Bike Shorts: How to Bike on Railroad Tracks Safely

October 27, 2021 0 Comments

View from inside a train car looking out over tracks through a city intersection

Cycling on train tracks seems like a relatively straightforward task. You come to a railroad crossing, you look both ways, you pedal across. Simple enough, right?

Not quite. In fact, railroad crossings present one of the greatest hazards cyclists will encounter on the road. You won’t meet them as often as a parked car door — and they may not land you with a head injury— but they’re likely to knock you down if you’re not ready.

That makes knowing how to bike on railroad tracks safely one of the most valuable tools in your cycling tool bag. Lucky for you, longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie has the scoop on why railroad tracks are such a cycling hazard and what you can do to minimize your risk of a wreck.

Note: It probably goes without saying, but all of this applies to tracks with no train on them. Never try to bike on railroad tracks when a train is approaching or the caution gate is down!

What Makes Railroad Tracks Dangerous for Cyclists

Railroad tracks are a cycling hazard for a number of reasons, but none more so than cyclist complacency. Out of Coach Darryl’s four regular rides, only one of them has a single railroad crossing. When you don’t encounter something very often, you simply don’t consider the risks.

“People truly don’t realize that they’re such a problem,” Darryl explains. In contrast, you’ll easily be on the alert for cars at regular intersections because you encounter them all the time.

Rare or not, several factors combine to make railroad tracks so precarious for cyclists. The rails are often slippery, especially if it’s been raining. To top it off, there’s often a metal platform covering the whole railroad crossing, which further extends the slippery surface. There’s also the deep groove on the inside of each track, which can easily fit a bike wheel. Finally, many crossings aren’t perpendicular to the tracks, causing cyclists to cross the tracks at an angle and increase their likelihood of slipping.

All of this creates the perfect recipe for what Darryl calls “the elbow breaker” — the kind of fall you have on railroad tracks. Unlike other crashes, which usually send you tumbling forward off the bike, railroad falls are usually a quick slide to either side, driving you hard and fast to the ground. You’ll often land on your elbow or your hip, and fractures are common.

3 Things You Can Do To Make Cycling on Train Tracks Safer

Now you know the danger, but what can you do about it? Coach Darryl recommends three things that will help you bike safely across railroad tracks:

  • Reduce your speed. As you approach the tracks, reduce your speed significantly — down below 7 miles per hour, and slower if it’s wet. While crossing, coast along without pedaling or braking until you’re completely clear of the tracks.
  • Change your angle of approach. When the tracks aren’t at a right angle with the road, try to get your bike perpendicular as you pass over them. Make sure there aren’t any cars or cyclists right behind you, then turn to an angle in your lane so that you can pass over the tracks head-on.
  • Correct your positioning. Before you’re on the tracks, prepare your body for maximum stability. Put your pedals parallel to the road (feet at three and nine on the clock) so you have equal weight on each foot. Lift your butt off the saddle slightly to lower your center of gravity to the pedals. Keep your knees and elbows loosely bent to absorb shock and steady your upper body.

The danger of cycling on train tracks is far greater than you realize. If you’re complacent, you may end up unable to ride for a long time. These three steps are easy to remember and simple to execute. No matter how infrequently you encounter railroad tracks on your bike, you should be ready to cross them safely when you do. 

Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website. 

Photo by Aleksandar Passaic from Pexels