Rail bike business is expanding

SARANAC LAKE – A local rail bike company used to be one of a kind in the United States. Now the success of its first year has spawned not only its own expansion plans but some competition as well.

This will be the second summer for the four-wheeled bikes, which can be pedaled on the train tracks between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear, a 6-mile stretch of the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. They proved to be a popular attraction in 2015; the company, Rail Explorers USA, reported more than 10,000 riders.

This year they plan to add rides all the way to Tupper Lake – an extra 15 to 20 miles – and take their show on the road to Delaware.

A third year at their current home base may not be possible, however, if the state replaces those rails with a trail, as planned by the departments of Environmental Conservation and Transportation and approved by the Adirondack Park Agency. The DEC and DOT have said they plan to carry out the plan soon, but not before this year’s summer-fall season for the rail bikes and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

Like many a successful business, Rail Explorers has spawned competition. Two former employees recently gave a presentation to Warren County supervisors about an enterprise they call Renegade Rail Riders. They want to offer rides on the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, which the county owns.

Delaware expansion

Alex Catchpoole and Mary Joy Lu own Rail Explorers and have touted its benefits to the Tri-Lakes community. They will take their operation south this spring, before the Adirondack season starts. Delaware State Parks, as part of a 50th anniversary celebration, has invited Rail Explorers to run tours for the early summer there.

“It’s a refreshingly different situation than we’ve experienced with the state of New York,” Catchpoole said Friday. “What’s great and what’s different is that the state actually invited us down to do a presentation, so now we’re working in partnership with the Wilmington and Western Railroads down in Delaware.

“The plan is to take the fleet of Rail Explorers bikes down to Delaware and run from mid-April to mid-June, and then truck everything back to Saranac Lake and start our season here (in) late June.”

Catchpoole said the route in Delaware is just under 6 miles, similar to the one from Saranac Lake to Lake Clear.

“If it goes well, it’s a beautiful location and there’s a lot of excitement from people around the area. We’re hopeful that we can set up a full-time operation, possibly starting in spring of 2017,” Catchpoole said.

Expansion at home

Although Catchpoole and Lu are optimistic about Delaware, they say Saranac Lake is their main operation.

“We’re so committed to keeping the Adirondacks our flagship. We’ve just hired two full-time senior members,” Lu said. Dene Savage, who previously worked at Titus Mountain Family Ski Center in Malone, was hired as general manager, and outdoor writer and guide Spencer Morrissey was brought on as operations manager. The couple also plans to hire more than 20 seasonal employees this summer to cover two shifts per day.

They are also adding more tours in the Tri-Lakes region.

“We plan to expand tours to Tupper Lake from Lake Clear,” Lu said. “There’s going to be safari-like trips with an (emphasis) on nature.”

The longer trips will be guided, and the pair hopes to add both sunrise and moonlight tours as well as curating tours to special interests such as birders or scouts.

“We’re talking to some of the local canoe and kayak outfitters so you could do like a Rail Explorers and then a lake explorers,” Catchpoole said. “A group of people (could) rail bike out to Turtle Pond or somewhere beautiful, and there could a fleet of canoes out there so they could have the lake experience, too.”

Despite the prospect of the rails they operate on being taken up as soon as this fall, Catchpoole and Lu want to keep Saranac Lake as their base of operations.

“Rail Explorers (in the) Adirondacks will be able to be the flagship,” Lu said. “It’ll be where the training and innovation happens.”

The rail bikes they use are manufactured in South Korea, with Catchpoole and Lu holding exclusive rights to operate them in the U.S.

“We’re actually in talks with the manufacturer of the rail bikes to move manufacturing to the U.S., and if that happens, we would love to see that happen in Saranac Lake,” Catchpoole added.

New rail bike service

Robert Harte from Burlington and Gustav Kemp from Pennsylvania recently told Warren County’s public works commission about their plans to operate rail bikes on the Saratoga and North Creek Railway.

The presentation led some to mistakenly believe the two men are still affiliated with Rail Explorers in Saranac Lake.

“They presented photographs of our operation, of our rail bikes,” Catchpoole said. “It gave the impression that they were going to use these exact rail bikes, and they’re not. We started getting emails saying, ‘Congratulations on opening in Warren County,’ and it was very confusing.”

Harte and Kemp could not be reached for comment.

“We’re all for competition,” Catchpoole said. “It’s inevitable that there will be other operators out there, but presenting and using images that are misleading is not the way to go about it.”