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Riding the Sperry Car

by R. L. Kennedy


SRS 138 at CPR yard London, July 6, 2002. L. B. Chapman

Hey, what's that? A passenger train? A passenger train where there shouldn't be one! A self-propelled one-car train put-putting along the track, its slow pace and frequent stops, often in the middle of nowhere, adds to the illusion of a passenger train where none belongs. The illusion is further enhanced by the sight of one or two people getting off and on the train as it proceeds along its way. Despite its slow speed it always seems to miss the place it should be stopping at for it always backs up a short distance before letting anyone off. Sort of like an informal flag stop, the kind of thing that does happen on some lines, but not this often, and the engineer never gets stopped in time!

A closer look reveals a hoax on the part of your imagination when the name of the pertinent railway company you would expect to see is not there. Instead the name Sperry Rail Service is seen. The illusion is due in part to its passenger car appearance because of the fact that many of these familiar looking yellow cars were converted from self-propelled gas-electric cars, or "doodlebugs", that did in fact once provide just such local train service, often on branchlines.

A closer look would determine that it was the same people getting off and then in a minute or two they get right back on again! What is going here? It is of course the technicians looking for defective rails in a manner that no section man can, with specialized electrical detector equipment.

Did you ever wonder what goes on inside those Sperry Cars? We did, and although these bright yellow cars often show up to do their work all over Canada, their infrequent movement and unusual working method makes finding and watching one rather difficult. Further more, while on occasion it is possible to ride the cab on passenger or freight trains, very few people ever get to a Sperry Car due in part to its being owned and operated by another company. Also, the car has little extra space on it since it houses a complete train, engine, sleeper, diner, generator, control area etc. So, with the thought in mind that many others would also like to know more about the Sperry Car, in mid-May 1974, I set about arranging the necessary permission from the Sperry headquarters and CP Rail to actually ride a car. Locating a car took a little checking since their scheduling is arranged by the Engineering Department and is subject to change day by day depending upon just how much track gets detected each day. The more defects that are stopped and ground checked, the less track gets covered. Things are further complicated by the fact that Sperry Cars criss-cross the country going from one railway to another with little regard for normal runs and destinations as made by regular trains.

It was determined that Sperry Car 138 was due to run light from Smiths Falls to Saugeen, Ontario where it would begin testing. We caught up to it one day on the Elora Subdivision at Erin and rode out the day as they detected from Mile 14 to Cataract (Mile 0.0) during which time 123 stops and backup moves were made to check for defects. The Elora Sub. was a short branch Northwest of Toronto running off the Streetsville-Orangevlle-Owen Sound branchline. It saw only irregular service over its light rail and had a 25 mph track speed, yet by chance a daytime freight train was on the Elora Sub. at the same time as Work Extra SRS 138 was there.

All photographs 1974 by Robbin Rekiel

Engineer's cab position.

Chief Operator's rear cab.

Close-up of pen graph with moving tape.

Meters, rear wall

Controls, rear wall.

Gauges, rear wall.

Meters, rear wall.

Brushes, rear truck, in raised position.

Chief Operator sprays, another Operator marks indentifying number on web of the rail.

Chief Operator performs a hand test.

SRS 138 tied up for the night at Orangeville.

Rear view, "business" end. Note small windows for bedrooms. Other side is more normal style windows.

The Sperry crew must be up early since the two engines on the Car must be warmed up, and all testing equipment inspected, lubricated and calibrated every day. All this and breakfast is done before the railway people arrive for an early ordering time.

On board the crew consists of mostly Sperry men, usually a Chief Operator, Recording Operator, Examining Operator, Driving Operator (engineer) and often a cook. They sign up for three years duration during which time they are flown home four times for two weeks plus two weeks at Christmas. They work 6 days per week about 57 hours (40 at straight time). Wages are very low (1974: $2.45- $2.60 per hour 2003: start $10.00), but they do have free living quarters and inexpensive meals on board cooked by the steward. The railways supply only a conductor, who in addition to his normal duties of handling train orders etc. also acts as a pilot for the Sperry engineer, riding the left side of the cab to ensure compliance with operating rules etc. for the movement. The Roadmaster under whose jurisdiction the track belongs also rides the car.

When the car is testing it runs at no more than 13 miles per hour. All the work is done at the back of the car from an observation cab with the operator facing the rear, and watching the indications made by multiple pens writing on a moving tape recording conditions sensed by the equipment. When an indication is received which is suspected to be a defect, the operator marks the tape and signals the "engineer" with a buzzer, to stop. He then raises the "brushes" off the rails and signals for a backup move. Then with hand signals, the Car is spotted exactly at the required place. One or two operators drop to the ground to conduct a further check using additional equipment in a special swivel mounted housing hung under the rear of the car. If a defect is found it is marked on the inside rail, including assigning a serial number to identify it. The men re-board the Car and signal the engineer to proceed and testing resumes. Watching the repeated climbing off and on (note the high steps), over and over again at a fast pace, indicated it was sufficient to tire any worker!

A Defect Rail Report is filled out on the car with all particulars noted, a copy of which is given to the Roadmaster. The decision as to replacement of any rails and the urgency, is of course the railway's to make and depends on many factors such as nature and severity of defect, traffic, tonnage and speed on the line involved. Frequency of testing a given track depends on the importance of the line and the amount of use it receives.

Sperry bases its charges to the railway on a mileage and time basis. In 1974 it was $19.30 per mile.

Sperry Rail Service Defective Rail Report

CP Rail Rail Removed from Main Track form, front and back.

Sperry Rail Service Welcome Aboard booklet.

Front cover diagram of interior. Description of interior. Description of Sperry detection system.

Further description. Sperry Facts 1972.

SRS 402 referred to in the booklet is the all-ultrasonic car converted from a former New Haven RR Mack railbus. This car has been often been seen in many areas of Canada.

Sperry has gone on to pass its 50th. year towards the end of 1978, by which time the fleet of 25 Detector Cars checked 6.8 million miles of track and detected 3.7 million defects. The annual rate is about 200,000 miles of track tested, spotting about 5,500 defects per car at the rate of approximately 23 per day of approximately 35 miles.

Sperry is approaching its 75th Anniversary in October 2003. For more current figures etc. see link below.

SRS 138 (the car we rode) was rebuilt by SRS in September 1971 from Rock Island 9057, a "doodlebug" built in 1928. In later years when the supply of suitable old 'bugs dried up, Sperry began building all-new cars. All SRS cars are powered by Caterpillar diesels. Typical CPR "doodlebug" 9004, same builder.

LINKS: Sperry Rail official web site.

Sperry Rail un-official web site.

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