Riding the Rails

Todd and Mason Clark (left to right) have worked for over two years to bring Handcar Tours to Marina. If successful, they hope it can become a recurring seasonal attraction.

A car rolls down the train tracks along Del Monte Boulevard in Marina, making an iconic clang, clang, clang sound. But this is not an ordinary train car – it’s a handcar, big enough to seat four people in an open-air arrangement, for a ride designed for fun rather than transportation. Handcar Tours will open for rides in Marina this summer, with cars built to accommodate up to four riders facing each other in pairs, who push handles back and forth like a seesaw. There’s a rush on the downhills through Fort Ord Dunes State Park.

The cars, despite looking straightforward, were carefully analyzed and designed. “My goal was to create a safe vehicle that’s not too difficult to operate,” says Mason Clark, director of manufacturing and operations of Handcar Tours, based in Santa Clarita.

To start, he looked through dozens of old patterns and designs for rail handcars, which date back to the late 1800s, when their purpose was for transportation or to provide access to locations that needed railroad maintenance. Early designs had three instead of four wheels and they were relatively unstable; by the beginning of the 20th century they were replaced by motorized versions.

Clark’s version has four wheels, and handles on each side of the cart that move independently of one another so riders can each pump according to their own power. “These cars are basically bicycles,” he says. “The purpose of the gears is to get more speed.”

The first prototype started in 2018 when Clark was a mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly Pomona, where his professor told him he did the equivalent of 10 senior projects. “I did that because I had a true passion for this,” he says.

But the concept dates back to when Clark, always a railroad enthusiast, was just a kid.

“My son has been building hand cars since he was 12,” says Todd Clark, also a railroad enthusiast and director of administration at the company. The family has traveled to different parts of Nevada and California over the past 10 years, trying out their cars on different tracks. “It was kind of a dream idea,” Todd says.

The family surveyed different train lines to find the right place to start their recreational business, and they found it in Marina. “This section of track is very rare and unbroken,” Todd says. “The other thing which is really unique about this is the ocean. And the weather is perfect.”

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Indeed, this stretch of track winds through the dunes between Highway 1 and the Recreation Trail, through rolling hills and with sweeping views of the Monterey Bay.

Handcar Tours began negotiating with the Transportation Agency of Monterey County for use of the tracks starting in 2019; the company is renting a six-mile section of track for $15,000 for three months, until Sept. 30.

Dozens of volunteers began working in March to clear vegetation off the tracks and get them ready to safely run handcars. “I think it’ll be good fun, especially for families,” says Melanie Cooper, who with her husband and two daughters helped clear the tracks (and also got to try riding the handcars). “We’re all really excited because there isn’t anything like it in the area.”

To get ready to launch, the Clarks faced two big challenges. One from the past: the rusty switches on the tracks to change lines, and one from the present: the shortage of labor due to Covid-19. “Without adequate labor, we may not be able to operate as often as we like,” Todd says.

The handcar tour starts at the corner of Palm Drive and Marina Avenue. A caravan of 12 carts will travel at an average speed of 8 miles per hour, and will take 45-50 minutes to complete the six-mile loop along the Monterey Branch Line. Tours cost $150 per car, and will open Fourth of July weekend (ages 9 and up only).

The Clarks plan to operate most weekends through September. It could become a longer-term attraction, offering a chance to experience what it was like to drive a handcar on rails that were laid before Marina became a city.

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