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Home Car Culture Commentary Secret revealed: I’d like to drive a hi-rail

Secret revealed: I’d like to drive a hi-rail

A hi-rail is a car or truck equipped with an extra set of wheels for traveling on railroad tracks

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I knew I shouldn’t have clicked the “open” button on the news release, but I couldn’t help myself, and now it’s a couple of hours later as I complete my tumble down Alice’s rabbit hole by writing this commentary about one of my long-held and secret — until now — automotive fantasies.

I’ve driven lots of vehicles in lots of environments — race tracks, treacherous off-road trails, the autobahn, nostalgic two-lane byways and modern super highways on multiple continents and in 49 of the 50 United States, and I’m headed to Alaska to add No. 50 as soon as the virus-lit red light turns green. 

a hi-rail is a car or truck outfitted with train-style wheels | Mitchell Rail Gear photo

But one thing I’ve never driven is a hi-rail, and one place I’ve never driven is on a railroad track. 

If you’re wondering what a hi-rail is, it’s a regular motor vehicle that has been fitted with a set of flanged steel wheels just like those on a railroad locomotive or car. “Hi-rail” is a conjunction of highway and railroad. By lowering the steel wheels, such a vehicle can be driven on railroad tracks.

I have a note somewhere in one of the piles on my desk that reads: “A road I’ve never driven to a place I’ve never been.” I think I scribbled it on a post-it note one day while driving down some new road and discovering some wonderful destination for the first time.

Like Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere…” But not quite. I’ve driven to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, etc. I’ve driven from the top of Pikes Peak to the depths of Badwater Basin. 

But I’ve never driven along as opposed to across railroad tracks, and I think it could be a fascinating adventure, although I also imagine those who work for railroads and do such drives as part of their work routine might find such a drive just that, routine.

But just like highways, railroads are a route to new locations, and often go where highways do not. 

Polaris Ranger Rail
Polaris’ new Ranger Rail model | Fitzgerald Plant Services photo

I’ve traveled on trains here and in Europe and have noted that they provide a different vantage than what you see from roads and highways, including close-up scenery you can’t experience on a highway with shoulders. There’s also the fact that road traffic stops for rail traffic and whether you’re out west or in an urban area, trains travel through more tunnels.

So, what triggered this sharing of my secret ambition to someday drive a hi-rail on real rails? A news release from Polaris about the release of its Rail Ranger model, an all-terrain vehicle modified by Fitzgerald Plant Services in Cwmbran, South Wales, UK, with steel railroad wheels. 

Polaris notes that the Rail Ranger provides a smaller and less-expensive alternative to the sort of equipment usually used by those who maintain railway tracks.

The Rail Ranger is designed for all sorts of rail maintenance work, including “transporting personnel, towing trailers with tools and equipment, weed spraying, leaf clearance, and track inspections.” They even can be equipped with snow plows. 

Travel likely isn’t fast but scenery can make up for speed | Omaha Track Equipment photo

While the speeds are likely to be quite slow, I’m also guessing that this is hands-off-the-wheel driving. If so, it’s the one form of autonomous vehicle I think I might enjoy.

Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’m right there with you, Larry! I’ve always fantasized about being a train engineer, but that will never happen. Riding in a hi-rail would certainly be a credible alternative. I hope you post an update story, if you do get to live your fantasy someday.

    Thanks for this and all the other great articles you write!

  2. I’m really ready to go. But please, I want to travel the Rockies, the Great Plains and the forests of Western USA on rails: tunnels, trestles and viaducts at 100 mph. How can we organize it ?

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