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A handcar (also known as a pump trolley, pump car, jigger, Kalamazoo, or draisine (powered or unpowered) in many other parts of the world) is a railroad car powered by its passengers, or by people pushing the car from behind. It is mostly used as a maintenance of way or mining car, but it was also used for passenger service in some cases. A typical design consists of an arm, called the walking beam, that pivots, seesaw-like, on a base, which the passengers alternately push down and pull up to move the car.
It is not clear who invented the handcar. It is likely that machinists in individual railroad shops began to build them to their own design. Many of the earliest ones operated by turning large cranks. It is likely that the pump handcar, with a reciprocating walking beam, came later. While there are hundreds of US patents pertaining to details of handcars, probably the primary designs of mechanisms for powering handcars were in such common use that they were not patentable when companies started to manufacture handcars for sale to the railroads. Handcars were critical to the operation of railroads during a time when railroads were essential forms of transportation in America, from about 1850 to 1910. There may have been handcars as early as the late 1840s but they were quite common during the American Civil War. They were a very important tool in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. There were many thousands of them built. They were commonly assigned to a "section" of track, the section being between about 6 to 10 miles long, depending upon the traffic and speed experienced on the section. Each section would have a section crew that would maintain that piece of track. Each section usually had a section house which was used to store tools and the section's handcar. Roughly 130,000 miles of track had been constructed in American by 1900. Consider that there was a handcar for every ten miles of that track. That would mean there were 13,000 handcars and that is a minimum. Motor section cars began to appear in the very early 1900s, or a few years earlier. They quickly replaced handcars. Those handcars that were not scrapped as part of the World War One, were probably scrapped for World War Two. It is not clear how many handcars survived. They can be found in railroad museums and some are in private hands.
Handcars have been normally used by railway service personnel (also known as a Gandy dancer) for railroad inspection and maintenance. Because of their low weight and small size, they can be put on and taken off the rails at any place, allowing trains to pass. Handcars have since been replaced by self-propelled vehicles that do not require the use of manual power, instead relying on internal combustion engines or electricity to move the vehicle.
Handcars are nowadays used by handcar enthusiasts at vintage railroad events and for races between handcars driven by five person teams (one to push the car from a halt, four to pump the lever). One such race, the Handcar Regatta, was held in Santa Rosa, California from 2008 to 2011 and other races are held in Australia. See the section on racing below. Aside from handcars built for racing, new handcars are being built with modern roller bearings and milled axles and crankshafts.
In Australia, hand cars or pump carts are commonly referred to as Kalamazoos after the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company, which provided many examples to the Australian railway market. Many Kalamazoos are preserved in Australia, some even being used for races.
There is a push car service along the railroad tracks between Anguiatú in Guatemala and rural towns across the Salvadoran border. Sometimes it is pulled by a horse.
In Japan, dozens of commercially operated handcar railway lines, called human car tramway (人車軌道 jinsha kidō?) or human car railway (人車鉄道 jinsha tetsudō?) existed in early 20th century. Those lines were purely built for its passenger/freight service, and "drivers" pushed small train cars all the way. The first line, Fujieda-Yaizu Tramway, opened in 1891, and most of the others opened before 1910. Most lines were very short with less than 10 km lengths, and the rail gauges used were either 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) or 2 ft (610 mm). As the human-powered system was fairly inefficient, many handcar tramways soon changed their power resources to either horse or gasoline. The system was not strong against a competition with other modes of transport, such as trucks, horses, buses, or other railways. Taishaku Handcar Tramway ceased its operation as early as 1912, and almost all the lines were already closed before 1945.
In Taiwan, commercially operated handcars were called either light railway line (Traditional Chinese: 輕便線; Hanyu Pinyin: qīngbiàn-xiàn), hand-pushed light railway line (手押輕便線; shǒuyā qīngbiàn-xiàn), hand-pushed tramway (手押軌道; shǒuyā guǐdào), or most commonly, hand-pushed wagon (手押臺車; shǒuyā táichē). The first line was built in 1870s. The network developed later under Japanese rule. In 1933, its peak, there were more than 50 lines in the island with 1,292 km network, transporting local passengers, coal, factory products, sugar, salt, bananas, tea leaves, and others. Most lines, excluding those in mines and isolated islands, have disappeared after Japanese have left. However, a few lines survived well until 1970s. Currently, only the sightseeing line in Wūlái still exists, although its line is not human-powered anymore.
Handcars are a recurring plot device of twentieth century film comedy.
An annual handcar race, Dr. E. P. Kitty's Wunderkammer, featuring the Great Sonoma County Handcar Races (formerly known as The Hand-car Regatta), is held in the rail-yard in old downtown Santa Rosa, California.
A multi-faceted festival, it was centered in races of numerous widely varying human-powered vehicles operating on railroad tracks. These included traditional hand-powered carts and others powered by pedals or pushing.
A similar race is happening in the nearby Northern California town of Willits, California, on Sept. 8 and 9, 2012. Other races are held in Australia, some using preserved old handcars. See the reference above discussing Kalamazoos in Australia.
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