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What is a Handcar?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2016
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A handcar is a hand-powered structure built to run on railways. Handcars are generally used on railways for maintenance or inspection, but also can be used to transport passengers and for recreation. In recent times, racing handcars has become a cult sport, spawning several notable events in both America and Australia.

Handcars found their original usefulness along railways, where they provided an easier, if slower, alternative to trains. Light and small, handcars were inexpensive and often ideal for traveling between stations or signal towers to perform repairs, deliver supplies, or perform maintenance inspections. Early railroad handcars were often powered by a pivoting structure that could be pumped by hand to make the car move along the tracks.

Though many designs employed a pumped arm to push the car along the tracks, other versions used a pedal-based system similar to a bicycle. Resembling small carriages, pedaled handcarts took advantage of strength in the legs and were often more efficient and easier to operate. These handcars allowed the driver to sit back and pedal rather than furiously engage the whole body in pumping the car.

In Japan, handcars were used as passenger transportation for many years. Despite the use of human powered cars, the handcar tram lines could run up to 6.2 miles (10 km) in length and run several trips per day. The heyday of Japanese handcar transportation was between 1895-1910, before new-fangled vehicles that used horse power or motors came to replace the hand powered carts.

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Australia was and continues to be a hotbed of handcar activity. Called Kalamazoos after the American manufacturer that imported many of the cars, Australian handcars were infinitely useful on the enormous stretches of railroad tracks that began to criss-cross the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many vintage Australian handcars have undergone restoration and are on display in various transportation museums throughout the country.

Handcar racing and modern handcar design has cropped up as a recreation in many parts of the world. In Santa Rosa, California, the sport has gained considerable fame for its Annual Handcar Regatta, which encourages entrants to design, build, and race decorative but practical handcars through timed runs down a section of railroad track. Other races and handcar festivals are held in York County, Pennsylvania and Cummins, South Australia. While some races encourage teams to build new styles of handcar, others use vintage restored models.

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