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Lots of kids want to be railroad engineers. Who wouldn't want to wear a cool hat, toot the whistle and clickety-clack down the tracks?

C.J. Pappas enjoyed playing with model trains so much that he became a conductor and engineer with the Union Pacific Railroad.

But when he's not working on the railroad, the 34-year-old Crystal resident sometimes takes a busman's holiday to operate what might be the coolest toy train of all: an antique railroad motorcar.

"Trains have been in my blood since I was a little kid," he said. "I run big trains all day, but there's still something about taking these little speeders on the rails and bouncing around on the track like they did 50 years ago."

Pappas (who still owns model trains in five different scales) is part of a national community of railroad hobbyists who restore old railroad maintenance vehicles to live out their choo-choo dreams — whizzing down real rail lines, tooting their horns and waving to curious onlookers.

Some are so passionate about the odd-looking, obsolete vehicles that they buy multiple models of them, seek out the cars' "birth records" (many were made by a Minnesota company) or even have a likeness of their vehicles made into a tattoo.

The motorized steel-wheeled vehicles, sometimes called speeders, are roughly the size of a golf cart and were used by railroads for much of the 20th century to transport track maintenance or inspection crews on rail lines. They were an upgrade of the old-fashioned pump handcars seen on railroads in the 19th century, except that a small gasoline motor replaced the pump handle that workers had to push up and down.

But by the 1980s, railroads were getting rid of these railroad utility carts, replacing them with more comfortable and practical hi-rail vehicles: pickup trucks with retractable guide wheels making them capable of traveling on rails as well as regular roads.

That's how the rail motorcars got into the hands of hundreds of private collectors. They bought the surplus vehicles, restored them and formed a national organization that arranges excursion rides on rail lines throughout the continent.

"I've always been big on operating machinery that moves and watching the scenery go by," said Greg Cotton, a rail car owner and operator from Minneapolis.

Cotton sailed on submarines during a stint in the Navy, then had a career as a cargo plane pilot. About the time he retired from full-time flying in 2015, he bought a World War II era railroad motorcar originally manufactured by Fairmont Railway Motors in Fairmont, Minn., for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Cotton got the car, a trailer and some spare parts for $5,500 from a guy in Colorado who was getting out of the hobby.

Now he has five of the cube-shaped cars, which are about 5 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet high.

"They do tend to multiply," he said.

He takes his cars on cross-country rail excursions about 12 to 15 times each summer, putting in hundreds of miles on tracks in Michigan, Missouri, the Dakotas, Kansas and Colorado.

The trips are coordinated by members of the North American Railcar Operators Association, a nonprofit group of rail car owners. The trips typically run on short line regional railroads or scenic rail lines and are carefully coordinated with the railroad management so they don't interfere with regular rail traffic.

Boxy, homely, addictive

Recently, Cotton brought his rail car to Two Harbors, Minn., for a run with 13 other Midwestern rail car owners for a ride to and from Duluth on the North Shore Scenic Railroad.

Rail cars are definitely work vehicles: boxy, utilitarian and homely, with the aerodynamics of a toaster. They basically look like a shed with windows rolling down the tracks.

"Usually there's a discussion at every gas stop," Cotton said of onlookers who want to know what the odd-looking vehicle on his trailer is.

But some owners restore their vehicles to factory-new condition with gleaming paint jobs in the colors of their favorite railroad company. They might add custom features like chrome exhaust pipes or an intercom system to make it easier to talk with passengers. The cars typically can carry only two to four people.

Thousands of the vehicles were made by Fairmont over the years. The Martin County Historical Society in the town of Fairmont maintains a document collection from Fairmont Railway Motors where rail car hobbyists can get a copy of the "birth records" of their cars.

The newer cars have engines that start up with the push of a button and a hydraulic turntable lift that jacks the whole vehicle off the tracks so they can be pivoted around and set back down to reverse direction.

But the rail car that Cotton brought to the North Shore has a more basic two-stroke engine that needs to be started by turning a big crank. While it's in operation, he has to adjust the choke, fuel mixture, spark advance and tension for the belt drive.

At idle, the exhaust from the little one-cylinder engine makes a distinctive "pop-pop-pop" sound, which is why some of the little cars are called poppers or putt-putts.

"The thing's older than I am," said Cotton, 74. "This is basically a 1920s engine. It's not rocket science, but it does take a little fine tuning."

Cotton doesn't have a hydraulic lift on his car. To maneuver the car onto the tracks or to turn it around to reverse directions, he has to pull out long handles attached to the frame, tilt the car up onto its front wheels and lever it around like a wheelbarrow. It's doable because the two-seat vehicle only weighs about 700 pounds, less than a typical golf cart.

Some cars have fully enclosed cabs, others just a windshield and a roof. Some owners run their cars sitting totally exposed to the elements. Riding is a little like being on a motorcycle. There's a lot of wind and engine noise and the smell of exhaust.

But there's also the unmistakable rhythmic sway and clickety-clack of being on a railroad.

Rail cars typically cruise at speeds of around 20 or 25 miles per hour. If you push it up to 30 mph in an open car with minimal suspension, "it feels like you're going 130," said Pappas.

Riding the North Shore

On the trip from Two Harbors to Duluth, the scenery included views of Lake Superior, highway traffic on parallel roads, wooded corridors, bridge crossings over rivers and trackside homes and businesses.

"Rails travel through the backyards of America," said Hal Johnson, a rail car owner from Bloomington.

In Duluth, the procession of little cars motoring toward Canal Park drew waves from onlookers. Bicyclists and people walking their dogs stopped to take out their cellphones and take pictures.

Rail car operators said much of the appeal of the hobby is seeing scenery that you can see only from the railroad. That might include dramatic mountain passes and historic railroad tunnels and bridge structures. They say the view from their little open cars is better than what a locomotive engineer gets.

"It's very exhilarating," said Johnson, who has traveled 29,000 rail miles in 22 years in the hobby, including trips through Canada up to the Alaska Highway or up to Churchill, Manitoba.

"You'll never own your own locomotive. This is as close as you can come," said Mike Ford, a rail car excursion coordinator from Indiana.

There are about 1,200 members of the North American Railcar Operators Association in the U.S. and Canada. Rail car owners tend to be men, but they seem to come from all walks of life: priests, professors, plumbers, police officers, farmers and finance guys. Many are retirees. Many are railroad nuts.

"A lot of their houses look like railroad museums," Cotton said.

Johnson is so enamored of his rail car that he has a tattoo of it on one shoulder and a Southern Pacific Lines logo on the other.

Safety first

One thing rail car operators seem to have in common: They're sticklers for safety.

In addition to having insurance, rail car operators must pass a written exam on NARCOA's operating rule book and must get checked out on their first ride by an experienced mentor in order to go on a NARCOA excursion.

The cars have to have headlights and taillights and towing equipment in case of a breakdown.

On the North Shore ride, everyone wore reflective safety vests and the group carried first aid kits, two-way radios, fire extinguishers, signal flags, tools and even an automated external defibrillator. A couple of crew members from the railroad also came along in a hi-rail pilot truck. Alcohol was prohibited, as it is on all rides. So is using a cellphone, and smoking.

"No fire. We don't want a fire on the tracks," said Fred Lonnes, assistant excursion coordinator for the North Shore trip.

Even though the cars don't have to be steered, the drivers can't be lulled into a daydream by the gentle rocking of the tracks. Rail cars don't trigger crossing lights, so their operators have to be vigilant for auto traffic at every road juncture. They also need to make sure they maintain adequate stopping distance between cars.

"Every time we go on a railroad, we're a guest," said NARCOA president Mark North. "We have a very good track record."

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775