Handrail drivers happily walk the Gaspé railway line

Handcars are old vehicles used for railway maintenance. They were replaced from the mid-1970s by more versatile vans running on rails.

Seven of these owners come from Quebec, three from Ontario, three from the United States and one from New Brunswick. They had to travel between their hometown and New Richmond, the starting point for their two excursions, in road vehicles pulling a trailer with a handcar on it.

For safety reasons, the group is supervised by two vans for the total duration of the New Richmond-Escuminac route, a distance of 45 miles, double that with the return. These vans belong to the Société du chemin de fer de la Gaspésie (SCFG), the municipal entity operating trains on the peninsula. The railway workers Clifton Firlotte and Mathieu Lagacé were the drivers of these vans, one before the handcars and the other bringing up the rear.

Who owns a handcar?

Who owns these handrails? Louis-François Garceau, founding member of Draisines Québec, is a retired Canadian National railway worker, while his excursion companion, Pierre Lassonde, is a former construction worker, also retired.

“I have been a crane operator almost everywhere. I have always loved trains. This is what attracted me to handcars. I saw that an American association existed, NARCOA (North American Rail Car Operators Association) and that its members came to ride here. I told myself that we had to create our association. We did it in 2004,” assures Mr. Lassonde.

David Sigafoose drove 16 hours between New Jersey and Gaspésie to make this excursion. (Gilles Gagné/Special collaboration)

The American David Sigafoose left New Jersey, a 16-hour drive from Gaspésie, to join the group coordinated by Louis-François Garceau.

“When I was three, my father bought me an electric train set and I loved it straight away. This passion has followed me ever since. I saw my first handcar in 2000. I didn’t know that these machines could be used like this. I bought my first handcar in 2001, my second in 2004 and my third in 2007, a larger one. I made trips to Rivière-du-Loup, on the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway (between Sept-Îles and Schefferville), on the Ontario Northland. This is my second trip to Gaspésie,” says Mr. Sigafoose, who participated in the September 2006 excursion.

Born in Carleton and now living in Drummondville, Jean-François Boudreau returned to his roots to participate in this trip. “I still have my electric train shop in Drummondville. I still love trains and I came to see my grandmother,” he says.

The family made up of Anthony Lefebvre, 10 years old, and his parents Caroline Trudel and Claude Lefebvre, from Saint-Stanislas, in Haute-Mauricie, was on their first trip on a handcar.

“When I saw that, I said to myself that I had to buy one,” summarizes Mr. Lefebvre, a long-time train enthusiast.

Anthony finds it “interesting to see how it works. I still love traveling, and going to school. My parents always sign for me to go,” he says.

“Claude bought the handcar in the fall. He was thinking of bringing it back in the winter, but he ended up taking two weeks recently to do so. I don’t hate it (traveling on a handcar), but I enjoy it less than my boyfriend. I wouldn’t go out every weekend,” says Caroline Trudel, smiling.

Caroline Trudel, Claude and Anthony Lefebvre made their first trip aboard a handcar purchased in Beauce, and bearing letters from Jean-Marc Giguère, the businessman, now deceased, who relaunched the Quebec railway Central. (Gilles Gagné/Special collaboration)

The Lefebvre-Trudel handcar experienced some alternator problems. The battery was therefore not charging, which hampered starting. It came on compression, courtesy of Caroline’s forceful thrusts.

Denis and Pierre-Luc Dumas, highly competent railway mechanics, one retired from the CN and the other very active in this company, members of the third and fourth railway workers, saw here and there opportunities to give little advice and repairing certain elements during Saturday’s trip, a trip which took place in remarkable weather.

A necessary certification

Who can drive a handcar? “You need certification from NARCOA. It’s not a question of knowing how to operate the three levers of a hand bike, it’s above all a question of knowing the safety rules,” explains Louis-François Garceau, who has just sold his hand bike for a sum of 5,000 $. At 77, he will make other excursions, on a handcar belonging to a friend.

This could also be the case for the couple formed by Heather Kuhn and Brian Adams, of Alfred, Ontario. “Can you say in your report that our handcar is for sale?” she asks.

“This is my second trip to Gaspésie. I came a dozen years ago,” says Mr. Adams, about an excursion that took place at the end of spring 2011.

It takes a lot of energy to turn a handcar around in order to turn back. The machine can weigh around 500 kilos.

It takes a lot of energy to turn a handcar around in order to turn back. The machine can weigh around 500 kilos. (Gilles Gagné/Special collaboration)

Except when handcars travel at level crossings protected by barriers or members of the railway team, they give way to road users.

The railway line is only passable between Matapedia and the Cap-Noir sector of New Richmond, with major repair work taking place in several places on the Gaspé railway right-of-way. Annual maintenance work on Saturday also limited the group’s journey, forced to turn back to Escuminac, while the “draisineurs” believed until Thursday to be able to go to Matapédia, which would have twice added 25 miles to the journey (the railways still operate in miles in Canada). Renovation contractors are taking advantage of the weekend, a quieter period for the transportation of goods for the SCFG, to move forward with their tasks.

Are rail riders passionate? They will repeat the same route as Saturday on Sunday, with a small addition towards Cap-Noir, where work to move the railway has blocked the passage of all traffic towards Caplan since November 2023. Their Sunday will be enhanced with a visit to the Rail GD railway equipment repair shop, New Richmond.

Retirement after 50 years in the railway sector

For Clifton Firlotte, a railway worker with 50 years of experience on the railway, the Draisines Québec excursion constitutes the final chapter of his career.

“I started in June 1974, at the age of 18, as a construction worker in sidings (sidings) and loading tracks for CN customers. I have been a machine operator, a bridge inspector, a train operator. I worked for the CN, for the Société des chemins de fer du Québec, for the SCFG, for the SEMA Group, which repairs bridges. I had been casual for a while. I liked it, but it’s enough now,” he explains.

Living in Restigouche-Sud-Est, between Matapédia and Pointe-à-la-Croix, he is accompanied for this last weekend aboard his rail van by his wife, Brigitte Kenny.

“We want to take care of our leisure activities. I have a wood lathe and I started making bowls, not to sell, but to make gifts,” he concludes, under the tender gaze of Brigitte, herself recently retired, after 37 years of work in a supermarket.

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