“Both of these have recorded hundreds of miles,” Nerf says with a jovial smile, trying to be reassuring as he tightens a few bolts to his homemade vehicle, along a rail corridor.
My face must be conveying an air of trepidation as I gawk at the strange contraption he suggests that I ride. He adds, “Women and children have ridden these, and no one has ever gotten hurt.”
Although it looks shaky, the rail bike is surprisingly sturdy. Nerf—who asked that we refer to him by his surf name—shows me how to shift gears. He makes sure I lean in a little, to keep it balanced. “Finally,” he adds, “make sure you do this,” as he gives the horn a couple of loud squeezes.
From his “rail bike,” Nerf is able to see a side of the coast most commuters never do.
At the front and back of his bikes—Nerf built two, using his welding skills and a little creativity—are wooden mounts that lock inline skate wheels on one rail. Aluminum support beams reach the opposite rail to help the quirky vehicle maintain balance and speed. He has two models, a recumbent version and a more traditional street bike, and estimates neither ride cost much more than $200 total to build.
The bikes glide over the rails with ease, smoothly carrying us from the Simpkins Family Swim Center to the harbor in minutes. Car commuters stare in fascination, and one pedestrian even hails us down to check out the bikes and take a short ride himself—a common occurrence, Nerf says.
Nerf first learned of the idea in the early 1980s, while reading an article about dentist Dick Smart, from Idaho, who had built his own rail bike.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy!’” Nerf remembers. “He was very open to what he was doing and gave me a ride.”
Although the ride with Smart was Nerf’s first rail bike experience, it was not his first time riding the rails. Born and raised in Sacramento, he attended college at UC Davis, where he swam and played on the water polo team. It was also where he began jumping freight cars with his teammates when the trains stopped outside of the college town. Unlike today, many of the freight cars were open, as they transported goods, often large items like cars and trucks, he recalls.
“You could throw a piece of cardboard in the back of a GM truck with a sleeping bag, jug of wine, and your girlfriend,” he says. Basically, that’s what he did. Nerf and Anna, his wife of 44 years, met as juniors at Davis and traveled throughout California and the Pacific Northwest by rail.
“My father-in-law once asked my wife what was her fondest memory, expecting her to say it was him making our wedding happen,” relates Nerf. “But instead she said, ‘Riding the freight trains with Nerf.’”
When it was time to settle down, he moved to an island on Puget Sound in Washington, where he worked as a furniture manufacturer representative for 30 years. Unfortunately, there were no train tracks in the area, so he pushed the memory of his first rail ride into the back of his mind.
It wasn’t until two years ago, when Nerf and his wife moved to Santa Cruz—where he’d spent summers surfing as a teenager—that the memory began to work its way back into his consciousness. He wanted to give it another go.
Obviously, coasting along the tracks on a specially built cycle is great fun. But is it allowed?
Unfortunately, although it’s common for Santa Cruzans to travel the corridor (pedestrians do it all the time), it isn’t actually legal, says Regional Transportation Commission spokesperson Karena Pushnik, via email.
“Until sections of the trail including associated buffers are constructed, pedestrian and bicycle access in the rail corridor is prohibited,” Pushnik says. “Similar to freeways and expressways, ownership of the rail corridor by a public agency does not equate to full multimodal public access.”
Plans for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail (also called the Coastal Rail Trail) were adopted in 2013, and have gone through several hurdles to combine the 50 miles of track running through several coastal counties. Thirteen miles of the 32-mile Santa Cruz stretch have been funded in the last three years. Last year, two-thirds of Santa Cruz voters approved Measure D, the transportation legislation that also approved additional funding and direction for the Rail Trail. On May 4 the Regional Transportation Commission will review to approve the draft for the first five years of the Measure D plan. Trail Now and some critics of this path are pushing to have the tracks ripped up to make way for a wider trail.
Pushnik says that even though walking or riding the rails is currently illegal, that might not always be the case.
“A rail bike outfit from the East Coast is interested in operating in Santa Cruz, but at this time, there are no plans for this service,” she writes. “If and when it will be approved, operation would be regulated, safety measures enforced and rides would be grouped (not a free-for- all).”
There is a surprisingly long history of people riding rail bikes, or railroad velocipedes, as they were known back in the day. The origins date back to the late 1850s, shortly after the invention of the handcar—small hand-pumped vessels that wheeled up and down tracks, as seen in movies like Blazing Saddles or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. Such devices were essential for moving groups of rail workers from one end of the line to the other in a short amount of time.
Michigan farmer George Sheffield invented the first three-wheeled railroad velocipede in 1877. Getting tired of walking the tracks everyday, Sheffield came up with the idea of using both feet and hand cranks to move the vehicle. Two years later he applied for a patent. During most of the time in-between, he kept his invention secret from others, only riding it at night as he had no right to use the rails.
To this day, the solitude of rail biking can provide a certain peace of mind.
“There’s a wonderful solitude and meditation having that peace to yourself,” says Nerf. “Freedom—now there’s a great word.”