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Trend spotter: rail bikes

By January 9, 2017Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HeritageRail editor

Without any fanfare, rail bikes have sneaked up on us. In the past year a pair of companies have   started running 4-wheeled, pedal driven vehicles in platoons over otherwise inactive railroads. OK, calling them bikes is technically wrong, but that’s the term that’s sticking.

Railriders runs on Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad and the Wallowa Union Railroad in Oregon. Rail Explorers runs on the Adirondack Railroad, and has just won approval to start up in 2017 on a portion of the Catskill Mountain Railroad and the Newport & Narragansett Railroad in Rhode Island. It should be noted that the State of New York is planning to remove their piece of the Adirondack. A third company, Renegade Rail Riders, has spun off from Rail Explorers and is trying to set up shop on the Saratoga & North Creek.

Railriders was founded by bike shop owners Kim and Anita Metlen. Kim designed and built their first rail bike in 2013, and participates in the manufacturing with help from a local company. Operations began in 2014 on the 63-mile Wallowa Union Railroad, formerly the Union Pacific’s St. Joseph branch in eastern Oregon. Frequency expanded to five days a week (Thursday-Monday) in 2016. The Eagle Cap tourist train also runs on that railroad, but the trains and bikes don’t use the same sections.

A Railriders 4-seater.

They currently run on 6 miles from Joseph to Enterprise (2 hour round trip), and on 13 miles from Minam to Wallowa (6 hour round trip including lunch). The short trip is run two or three times daily. Two-person bikes are used, accompanied by a single guide who flags the grade crossings and rotates the bikes for the trip back.

Turning the bikes at the end of the line.

The Oregon Coast operation started in 2016. It runs from Tillamook to Bay City, a 12-mile round trip. The Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad owns the trackage rights, but they don’t currently use this portion of the line.

The Coast operation is a little bit different. It uses 4-person bikes that travel in a platoon of ten. The capacity is 38, plus a guide on the first and last bike. Both operations will take babies and toddlers in car seats mounted on the regular seats.

Child seats for small kids.

Ridership in 2016 was 5000 at Wallowa and 7500 on the Coast line. Anita Metlen says each location has four employees. They are thinking about future expansion, but for now just want to develop the existing sites.

Rolling along the Wallowa line.

Rail Explorers
Rail Explorers, based in Kingston, NY, started running last year on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and carried 22,000 people. The future of that line is now threatened because the state plans to convert it to a trail, over the railroad’s objections. The matter is headed to the New York Supreme Court, where a ruling is expected in the Spring.

For 2017, Rail Explorers is starting up at two new locations. It won the bid to run on the western portion of the Catskill Mountain Railroad out of Phoenicia, displacing the Catskill Mountain Railroad’s conventional tourist trains. The Phoenicia depot is the longtime home of the Empire State Railway Museum, and Rail Explorers is working with the museum on issues such as parking and special events.

They’re also starting up on the north end of the former Old Colony & Newport in Rhode Island, now renamed the Newport & Narragansett. They’re running from Melville to Sakonnet, just short of the out-of-service bridge to Massachusetts.

Both lines are roughly 6 miles long. Following the model established on the Adirondack, they hope to ramp up to 7 day a week operation with up to 6 daily departures, which they call “tours”. Like Railrunners, they use a mix of 2-seat and 4-seat bikes. A separate ticket is sold for each bike, $75 for a 2-seater and $125 for a 4-seater. The bikes are manufactured in Korea to a pre-existing design, modified somewhat for American use. Who knew they had rail bikes in Korea?

The Rail Explorers 2-seater and 4-seater.

Rail Explorers’ tours average about 25 bikes, with a tour capacity of around 60 people. They hope to increase that, but for now it’s the norm.

Trips run rain or shine. The bikes spread out when moving as a safety precaution.

Each tour requires a crew of six employees. There is a guide at the front, another at the rear, plus roving flaggers to stop traffic at grade crossings. In addition there is a ticket agent at the departure point. When an operation is fully staffed, it employs 35 people, due to 7-day operation with two shifts a day.

The downside of running the business in northern states is the winter shutdown. Managing Director Alex Catchpool says they are looking for a “snowbird” location in the South where they can ship the bikes in the Fall and utilize them year round.

Rail Explorers is a new member of HeritageRail Alliance and displayed in the vendor room at the Savannah conference.

Future potential
Rail bikes look to me like a potential growth business. Startup costs are modest and the product is attractive. So far they have only run on tracks where they are the exclusive occupant, always as a tenant on someone else’s railroad. It’s an open issue whether they can share tracks with other trains. It’s hard to imagine that the FRA would allow it, unless there is temporal separation, meaning no other use of the railroad when the bikes are running. That has been permitted on some lines that host both freight and light rail. 

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