Inside Out | A barber and his bike, riding trails along the old rails

By Art Carey
Inquirer Columnist

Posted on Sat, Jun. 12, 2004

As a kid, John Troncelliti hung out at his father's Ardmore barber shop next to the Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line. Naturally, he fell in love with trains.

When he began trimming locks himself in Wynnewood, he could clock the time, even chart the economy, by watching the parade of Pennsy power, in its regal livery of Tuscan red and gold.

When he saw an ad for a rail bike a while back, he ordered plans. On his rail bike, with its flanged wheels, he could ride the rails under his own power. But getting permission was tricky, and his wife fretted about safety. Reluctantly, Troncelliti mothballed the bike.

He turned his attention instead to rail-trails, abandoned railroad rights-of-way that are converted into recreational trails. For Troncelliti, they blissfully blend two passions - cycling and railroading.

The other day, I joined the Biking Barber, 52, of Wayne, for a ride on a favorite, the Heritage Rail Trail in York County. The 21-mile trail parallels an active rail line and follows the route of the former Northern Central Railroad, a vital 19th-century link between Washington, D.C., Baltimore, central Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

We unloaded our bikes in downtown York and were soon cruising along a wide path of compacted gravel. The nifty thing about rail-trails is that they're level. The grade generally does not exceed 2 percent (a two-foot rise in 100 feet), the maximum incline for a train.

After passing tawdry mills, factories and salvage yards, we were soon in splendid country - fragrant meadows, sun-dappled glades, rolling hills presided over by stone farmhouses.

The Biking Barber braked.

"Stop," he said. "Just listen."

No cars, no jet planes, no man-made noise. Just the rushing of a nearby stream, the whispering of breeze-tousled leaves.

On a rail-trail, "you can see the glories of Mother Nature and the marvels of mankind," the Biking Barber said. We paused where the right-of-way cut through rock - carved with pick and spade, sweat and muscle. We paused at the Howard Tunnel, completed in 1840, the oldest railroad tunnel in the nation still in use. Its vaulted brick still showed black from the coal soot of steam locomotives.

After 10 miles, we reached Hanover Junction, where we turned around. (The trail continues another 10 miles south to New Freedom, then joins the 20-mile Northern Central Railroad Trail in Maryland.) Abraham Lincoln passed this way en route to Gettysburg to deliver some immortal words.

Rail-trails cast the Biking Barber into a bittersweet mood. On the one hand, they are sad reminders of railroading's long-gone glory days. "The railroads built this country," he said wistfully. "And you know they'll never come back." On the other hand, he's glad the old rail lines are being put to good use, treating folks to exercise, history and beauty.

"When I'm riding on these trails, I can close my eyes and hear the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails. I can feel the locomotive laboring up a grade and the cinders blowing back at me."