The “speeder” is a small work horse on a small line, the Ballard Terminal Railroad. But the speeder’s operator says everyone should have one.
On the spectrum of railway-vehicle sizes, the “speeder” is Lilliputian. A one-cylinder engine with a 4-inch bore that can maybe hit 30 miles an hour. Pullout “wheelbarrow” handles so one strong person can wrestle the 800-pound machine on and off the tracks. Compare that to Union Pacific’s “Big Boy,” one of the most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Sixty-eight-inch driving wheels powered by four cylinders larger than oil drums. With its tender, it weighed 1.25 million pounds and could achieve 80 miles an hour. But the speeder earned its name, replacing its slower man-powered relative, the iconic railway handcar, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Rent Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent movie, “The General,” to see this early cardio machine in action.) The Ballard Terminal Railroad’s speeder was made by Fairmont in Minnesota, likely in the 1950s. Fairmont is no longer in business. The no-frills, simple machine seats two just above the rails. “It’s so low it feels like you’re going fast,” said Jim Norvell, the short line’s engineer. “It’s a nice way to see the track structure and what’s in need of a fix,” He bought it for $2,000 a couple of years ago even though it was not running. It’s also called a “putt-putt” because of the sound of its two-cycle engine, which requires oil to be mixed with the gas. A hand crank gets it going, and the controls are simple — forward and reverse, a brake, a throttle and a belt control. As it speeds past the Lockspot Café, Hale’s Ales, Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel and other marine businesses, Norvell points out the obvious: “She’s a rough ride. The speeder is all nuts and bolts.” There are springs, but no shocks. Norvell, 34, a rail aficionado, said “my parents made the mistake of getting me hooked hard” as a child. They bought him a Lionel Centennial model-train set when he was 3. Now he helps run the full-size, boxcar-moving model with a 1940s Milwaukee Road diesel locomotive. Ballard Terminal Railroad has only three miles of track, give or take a few yards. Compare that to BNSF’s 32,000. The tracks used to be run by BNSF and were originally part of the Great Northern Railway’s main line across the northern tier. James J. Hill, founder and builder of the Great Northern, rode it from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, says Norvell. The line, which had one of the great logos, a mountain goat on a red background, arrived in Seattle in 1893. “Everybody needs a speeder,” Norvell said, calling it a “go-cart for the tracks.” It will help you cut through traffic. He plans to have the speeder on view at the grand opening of the new Nordic Museum on May 5.