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Adventure Travel: Pedaling the Rails

Enjoy a day on the tracks without the train

spinner image people in boone iowa riding a rail car on an open railroad track
Step into a small, open semi-recumbent car designed for railroad tracks to experience the thrill of riding the rails without the train.
Rail Explorers USA

Imagine taking a scenic rail trip, but without the train. Instead, you’re out in the open air, and you use your legs for power. It’s called rail biking, an increasingly popular form of adventure travel. “Rail biking gives you a way to get out into nature that you’d probably not experience otherwise,” says Edward LaScala, chief operating officer for Revolution Rail Co., which offers tours in four states. Here’s how it works.

You use special vehicles

Riders sit in small, open cars specifically made for railroad tracks and seating either two or four people. They’re propelled via pedaling, although many rail bikes incorporate an electric motor too.

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Don’t worry, it’s safe

Many rail-bike companies run their excursions on tracks that have been decommissioned for train use. In some cases, where the railroads are still active, excursions are scheduled at time periods when no trains are coming through the area. “We negotiate a timetable with the host railroad in several of our locations that have historical tourist trains,” says Mary Joy Lu, CEO and owner of Rail Explorers, which operates rail-bike tours in six states. “And it’s just like any scheduled event; you stick to the times and you don’t run into each other.”

You won’t ride alone

It’s standard that guides accompany riders, who go in groups. Guides also administer safety checks and provide instructions.

It need not be intense

These are leisurely rides, with speeds typically under 10 mph and round trips ranging from one to four hours along picturesque landscapes. Depending on the tour, you may take in mountain views; pass through farmland, forests or fields; or ride by water and across bridges. Sometimes, excursions are combined with another activity. For example, Revolution Rail Co.’s Cape May, New Jersey, ride includes a stop for a walking tour of a nature preserve.

You’ll likely cross some roads

Although pastoral settings are the norm, routes may cross busy streets or other rail crossings, where guides direct riders. “We come to a full stop at a main road crossing,” says Cynthia Newman, co-owner of Vance Creek Railriders. “When there is a break in the traffic, the guides flag the crossing, stopping upcoming traffic and allowing the rail riders to cross safely.”

You probably can handle it

Rail bikes have semi-recumbent seating, meaning you lean back a bit with the pedals in front of you. Robert Nichols, co-owner of Joseph Branch Railriders in Oregon, says it’s easier on your joints than riding a bike, plus you’ll be sharing the workload with others in your car. Also, riding on steel tracks creates little friction.

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