When he was in his twenties, American Alan Freed says he was the youngest locomotive engineer in the U.S.

Now, decades later, he's back riding the rails. But he's traded in the locomotive for a yellow, 1957 Pontiac Hi-Rail (sometimes spelt Hy-Rail).

Freed's car is one of about a dozen that were built by the Northern Pacific rail company to allow engineers to travel the tracks and inspect rail lines.

Tucked under the car's two bumpers are four sets of railroad wheels, which can be operated like a plane's landing gear. 

"You drive it onto the crossing and line it up with the track. You push a button and you hear the hydraulics. The wheels push down and you're up on the tracks and you're ready to go," Freed said.  

"The steering wheel locks and it can't be turned and it becomes a railroad car essentially … it's first class."

The Virginian bought the Hi-Rail from a salvage yard in the 1990's. He and his friends spent a year and a half restoring it.

Once it was fixed up, Freed told himself, "I need to ride it."

chemin de fer de la Gaspésie

Freed says the largely disused train lines in the Gaspé make it easy for him to drive his car there. (Radio-Canada)

'God's country'

He's driven his Pontiac on tracks in British Columbia and in the Maritimes. Last week's trip to the Gaspé was his third to the peninsula. 

"The first time I think was in the late 1980's and then earlier (last) summer and then I decided to leave the car here," Freed said. 

"So we came back up to pick it up before the snow comes in. I thought we'd take a brief ride and take a little vacation on the way home."

​Freed prefers driving his Hi-Rail in Canada because, he says, the people are more open-minded. He's also struck by the raw beauty of Canada's rural areas. "This is God's country … it's spectacular," he said. 

Getting permission to ride the tracks is not as hard as one might think once rail companies hear about Freed's strange set of wheels.

"Usually railroads are pretty amenable to somebody coming along with a 57' Pontiac who has been on the railroad before and knows about the railroad," said Freed.

The fact there is little traffic on the Chemin de fer de la Gaspésie also plays in Freed's favour when it comes to riding the region's rail lines. 

"In the United States, there are not many rail lines like the Gaspé, which no longer has trains unfortunately," said Freed.

"The train to Gaspé was, when it was running, I think the premier train ride in North America. I really, really hope that they reconsider the situation here and bring this train back because it would be a real tragedy if this was lost."

Chemin de fer de la Gaspésie

The Chemin de fer de la Gaspésie cuts through some of what Freed calls "God's coutry." (Radio-Canada)

A different way of traveling 

In the meantime, people along the Gaspé rail line had the opportunity to see Freed and his wife, Nina, ride the tracks this week.

"We usually average 10 or 15 miles an hour (16 to 24 km/h) because we stop a lot. People are constantly waving or want us to stop and talk," Freed said.  

"It's kind of an unusual thing for a sleepy town to see a 1957 yellow Pontiac driving down the railroad tracks."

While his car is road worthy, Freed feels riding the tracks is the best way to travel.

The North American highway networks were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and cut across desolate landscapes. The rail network, on the other hand, dates from the late 19th century, and offere a wholly different perspective to the traveler.

"If you want to see the history of someplace, I think the railroad offers you a wonderful chance to do that," Freed said.

"I think I'm very lucky to have this car and use it on occasion."