There are at least two types of people in this world when it comes to machines: collectors and consumers. Collectors tend to preserve the original integrity and design of a machine and preserve it for the future, while consumers tend to sacrifice originality to accomplish their personal and sometimes unique purpose.

I’m capable of either behavior at times. My father is an unrepentant consumer. He tends to harvest the most well-engineered elements of a manufactured machine then, uh, enhance it to accommodate his specific needs.

His railbike of the late 80’s is a great example. Back before every quirky behavior had thousands of followers on the Internet, Dad’s friend and railroader Joe gave him a wheel with a flange on it. It was originally used by the railroad, but the flange ignited a spark in Dad. That spark would eventually become the “railbike.” Creating a railbike involves taking two perfectly good bicycles and limiting their use to the rail system. In this case, Dad built a side-by-side railbike so others could enjoy the fun and excitement of riding the rails and, let’s be honest, so he had available manpower to load and unload the ever-growing mass of said railbike.

This railbike was designed for two bikes to run parallel to each other, one riding on each rail of the train tracks. They were connected by various methods, guy wire and turnbuckles at first for adjustability and later more solid bracing. The front wheels were removed and replaced with smaller-diameter wheels that had flanges on the inside edge of the rail. This was to keep the entire conveyance from unexpectedly leaving the tracks. And with two exceptions it worked pretty well.

Exception number one came early on when the spacing between the two rails on an old abandoned section of track in the mountains varied, causing the rear drive tires to drop off the inside of the rails and spin, making forward progress slow at best. A few measurements confirmed this was the problem. The solution was a different set of tracks.

The second exception came at a time when the project was actually considered a success. Dad and I had loaded the contraption and hauled it to the nearest tracks during every free minute we had at that time. Lunch time, after work, weekends; all were consumed by the railbike. We were driven to succeed as if this recreational creation would have a more substantial impact on the industrial world than did the train that spawned it. With the research and development portion of the project over, it was time to push the envelope. To this end we routinely hustled the railbike down a deserted stretch of track, picked it up and hustled back to the starting point.

For some reason or other our testing had never included a grade crossing. For the non-railroad speaking that’s where the train tracks go across the road. It turns out that a grade crossing can completely and quite literally derail an otherwise high-functioning railbike due to dirt and debris buildup in the grade crossing, filling in around the rails. This isn’t a problem for real trains due in part to their extreme weight which displaces the debris. A railbike, though, doesn’t stand a chance against a dirty grade crossing.

As we approached the crossing, we were on the fast track to railbike success. With a full head of steam we could see there were no cars in sight so the crossing was clear for us. Our legs were pumping as fast as they could and it’s safe to say our speed was well over 20 mph by the time we hit the crossing. The railbike left the tracks and we were truly just along for the ride. A second massive derailment later with another passenger was enough to shelf further development of the project. Besides, it was a lot of work to haul it around. Tracks that you could use safely were limited and if you unbolted the modifications necessary to make it run on the rails, you could use the bikes almost anywhere you wanted except the rails. That seemed a better option in the end.

The aptitude for this kind of creativity and multipurpose behavior is born, no doubt, of Dad’s depression-era mindset where cars became tractors and basic mechanical and engineering principles such as leverage, gearing, pulleys and geometry were understood because they had to be to survive. Today at age 84, these tendencies still exist and old habits die hard.

During my lifetime, after the depression had loosened its grip on Dad’s purse strings that mindset led to a life filled with the unusual and fun memories like the railbike that not everyone has. Engines on things that aren’t supposed to have them, more or less wheels than normal and creations from hand-made high-wheeler bicycles and six-foot unicycles to sidecars, sulkies, snowmobiles and snow plows were normal around our house. We often joke that if you could buy something for $200, we could make it for $300 and two weeks’ time.

Today, the Internet is filled with railbike variations although I’ve never seen another one in person.

This winter, why not break out the chalk and scratch out a design for something on your garage floor? You never know what it will start or the places it will take you.


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