Rail lines, tram tracks and the risks to cyclists

It was a crisp, damp morning in Kristiansand, in the south of Norway, and I was rolling along on my pannier-laden bicycle, on my way to catch a ferry to Denmark.

The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, still astride my fallen bike. I'd crossed a railway line that was set flush into the road surface, and the metal track, slick with rain, had provided no purchase for my tyres.

Luckily, I sustained nothing more than a grazed knee and a hole in my trousers – and I made the ferry in good time.

But recently, I've had several reminders of my rude introduction to the hazards of tram and train lines for cyclists.

Sydney's light rail project is currently in full swing in the CBD and eastern suburbs, with signs warning of the dangers they can pose to unwary cyclists, especially during the construction phase.

Meanwhile, Newcastle's light rail went into operation late last year, with subsequent reports of bike riders suffering injuries after tangling with the tracks.

But the Australian city with the greatest exposure to rails on roads is, of course, Melbourne, with 250 kilometres of double track criss-crossing the metropolis.

So what are the risks involved? In a study published in the latest edition of Injury Prevention, Australian researchers focused on the characteristics of on-road single bicycle crashes – as opposed to collisions with other vehicles.

The data was drawn from two major Melbourne trauma centres – the Alfred and Royal Melbourne hospitals – and based on interviews with bike riders who spent more than 24 hours in care after an emergency admission, or were admitted for management of a cycling-related injury.

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In the study, 19 per cent of single-bicycle crashes involved tram tracks. Of these, half the crashes were attributed to "cyclist turning right across tram tracks", while one-quarter were listed as "cyclist avoiding parked/parking cars".

It's worth noting the study's limitations. The data was collected over a calendar year from just two metropolitan hospitals; the riders were hurt seriously enough to require a hospital stay; and they had to be both willing and able to be interviewed. A total of 48 single-rider crashes were analysed.

The study's lead author, Dr Ben Beck, told me that research like his was the only way to study such events, as "there is no way to identify interactions with tram tracks as part of routine data collection" – meaning it is hard to find data on how many riders who tangle with tram tracks in Melbourne seek medical treatment. 

Risks of rails

There are several ways that a rail or tram line on the road can bring a bicyclist unstuck.

The line can create a gap or groove that a bicycle tyre and wheel might slot into. Riders can then lose their balance as the trapped wheel changes the course of the bicycle, or the wheel can be brought to a halt, possibly pitching the rider from the bike.

Bike wheels can also slip on the smooth, flat metal surfaces of the rail line – especially in wet weather.

Rail tracks can also create an uneven road surface and there is sometimes a bulge between the lines – especially the heavy duty rail you might encounter at a level crossing – or the line can sit higher than the road surface, creating a hard ridge to surmount.

There could also be other factors at play, such as the size of the bicycle's tyres and the ability of the rider.

Safety tactics

So what is the best way to minimise risk if you cycle across a light rail or train line?

A Transport for NSW spokesperson said: "Cyclists are reminded to slow down near tram tracks and cross tracks at an angle to avoid wheels getting caught in the grooves and to prevent wheels sliding if tracks are wet."

The spokesperson added: "If it's not possible to cross the tracks at an angle, cyclists should dismount and walk their bike safely across the tracks at designated crossings."

Bastien Wallace of Bicycle NSW said her organisation "advised riders to cross tracks at right angles, and to be especially careful in wet weather".

She cited a US study that found crossing a railway track at a right angle or close to it – 60 to 90 degrees – to be an effective way to reduce risk.

In Sydney, much of the light rail corridor will be for trams only when completed, and most of the bike/rail interactions are likely to be at intersections.

But as I've observed on several cycling visits, Melbourne's streets can require a far greater level of attention. At times, you can find yourself riding in a narrow space with a tram line on your right and the car "door zone" on your left.

Garry Brennan of the Victoria-based Bicycle Network says that cyclists quickly learn to always cross tram tracks at an angle, and take extra care when it's wet.

"And while you're crossing a wet tram track you don't swerve, accelerate, brake or do anything to cause your bike to be unstable because there's virtually no friction between your tyre and that wet steel rail.

"That sort of becomes instinct. But even the most careful riders can get caught out, for example when a car pulls into your path and you have to make an unexpected crossing of the track.

"Despite awareness, there are still crashes, some requiring hospitalisations," says Brennan. "But Melbourne does have a lot of people on bikes, so in terms of exposure those numbers are low."

My spill in Norway was by no means the first time I'd encountered a rail line while cycling - I'd been navigating the streets of Oslo just two weeks earlier.

But it certainly was a reminder to take care whenever I see a glint of steel in the street, and treat those lines with the respect they demand. 

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

 

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