Should Your Next Outdoor Expedition Be On a Rail Bike?

People-powered transit in an unexpected way

Rail bikes
Rail bikes in Sweden.
Erik Lundin, CC BY-SA 3.0

The United States abounds with railroad infrastructure, and while much of it remains in use today, some of it has fallen out of use or into full-on disrepair. A number of bold architectural projects have made use of rail lines that are out of service — New York City’s High Line is probably the highest-profile one, but it’s not alone. But there’s also a growing momentum for making use of old railroad tracks with a very different kind of vehicle — rail bikes.

Also known as draisines and rail cycles, these exist in a variety of configurations, but are basically what the name suggests — cycles designed to be ridden along railroad tracks. It’s a popular activity in Sweden and Poland, and it’s also gaining steam — no pun intended — on this side of the Atlantic.

A recent article at the Los Angeles Times describes the experience writer Christopher Reynolds had while traveling by rail bike near Fort Bragg, California. Reynolds was traveling along the route of the Skunk Train, a 19th-century railroad which conveys tourists to this day. The same company that operates it also offers rail bike tours; as Reynolds notes, it’s an activity that’s popping up in more and more places across the country.

Reynolds makes an excellent case for the experience, with a description of traveling by rail bike in the wild, “hearing only birdsong and the gentle hum of wheels on tracks.” It’s not hard to see the appeal, whether you’re looking for an unexpected workout or would prefer to travel by motorized bike and watch the scenery pass. And there’s no shortage of infrastructure if this catches on in a bigger way.

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