Same goes if running with a motorcar. You don’t want these things sharing tracks together. Someone will survive a fall off the back, but not if there is another car on the tail. History has shown men have perished this way.

8. Consider adding a warning bell to handcars. People tend to walk right into moving handcars. They don’t hear them, and they don’t see them. We have a foot controlled bell on some of our handcars that rings like a streetcar bell. However, just screaming at people in the way works well too.

9. If you have an old handcar in your museum collection consider either parking it permanently or rebuilding it. Some of these old handcars are in such poor condition that they shouldn’t be run. A lot of handcars that are considered to be original really are not and were previously rebuilt using old parts. It is not unusual to find handcars considered original that are not as they were rebuilt by the railroad or hobbyist with parts from multiple manufacturers. If you have an original handcar that was never rebuilt, consider not running it and keep it in the collection for viewing. Handcars were built for 7 years of use so there are not all that many completely intact original handcars.

10. Maintenance, oil components and don’t over tighten the tension rods. An old handcar is drooping for a reason. Tightening it up may cause further damage to rotten joints.

11. Picking up and pivoting handcars should be done so the car pivots on the loose wheel, that is on the axle opposite to the geared one. Handcars came with a loose wheel so that the gear end could be picked up and turned on the loose end. Technically, a handcar should be run gear forward and turned at the opposite end. In practice we don’t do this with our handcars. At higher speeds we can hear the loose wheel thumping away. We haven’t investigated this fully, but we think the noise is cause by the wheel climbing the flange. All of our cars do this, but after thousands miles of reverse operation we haven’t had an accident so we are unconcerned.

People love handcars. When we are in Ely, Nevada we routinely give rides to the public and people just love them. I have heard countless times, especially from the young that they enjoyed the handcar ride more than riding the train. Don’t discount offering them at your museums because it is often the only memory of the visit people will have years later. I have been told numerous times by riders that the handcar ride was a bucket list item for them.

My son has a web site with good information about handcars at However, the history section has not been updated in a while and we found a few errors when researching for a book project he recently completed. If anyone is looking for some good accurate history info to make a narration script while giving handcar rides email me at I can email the pertinent pages from the book for you.

My son sells original handcar craftsman kits and fully assembled handcars for museums interested in adding a handcar to their collection. His Kalamazoo handcar kits are super accurate and his cars indistinguishable from elderly handcars. He fabricated his own iron foundry patterns and fabricated every part including the gears and bearings. Many of his parts including the walking beam were cloned from original Kalamazoo handcar parts. It was a labor of love project and he will never recoup the hundreds of hours spent manufacturing the parts. If you are interested in a kit just make sure you have the wood working skills and equipment necessary. We anti-sell the kits because we have found most people do not have the skills necessary to build a handcar. His cars can be found at

Answer to the question as to when the last handcars were built… 1976, 40 cars built by Fairmont Motors for the Bolivian Railroad. Fairmont was optimistic they would make a comeback in the United States and offered them here briefly for $1500. We all know how that turned out.

Todd Clark

 Post subject: Re: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 10:40 am 

Joined: Mon Aug 23, 2004 12:53 pm
Posts: 244
Location: Manchester, NH
That is a most excellent post and should be required reading for anyone giving handcar rides. I very much enjoy giving handcar rides at the WW&F Railway Museum, and could not agree more with the points raised.

Do you mind if I cross post this to our museum's private discussion area?

-Ed Lecuyer
Trainmaster, WW&F Railway Museum, Alna ME.
Please help the WW&F Build Locomotive 11!

 Post subject: Re: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 10:59 am 

Joined: Thu Aug 26, 2004 2:50 pm
Posts: 2566
Location: Northern Illinois
One point seemed to be overlooked (possibly overlooked by me)... Reminding all concerned, experienced riders and neophytes both, that the handcar is slowed with the brake, NOT by pushing down on the handle, which is liable to throw one off the car.

Dennis Storzek

 Post subject: Re: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 12:44 pm 

Joined: Sun Jan 21, 2018 3:34 am
Posts: 3
Feel free to crosspost this.

I wouldn't panic if someone pulls up pushes down on a handle to stop the car. It only becomes hazardous if the car is traveling fast. There are some museums that use this method to stop because their handcar is missing its brake system.

One thing I did not mention is switching a handcar to another track. Many railroads prohibited lining switches for the handcar. This was because this created a hazard if the switch was not realigned before a train arrived. The practice of the day was to pick up the car and move it over the switch as demonstrated in this video:

Lifting is much faster than aligning a switch. We don't flip switches anymore unless we have the public on the car and or we are carrying a heavy load of tools. We actually have used our handcar for track maintenance on the Nevada Northern.

We have run across handcar naysayers who complain that handcars are hard to pump.
A well serviced handcar should not be hard to move. Many of the old handcars in museum collections are worn out and are hard to pump because the various bearings bind from the drooping frame. Old handcars that are in original condition should be parked for display.

 Post subject: Re: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 1:13 pm 

Joined: Mon Aug 23, 2004 12:32 pm
Posts: 112
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing. One thing I've always wondered, especially for "modern" handcars - how easy / difficult would it be to add a "free-wheeling" type gearing like on a bicycle? It would seem to make sense both from a safety standpoint in the event of unintentional higher speeds and would be a nice option to be able to take a break from pumping but be able to keep going without worrying about having to watch the handle., maybe even be able to lock the handle in the middle position to use as a hand hold for coasting. I suppose if it were easy it would have been done already but just thought I'd ask.



 Post subject: Re: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 1:38 pm 

Joined: Sun Sep 14, 2014 5:05 pm
Posts: 1050
Locally a woman was killed in a handcar race in 2015. She violated your Rule 1 and got ran over. The last handcar I saw in commercial use was on a logging railroad on Vancouver Island in September 1969.

 Post subject: Re: All about handcars
PostPosted: Tue Apr 10, 2018 3:26 pm 

Joined: Sun May 12, 2013 2:46 pm
Posts: 232
Hand cars are dangerous to the uninformed , amateur and also to professionals. Stopping a hand car is not a group effort . One (1) person is responsible for controlling the foot actuated brake which , of course ,must work . If not , then you don't operate it ,especially in this day and age .
As per Dennis Storzek's comment ,I'm sure he was thinking back about 40 years about Connie Morrell who straightened her arms out while pumping a hand car after hearing the brake man say he was stopping the hand car . She flew off into the ditch luckily none worse for wear . That made her a legend with her friends .
Twenty/thirty years ago one of my MTM's (roadmasters) at work was "encouraged" by his Director to participate in the Hand Car Olympics against participating railroads . The pump handle came down on his kneecap during a race. He still has a limp to remind him of the "good times". Was the injury reported , what do you think ?
Hand cars are neat , fun ,cool but with open gears , non forgiving mechanical parts when compared to flesh and bones , I'd be concerned letting the public on them .
FYI : I check my oil and make sure the oil filter is tight before driving away after an oil change.

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