Building a Hi-Railer
I have been a train fan for as long as I can remember. At age two I got a Lionel O gauge set and a year later I was gifted with several HO train sets the following Christmas. As I got older, I got into bigger scales. I later went on to inherit my father’s S scale American Flyer trains that were his when I was old enough to take care of them and in my teens ventured into G scale.
Owning a ridable scale train had always been a dream of mine. I knew little about the hobby and as I began exploring the internet to learn more a few things became clear; it was very expensive and the size and weight of the equipment was going to be a big challenge even if I could afford something.
Further research showed me that in my state and the surrounding area was pretty much exclusively 7-1/2 inch gauge. Something like an F unit was not only going to be out of my price range at well over $10,000 but at seven feet long and several hundred pounds I would have neither a means of loading it or transporting it.
It was around 2007 when I finally took the dive and decided that I was serious about getting into the live steam hobby. This was still a few years before the Galloping Goose kits became readily available. The cheapest entry level engine I could find was a featureless box essentially. It was nice because it didn’t require a riding car, but it didn’t resemble anything “real life.” It did however, give me an idea. My ideal train, or in this case rail vehicle, would be about three feet long and resemble something found in the real world. It also had to be light enough to be lifted and fit in a small SUV. I was not about to purchase a trailer and I couldn’t afford to upgrade my car to something bigger.
I decided a hi-railer, or highway/rail vehicle was an ideal solution. I live by a mainline track of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and for years had seen various maintenance equipment on the track including pickup trucks and other highway vehicles with special wheels that let them run on railroad tracks. Making such a vehicle would mean that I wouldn’t need to purchase additional train cars and I could sit right on top of it without a riding car.
There were two problems with my initial plan, however. There was no place to put the batteries and a pickup would be too small to sit on. Then another idea occurred to me. What if I used a delivery truck instead? I began to do some research and found that while not common, such a thing had been done before in the real world. I looked around and tried to find a small van-type vehicle to model and found a European style van that was approximately the size of a Matchbox die cast car.
I began looking around for the parts to set the project in motion and found a conversion kit that was offered by Roy Stevens of Ride Trains. The initial frame he offered was designed to take a Thomas the Tank Engine ride-on toy for children and convert it to run on 7-1/2 inch gauge track. I contacted him and asked if he could extend the frame to 3 feet long. He told me that he was actually considering offering a speeder body for his frame so that adults could use it.
The basic frame itself had coupler pockets already mounted with open wheels and a 1/3 horsepower motor that was chain driven. All that was needed to finish it was a body, batteries and a controller. Ride Trains sells and recommends Dimension Engineering’s 25A motor controller (SYREN-25). This control board is versatile and capable of working both from radio control and a wired remote control. Over the years, I have found the board to work well for this hobby and the few times I have had the board burn out, Dimension has been great about sending out a new one when I returned the old one without any questions or hassles.
The next challenge was to build a body. While I have some experience with electrical work, I knew nothing about welding and fabricating and realized I was going to need to outsource. At the time Ride Trains had not developed one and I really wanted to make it look like a delivery van. After checking around, I found a local shop that dealt with metal and concrete work. They had no prior experience in fabricating anything like this before but agreed to take on the project. The builder provided me with some 3-D CAD drawings based on the tiny van I’d provided for reference. After a few minor revisions, they set to work building the body and a few weeks later, I got the completed rail vehicle.
I requested the coupler pockets be removed since this was not a locomotive. A few cross bars were added to support the body and it was connected to the front of the frame with hinges allowing it to lift up to get access to the inside. One neat addition on the part of the builder was adding working sliding doors. The doors opened to reveal to hinged foot pegs that dropped out on either side. Initially, I ran the cable for the control box through the door and used it as a handheld controller. Later, I mounted a potentiometer directly on the roof and an on off switch. Eventually, after having trouble with routing the cables and dealing with broken wires, I decided to order the more professionally done complete control system from Ride Trains. I opted to mount the hand held box directly on the roof.
The finished van allowed me to sit on top of it and rest my feet on the pegs. I found the vehicle struggled with grades and was hard pressed to keep up with the trains at the track using only 12v so I added a second battery which gave it enough power to overcome those challenges. At top speed and a full charge I found the hi-railer could run at about eight MPH. It was very enjoyable to ride and easy to transport and generally I could load it without assistance if I removed the batteries, especially at most tracks since they are equipped with transfer and loading tables.
Over the years, I continued to tinker with the hi-railer and applied a variety of paint schemes including making it a Maintenance of Way vehicle for several different railroads, a FedEx truck, a Fresh Egg Delivery Truck and even an Ice Cream Truck that played actual music using a sound system for a real ice cream truck before finally painting it red and decaling it for Coca-cola, my beverage of choice. Eventually, I added working head and tail lights to it using LED trailer lights and experimented with different ways to run wiring harness which forever seemed to get snagged. I had to make the harness long enough to accommodate the lift top.
Over the years, I found the hinged top was a design flaw. It was difficult to prop open and when raised up too high the vehicle became top heavy and wanted to fall over. Also, if I rested the front on the rails while working on it, the front tended to get scratched up. At one point, I tried removing the hinges and just sitting the body on the frame but found that the body tended to shift and not stay in place well. Eventually, I reconnected the body with the hinges and learned to live with it. Over all, I found my hi-railer was an ideal starting point in the live steam hobby.
Eventually, I decided to sell my hi-railer as I got into the smaller 1 inch scale which was a more manageable size despite its limitations as to where I could run it. It served me well and I got a good seven or eight years out of it and it was still going strong when it went to its new home.