Crossing Tracks Safely

A while ago, we wrote about railroad tracks and how narrow tires can fall into the gap between rail and pavement. We suggested that wide tires are safer, because they don’t fit into that gap. In the comments section, a few riders reported that they or others had crashed on tracks even with wide mountain bike tires. How could this happen?

Every time I ride over railroad and streetcar tracks with my 42 mm-wide Grand Bois Hetre tires without undue concern or special precaution, I wonder what is going on when people crash on railroad tracks. I believe there are several mechanisms at work.

1. Falling into the gap next to the rail
The most obvious problem is a tire that is so narrow that it fits comfortably into the gap between rail and pavement. (This gap is necessary because railroads use flanged wheels to keep their rolling stock on the tracks.) If the rider crosses the tracks at an oblique angle, the tire can fall into the gap. The bicycle no longer can be steered and crashes.

One piece of advice you often hear is to line up your bike perpendicular to the tracks, to prevent the tire from falling into the gap.

2. Falling into a gap perpedicular to the tracks
A few years ago, a rider lined up his bike perpendicular to the tracks at a railroad crossing not far from Seattle (in Snohomish). Even though he “did everything right,” he crashed and broke his collarbone. What had happened?

Railroad crossings use coverings between the tracks to make a smooth and level crossing. Sometimes, these coverings consist of individual pieces, and where the pieces meet, there is a gap – perpendicular to the tracks. At this particular crossing, this gap is wider than a narrow bicycle tire. The rider’s tire got caught in the gap, and he crashed.

Since the gaps between the coverings and the gaps between rails and pavement form a 90-degree angle, we might modify the recommendation to cross tracks close to a 45 degree angle, rather than perpendicular.

There is a problem with this recommendation: Often, this means swerving into traffic (see above). And that is not a good idea.

3. Sliding on the tracks
What about the riders who crash on the tracks even though their tires don’t fit into the gap? Here is a crossing that was re-engineered by the City of Seattle to force riders to cross perpendicular to the tracks. (There are no length-wise cracks here, so that part is fine.)

Now the rider turns left to get perpendicular to the tracks, then right to return to their original direction of travel.

This means that the rider is crossing the tracks while leaning over. The rails are slippery. They are especially slippery when they are wet, similarly to steel plates that sometimes  cover construction-related holes in the road. You know, the steel plates that come with signs (although usually spelled correctly):

The common advice to align the bike perpendicular while crossing the tracks often means that you cross the tracks while leaning over – in mid-corner, so to speak. Nobody would ever do a quick wiggle from right to left and back while riding over steel plates, yet we are told that we should do that when we ride across tracks.

To avoid leaning the bike on the slippery surface, it would be best to cross the tracks in a straight line without leaning the bike.

Crossing tracks safely
The rider above has it easy: With 42 mm-wide tires, he can cross the tracks in a straight line without risking a fall, no matter which way the tracks are oriented.

What about riders with narrow tires? How can they cross tracks that are running at a shallow angle to the road? It’s not easy:

  • If you line up perpendicular, your bike is leaning over while crossing the slippery tracks.
  • If you go straight, you risk having your tire fall into the gap between rail and pavement.
  • If you go slow, you don’t have to lean so much as you cross the slippery track, but your tire has less inertia that will carry it across the gap.

Here is how I cross tracks:

  • On my bikes with 42 mm tires, I cross the tracks as straight as possible, not changing my line at all for the tracks. Trying to line up for the tracks means leaning the bike, which only increases the risk of crashing.
  • On a bike with narrower tires, I do a very slight “S weave” to cross the tracks at an angle between 20 and 70 degrees. I unweigh the bike as it crosses the rails. When I have to change lanes and cross streetcar tracks that are running parallel to my direction of travel, I just jump the bike sideways across, provided that there is grippy asphalt on the other side of the tracks, and not a slippery plastic covering.

As always when cycling, use your best judgment and be careful. I hope you will find this advice useful as you figure out how to cross the tracks along your cycling routes safely.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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31 Responses to Crossing Tracks Safely

  1. Joe Hogg says:

    I know my comment takes this discussion out of its context, but it seems that walking your bike across hazardous intersections and perhaps railroad tracks greatly reduces the chance of an accident.

    • Dave Cramer says:

      I walk across some of the nastier RR tracks around here, where multiple people have ended up in the hospital during a local century ride. They are nearly parallel to the direction of travel. Not worth the risk!

  2. Ty Smith says:

    Good post Jan!

    I work in San Francisco, and have to cross tracks quite frequently. I use a combination of your techniques and usually it works pretty well.

    I did crash in the rain about a month ago, with 32mm tires, but it was a strange section where the muni rail took a 45 degree turn onto a side street. I crossed the regular section of tracks at the right angle, but failed to notice the section where the line changed, and ended up hitting it paralel. My wheel caught, and I was literally carried into the side of a car. Thankfully, I was going slow, the car was stopped, so no damage. Just a bit of a scare.

  3. KT says:

    Hetres and even fatter tires still slip into the gap enough to topple a rider if one tries to cross them parallel, especially when the rail is wet.

    • That is not my experience! I tried hard to get my front tire to fit into the gap on the streetcar tracks in the East Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle – at low speed. Even at a very shallow angle of maybe 10°, the Hetre just rolled across the gap.

      Of course, it always helps to “ride light” so that the bike floats across the obstacles.

      • Mike J. says:

        My worst crash on wet steel came where the B-G trail dumps out onto NW 45th. I was riding a borrowed mountain bike with wide tires and the rear wheel slipped into the gap between the rail and the street, making a Pringle of the wheel and dumping me into the gutter. Front tire cleared the gap fine. Later, I was told that falling on rail crossings is a rite of passage for the B-G trail.

        Along with rails, any wet steel or fresh paint deserves caution.

      • KT says:

        In Portland the streetcar rail gaps will swallow a Hetre. Rain just makes it easier. Maybe our gaps are wider than yours up in Seattle?

      • Maybe your gaps are wider. Seattle’s gaps do fit a Hetre, if you wedge it in. However, as long as you cross at an angle, even very oblique, it doesn’t go in. Of course, I didn’t experiment with this at high speed, where the “tramlining” effect could throw you off the bike even if the tire doesn’t fit inside the gap.

        Overall, your chances are much better with a wider tire, but of course, you still need to be vigilant.

  4. Bicycle Kitty says:

    Great information. I appreciate all the research and theories that went into this. I generally ride on 23 or 25mm tires and always cross the tracks as perpindicularly as possible (in all dimensions, meaning riding upright and not leaning). Always keeping your eye out for any tiny rut to avoid is helpful. I have a suspicion, or maybe it’s a superstition, that fat tires can give the rider a false confidence with obstacles like tracks.

    • I find it hard to watch traffic and keep my eyes glued to the road surface. Wider tires have made riding in the city much more relaxing. Yes, I still scan the road surface, but I am no longer worried that a tiny mistake will have disastrous consequences.

  5. TimJ says:

    We live in a city with lots of tram tracks. I found teaching my kids how to cross them to be an opportunity to teach them the difference between “parallel” and “perpendicular’ as well as to teach them about angle of approach. My poor kids…

  6. Karl Amadeus says:

    I crashed my bike on tracks in every possible way (and some others). Learnt a lot – it doesn’t happen that much to me anymore. Experience is everything here imho. Tracks are tricky and they are different in every city.

    “As always when cycling, use your best judgment and be careful.”

    That’s the most important advice. After years without a crash, careless driving in combination with streetcar tracks on a rather familiar road added a scar to my collection.
    Great Post, I would like to read more about “urban cycling” on this blog.

  7. Eric P. says:

    Excellent column! Being both a fan of railroads and a bike rider, it’s good to see something like this covered. Would also like to mention a couple other things – first, even though things might look easy in a crossing, it is not uncommon for the ground to gradually sink at crossings due to the extremely heavy weight of railroad cars and engines. Some crossings might be more bumpy than appear at first glance. Also, some railroads use a rubberized covering over the ties and ballast rather than cast concrete. Not only is it usually less smooth, it can also become slippery quickly. Not just from the weather, but also from slight oil leaks from locomotives (very rare), or even spilled grain from hopper cars.

  8. Bunny hopping across tracks running parallel to the direction of travel is for the athletic and the young.

    As we age, our bones become more brittle, and a low-speed fall that results in a simple “ouch” for a 25-30 year could result in a ten-day hospital stay, a $30,000 medical bill and a year of physical therapy for someone three times that age.

    (Don’t ask how I know this ! ! ! )

    Harry Callahan: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

    That said, I still think your blog and Bicycle Quarterly are the best.

    Bob Cooper
    RUSA 937

    • You point out something interesting: Low-speed falls can be the most dangerous. At high speed, you may lose a lot of skin because you slide for a long time, but you don’t hit the ground very hard. You are more like an airplane landing, rather than a rock dropping to the ground. (This assumes that you don’t hit anything, otherwise, high speed just means a harder impact.)

      • Alex Merz says:

        Oh, come on, Jan. A falling rider’s vertical acceleration is ~9.8 ms^-2, regardless of the velocity scalar normal to the CoG. And it’s not as though the chipseal becomes harder or softer if you hit it while riding fast.

      • A reader explained it better than I can:

        Impact at an angle is much better than “head on impact”. Drop an egg from 2 feet onto a horizontal table and it will crack, all the kinetic energy is dissipated at once. Drop an egg onto a slope of 60 degrees or more, and it will likely roll to the end of the incline, and not break. The kinetic energy is dissipated over the time the object is in motion.

        The low speed fall where someone goes over the handlebars is like a “direct blow”.

        The high speed fall where someone goes over the handlebars and skids 30 feet to a stop is certainly serious and painful, but more a “glancing blow”. So, while each is a serious accident, the type of injuries sustained will be different.

  9. Rob says:

    In addition to crossing at an angle… pull up that front wheel. Get that front wheel over the tracks and you are half way there. I knew I practiced wheelies for a reason.

  10. GuitarSlinger says:

    I’ve done the ‘ fall on wet/greasy track ‘ thing in spite of riding over the tracks on an angle and not leaning myself . Since then , the only failsafe strategy I’ve found thats never failed me is ‘ bunny hopping ‘ the tracks . More difficult when more than one set of tracks are present ( in which case I hold my breath and resort to the ‘ correct angle ‘ method ) For the record the wife and I are FRN’s ( Eric P will understand that ) as well . So if I might add to Eric’s excellent insight ; Not all railroad crossings are created equal . Some of them , depending on the City/Town/Neighborhood , are abject bicycle ‘ Minefields ‘ just waiting to catch you out .

    • Speed is your friend when crossing tracks. The more inertia you have, the more likely you will continue in the desired direction, rather than be thrown off course by the tracks. (This assumes you go in a straight line, where a momentary loss of traction will have no ill effects.)

      The same thing applies to small patches of ice. If you are fast and going in a straight line, you are safe. Go slow, and you inherently wobble more, and you may slip and fall.

  11. I crashed on railroad tracks when I was maybe 8 or so (with tires probably probably wider than 42mm). In the 25 years of riding after that incident, tracks have never taken me down again — so I wonder if this is an issue that most people will encounter only once: you fall, you learn, you’re good?

    On a different note: when I was living in Berlin, there were a couple of streets with pretty tricky designs, most notoriously Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg: you have parked cars, a travel lane shared by tram, lots of bikes, and cars, as you can kind of see here. As long as you took the lane it was alright, but a lot of people kept to the right of the tracks, causing tricky situations when having to dodge opening car doors or other obstacles. I think the street has been re-designed now.

  12. somervillebikes says:

    I try to apply a basic understanding of physics whenever crossing tracks. Separately from gap avoidance issues, I always try to stay perfectly upright and moving straight ahead at the moment I’m crossing the tracks, so as to minimize any lateral forces that may be pulling the bike against its forward of travel. If the tracks are on a curve, this means slowing down before the tracks and momentarily “going straight” over them, then getting back into the arc of the turn after crossing the tracks. It also means not applying the brakes or applying forward pedaling torque at the moment of crossing. This minimizes any sliding, in any direction, due to slippery tracks.

  13. Fred R. Donner says:

    It is also worth noting that crossing the tracks, no matter the angle of approach or amount of lean on the bike, can also be hazardous if there is a train on it. More so if the train is moving, especially at higher velocities.

  14. Michael says:

    Is should be noted that, in both of the “Hey, look, they have to be leaning” pictures, the cyclists in question have crossed over the yellow lane divider line.

    Had they stayed in their own lane, rather than trying to ‘cut the corner’, they would not have been leaning when they crossed the tracks.

    • You make an interesting point. However, as I see it, the opposite is the case: If they had not cut a relatively straight line around the S curve, they would be cornering harder, and lean even more.

      In any case, the photos are intended to illustrate that if you wiggle left and right (or vice versa) to line up perpendicular to the tracks – as so many experts recommend – you are likely to cross the tracks while leaning over.

      In fact, the first cyclist is doing the right thing: Instead of following the prescribed path to get perpendicular to the tracks, he cuts across them at an angle, which limits how far he has to lean.

  15. Eric. says:

    I cross tracks every day, at reasonable speed, on relatively skinny tires (26mm 700c). The technique is usually something like this:
    Cross at as great an angle as is possible given the space
    Make your bike as upright as possible: i.e. don’t turn. it’s more important to be upright than perpendicular.
    Un-weight the front wheel slightly.
    Watch for cracks, metal plates, stay light on your bike, and don’t get boxed in by other riders.

  16. Andy says:

    Some additional thoughts…

    Both wheels must cross both rails. This usually results in four separate crossings, with one wheel crossing one rail while the other wheel is on pavement. However, depending upon bike wheelbase and angle of crossing, the front wheel might cross the second rail about the same time that the rear wheel crosses the first rail. I find these near-simultaneous wheel/rail crossings to be most hazardous.

    The top surface of rails have a crowned, slightly rounded profile. They are not flat. I believe this increases risk of slippage when crossing at angles other than perpendicular.

    Some crossings protect the flange gaps with two or more pieces of rail material installed parallel to the main rails, separated by a few inches. Each additional rail presents the same hazard as the main rails. As a result, they multiply our opportunity for slipping. Worse, their presence increases the likelyhood of near-simultaneous wheel/rail crossings.

    Thanks for posting this topic.
    Andy

    PS: It’s not just bicycles. All railroad companies I have encountered (while operating railroad equipment) have stern rules prohibiting employees from walking, stepping, or even resting a foot on rails. This is because a person who slips on a rail not only falls to the ground, but also is likely to land on the rail, breaking bones or skull. While cyclists don’t risk this secondary effect, the rails are still considered dangerous whether dry, wet, or oily.

    • Your point about rails being difficult to walk across rings very true. I once broke my collarbone when I walked across a metal curb on a bridge, where the bike lane was closed to park construction equipment. I slipped and fell. Ever since, I have been very reluctant to walk with my bike on slippery surfaces. I feel more secure when I am on the bike…

  17. valvejob says:

    I recently broke my arm crashing on a trolley track while visiting Portland. In all my years of riding, I do not remember ever crashing on tracks before this, but the unexpected appearance of this trolley track parallel to my direction of travel took me right down. The tires on the rented bike were 26×1.5 (approximately 38mm). I don’t know if the groove next to the rail was wide enough for these tires to fall into, since I was not up to experimenting at that time. However, a groove parallel to your travel direction does not need to be big enough to swallow a tire for it to compromise your steering control enough to make it impossible to balance.

    • I am sorry to hear about your crash. I hope your arm is well on its way to recovery.

      As you point out, longitudinal grooves can be very dangerous. Motorcyclists know this – when pavement gets ground away in preparation for repaving, even those very shallow grooves can cause a crash.

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