Rail Explorers plan new route, and exit strategy

LAKE CLEAR – By announcing plans to open a new route from Lake Clear to Tupper Lake, Rail Explorers displayed faith in a lawsuit to preserve the railroad running from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid.

This announcement came during an Adirondack lake region expo about tourism in the Paul Smiths, St. Regis, Lake Clear and Upper Saranac regions. It would add 18 miles to Rail Explorers’ operations that currently run from Saranac Lake to Lake Clear. If the lawsuit is lost and the rails are removed for a recreation trail this winter, as the state plans, there would be no means to operate either of these routes next year.

A new route

“It’s an idea we’ve been kicking around pretty much since we opened last year,” said Rail Explorers co-owner Alex Catchpoole.

“The idea of a little more immersive and in-depth day trip. One of the only complaints we’ve had from customers is that this ride between Saranac and Lake Clear is too short.”

According to Catchpoole, who owns the company with his wife Mary-Joy Lu, the addition would require the purchase of 10 new rail bikes and hiring of six new staff members to operate a new base out of the train station in Tupper Lake. The one-way trip would launch from Lake Clear on one day and offer a shuttle ride back from Tupper Lake, then switch the starting point to Tupper Lake for the next day.

“The rails allow you to safely access some beautiful lakes and areas where we hope to be able to stop and picnic, and potentially collaborate with a local canoe outfitter to have some watercraft available for customers to enjoy a break from the rail bikes,” he said.

The new fleet of bikes would accommodate up to 20 riders per trip, about half the capacity of the Saranac Lake-to-Lake Clear route. Catchpoole said the ride would be geared toward a more fitness-oriented crowd.

An exit strategy

Catchpoole said he and his wife would like to stay in the Adirondacks, but they are “also being realistic about an exit strategy if that’s the way we have to go.”

“Obviously if the rails go, we’ll be forced to relocate,” he said. “There is some track we can run from Tupper south; however, there are big differences between that trip and this ride we offer now.” Catchpoole said the ride south from Tupper Lake is less exciting because of the flat grade and lack of a nearby destination south of the town.

Adirondack Scenic Railroad Executive Director Bethan Maher appears to be less hopeful of Rail Explorers’ permanency in Saranac Lake. In a recent interview with Adirondack Express, a weekly newspaper in Old Forge, she said Rail Explorers is moving to Delaware. Catchpoole, however, said he is looking to Delaware as more of an “expansion opportunity” than a relocation destination.

A few months ago, Rail Explorers was invited to Delaware for an eight-week trial session, which it accepted because it wouldn’t be able to operate on the Saranac Lake tracks until mid-June. After hauling the four-wheeled rail bike fleet across state lines, Catchpoole said they had a total of 3,200 individual riders, including Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who supposedly extended them an invitation to come back next year to run a full-time operation.

“The interest around the country has really just exploded from last year,” Catchpoole said. “We’ve had inquiries from California and Colorado and even in New York in the Catskills, a number of communities that are excited about getting Rail Explorers involved in the activation of unused rails.

“The dream is to have satellite locations scattered throughout the country. But Saranac Lake was the first, and we would love to have this as the headquarters where we developed the best way to run the operation.”

Catchpoole also mentioned plans to relocate to Florida each winter when the snowmobile association gains control of the tracks in Saranac Lake, offering a full-time gig to the 21 of 25 Rail Explorers employees who are only seasonal.

Current end of trip

Rail Explorers currently runs trips to and from Lake Clear, but the end point there is in a residential area, and some of the residents aren’t thrilled with the current set-up.

Tim LaDue lives just a couple of houses down from where Rail Explorers turns its bikes around, and they often line up between his dock and his yard. He said it’s not the end of the world, but he is upset that he essentially now has a business operating in his yard.

“Right now, the good things are they’re keeping them (the bikes) all close together, the turn-arounds are fast, (and) except for a couple of times, people are going where they’re supposed to go,” LaDue said. He also said Rail Explorers employees had been good about keeping customers off of the surrounding private properties.

“What I don’t like about it is I now have several hundred people going through my property on a daily basis. There’s more garbage showing up on the tracks, so we’ve been now starting to pick up trash along our section of the rail,” he added. “No homeowner wants to have his private little area put into a commercial area.”

Rail Explorers’ turnaround point was previously stationed before the residential properties at the old Lake Clear Junction train station and Charlie’s Inn, a restaurant and bar. Catchpoole said they extended the turnaround for the scenic value of placing their “new terminus right on the lake.”

Asked about residents’ concerns, Catchpoole responded, “We did seek all the definitions of operating from (the town of) Harrietstown, who wholeheartedly endorsed the plan. We also went door-to-door to the residences along the rails, explaining what was going to happen and offering them seasonal access to the rail bikes and bus.

“We give a safety talk to all of our customers before starting the tour, and we advise them that they are traveling through private property and to be respectful of those homeowners. We ask them not to litter, and in fact our guides regularly go through and clean up the corridor. We do a number of runs up and down the rails, just picking up the tracks. I would say they’re in better condition now then they were before.”

LaDue said the large bus that takes passengers to and from the area had caused some problems by partially blocking the road as it loaded and unloaded passengers, but has been better about pulling off to the side of the road lately. He added that he had seen several close calls in the busy stretch of State Route 186 since the area was not labeled as a bus stop.

When asked about the impact a multi-use trail would have, LaDue said he wouldn’t mind the trail users as much.

“It’s flooding me every couple of hours. It’s thousands of people coming through,” he said. “There’s never going be 60 bikers all going down the corridor all at once, I doubt it, unless it’s some kind of event.”