Recently, I discovered the world of railroad velocipedes — bicycles that ride the rails.
What led me there was a TV reality show, “American Pickers.” One of the buyers is Mike Wolfe, a bicycle enthusiast who occasionally dredges up vintage bikes; I guess that's what originally drew my interest.
Recently, he dragged a vintage railroad handcar out of a building. It was a 100-year-old one-person machine used to inspect the railroad tracks.
It occurred to me that this might be a cool way to travel on some abandoned railways that hadn't been converted to rail-to-trail bike paths. I live a couple of miles from an abandoned BNSF railroad line that is years away from conversion to another use.
Doing some research, I found there lots of folks who are way, way ahead of me on this idea. Some by more than a century. Instead of using handcars, they're using self-propelled vehicles called railbikes.
There are many styles, but most tend to be a vehicle that sits over one rail with an outrigger to the other rail. Others have four wheels with the rider straddling between them.
Originally, small handcars were used by railroad and telegraph personnel for inspecting track and wire conditions. They were often called velocipedes and looked like they'd offer a good upper body workout. (Photo at left by Harvey Henkelmann.)
In other countries, such as Japan and China, they were used to carry goods and passengers to remote locations.
Railbikes are used mainly for recreation now. They utilize a mountain bike with an outrigger attached to the side and a front wheel guide to keep the bike heading straight down the tracks.
They're not much different than those railbikes shown at top, except they use the front wheel guide.
Plans for do-it-yourself railbikes are available on the web, or you can buy them ready-made.
The author of the Bentley Railbike website offers plans to convert bicycles in railbikes. He has several homemade railbikes that he uses on abandoned tracks near his home in the Adirondacks.
He says the secret to riding is leaning slightly inboard to keep the bike from tipping over.
Railbike.com offers a slightly different design that looks like a platform that rides the rails with a bike used for propulsion. He offers used railbike frames for sale, shipped from Costa Rica. They cost about $450 each and you supply the bicycle.
Both of these railbikers emphasize that it's important to get permission from the railway owner before setting out by rail, even if the railway appears to be abandoned. Otherwise, users can be arrested for trespassing.
I suppose these can be put to good use on abandoned railroad lines, as long as they don't get too popular. Imagine having to move off the rails whenever railbikers encounter each other traveling in opposite directions.