Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bikes and train tracks?

I'm the kind of guy who regularly walks into closed doors, trips over my own feet and bumps my head on low overhangs, but I've never had problems on train tracks.

I've heard people talk about the danger of train tracks while cycling and I witnessed this first hand last weekend in San Francisco. I was standing near some SF Muni trolley tracks and saw three cyclists drop their front tire into the track and eat the pavement.

Three out of multiple dozens is a relatively small percentage I guess, but that's still more than I would have expected. I ride along streetcar tracks almost every day without incident. Sure, care needs to be taken, but it doesn't seem like a great deal of bike skill is needed. Unless I cross at a nearly right angle, I unweight my front wheel as I cross the tracks to prevent a fall. If my rear wheel drops in, I accelerate and bounce it back out.

Am I mistaken? Am I just lucky? My guess is these people weren't paying attention, but is avoiding falls around train tracks a secret skill for which instruction is required? Would an instructional video be helpful? And what are the chances of me taking a major spill just as the video camera is rolling?

Let me know what you think. I might shoot video this weekend at the Union Pacific tracks along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.


  1. I'd tend to agree with you, except, of course, when said tracks are wet. In those cases, even experienced cyclists can go down, and quickly, as I found out to my surprise and horror one morning on Market St. I was very lucky. These days I'm a bit more cautious around tracks.

  2. I think crossing tracks at too small an angle is a mistake every biker is probably going to make once, and then learn from. I got this one out of the way as a kid!

  3. Oh yeah, absolutely -- wet tracks require lots of extra caution or I might end up uʍop ǝpısdn.

    I'm kind of a "risk averse" person so maybe that's it too. What to me seems like normal caution might be the mark of an ultra-cautious weenie to others.

  4. Tracks are a hazard, but they are one of many. I've gone down on them, but not very often, and usually I was laughing sheepishly as it happened because I knew better; it's almost always the result of being in too muuch of a hurry and not paying enough attention. I must say though, that tracks are one reason to really love 2.35" tires. I am truly spoiled in that regard. Val

  5. I live in Philly, and we have trolley tracks all over the city. Crossing them at near right-angles is no problem, of course. But when riding in the same direction as the tracks I would fall if my wheel fell into them. So I simply stay away from them when traveling in the same direction. But one day I'm sure I'll make a mistake and fall because of them.

    As I understand it, you have a technique to avoid a fall if you ride into them ( going in the same direction)?

    I'd love to see a video of that. It could be a face saver for me.

  6. @Pete - I guess that's the challenge of trolley tracks -- you ride parallel to them, increasing the risk of falling in.

    @Anon 10:30 - I agree, I don't worry so much with my fat tire mountain bike ;-)

    There's a pretty nasty RR crossing on Hwy 9 in Santa Cruz County. The tracks cross the road at an oblique angle, AND cyclists approach at a downhill and around a curve so you hit the tracks fast and while you're leaning through the turn. Signs give advance warning of the crossing.

  7. I recently put a post on my blog that had a very interesting railroad crossing sign that I saw in Lewes DE.

  8. Most people I kmow who have crashed have crashed on railroad tracks, myself included (wet ones), even being careful.
    Fat tires make a huge difference, though.

  9. The only place where the train tracks are tricky in Santa Cruz is in front of the Boardwalk where the contraflow bike lane takes a curve toward the beach. That forces you to cross the tracks at a narrow angle, increasing the chance of slipping, especially in the winter when it's raining.

    This morning, as always, I sharpened that corner in order to cross the tracks at a right angle. Simple. Safe.