Normally, having your own train is something that only happens for the super rich or the leaders of countries. For example, King Jong Un has a train that serves as a moving fortress, armory, luxury hotel, auto transport, and missile launcher that was recently seen on an official state trip to Russia. There are also private cars that people can buy or rent, like the Dagny Taggart (someone was an Atlas Shrugged fan, apparently). It was also once possible to have Amtrak pull a private car that you rent or own. None of these options are cheap, so the rest of us are probably stuck in a normal Amtrak car.
As a kid, sometimes I’d see a railroad maintenance truck running on the tracks, and I’d wonder whether a private party could run on a track like that. I don’t think they’d allow it, unfortunately. But, there’s another interesting option if you set a bike up right and go on a retired railroad track: a rail-bike. (article continues after video)
Cam Engineering on YouTube modified an e-bike to do just this. Not only does it work well going down a single rail, but it also can quickly go back into normal mountain bike mode, allowing him to bypass the track when there’s a section that’s buried or otherwise unworkable. The whole setup folds up to go out of the way and folds down to grab the rails to stay stable. One wheel sets off to the side to lay on the other track for balance.
This is good for about 110-120 miles of riding, and the took it on a long 120-mile adventure. He had to start out on pavement to get to the beginning of the tracks, and took some back roads to avoid being on a main route (can’t blame him). When he reached the town of Davenport, California, he explored that area a bit and discussed the history of the cement plant that the old, inactive track once connected to the rest of the railroad system.
I’m not sure if he recharged in the town or something, but he went a ways out of the little town and set his bike up to run on the rail. It didn’t appear to take him that long to swing the arms down, attach the guides to the track, and get going. The track then went along the California coast, and it was pretty obvious that the track hadn’t been used in some time, but the views were spectacular. The rails are also seamless and welded, which means no gaps and bumps, making for a smooth ride.
Because the track has been abandoned for over a decade, there are sections where sand, vegetation, and other forms of nature have come along to reclaim the land. When he encounters those, it’s tough to know whether the tracks will be obstructed for a short distance or whether it’s going to be impassible and tough for miles. To figure out whether he can climb the obstacle or if it’s a section better bypassed, he launches a drone to do some aerial surveillance.
Along the way, he went out to a number of beaches, state parks, and other scenic sites. For some sections, Jeep roads, fire roads, and trails were a little better than taking the tracks. Plus, he was able to get some really nice drone footage from those areas. At one state park that used to be a dairy farm, the tracks were completely overgrown and covered with vegetation, but there was a nice coastal bike path he could use to bypass that section.
Eventually, he ended up back in town, finding railroad crossings and other things he had to stop for. But, this section of track seemed to be pretty well clear of all but small weeds until he reached the Boardwalk. With the old rail going through pavement, his setup wouldn’t work as well as it did for trains. There just isn’t room for the wheels and guides in the small gaps. But, with the gear folded up, he was able to continue following it except for some sections that were designated for pedestrians only in town.
Once he got away from the center of town, he was able to get back on the tracks again. Later on, the tracks met up with some other abandoned tracks, and his setup struggled with some crossings that had filled with dirt. Abandoned trestles, underpasses, and industrial abandonments were all along the way. He also found a nice campsite near the ocean.
Eventually, he started hearing train noises off in the distance and he wasn’t sure at what point it became active track again. So, he stuck to the side for the remainder of the trip to make sure he could get out of the way if the track turned out to not be abandoned as it should be. But, not long later, he came across a big junction and railyard where it was clear that the tracks were live again, so no more rail riding.
Can This Be Safely Done Other Places?
I’m totally new to the idea of rail bikes, so I was curious whether there were other abandoned tracks in other places. It turns out that there are a number of abandoned lines companies have been buying up to run a tourist biking operations. Usually the rail bikes are four-wheeled and two people pedal to make the thing go, but some of them are open to people who bring their own vehicles.
But, actually running along on abandoned rails running through the forests and the deserts is a little tougher. A long time ago, railroads would collect up the old rails for reuse or recycling because metal was harder to come by. So, only relatively recent abandoned rails are left in place. And, they may still be illegal to ride on because the rail company doesn’t want people trespassing.
But, with some research and help from websites like Abandoned Railroads, it’s possible to find some with rails still intact. There’s also the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which takes up the old rail leases and converts them to trails. Those have no rails, but many of them would be open to e-bikes. So, this is a viable option if you’re willing to put in the research.
Featured image: a screenshot from the video above.
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