Riding the rails: How to turn abandoned train lines into a cyclist’s playground

An inspiring story of adventure, persistence, and engineering know-how.

All around the world, long-abandoned rail lines are being turned into rail trails. Space once reserved for one type of transport is being freed up for another, giving all riders access to exciting cycling adventures, away from road traffic, and often in beautiful wilderness areas. But what if there was another way to make use of abandoned rail lines for cycling adventures, all without tearing up the existing tracks?

For years now, engineers and backyard tinkerers have been building rail bikes, custom-built devices that allow you to ride a bike on train tracks. You might have even seen one such creation on social media recently, a homebuilt creation from Canadian engineer Steve Evans that made a splash on Instagram. Evans’ device has space for him and a buddy to attach their bikes – front wheels off, rear wheels rolling on the tracks – and set off down abandoned railways lines, in search of adventures in the Canadian wilderness.

Origins of the rail bike

Evans is a mechanical engineer based out of Toronto and a lifelong hiker, kayaker, and all-round adventurer. The 46-year-old is the founder and owner of Suluk46, an “ultra-light backcountry tools” brand that sprung to life in 2008 when Evans started fabricating ice axes for some acquaintances in an online DIY forum. From there the brand took off, providing full-time work for Evans and employing another four people.

Evans sees himself as a hiker first and foremost, but cycling has long been part of his life too. In his early to mid 30s he bought a bike “just to get places” and that $300 bike soon became a $3,000 bike that fostered a growing interest in downhill MTB. And then, maybe six or seven years ago, he started bikepacking.

“We did this three-day trip across an old railway in a place up here called Algonquin Provincial Park,” he tells Escape via video call. “And then it just kind of went from there.”

A snapshot of the Suluk46 homepage. “Suluk” means “feather” in the language of the Inuvialuit, the Western Canadian Inuit. The “46” in Suluk46, meanwhile, refers to “the line of latitude that runs across a mountain in Ontario called Silver Peak,” Evans tells me. “It’s one of my favourite places.”

Evans’ journey into the world of rail bikes began when he caught wind of a bikepacking adventure that a couple of fellow riders went on in his home province of Ontario.

“So on the very northern tip of Ontario, on the northern shores, there are polar bears,” Evans says, referencing the coastline of Hudson Bay. “Distance-wise, it’s probably like a 20-hour drive, except the only thing is there’s no roads to get there. So about 11 hours north of where I am, the roads end. But there’s communities out there. The Inuit live up there. So in the wintertime, all the communities that are up there, they pay a company to maintain this ice road network.”

It was a bikepacking expedition along one of these ice roads that got Evans’ imagination going.

“A few years ago, I saw these four crazy guys – their names were Ted King, Bucky Miller, Ryan Atkins, and Eric Batty – I found on their YouTube channel that they had biked the ice road from like, way up in this town called Attawapiskat all the way down to Cochran, which blew my mind. It’s -40 ºC (-40 ºF)! There’s literally polar bears. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

And that’s saying something from a guy who’s YouTube channel is full of all manner of big adventures.

The video that inspired Evans’ rail bike journey.

Evans got in touch with Miller, a former professional road racer and adventurer, to spitball some ideas.

“‘I want to do the same trip, but I want to do it in the summertime,’” Evans told Miller. “And he said, ‘You can’t do it in the summertime.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He goes, ‘Because portions of the road are gonna be underwater.’”

In the warmer months of the year, parts of northern Ontario turn into muskeg, a kind of boggy swamp. The muskeg freezes over in winter, making passage possible, but when the ground thaws out again, those roads are no longer usable. Still, Evans wasn’t deterred.

“In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘You know, man, I’m a seasoned expedition guy. I go to the Arctic. I do all kinds of stuff. This is no big deal for me. I’m going to do this trip,’” he recalls.

But then Evans started doing some research on Miller.

“This guy Bucky Miller is the real deal,” Evans says. “Like he is a survivalist, lives in the woods, face to face with polar bears, he’s done crazy, crazy trips. We’re friends now and he’s like, ‘Steve, I’m telling you now, there’s no way to get to the Arctic coast on a bike in the summertime.’”

Miller knew that because he’d tried to do it a handful of times himself.

“And I remember I said to him, ‘You’re telling me there’s nothing, there’s no way to possibly get there?’” Evans recalls. “And he said, ‘The only way you could get there is if you ride down the middle of the railway, because there’s a railway that goes all the way up there.’”

“So then I was like, ‘Well, that’s gonna be terrible, riding in the middle of the railway.’ We were talking and he said, ‘I don’t know, man, maybe you could develop some kind of device to ride a railway …’”

Image: Irina Iriser/Unsplash

The prototypes

It was in February 2022, about a year after that conversation with Miller, that Evans published his first rail bike video on the Suluk46 YouTube channel. He’d done some research on other rail bike designs and had been left unsatisfied. And so he decided to put his engineering talents to work and make his own.

In that first video, shot on a -12 ºC (10.4 ºF) Toronto day, Evans debuted a primitive device that allowed him to ride on an abandoned rail line near home. It featured a front wheel guide – designed to keep the wheel attached to the track – and an outrigger that connected Evans’ bike frame to the rail he wasn’t riding on, ensuring the bike would stay balanced and upright. The wheels on the device were 3D printed and the entire thing was cobbled together from pieces of metal Evans had lying around the place.

It wasn’t a particularly convincing start. The bike was hard to get moving, the front wheel lifted off the rail, and the wheels didn’t spin as well as they should have.

“When you watch the first video, I don’t even know how I came up with that concept,” Evans recalls. “I was just kind of like, ‘If we attach this outrigger, and we do this thing, maybe we can ride a rail.’ I didn’t actually know what to do.

“And then some people started reaching out to me and I started realising that there’s this underground community of rail bikers. And it’s very, very serious – they take it very seriously. So now I’m right in the heart of this thing.”

Evans’ first attempt at a rail bike.

While not convincing, that first prototype gave Evans the confidence that he could make something work; that a cycling adventure on abandoned rail lines was possible.

In the two years and four months since that first video, Evans has published a further 13 videos showing how he’s iterated on that initial design.

Version 2 featured a new front wheel guide, to keep the front wheel better planted, plus a new approach to the outrigger. Version 3 again iterated on the outrigger design. By version 4, Evans was claiming he had “basically figured it out,” but many designs would follow.

Version 5 saw another change to the wheel guide, and in version 6, in May 2022, Evans said, “I have concluded that the conceptual development of this system is complete, meaning that I am comfortable with actually designing, engineering, and manufacturing a proper long-term version.” His rail bike was moving smoothly and efficiently.

He returned with a seventh video saying he’d shipped version 6 off to “a brave individual who is currently testing it.” While waiting for feedback, he “wanted to test different wheel configurations and refine some of the parts to make them stiffer and more robust.” 

Version 8 saw a change of wheels but when they turned out to perform poorly, he reverted to the previous version. By version 9 he had “completely redesigned the front wheel guide to incorporate all the past experience and benefits.” 

The ninth iteration of Evans’ design.

Version 10 was another failure. “I went ahead and made some major conceptual changes with this one, adding the entire system to the front wheel,” Evans said. He had been warned that connecting the outrigger to the front wheel would introduce some stability issues and that advice proved correct. Again Evans reverted to the previous design, and in version 11, in May 2023, he showed a re-imagined outrigger and front wheel guide – a setup that rolled smoothly and stably.

There was no update on the project for months, and when the next rail bike video appeared, it featured Evans showing off a cheap wooden design that he had made with the intention of it being easily replicable by viewers.

This video marked a significant departure from previous designs, not just in materials used – swapping aluminium and steel for wood – but in structure. Where all previous incarnations had used an outrigger for balance, this new setup comprised a solid platform that spanned both rails.

“If you do the single rail where it has the outrigger, it’s extremely custom,” Evans says, when explaining the change of design. “It has all kinds of machined components that are specific to the bike. I have a 27.5+ or whatever on my [Santa Cruz] Chameleon, and it was just so custom. In my mind I’m just thinking of spare components.

“And then anybody that wanted to come on the trip, I’d have to build a full custom system for them. And then, I was just thinking – the physics of a train and how a train works really is what it was.”

While the new wooden design looked somewhat slipshod in its construction, it rolled remarkably well and gave Evans confidence that he’d stumbled upon a winner. It wasn’t just that the platform design was very stable, it also allowed space for a second rider, which was relevant – Evans wasn’t planning on doing his longer rail bike expeditions alone.

Image: Suluk46/YouTube

It would be another seven months until the next video: the aluminium frame design that took off on Instagram. It featured fork mounts for two bikes, and it used the top and inside of the train tracks as contact points, based on Evans’ experience that the inner walls of abandoned rails tend to be in better shape than the outer.

It’s that aluminium design that Evans would ultimately settle on as he started building towards some big rail bike adventures.

Riding the rail bike

So what’s it actually like to ride one of these things? Judging by Evans’ videos, the early prototypes looked scarier to ride than they were fun.

“It’s a very weird sensation because you’re pedalling and at some point, the outrigger is weightless, and then other times you’re leaning quite [heavily] on it,” Evans recalls of his early designs. “And even though you hold the bars to like, not fall off the bike, you don’t actually have any control of the bike. So it can be a little bit weird to ride. 

“So it takes a little bit of practice to be quite floaty. When you learn to kayak, they tell you to be loose at the hips, so that different waves and different forces that hit it don’t knock you over. That’s sort of what it’s like riding. It just takes some time to get used to.

“And then the only other thing that I would say is, if you’re going to build your own, which I think is great if someone does, is that it’s extremely fast. It’s very, very fast.”

He reiterates this point when talking about his more recent designs.

“This is gonna sound kind of weird, but the coefficient of friction between a highly inflated bike tire and a smooth rail is very, very low,” he says. “I’m not a big road biker, but I’ve ridden a road bike. I’ve never been on a machine or a bike like this, where you just pedal once and you will just roll. You will just roll for a very, very long time.

“There’s a big turn where we always go riding, it’s just extremely fast. If you have a derailment, it can be really, really bad. So we’ve really kept it to the 10 to 15 km/h range. If you see the videos, we’re never really giv’n’er because the faster you go there’s a little bit more forces and if you come off … I’m old, I don’t want to break my collarbone or something on this thing. So as long as we’re rolling at 10 kilometres an hour or something, we’re pretty happy.”

Image: Suluk46/YouTube

The abandoned rail network

Several times throughout our call Evans reiterates the importance of only riding rail bikes on abandoned railways rather than those with active train services. That seems reasonably obvious, but he’s had plenty of YouTube comments in recent years accusing him of promoting unsafe behaviour.

“There’s a bunch of people that are like, ‘Well, what if a train comes?’” Evans says. “You really shouldn’t be on anything where a train comes. That’s a serious concern. And trains are actually quite quiet.

“So the rails that we have been riding and plan to ride are actually unsuitable for a train.”

Evans shoots his rail bike videos in two main locations in Toronto. One at a train museum where he’s been given permission to use the track, and the other on a turn-off from a main track that goes into a factory. “There’s no actual running trains on there,” Evans says. Of course Evans is looking further afield than suburban Toronto for his actual rail bike adventures.

Check out sites like OpenRailwayMap or Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places and you can quickly see just how many abandoned trail lines are out there to explore. Similarly, a YouTube search for other rail bike projects reveals a whole stack of amazing adventures and even tour options. Evans makes a particular point of mentioning one expedition through Patagonia, South America that caught his eye, a ride following the Old Patagonia Express line.

And as for Evans himself, well, he’s working towards that trip to the sub-Arctic coast, inspired by that video from Bucky Miller and others from a few years back. Interestingly, the train line they’ll need to do that on isn’t quite abandoned.

Just some of the abandoned railways in North America, as per the Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places website.

The sub-Arctic expedition

Evans is now happy with his rail bike design and he’s started testing it properly with that sub-Arctic expedition in mind. In a video published late May 2024, Evans documented a 30 km rail bike ride with a friend, using a bolstered version of the aluminium-frame design. The pair are seen riding on a section of abandoned rail in northern Ontario and as Evans explains, the device works exactly as planned. Only some fallen trees and a barricaded trestle bridge slowed them down, and in the end they covered the 30 km in a leisurely four hours.

With the rail bike passing that test, the next challenge would be Evans’ first multi-day rail bike trip, a trek of roughly 150 km up through the Agawa Canyon in northeastern Ontario. “Camped in huge canyon,” Evans says succinctly via email a day after the expedition. “No breakdowns so pretty happy with the device.”

Evans is currently working on a long video documenting that trip, which should hit his YouTube channel in the coming months (Update: that video is now live. You can see it directly below). And now that he’s proven to himself that a multi-day trip is possible on his rail bike, the grand expedition that spurred this whole project beckons. He’s hoping to be joined for that ride towards Hudson Bay by Bucky Miller.

Evans is a little hesitant to share details of the route they’ll take, but when asked how it compares to the route taken by Miller, King, and co. on their ice road cycling adventure, he says the following: “The railway is similar in that it ends on the sub-Arctic coast. But the route is fairly different [to] the ice road. There are only a couple of railways up there, some for old mines and others for infrequent service to bring supplies.”

While the train line isn’t fully abandoned – it runs to those remote communities up north – the pair are taking the necessary precautions.

“We’re working with them [the rail operators] on what times of day and how we could actually do this,” Evans says. “That train is one of the last flag-stop trains in Ontario, which means it drops off and picks up people just by standing on the side of the rail. So all of the hunters that are going up there and stuff. There’s no real passenger trains going up and down. It’s really just bringing supplies and people going on big trips. So we still have to work out all that stuff but apparently, it’s not a problem.”

A train line in northern Ontario. (Image: Google Street View)

Evans reckons the whole journey will take around five days, including roughly 200 km of riding on logging roads before even reaching the train tracks. Which might make you wonder: how will Evans and Miller go about carrying a giant metal frame that’s roughly 1.5 metres square when they’re riding on regular roads? Evans has thought of that, of course. The frame is designed to break down, ready to be strapped to their bikes.

“The entire device is held together using only a 10 mm socket and a 5 mm Allen key,” Evans says. “So using those two tools, it can be disassembled to fit in a 6″ (15 cm) diameter tube, but it is long – about 5 feet (1.5 metres). It’s not a fast process, but hopefully you are only doing it once or twice a trip. Takes about 20 minutes.”

Evans hopes that if all goes well and they make it to the sub-Arctic coast as planned, they’ll be able to jump on a train for the ride back.

That trip is planned for later this year, in the Canadian fall. The goal is to raise money for charity, but Evans is quiet on the exact details there too, hoping to make more of a splash when the time comes.

Image: Suluk46/YouTube

For anyone with a thirst for adventure – and certainly for cyclists with a thirst for adventure – there’s a lot to love about Evans’ rail bike project. It’s as much a lesson in perseverance,  problem-solving, and DIY smarts as it is a vehicle for satiating that need for adventure. Now, after years of work, Evans’ project is on the cusp of facilitating the memorable journey that it was designed to.

The humble bicycle is already a machine primed for adventure, ready to help its rider explore the vastness of the great outdoors. Add in the ability to follow abandoned rail lines, to visit places otherwise inaccessible, and rail biking puts a new spin on exploration and adventure that few would have even considered.

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