Updated : Recalling the Wisdom of Manfred Smolibowski


In Memory of Manfred

When we bought our first home it was next door to an interesting couple, both immigrants. She was Japanese and he German. They had a son (Toshi) and daughter (Yoshi) who grew up right before our eyes. Their son has moved to Europe and last I heard was working for a large model railroad manufacturer.

The model railroad had been a never ending passion with Manfred. His wife Norriko was patient with him on this point since the layout took up the better part of their basement.

Manfred died from prostate cancer. But he and I shared one passion and that was riding recumbent bicycles. Connie and I would ride for many miles at least once a week (usually a weekend day) with him along one of the trails here in DuPage County.

Manfred did not like riding streets. His experiences in Germany left him longing for the kind of bicycle infrastructure they had there and not the mean streets of DuPage County.

Manfred was a very big fan of country music and would sing it on rides in a very thick German accent. Norriko was not a bicycle person. She had fallen once and been badly injured and so had sworn off riding for good.

I am guessing that his passion for model railroads stemmed from his profession as a diesel mechanic for the railroad. The trains he worked on passed near our homes on their way to the freight yards towards the east. And it was because of his thorough knowledge of trains that I learned a good deal about them. Enough to respect their power and more importantly their inherent danger.

Many made it quite clear that unlike automobiles and trucks stopping a train was not any easy thing to do. The very property of low rolling resistance which made them an extremely efficient means of transporting goods also made them hard to stop. It is for that reason that America began putting up crossing gates to warn motorists about oncoming trains and to minimize the deaths that came as a result of automobiles and trains not mixing well at intersections.

A ChainLink Discussion About Trains

Ryan Vanguard with underseat steering
© beezodogsplace.com

Recumbent bikes are low to the ground and are not very steady when crossing rails that are embedded in the street.

Manfred and I rode bikes built by Dick Ryan. The model was called the Vanguard. He had bought Connie’s Vanguard when she decided that she preferred above seat steering. Both the Ryan Vanguards were steered via a Whaton Bar from beneath the riders seat.

The low center of gravity makes the bikes tip over quite easily. And riding across rails is a bit sketchy on bikes like these. My current bike is made by Easy Racers and has above seat steering. Moving the center of gravity just a bit higher (by virtue of raising the arms) makes all the difference. But still riding across rails is something you do with trepidation.

Now for those of you who think that perhaps I make up things regarding the conversations held on the ChainLink here is one that is a doozie:

expensive ticket/fine from metra

Posted by CJ on October 19, 2012 at 6:08pm

The other day I was hurrying to work approaching the train tracks at clinton just n. of fulton. the warning lights and bells started going off as i was maybe 20ft from them. so i accelerated and made it over before the gates began to move.

a metra police officer jumped in front of me a little ways later and made me stop. wrote me a ticket and said it will likely cost me at least $250. I kind of thought that the lights and bell were like a yellow light and you didnt have to stop until the gates came down. It appears this is not the case. expensive lesson learned.

posting this as a cautionary tale to anyone else pedaling over train tracks regularly.

Regardless of ones chosen mode of transportation the propensity to do things that in hindsight are clearly stupid is as likely among motorists as it is among either pedestrians or cyclists. Mother Nature has made us all “Equal Opportunity Idiots“. And for that reason pointing the finger of blame at a group other than the one you ride with serves little purpose. A far better aim is to eradicate stupidity across the transportation groups equally.

The problem is that people among all these groups are at varying stages of wisdom. The younger ones (no matter what group) are either unwilling or unable to realize the danger of some of the things they do. The middle-aged ones are entering that phase of life where taking risks is less inviting because of family. By the time you reach my age you have had at least one spill or two on train tracks and now know the wisdom of being respectful of them. Those that did not learn that lesson paid for it with bruises and worse.

So you ask yourself why would anyone pull a “race the train” stunt like this? It is because they perhaps never had a riding buddy like Manfred who would take the time to explain just how stupid that sort of thing really and truly is. Manfred knew train engineers who had a very hard time recovering from a collision with an automobile or especially the pedestrians who deliberately walked onto the rails and faced the engineer head on as the train with brakes screaming slid past the hapless soul and took them to meet their maker.

It is the kind of experience that enraged engineers. And there is something akin to this emotion that enrages motorists today who watch as cyclists deliberately enter intersections on red lights. You freeze and hope that the wet pavement or the snow and ice do not send you plowing headlong into the rider. And when you come out on the other side you are seething and irate. How dare that person put you in the situation where your inability to stop meant their certain death.

There is nothing more frightening to the driver than the prospect that a cyclist crossing a busy intersection on a red light will suddenly lose traction and land on their side. The driver is heading towards them braking as they go but unable to control a skid into which the car is heading. That is pure terror. And the worst thing about all this is that the bicyclist chose to do this rather than it happening by accident.

When cars cross train tracks there is no excuse for that kind of behavior. If the vehicle stalls the best thing to do is bail out and get off the tracks leaving the car to be totaled. And yet people cross train tracks daily because they can. In Europe they have crossing gates that completely block the rails. But to save money here that is seldom done.

Education Is Needed

As a motorist there really is no excuse. Bicyclists on the other hand are often really unaware of the things that they do which might cost them their lives. Fashion dictates that some people ride bikes not intended for street use. They ride these bikes without brakes just pedal act to skid them to a halt. Utterly unnecessary is the slavishness to “fixie” fashion. It offers little in the way of improvement of the riding experience and actually makes dealing with panic stops almost impossible.

But in addition to education there is one element that is even more important and that is “social constraint”. No amount of education about the dangers of riding in a scofflaw manner will ever convince those who feel that it is part of their groups mores to do so. That single factor means that people who would otherwise avoid danger suddenly embrace it to the extent that it no longer has the immediacy it once had.

They become inured to activity and lose any sensitivity to how foreign it might be to motorist and more careful cyclists. And once it becomes engrained in a community it is very difficult to ever get out of those habits. In fact the very idea that anyone would object to such behavior becomes a cause for derisive laughter from those who “are in the know”. And suddenly you have a problem that is nearly intractable.

What offends me greatly is the blather from cycling leaders about this behavior going away once enough infrastructure is in place. Pure poppycock! Anyone who keeps up with the doings of cycling advocacy in either Portland or New York or even San Francisco knows otherwise. So do not insult my intelligence with drivel. If you are paid to be an advocate then do your job and advocate. Advocate to those who do not understand the need for better infrastructure and advocate to your own community to get them to once again be sensitive to the things they now take for granted.


A few more responses to this thread were written:

Reply by Anne Alt 20 hours ago

I’d love to see some of this enforcement on the Rock Island, where I see peds (sometimes cars, rarely bikes) cross the tracks too close to the approaching train nearly every day. This includes a guy I see habitually running late and crossing as close as 30-40 feet in front of the train as it’s pulling into the station at 95th St. – definitely after the gates have gone down. Yesterday he ran across the tracks in front of the train even though the engineer saw him coming and laid on the horn longer than usual to give a warning.

Yesterday I saw at least 3 vehicles in each direction drive through that crossing from the time the gates started going down until they were all the way down. This is a daily occurrence. Every so often, some driver manages to take out the gate by driving through too late. Then we have police out there every time a train comes through, stopping traffic until the broken gate gets replaced by Metra.

Rather ironic that we’re NOT getting enforcement on the Rock Island. We have a LOT of grade crossings and we seem to have a higher than average number of fatalities and serious injuries from people getting hit – as peds and in cars. This includes the mother who drove around the gates on 115th near Vincennes earlier in the week with her little boys in the car. Some of ours don’t make the news – if they’re not fatalities. Seems like we have a “car struck on the tracks” incident at least twice a month on our line, if not more.

Even right after a fatality like the 115th St. crash, people keep on cutting it close. Is common sense dead?

In a word, yes. Common sense is in short supply if not disappeared altogether. One of the “adults” writes:

Reply by Lisa Curcio 16 hours ago

Common sense and common courtesy seem to be more and more uncommon.

If there were more common sense, laws and enforcement of laws to prevent what is truly senseless behavior would not be necessary. Trains always win. It takes an incredible distance to stop one even when it is going slowly and they can’t swerve to avoid an accident.

I suppose the only reason that cyclists test automobiles at intersections is because they assume a greater chance against cars? I do not know but given some of the senseless red light running I have witnessed there seems to rhyme or reason to this madness. Often the cyclist sits and waits a bit and then ventures out into the intersection and completes the crossing just as the light is finally turning green. Why the impatience? If you are in that much of a hurry all the time why not drive or at least get a motorscooter?

But you have to understand that cyclists (even the ones who consider themselves savvy) are risk takers. Why then do they rail against motorists who show the same proclivities? You would think that anxious motorists would get a free pass from cyclists who are as well.

Check out this entry:

Reply by Duppie 12 hours ago


Sorry to hear you got a ticket. I cross that railroad twice a day and regularly ride through the crossing after the bells start rining. I will have to chance my behavior a bit, since I don’t need a ticket like that.

But I don’t think it is selective enforcement. Every time I get stopped for the gates, I see pedestrians (all the time), bicyclists (occasionally) and even cars (rare) cross around the downed gates. It is a dangerous crossing. The middle track tends to be used for inbound trains, obsuring the outbound trains on the north bound track. Too often I see pedestrian getting caught off-guard by that. Clearly Metra thinks that this is a risk and tries to do something about it.

Part of the problem is that the gates can be down for extended times. My “personal best” is having to wait for no less than nine separate trains to pass without the gates opening once.

Cycling requires a certain kind of disposition. You need to be patient because the mode of transport is by definition slower than in an automobile. However if you choose to ride a bicycle even when you know you are an impatient type you probably end up running red lights and blowing through stop signs because you simply don’t wish to wait.

But it is an entirely different affair when you play this sort of game with trains. The respondent here is more afraid of the fine than the injury it would seem. Perhaps this is why police eventually end up holding “crackdowns”. It seems that the threat of bodily injury or even death is not quite as daunting as the inconvenience of a ticket with a hefty fine. Such is the logic of human beings.

Reply by Clint H 19 hours ago

I think the likelihood of a person calling the enforcement of a law a “money grab” is directly proportional to the tendency of that particular person to break that law. Red light runners make the same claim. There’s a large and disturbing web presence for drunk drivers making that argument.

It’s shocked me ever since I moved to Chicagoland just how many people get themselves killed trying to beat trains. You people grew up with these things. Trains are everywhere here. I’d think you’d know better how they work. A train can’t turn, so you know the path it’s going to take. They are associated to lots of loud noises and bright lights, so there’s no excuse for not know where they’re going to be. A train will never stop for you. And in Chicagoland, a train will pass you by completely in far less than a minute. Even in the rare situation where you’re stopped by several trains, it won’t take longer than most red lights. Just wait. Trains don’t last forever, and you’ll get where you’re going more quickly with a train past you than on top of you.

Is it the Tea Party influence that always brings about the “money grab” or “bad use of tax dollars” argument for just about anything that people do not like? Glad to see that there are still some “adults” conversing on the ChainLink. I suppose they got lost on their way to another forum and decided to drop some wisdom on the “trained seals” while they were there. Good thing!