Rail bike? Like a bike that goes on train tracks? -- Yes, said Phranque, a bike that rides on train tracks. This one's going to be two bikes, side by side. -- How do they stay on? -- There are guide wheels, and the steering is locked. -- How will it go around curves if the steering is locked? -- The curves are wide, they have to be, a train can't take much of curve. And there's enough play between the bike wheels and the guide wheels to make it. Trains can't take much of a grade either. So it'll be pretty flat all the way out to the coast.
And it was. Though we didn't make it to the coast; the bike was nearly dead by the time we hit Veneta.
I had never heard of a rail bike until i came to Eugene. Its an awesome idea- ride a bike on your own personal highway through the wilderness- no traffic, no developments, no one else around. Even better, you don't have to steer, the track guides you entirely. Not having to steer (or balance) is an incredible freedom- you can look all around you, you can even have your eyes shut, or like we did on our ride, you can ride backwards.
Rail bikes aren't a new idea, it actually goes back to the 1800's, though they were called railway velocipedes, or track velocipedes back then. Depending on the actuation style, it could also have been called a hand car, a pump trolley, a pump car, a jigger, or a Kalamazoo!
While looking into the history of the railway velocipede I had the good fortune to come across The National Velocipede Rally, a British organization that holds annual rallies of human-powered rail vehicles in the UK. A brief history of the railway velocipede from their site:
|[The Railway Velocipede] was invented by George Sheffield to get to
work by unofficially riding on the tracks of the Michigan Central
Railway in the hours of darkness. One evening he found a broken
rail and by borrowing a lantern from a local farm, he stopped an
approaching train and prevented a derailment and loss of life.
News of his nocturnal velocipeding was out but the railway company was grateful for his prompt action and allowed his use of their tracks, also asking him to build another velocipede for the Michigan Central.
| His patent was issued on 11 March 1879 and according to the Scientific
American of 3 November 1883, 4000 of these machines had been sold
in America and Europe in just 4 years, a world-wide hit.|
They were used as personal transport for track inspectors and signal engineers and could carry two people if needed. Their light weight meant they could easily be removed from the track when required...
Jacqui Thomas, organizer of The National Velocipede Rally, was kind enough to be interviewed for this post:
Jaqcui, tell me a little about your organization.
[We're] the biggest and oldest one in the UK, over a dozen machines attend at the Churnet Valley Railway. Only a Sunday Rally, but I hope to make it weekend Rally in 2014. Other Rallies are appearing, The North Yorkshire Moors Railway in November but not organised by me. Hopefully one in 2013 at the Langollen Railway in Wales again not organised by me.
On average, how many people attend your rallies?
We send out about 100 Newsletters and about 30 attend the National Rally, families of those bringing machines, those building and restoring, and Railway Photographers.
How did you come to be involved in this work?
My father was a shedmaster on a sugar cane railway in Zululand, South Africa when I was a child in the 50's and I noticed the dumped hand power machines that had been replaced by petol machines. I kept noticing and the interest grew. I built a Velocipede from photos and measurements collected in Santa Clara Railway Museum, California before I came across Steve Kay who started the UK Rallies. Also a pump trolly which I cut down from standard gauge bits. I did train as an engineer but never did it as a job, I worked in the technical/studio side of publishing.
I also try to track down all the preserved machines and send them the Newsletter in the hope they will come along. I'm also writing a book on the subject, and help any one who wants information on restoration or new builds. I also get hand powered queries passed onto me by the National Railway Museum. It's my retirement hobby.
For more information about The National Velocipede Rally, documentation of some fascinating human-powered rail vehicles, and even downloadable schematic files (to build your own!) visit: http://www.velocipedes.co.uk/
Returning to our side of the pond:
The building of this particular rail bike was envisioned and enacted by Phranque, former pastor of the Bike Church. I helped out with the construction some, but it was mostly Phranque who built it, with help from a couple others in the shop. It sat there finished, just waiting for someone to ride it, but for weeks no one did. I finally asked Phranque if i could take it out for a ride and he was happy to have someone take it on its maiden voyage. I told my buddy Kyle about it, and he was pumped. (I knew Kyle would be into it).
The trip started off only a few blocks from the church, we walked it down to the tracks. Honestly, we were both a little paranoid that "someone" might see us and consider our trip, for lack of a more euphemistic term, illegal. But it was sunday, the trains weren't running, and apparently neither were the cops. Giddy with adrenaline and the thrill of doing something we knew we weren't supposed to, we sped away from the road as fast as we could.
We didn't get too far before we noticed that we were missing one of the nuts on the front of the bike, specifically, one of two holding on the front right wheel (as well, holding the right side of the front guiding structure). We stopped and looked around, but to no avail. The bike seemed to do fine so we kept going.Within another 10 minutes we'd lost another. After that we tried to keep our eyes on the nuts, stopping every so often to re-tighten them, but even so we lost the third before we'd gone an hour. We did the majority of the trip with the right fork missing both nuts for the wheel, and the left fork with only one. The pressure of our weight was the only thing keeping it all together. Several times throughout the trip we needed to lift up the bike to switch tracks and each time the whole front end would just fall off. By the end of the day it was something of a cruel Sisyphean joke.
The first leg of our trip was through the industrial section of Eugene. It was interesting seeing the backsides of industry, the undersides of highways, and secret hobo camping grounds. The line we were on wasn't, even while in operation, a commuter line- we were seeing things very few ever got to.
On our way out of the city was my favorite moment of the whole trip. I wish SO much that I had it on video, but it was one of those things that you don't stop to take video of:
As we were leaving the industrial section and heading, more or less, straight into the woods we encountered our first road crossing. We saw it coming and slowed down to strategize- okay, so pull up slowly staying out of sight, then i'll get off and walk up to the road, once we have the all clear, you pedal like crazy, i'll run along side and jump on the bike-- It sounded like a good plan, or at least our best option. What actually happened was very different.
As we approached the road the warning bells and blinking lights went off and then the motorized arms dropped. Shit, a train! We looked behind us and there was nothing. In front of us, nothing. Didn't hear anything, the tracks weren't rumbling... it was us, we set it off. At this point the cars were starting to pile up: four, seven, twelve.... Fuck. What do we do? Lets just wait, maybe the arms will go back up. No, said Kyle, we have to go to the other side. Why do we have to go to the other side? The arms are going to stay down until we cross. We just need to go for it. Go for it? Yeah, really fast.
We sped across the tracks as fast as we could (which was not very fast) laughing and screaming the whole time. The looks on the faces of the drivers was priceless.
We booked it as hard as we could for as long as we could. Once we'd gone a ways, we turned to see if the road was re-opened and it was.
It was pretty much smooth sailing from there on out, well, it was smooth in respect to run-ins with people in cars. Just about everything else was not smooth, namely using the rail bike. Two steel frames, with a lot of excess metal supports, plus our gear was already heavy enough. But what really slowed us down were the guides keeping us on the tracks- four flanged metal wheels both riding on the tracks and running down alongside them. The drag from the friction of the guide wheels was huge, it was like having the brakes on the whole time. So while everything stayed really flat, it felt like we were pedaling up hill the entire way. Plus it was absurdly loud, we were two feet apart but had to shout to be able to hear each other. The roughest part, however, were all of the crashes.
Our first crash was right across from the fern ridge reservoir park. There was a wooden cross way going over the tracks to let cars drive over into a nature preserve. Unfortunately, there was a spike that hadn't been hammered all the way down and it was just tall enough to catch on our front guide support beam. We flew forward and impaled ourselves on the bike, Kyle more so than I.
By this time in the afternoon, the foggy mist had burned off and it was just plain hot, especially riding our heavy home-made locomotive. Jumping in the water was a much welcomed respite.
Before we left i asked one of the kids to take a picture of us. For the history books.
We continued our westward journey, almost in Veneta at this point. As we forged ahead i wore out pretty hard, i had clearly passed my peak and was needing to stop with greater frequency. Kyle naturally has about 3 times more energy than the average person, and about 5 times more than I, he picked up the slack as best he could. My drop in effort clearly started to wear on him, but he's a good sport and tried not to let it show. It was probably for the best that we ended up crashing again.
We came up to our second road crossing, though this time no drop arms. We were far enough out on the tracks that those kinds of things had been shut down til further notice. At this point we were in Veneta. We hopped of the bike, waiting for a break in traffic, too tired to care who saw us, and walked it across at our first chance. As we made it onto the other side a group of weather-beaten drunks cheered us on. They were sitting at the edge of the green along side the tracks, 50 feet from a Dari-Mart, drinking conspicuously in the summer sun. We continued on, but two merging tracks confused our high-tech guide system- the left side popped up onto the tracks, we skidded askew and then ate it again. This time the front guide support beam was toast, it broke entirely, the only thing holding it together being the wrench. Kyle, once more, employed his eagle scout abilities and found a perfectly shaped branch to reinforce it from behind. It was rideable, but just barely.
We stocked up on trail mix and fruit at the Dari-Mart. Kyle surreptitiously filled the water jug outside of a local pizza joint. We wandered around "downtown" Veneta for a bit. It was clear they had put a fair amount of money into making the place look nice, and whereas there were maybe one or two interesting businesses, it struck me as unwarranted optimism for an unlikely renaissance. We did run into a lady painting a mural on the outside of a hardware store, that was fun.
Our crash convinced us it was time to turn around. We weren't sure if the bike was even going to make it all the way home. But it was our only choice. Exhausted, we pedaled back, mostly in silence, well, i mean we didn't talk, it was still really fucking loud.
We had one final crash before returning home. Merging tracks, guides ride up, bike goes off. The bike flipped up and flung us forward this time, face first toward the track. Arms outstretched, neither one of us suffered any injury to head or face, which was lucky.
The rest of our efforts home were put toward crash prevention and front-wheel-falling-off mitigation. The bike in its frail state was significantly more susceptible to derailment; things that we barreled over the first time we had to take with great caution on the return trip. And, of course, any time we had to switch tracks the stupid front end would fall entirely off. Neither Kyle or I had the patience for this anymore, our communication had broken down almost entirely to frustrated grunts.
We did make it back eventually, miraculously, to Eugene. We were sunburnt and worn-out and it was worth it. It was an awesome adventure.