copyright 1996, Tracy-Williams Consulting.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS...

Streetcar Tracks

Jeff Smith, City of Portland OR

What sort of technological fixes are out there for correcting the hazard to cyclists that parallel/acute angle rail flanges present?

The problem scenario is thus: Portland is beginning to develop a Streetcar network which, unlike its distant cousin Light Rail, will operate in the flow of traffic in the rightmost lane, which is just where most bicyclists are apt to want to be travelling. Obviously, I don't have to point out the difficulties this presents to bicyclists wanting to avoid a sudden face plant. The message we're getting is that there's no product that exists for filling in this dangerous gap in the rail flangeway, thus keeping bike wheels out of it and bicyclists upright.

This appears to be our only hope, as changing the general design of the Streetcar lines to a more compatible arrangement with cyclists (one way streets, or a dedicated lane for streetcar, for instance) appears to be out of the question. I've heard of such "flange filler" products -- I believe one was at one point even made in Portland -- but haven't seen any information on them...


Some Answers from:

Daniel Egan
Ernst Poulsen
Diane Bishop
Glenn Grigg
Howard Boyd
Tom Huber
Michael Ronkin
Martin Damen
Theo Petrisch
Tom Walsh

 

DANIEL EGAN

Planner, City of Toronto. Email: degan@city.toronto.on.ca



We use rubber flange fillers at a few locations where bicycle lanes and trails cross skew angle railway spurs - generally low speed, infrequent train activity. I have never seen a comparable product designed for use with streetcar tracks.

We have about 100 km (62 miles) of roadway in the Toronto with streetcar tracks, generally occupying the two centre lanes. For most of these routes the streetcars operate in mixed traffic on four lane roads, typically 12.8 to 14.0 metres wide (42 to 46 feet wide).

There is no question that the tracks (especially when wet) do pose a hazard to cyclists turning left across them. Crossing the tracks at a right angle, or as close to a right angle as possible, is the only safe course of action for a cyclist. The most dangerous locations for cyclists are where the streetcar tracks turn to the right either to travel along a perpendicular street or to enter a transit station or loop. A cyclists travelling on the right side of the curb lane will cross these tracks at close to a right angle. If you're travelling on the left side of the curb lane (ie next to parked cars) you will be approaching the tracks at their most skew angle. Generally a cyclists will have room to move to the right towards the curb before crossing the tracks - assuming they are aware of the need to do so. For obvious reasons new cyclists have considerably more trouble negotiating the tracks than do experienced cyclists.

It sounds like the Portland scenario (streetcar tracks in the curb lane) will be more uncomfortable for cyclists than our situation in Toronto because there won't be enough space to ride to the right of the tracks. Also with streetcar tracks in the curb lane it will be more difficult to cross them at a right angle at intersections where the track turns to the right. On the other hand I'm sure that transit customers (and cyclists are heavy users of transit in Toronto) will appreciate the added safety and convenience of streetcars in the curb lane.

Despite the potential hazard that streetcar tracks can pose to cyclists the positive benefits for the City far outweigh the negatives. I can't imagine Toronto without the streetcar system. For lots of reasons most people, given a choice, prefer riding the rails than riding the bus. The busiest streetcar routes carry between 40,000 and 50,000 passengers per average week day, well exceeding all bus routes in the City.

The big picture goal is to reduce car use, plain and simple. Streetcars in Toronto make a huge contribution towards achieving that goal. One of the most important principles in getting people out of their cars is to provide several attractive travel options. In Toronto many cyclists choose transit on the days they don't cycle. Fewer streetcars on Toronto streets would mean more cars and ultimately, fewer bicycles.


ERNST POULSEN

Editor, The Bicycle News Agency, http://www.bikenews.org email: ernst@inet.uni2.dk


About ten years ago I was confronted with the same problem when I was a bicycle activist in Odense, Denmark.

We promoted a sollution used by the Danish Rail Roads in the city of Soenderborg in the southern part of Jutland. (The peninsula part of Denmark). Here the rail-track (flange) was filled with a rubber-material. This material was soft enough for a train-car to depress it because of the huge weight - where as cyclists would just feel a smooth surface and possibly a slight bump. But cyclists couldn't get caught by the rail-track when this flange filler was used.

The Danish Rail Roads (DSB), were not great fans of this solution because it's expensive - and supposedly they were afraid of using it on tracks which carried passenger trains. At least untill extensive testing had been carried out. Nevertheless they used this sollution in Soenderborg. (Sønderborg).

You may contact DSB through http://www.dsb.dk - but remember, as any other railroad company it's a huge, slow organization which sometimes helps you right away - and at other times has no clue as to what's going on in the company itself.


DIANE BISHOP

Bicycle Coordinator, City of Eugene, Oregon email: Diane.L.BISHOP@ci.eugene.or.us


We had a rail line with an acute angle crossing on a street that was popular for bicycling. We gave up finding a flange filler (but that was several years ago--hopefully there are products available now) and painted a stencil on the street that would be visible to cyclists but not necessarily clear to motorists. It was a "birds eye" view of a cyclist making a perpendicular crossing of the rails. I can provide Jeff with a photo (the rail line was eventually removed --the best solution in my mind!) if he is interested, but it doesn't sound like that is what he need since people will be crossing at any number of locations along the rail line.


GLENN GRIGG. P.E.

Former traffic engineer for Cupertino, California. Email: glennmg@juno.com


I know that there used to be "flange fillers" that fit in the flangeway at a road crossing the railroad tracks, but those were used in conjunction with timber, rubber or concrete railroad grade crossing materials. The flange on the wheel of the train car would depress this material, allowing the train to pass. However, flanged rail, which has been in use for longer than I have been away from railroad engineering (1956-1962), has a fixed, rigid depression that accommodates the flange of the wheel plus some small tolerance. There is no room in this flange for compression of extraneous materials, like those required to fill the flange for smooth crossings by bicycles.

Unless the City of Portland wants to construct a continuous railroad crossing, along the length of the light rail tracks, I don't see a ready solution to the stated problem. Riding your bicycle to the left of the rails may be the only practical solution.


HOWARD BOYD, P.E.

Consulting engineer in Birmingham, England. Email: howardboyd@gn.apc.org


Sorry I cannot add much from a UK perspective as we only have a small number of tram systems, mostly only recently installed (Manchester, Sheffield) or still being installed (Birmingham, Croydon). The CTC has just issued a position paper on trams and guided buses and the following paragraphs are relevant:

3) Cycle lane/rail intersection angle

Aligning cycle lanes and tram tracks to achieve a crossing angle of more than 45 (preferably exactly 90) will minimise the risk of cycle wheels being deflected on contact with the rails. Crossing angles between tram tracks and the trajectory followed by cycle wheels should be as close to 90 as possible (the Dutch Cycle-friendly Infrastructure guidelines recommend a minimum of 60 degrees), in all traffic conditions and for all cyclist manoeuvres.

4) Depressible rail inserts

The use of depressible rail inserts in areas where a near 90 degree crossing angle cannot be achieved will reduce the risk of loss of control by the cycle user. Inserts will also be appropriate where cycle flows are parallel to the tram rail and there is a substandard width between the rail and nearside kerb. These are used in Seattle, USA and have been agreed in principle for the Nottingham Light Rail system. There are however, some concerns at present over the durability of such inserts.

5) High skid resistance surfacing, drainage and good lighting

The low skid resistance of the polymer bedding surrounding smooth concrete should be addressed. Use of high skid resistance surfacing bordering the rails is recommended where cyclists may be expected to cross the rails at relatively acute angle and on all gradients greater than 10%. High skid resistance, coloured surfacing may be used to draw attention to possible tram / cycle or cycle / rail conflict points, for example where widths are limited and at tram stops. To minimise carriageway surface hazards, drainage should be provided by kerb face drainage (as used for Metrolink in Manchester) rather than conventional gullies. Junctions should be well lit to help cyclists negotiate tram rails.


TOM HUBER

Wisconsin State Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator. Email: thomas.huber@dot.state.wi.us


I spent 2 days in Madison's German Sister City of Frieburg last year. I was astounded by the thousands of bicyclists that were using major streets in the downtown area that had street car rails in place. Most of these streets were bikes/taxis/street cars only and were slow speed. I was impressed with how well bicyclists traversed the longitudinal rails. I'm sorry that I didn't get a closer look at the rails and the flanges because I would suspect I would have noticed a much different flange design that made it easier on bicyclists. A filler was not being used. Most of these street rails were in the middle of the streets. I do have slides/photos, but they show no rail details. So my suggestion is to look closely at the rail/flange design of what is being proposed in Portland and compare it to the typical rail. But at best, even "Frieburg- type" rails placed where bicyclists are expected to travel unnerve me.


MICHAEL RONKIN

Oregon DOT Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator. Email: Michael.P.RONKIN@odot.state.or.us


Tom confirms what I experienced growing up in Geneva, where rail lines run down the middle of the streets too. I think Americans need to learn how to ride bikes more competently, and stop suing us every time they fall...


MARTIN DAMEN

Cyclist from Amsterdam. Email: martin@rigo.nl


Very challenging question. We do not use flange fillers. At least, I'm not aware we do. From experience we've learned to cross the rail at the right angle. But in wet weather and trams approaching from both directions one could make a mistake.

I've contacted the official Real Dutch-Bicyclist-Union and asked them if they know of any possible sollutions. They're looking into it. I will let you know if I hear something.


THEO PETRISCH, P.E.

Florida Pedestrian and Bicycle Coordinator. Email: theo.petritsch@dot.state.fl.us


There is such a material; I've seen it used on crossings in Tavares, FL. It's a rubber grommet type treatement. On my road bike, I road parallel to this treatment, then inched across it (what is that? a 1 or 2 degree angle?) and had no problems at all.

This morning I fowarded pictures of the treatment to FDOT's rail office so they can get me a name of the material and when it can be used. It'll probably be the end of the week before I have an answer.


TOM WALSH, P.E.

Traffic engineer, City of Madison, Wisconsin. Email: TWALSH@ci.madison.wi.us


The potential hazard of bicycles on railroad tracks is clear to all of us. The AASHTO GUIDE addresses it briefly on p12. The ITE REVIEW OF PLANNING GUIDELINES AND DESIGN STANDARDS FOR BICYCLE FACILITIES, p15+, takes the issue a little further with suggestions on how to deal with the problem. But, these deal primarily with track crossings. A parallel track condition would be a special challenge to mitigate, even for flange-filler material. I dont think there is much experience with this stuff, at least that I am aware of. North Carolina provided the info on it for the ITE GUIDE. I would consider the location of the track and it's proximity to the expected location of bicycle traffic. I'de also consider the need for some warning device as an alternative to prohibiting bicycles which, unfortunately, may be the appropriate and necessary thing to do in the situation that Jeff describes.


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