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Rail Biking Arrives In Adirondacks, But Future Of Track Is In Doubt

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Rail Biking Arrives In Adirondacks, But Future Of Track Is In Doubt

What a fabulous idea! A four-wheeled bike, known as a Rail Bike, that attaches to railroad tracks. These folks in the scenic Adirondacks are on to something!

Video below:

The NYTimes has more…

SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. — Hoots, hollers and laughter echoed through the air as passengers aboard a mechanical device, previously unknown to the Adirondacks, made their way through the woods.

Their ride reached speeds of nearly 25 miles per hour, passed pristine mountain lakes and traveled through dense forest, whose tall treetops tinged with red, gold and orange that signaled the approaching foliage season.

The mechanical contraption is called a rail bike — metal vehicles, powered much like bicycles, that travel a six-mile stretch of seldom-used track.

John Lincoln, a Vietnam War veteran who became a double amputee after a logging accident, was among the nearly 10,000 people who have taken a spin on the rail bike since rides started on July 3. He said he was happy just to be a passenger.

“I didn’t have to pedal,” Mr. Lincoln said with a smile. “Plus, you see a lot of wildlife, birds and hawks.”

Rail biking is not a new concept, at least not in other countries. Invented about 200 years ago, the bikes are used now for recreation in several European countries and in South Korea, where riders can explore defunct mining towns.

Rail Explorers, the company that operates the attraction in northern New York, said its rail bikes were the first to be used commercially in the United States. Passengers sit side by side in a slightly reclined position, with pedals far enough in front of them that they can extend their legs.

The track is mostly level from the village of Saranac Lake to the tiny Lake Clear Junction depot. But with a little extra effort, riders can travel over 20 m.p.h. on moderate downgrades. The trek takes about an hour. (The cost to rent a two-passenger rail bike is $50 and $100 for a four-passenger version.)

“We’ve had people come from as far as Pennsylvania, a seven-and-a-half-hour drive, because they saw this online and wanted to try it,” said Mary-Joy Lu, who, along with her husband, Alex Catchpoole, owns Rail Explorers. “We thought we’d start slowly with five or 10 people per tour. Since we opened, it’s been booked every day, every tour. After the first month, we doubled the fleet from six to 12 rail bikes.”

Ms. Lu and Mr. Catchpoole, who used to live in Brooklyn before moving here to start their business, said the success of the rail bikes, which started this year, had fueled their bigger goal of forming partnerships with historic rail lines in other parts of the country.

But before that can happen, the couple may have to relocate their business.

The track is part of 119 miles of state-owned rail corridor between the town of Remsen and the village of Lake Placid. The railroad opened in 1892 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A recent draft report by the State Environmental Conservation Departmentand the State Transportation Department calls for converting a 34-mile section of track into a recreational trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake. It would include the section that runs through Saranac Lake. The multipurpose recreational trail would primarily be used by cyclists in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter.

Road crossings border on the comical as drivers wait for a convoy of the strange-looking devices to pass, a mechanical version of a buffalo getting in the way of vehicles at Yellowstone National Park. “You do get some strange looks,” Mr. Catchpoole said.

The state has suggested removing the tracks and creating a recreational trail.

David Wierowski, who lives in Syracuse and is a rail enthusiast, said: “We can’t let things like this go by the wayside like Penn Station when it was torn down. We have to keep it alive for future generations.”

His concern is at the heart of the future of Rail Explorers and the track it uses.

Proponents say that creating a recreational trail would increase economic development by attracting new visitors to the area, which could spur small business, such as bike shops, cafes and lodging, to create new jobs.

Ernest E. Keet, a founder of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a group that supports the trail’s creation, said Rail Explorers could relocate to another part of the track that would remain. “The very attractiveness of the Rail Explorers’ offering demonstrates, to me at least, that there is a real pent-up demand for biking on this underused resource,” Mr. Keet said. “But I believe most people would rather ride it on a real bike and for free.”

The removal of rails would also disrupt another company, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, a nonprofit that runs daily tourist trains on a 10-mile stretch between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. (It also runs tourist trains in another section of the rail corridor that has not been singled out for removal.)

Bethan Maher, the executive director of the group, which promotes restoring service to parts of the railroad, said removing railroad tracks “does the region a disservice as it eliminates a functioning tourist attraction.”

Adirondack Architectural Heritage, a preservation group that has saved dozens of structures from demolition in the region, opposes the rail removal. In a letter in July to the Environmental Conservation Department, Steven Engelhart, the group’s executive director, said that the state “would make a conscious decision to eliminate a successful economic engine in the region is baffling and goes against everything that other state agencies have been trying to cultivate for decades here.”

The state’s final report on the rail corridor is scheduled to be released in the fall.

“There is no timetable for removing the rails, but assuming the plan stays unchanged, we will be pressing the State Departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation to remove them in the spring,” Mr. Keet said.

Elijah Dale, 18, a high school student from nearby St. Regis Falls, spent the summer working for Rail Explorers as a ride attendant. He told Mr. Catchpoole that he would be returning to school soon.

“I’d like to come back,” Mr. Dale said. “Are you going to be here next year?”

“Sure,” Mr. Catchpoole said. “If there’s a track.”

Correction: September 17, 2015
An article on Sept. 8 on rail bikes, metal vehicles that run on railroad tracks and are powered like bicycles, referred incorrectly to the stretch of track in the Adirondacks used by the bikes. It is used a few times a year by maintenance vehicles and other non-passenger-bearing railroad cars. It is not formally abandoned.

Rail Biking looks awesome to me and I cannot wait to try it!

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