Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Is Afraid of Railroad Tracks?

Shortly after I first began cycling, I witnessed an accident in Vienna, where a young woman was riding her bike past the university and her wheel went right into the trolley tracks, which had been parallel to her route. It happened very fast, and by the time I reached her, she was sprawled on the pavement covered in blood next to her flipped-over bicycle, a crowd was gathered around her, and the ambulance was on its way. Unfortunately, I do not know what happened to her after the ambulance took her. Only a few days later, I read about Dottie's crash while crossing the railroad tracks during Chicago's Tweed Ride, and shortly after that, about this incident, which happened to an American young woman on her visit with Amsterdamize. This sequence created a deeply ingrained association in me between railroad tracks and danger.

In my conversations with other cyclists regarding railroad tracks, I find a range of different attitudes:

Some are simply not aware of the danger. They do not have trolley tracks running through the streets in the town where they live, or railroad crossings as part of their regular route, and so they simply never learned that a bicycle wheel can get caught in the tracks. As you can imagine, this can be a problem if they visit Amsterdam or Vienna and rent a bicycle there.

Others have a "Be afraid, be very afraid!" attitude. They have friends who have cracked their skulls on the metal rails, tell stories about the railroad tracks "taking them down" even when they crossed at what they thought was a safe angle, and view tracks as the cyclist's mortal enemy.

And others still have a "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" approach, and believe that being overly cautious around railroad tracks is what really gets cyclists in trouble, as it makes them falter and jeopardize themselves.

The latter group has an interesting point and I agree with it to some extent. I keep a reasonable distance when riding parallel to tracks and I approach them perpendicularly when crossing. But I try not to get too neurotic about it, despite having witnessed that accident. Still, it worries me that some cyclists are simply not aware of the need to avoid tracks. What has been your experience?

34 comments:

  1. Since my crash, I'm terrified of tracks and will get off my bike and walk across them. I don't need another root canal. I used to be like the latter group, but that did not work out so well for me :)

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  2. I am very cautious. There was a time that I was unaware of my wheel getting caught by the tracks. Then seconds latter, I was sprawled on the pavement with road rash from shoulder to knee.

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  3. Luckily I never had an accident, but one has to be very careful with rails, especially when they are wet.

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  4. I received my train track baptism right after I had taken up cycling again. I thought that a 20 degree angle would be enough. It wasn't. I took a pretty good tumble and had some moderate road rash, but no serious injuries.

    I wouldn't say that I'm super terrified of them now, but I'm always hyper aware of parallel tracks. I generally try to avoid routes with either active tracks or older ones half buried in asphalt. When I have to I try to cross them slowly at about a 45 degree angle and turn the front wheel another 5-10 degrees at the moment of contact.

    I get more scared watching other people cross tracks, and the 40 second mark in this video makes me a little sick to my stomach.

    -dukiebiddle

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  5. I think RR tracks are hazardous. I used to be fearless about them, but always tried to hit them near perpendicular, and I used super caution in wet conditions.

    One day, however, in dry weather, I rode over some RR tracks at a very slight angle. I was surprised when my rear wheel tracked off about a foot on one of the rails!

    I didn't crash, but it was disturbing because the pavement was dry. I can only suppose that my wheel had picked up something on the road like oil to cause such a slip. Had it been on my front tire it would have been un-recoverable.

    I am careful crossing them when it is dry, and I will ride miles out of my way to avoid them when it is wet. If I must cross RR tracks in wet conditions at any angle, I dismount. A short delay is better than days of painful bruises and damaged equipment.

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  6. Much more than half of all bicycles I see on the street are sporting fat MTB rubber, wide enough for safe rail track crossing. Could it be that a beginner cyclist is safe by virtue of usually riding a street-inappropriate setup?

    And the fixies just bunnyhop the tracks.

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  7. That's right, wet tracks is an additional issue I forgot to mention. Thanks for bringing it up.

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  8. Improperly oriented or designed sewer grates deserve a cyclist's caution as well.

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  9. Wow, I bike across tracks on my Pashley all the time and it didn't occur to me how careful I should be. It's a completely perpendicular arrangement but I will still be more aware of it now, especially since I often have by baby with me. I'm sorry for all the crashes! Honestly, there are so many terrifying trucks on the way out of my neighborhood that it wouldn't even have occurred to me to have the tracks in mind. I will now, so thank you for this post.

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  10. There are trolley tracks on several of the streets in my neighborhood & a few in other parts of the city. i'm definitely cautious around them, especially since two of the more experienced cyclists i know have taken spills on them. i'm surprised to hear that anyone who cycles near tracks regularly would not be aware that they are a potential hazard. having said that, i basically use the same strategy as you - keep my distance if i have to ride along side the tracks & always cross them perpendicularly - and so far, so good!

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  11. Just last weekend I was warned, "be careful, tracks" as I blithely rode over the trolley tracks downtown. I wasn't sure what the big deal was. If you're not paying attention, I can see problems, but with the poor quality of roads in my parts, you pretty much always have to be paying attention. I can certainly see how they could be a problem, though. BTW, those new bars are tasty.

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  12. Anon 10:12 - When crossing perpendicularly, the tracks are not a problem on either my Pashley Princess or on my mixte with .32mm tires. Just watch out when they are wet: the bike's tires can slip sideways. But the real danger are trolley lines on the streets: When you change lanes or go to pass someone, you can inadvertently find yourself in them!

    Bob - Ah yes, sewer grates! There are some enormous ones in my neighborhood.

    Anon 8:45 (I know who you are Boy!) - It's settled then, I am doing a fixed gear conversion on my Pashley. Should be great fun to bunnyhop.

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  13. Thom - Thanks re the new bars! I generally don't really like it when people warn me of things while I am cycling, since I usually can't hear them anyway and it takes my attention away from the road.

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  14. I treat tracks with respect, we have a multitude of different crossing types in our area, some have concrete pads, others have rubber/plastic, some are the ones that are semi-buried in the asphalt. The closer to square you can cross them the better. Wet tracks...in reality wet steel ANYTHING is going to be slippery. My most spectacular crash was hitting a wet valve cover at speed. The cover was all of 6" across, but I hit it just as I came up to start hammering and it washed the front wheel out from under me at 25+mph. Taught me to pay more attention to what is in/on the road in front of me.

    Tire size, both width and diameter will cause different reactions too.

    Aaron

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  15. My experience was similar to ChipSeal's. Crossing what is now the Burke Gilman Trail in Seattle, in dry weather, a track grabbed my rear wheel and bent the rim beyond repair. I did fall but didn't get hurt. Walking the bike back with the rear wheel held in the air gave me a LOT of time to think about RR tracks.

    I cross them at right angles. There isn't much way to avoid them on my commute, but those on my route are not too bad, even when it's wet.

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  16. Steve A - I think what you and ChipSeal describe is what I saw happen to the girl in Vienna. The rim on her wheel was bent as well. She must have been cycling quite fast, because it looked like she flew off and past her bicycle when the wheel got stuck. She was lying more than a yard ahead of the bicycle when I saw her. I think this was a particularly bad outcome of this sort of accident though.

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  17. It's simply, really. When I approach RR X-ing, I mount my training wheels. Then I'm good until the coast is clear.

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  18. Anon. - I hope they have kevlar protection.

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  19. My first crash involved slightly wet tracks. I thought I was good and then the back wheel slid out from under me. Afterwards, I started using extreme caution but will still ride over them. My bigger concern, here in Ohio, is sewer grates and manhole covers.

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  20. For the small amount of time it takes to dismount, walk across, and mount, it's worth not riding across these obstacles. Save you and your bicycle the pain and misery of a spill, and be safe.

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  21. I've always been very careful since I had multiple accidents very early on to scare me to being extremely conscious. I do not encounter train/trolley tracks much these days, but when I do, I do slow down considerably.

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  22. I am familiar with the feeling of a wheel slipping--a bit--and *knock* *knock* have so far been able to control it, granted the usual culprit is road wetness or sand, so the bicycle drift is considerably slower than what would happen to a tyre on wet steel. My approach is conservative, but not as safe as dismounting/walking; I try to cross slippery patches going in a straight line, at a constant velocity.

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  23. i cross that same crossing on may way to and from work daily. as a cyclist, it's pretty easy to watch and hear for the commuter rail-- i do this as i come to a crawl as i cross the tracks, but what REALLY scares me is how nonchalantly the drivers cross the tracks clueless as to the whether a train is coming. worse are the drivers who stop on the tracks in a long line of traffic waiting for the traffic light @ somerville ave. i see this almost every evening on my ride home.

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  24. I don't drive less now that I again am riding bicycles, and train crossings have always puzzled me. On the one hand, we don't stop at green lights to make sure no one is going through a red, which could be disastrous, yet the idea of an oncoming train forces many of us to stop and look. I am sure that most rail crossing barriers work most of the times, but once (in a different state) I witnessed a train slowly roll through in front of moving cars with the barriers up and warning lights/sound inactive. It was at a rural train station. Makes you pause and think, doesn't it? Maybe they knew cars were far away. Sorry about the off-topic.

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  25. Doesn't the light turn red and the barrier thingie come down when a train is coming to stop the cars from crossing?..

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  26. the barriers and lights do operate on the park street crossing, but that doesn't seem to stop cars from stopping on the tracks when traffic is backed up. i haven't actually witnessed the lights starting to flash with a car stopped across the tracks, but i would imagine it has happened. at least there is room for cars to pull over onto the sidewalk if the lights do start flashing and they are stuck on the tracks.

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  27. I have to cross multiple sets of tracks that run in all directions in a single intersection everyday. They are not something that I spend much time thinking about. When it comes time to cross, I plan my trajectory and go. My biggest fear with them, and it is really just greater vigilance, not fear, is oil on them from leaky cars.

    Now you wanna talk about manhole covers or steel plates in construction zones.... nope. Not riding on them.

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  28. Yesterday I went out cycling and the last thing I remember is crossing a set of railroad tracks (perpendicular) that I have crossed at least 20 times before on this particular route. when I came to, I was being placed into an ambulance, being asked questions etc and could barely remember anything that had happened. Eventually by later in the evening in a hospital Emergency Department, I could remember everything about that day up to the point where I was crossing the tracks but nothing additional. I couldn't remember falling but it was clear from the bike and self damage that both bike and I fell to the left side. I had a helmet on, have a minor concussion and luckily, the CT scan showed no other damage. 24 hours later, still have a headache. I am still so confused as to how I could just be riding along one second and in an ambulance the next. glad I found this site as I am trying to put together the pices and figure out how this could have happened. I guess the hazards of railroad track crossings for bikes are very real...

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  29. Hans - I am sorry to hear about your accident. Speaking as a psychologist and neuroscientist, I can say that it is normal to have memory loss in cases like this. Give it some time and it may come back to you, but it might not, so prepare to live with that possibility as well. Whatever happened, it probably happened very quickly, and you simply may have not had time to think or feel anything before getting knocked out. It is also normal to have a headache for several days after such an incident; I know that it still feels pretty awful though. Feel better soon!

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  30. Thanks Filigree- feeling much better now. by Tuesday, the headaches were basically gone, by Wednesday evening, the dazed feeling had sort of "lifted", and now I fell almost normal again. still no recollection of the actual crash but it's probably better that way anyway:) Thanks for the well wishes- I realize I am pretty lucky!

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  31. I just wanted to bump this up and add another incidence that will help fortify your "respect" for tracks. The wet steel will completely throw the bike out from under you if you ride over it at anything more or less than a 90 ° angle.

    Please be careful. I took 2 very serious spills today hitting railroad tracks for the first time. It was painful and I think I may have bruised a hip quite badly.

    The problem is the sheer physics of hitting a wet track with a tiny contact patch. The track will throw you away from whatever direction it's running. And if you're running clipless pedals, you're in for some MAJOR pain.

    Whats perhaps, funnier and sadder was watching 3 other people hit the same track and fall over Mountain bike tire or not.

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  32. I can also attest to being one of those types that just rode over tracks and didn't worry about it that much. I was out for a training ride this past Friday and rode across a double set of tracks that had recently been covered with a black rubber coating (they were recessed into this rather than asphalt). Evidently this coating was brand new and was as slick as glass. It was dry out so moisture wasn't an issue. When I hit this surface at speed my bike went out from under me instantly as if I'd hit a patch of ice. I've never thought to not ride over tracks (ride over them all the time), but this covering, while I'm sure is a smooth ride for a car, is disastrous for a road bike. There really should be a sign there telling cyclists to not ride over this surface. Now I've got road rash aplenty, shredded clothes and a banged-up bike (that was previously unscathed in four years of riding/racing). I guess I can count myself lucky that traffic was light that day as it could've been a real disaster.

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  33. Living in Vienna I have to cross tramway tracks all the time. Most of the time it works out - still I have already had two falls this winter when the tracks were wet and I didn't pay enough attention to the crossing angle.

    But even if you pay attention, accidents can happen especially in bad weather: We had a lot of snow yesterday, and I had to make a turn away from a street with tracks. Although going extremely slow and in a > 45° angle, my front wheel slipped. I barely managed to put my foot on the ground and avoid a fall - had I been riding only as fast as walking pace, this would have been a faceplant.

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  34. This n00b went down yesterday while trying to ride over tracks, I'm lucky not to have a broken or dislocated arm! The annoying part is, the tracks aren't even active! http://rustyredriding.blogspot.com/2014/01/bruises-and-sweets.html

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