Surfing Solo on the Empty Rails
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
How often do you get the chance to take a solo trip down abandoned railways?
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The heyday of railroading may be over, but Paris-based design studio HeHe has devised a new scheme to revive the world’s most derelict train tracks. These artists are surfing the world’s abandoned railways and have designed five unique vehicles to do it.
These personal, lightweight, modular cars glide along at slow and steady paces along the tracks. Built in 2005, the Tapis Volant is a battery-powered “flying carpet” that rides behind trams in Istanbul. Users sit cross-legged and merely shift their weight to brake and move forward. HeHe’s later creations include two electric capsule-like cars, the Métronome and the M-Blem, which chug people along Paris’ unused train lines and Liverpool’s historic railways, respectively. The Radeau de Sauvetage, or the “Lifesaving Raft,” is equipped with a full sail for wind power to give that extra oomph along the empty railroads of northwestern France. Even the H-Line, made out of cardboard, once rode on part of New York’s old train tracks on the High Line in 2007, long before the famed park came into being.
Of course, for such an eccentric idea, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. “It’s slow and doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go to,” explains urban design artist Helen Evans. “It is this experience of moving through this starlight landscape.”
He He has done hundreds of rides on empty subway routes and abandoned train tracks in Paris and Manchester.
Inspired by Paris’ Petite Ceinture ring road — a now-defunct train route that traces the outer edge of the city — HeHe has done hundreds of $1.20 rides since 2012 on empty subway routes and abandoned train tracks in Paris and Manchester. For Evans, riding the Petite Ceinture ring road was sublime, an area where “all kinds of things can happen in this uncontrolled, abandoned site.” She hopes this personal transport service will spread farther one day and reach more people wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
But getting to access the world’s unused railroads, subway lines and tram tracks has been quite difficult — for legal and safety reasons. So, HeHe has opted for more “semi-authorized” ways to bypass the bureaucratic red tape. Sometimes they make connections with third-party organizations that already have permission to use certain railroad tracks. But other times, they simply jump the fence and ride the rails.
For Alicia Rodriguez Ortiz, the idea of railroad surfing has a nice ring to it. She’s a former researcher at the Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife, Spain, and is well-acquainted with urban landscapes, art and territory. But she’s unsure if HeHe will be able to continue skirting the risks if these artists want to expand their services someday. “If such initiatives were to be extended to railways that are being used by trains and trams, it would certainly increase the degree of danger since there would be the possibility of confrontation,” she says in Spanish.
For those worried about oncoming trains and the occasional subway rat, Evans says that “every bit of the track is evaluated.” But in any case, this urban art project isn’t really about following the rules. Surely, these risk-taking artists will find a way to continue cruising the world’s rails, authorized or not.