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.