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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rail Bikes

Air Date: Week of

The sport of riding specially-outfitted bikes on railroad tracks is illegal in most places, and can be dangerous. But, a businessman from the Pacific Northwest is hoping to popularize the sport. Tom Banse reports from Portland, Oregon.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Railroad tracks often run through some of the most beautiful backcountry in this nation. And thanks to the need to haul heavy freight, the tracks rarely rise more than two degrees. This makes old rail beds ideal for bike trails. But in Portland, Oregon, one man says why wait for the tracks to be removed? He's designed a rail bike, a pedal-power contraption that fits right on the tracks. And he's hoping it will harken the next wave of ecotourism. Tom Banse reports.

BANSE: Tour operator Michael Rohde casually clambers on a mountain bike. The bike has a bright yellow outrigger and special guide wheels that clamp into the rails.

ROHDE: Hold onto the right-hand brake, which is the one that goes to the rear tire. Put your left foot on the pedal. Swing your leg over, just like getting on a horse, and that's all there is to it.

BANSE: And he's right. No need to steer or balance. He says even blind people have done this. I press on the pedals and soon I and four companions are being lulled by the clickety clack of the passing rail.


BANSE: The strange bikes and their riders draw stares from the curious or surprised. Boat launch attendant Laura Molina strolled over to investigate.

MOLINA: As long as they stay out of the trolley's way. (Laughs) I wouldn't mind riding something like that. That's just awesome.

BANSE: And you said, what did they look like?

MOLINA: Old bed frames.

BANSE: Old bed frames with wheels.

MOLINA: Yeah. Yeah.

BANSE: The municipal trolley line follows the leafy Lamock [phonetic spelling] River shoreline past fancy waterfront mansions and flocks of squawking geese. The trolley tracks are heading gently downhill, now, through a pretty forest. Very peaceful morning here. Hardly any effort required... (Clanking sounds) Nearly derailed on a bump, I guess. Fortunately, a bike going off the tracks is not like a train. After the bike shudders to a stop, I just set it back on the tracks and resume. We soon arrive at the mouth of a curving, pitch-black tunnel.

(Whooing calls)

BANSE: With that behind us, next comes a trestle over a wide gully. I'm looking probably 100 feet down between my feet. I'm going to keep pedaling here at a nice clip. Not that I'm afraid of heights, but it is a little eerie.


BANSE: Guide Michael Rohde is making mental notes along the way to judge if this line would be suitable for regular tours. Roady figures a ten-mile round trip would work well for families. But before any adventure seekers get a turn, he needs to straighten out a lot of details.

ROHDE: We'd have to have an operating agreement. We'd have to work out a schedule around the trolley service, which has been here for a long time. We would have to take a look at trying to come up with some sort of side rails for the trestle that's here. Not that I think the bikes will be flying off of there, but I think it just would be better psychologically for people going across here to do that.

(Trolley bells ring)

BANSE: Rohde stresses that people should attempt rail biking only on an organized tour, to avoid unpleasant surprises.

(A trolley goes by)

BANSE: Rohde got hooked on rail biking after reading about it in a book that described pedal-powered machines. Something about its earth-friendly simplicity appealed to this former Peace Corps worker. Rohde's had sporadic success offering rail bike tours along the Columbia River, at Astoria, and in the foothills by Mount Rainier National Park. Now he's focused on this suburban trolley line. Lake Oswego Oregon City Councilman Carl Rohde, no relation, enjoyed the early morning test ride.

C. ROHDE: The trolley does a great function for the city and its tourism, and this certainly could be a nice complement to that effort. I think a lot of people would take advantage and have a lot of fun on it. It's a great line. It's a nice perspective that you don't get out of your car.

BANSE: The councilman's not the only one who sees potential in the strange rail bikes. The U.S. Agency for International Development is supporting trial runs on the opposite side of the world.

(World music up and under)

BANSE: Michael Rohde has made one trip to Madagascar already, and is planning a second.

ROHDE: The piece down the south that we're mostly looking at runs from the high plateau down to the Indian Ocean. It has 50 tunnels on it and 50 bridges. It's a spectacular piece of railroad engineering. Nobody in their right mind would try and build a railroad there these days.

(Music up and under; fade to large objects being moved)

BANSE: In the shop behind his house, Rohde tinkers with rail bike designs and wonders how to pack his contraptions for the long flight to southern Africa. He talks about creating jobs in isolated villages, as well as moving tourists in a way that's sensitive to the environment.

ROHDE: No matter how much people love the rainforest, when you get that many people there the paths get wider and wider. And this would be a way to not have to restrict the number of people that go through, but give them a way to see it that really isn't going to be damaging.

BANSE: Rohde says the project in Madagascar, and another in Costa Rica, aren't going to make him rich. He figures he'll keep his regular job as a research analyst for a while yet. Earlier, tours Rohde offered cost $30 to $35 per person. If all goes well, he'll resume day trips down American rails again next April.


BANSE: For Living on Earth, I'm Tom Banse in Portland, Oregon.



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