6 Secrets: Crossing rail tracks on a motorcycle

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6 Secrets to Crossing Rails

By David L. Hough

In some areas of the country, including Seattle and San Francisco, railroad and streetcar rails in the pavement are common. In San Francisco, many arterial streets have cable car tracks that include two rails plus a steel-lined cable slot, often on steep hills. Like other coastal cities, Seattle has many industrial areas that were served by railroad sidings. Although most commercial shipments today are by truck, many old abandoned rails are still there, creating a variety of surface hazards for the unwary motorcyclist. Crashes involving rails are seldom fatal, but the consequences can be expensive and painful. Let's consider a few hazards created by rails in the road surface, and offer some advice about keeping the shiny side up while crossing them.

1. Plan a line that crosses any steel surfaces at 45 degrees or greater. Hooking a tire in a steel groove can bring the bike down in an instant. Look ahead and plan a line that crosses any shiny steel at an angle of at least 45 degrees. Get the bike vertical when crossing the shiny steel, to reduce side loads on the tires that might cause a slideout. Maintain a steady throttle to conserve traction.

2. Keep your tires out of X or V grooves. A relatively narrow motorcycle tire is more susceptible to dropping into slots or grooves than the typical automobile tire. Where rails join or cross, the resulting X or V shaped slots can easily capture your front tire, wresting steering from your control and possibly even jamming the tire and bringing the bike to a sudden stop. Thin vertical plates used to keep a slot open next to a rail are just as dangerous as the rail itself.

3. Conserve traction crossing the aprons next to the rails. Both wooden and plastic aprons next to the rails can be very slippery, especially when wet. Assume the aprons are slippery even if they don't appear to be. A railroad line carrying materials such as coal can coat the areas near the rails with dust that turns very slippery when mixed with rainwater. Be especially skillful when there is a change in elevation between the road and the railway grade. Get the bike straightened out and vertical, and hold the throttle steady as the bike goes over the hump, where traction will momentarily decrease as the bike lifts up on the suspension.

4. Keep your tires away from rails or slots. Where the rails are parallel to your path of travel, make a point of not drifting over onto them. Be especially careful where the rails and roadway converge or diverge. Where you must cross, angle across the rails to keep your tires on the most tractable surface, with the bike vertical.

5. Keep your feet on the pegs. Waggling your boots around can allow a groove or steel edge to snag a boot and bend it back under the peg, with results that aren't going to be pretty. If your tires don't have sufficient traction to keep the bike upright, your boot soles probably won't do any better. If the tires lose traction and the bike falls, it's better to not have a foot or ankle trapped under the foot supports or controls. Just keep more of your weight on the pegs.

6. Don't forget about rail traffic. It's easy to get so focused on the rails, slots, grooves, and slippery aprons that you forget to watch for trains or streetcars. Maintain your awareness of rail traffic. Never ever attempt to beat a train to the crossing. Even if the engine you see is moving slowly, there can be a second train approaching on a different track at a higher speed. Where there are controls such as warning signals or crossing gates, the situation is obvious, but there are many grade crossings with only a warning sign. It's up to you to avoid a collision.

The Good Rider- by David HoughDavid L. Hough ("huff”) is a veteran motorcyclist and journalist, with more than a million miles of riding experience over 48 years. Dave was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2009 in recognition of his efforts toward improving motorcyclist skills and knowledge. He is the author of several highly respected skills books, including Proficient Motorcycling and The Good Rider, available from store.soundrider.com

The author and Sound RIDER! are willing to grant permission to reprint this column at no charge for educational purposes by clubs and non-profit organizations including the military. Contact sreditor@soundrider.com for more details, full size photos and a full transcript of this article.

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