Driving on Rails

David Semple

My colleagues are neck-deep in automotive expertise. They're engineers, designers, bona fide racers, people who know more about cars than Gordon Ramsay knows conjugations of the F-word. It's enough to give me an inferiority complex. For instance, I'll go to technical editor Don Sherman and ask if it's true that there's a leprechaun inside each Toyota Prius transmission, and he'll snort derisively and begin speaking in equations. Or I'll hop into a Mercedes-Benz S550 with road test editor Marc Noordeloos, and within thirty seconds he's critiquing its handling balance while slaloming on two wheels at 120 mph. Or I'll ask design editor Robert Cumberford what tumblehome is, and he'll gently explain that he invented it.

So I try to beef up my own credentials whenever I can, seeking out the cobwebbed corners of the automotive world where I might stake my own claim to authority. And that's how I find myself driving a mid-'90s GMC Sierra 2500, motoring into a bend at almost 40 mph with a firm foot on the gas and neither hand on the wheel. I might not be able to tell you where the foam goes in lost-foam casting, I might miss corner apexes more often than Lindsay Lohan misses AA meetings, but I'm about to forge new ground in automotive journalism clich; explication. I alone am going to find out what it really means to corner like you're on rails.

The Sierra is perched on a set of brand-new train tracks, part of an expansion line near my neighborhood that's essentially complete but - this is crucial - not yet operational. As anyone who's seen the Wile E. Coyote cartoons can tell you, working rail lines are imperfect venues for private vehicles.

This particular GMC is a service truck that's been retrofitted with rail wheels front and back. All you do is pull onto a rail crossing, line up with the tracks, and crank the wheels down into place. Propulsion - and stopping power - is still provided by the road tires, which touch the tracks but support only a fraction of the truck's weight. The Sierra's owner, a railway engineer named David, tells me that this makes for interesting dynamics, especially when the tracks are wet - you've got all the momentum of a full-size pickup but the stopping power of a Schwinn ten-speed with hot-buttered brake calipers. David is especially keen that I grasp this concept because he's riding shotgun.

As we approach the corner, I have to fight the urge to either grab the steering wheel or hit the brakes. Not that steering would accomplish much - David's locked the wheel in place via a pin atop the steering column. "You need to have the pin there because people's brains are conditioned over years of driving," he tells me. "When you get to a corner, you steer. It's a reflex. But guys do that on the tracks and they derail themselves."

The GMC settles into the corner, and it's immediately evident that we need some new rail-related clichs to describe what's happening here. Because if a car really cornered like it was on rails, that would mean it's tedious, uninvolving, and has a steering wheel so lifeless that you don't know whether to drive or administer CPR.

After a few miles, I've had my fill and decide it's time to head back. The only question is, how? Do I need to find one of those turntable things they use for trains? The solution is quite a lot simpler: reverse. "One thing about being on rails," David tells me, "You can back up like a banshee because you don't have to steer."

Freed of the need to steer and reasonably certain that there's nobody else on the tracks, I confidently motor along backward at 30 mph while paying very little attention at all. So I notice things you don't normally see when driving this fast in reverse, such as the fact that the odometer is still rolling forward. So, if your high-school buddy convinces you to skip school and take your dad's prized GMC Sierra railway truck for a spin, and later on the garage valets go for a lengthy joy ride, don't try to roll back the miles by putting it up on blocks and letting it run in reverse.

Also, don't stomp the gas while you're on rails, because a rubber-on-metal burnout makes a noise only slightly less unpleasant than fingernails on Yoko Ono. Now, if anyone has any further questions about driving like you're on rails, feel free to ask me, the self-proclaimed worldwide expert on literalizing automotive clichs. But give me some time - I'm busy on my next project. It's harder than you think to carve a functioning automobile out of a single chunk of granite.

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