Rail Explorers to end local operations
SARANAC LAKE – Rail Explorers USA, which operates a rail bike operation between here, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake, announced Thursday it will cease operations in the Adirondacks at the end of this month.
“Unless the state wants to provide us with some incentive to stay, Rail Explorers is going to leave the Adirondacks at the end of this month,” Rail Explorers co-owner Mary-Joy Lu said this morning. She owns the business with her husband Alex Catchpoole. “We’re exhausted. Unless DOT and the DEC can come up with a plan quickly and provide us with some sort of assurance, we can’t afford to do business in the Adirondack Park.
“We don’t think we’re coming back next year right now.”
Rail Explorers would have to leave its current route if the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation follow through on a plan to remove the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake before next summer to replace them with a trail for biking, snowmobiling, skiing and walking. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad’s tourist trains between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake would also be displaced, and it has sued the state over the plan. A court hearing on that case is scheduled for Nov. 2 in Malone.
Lu said Rail Explorers will open a division in Ulster County in the Catskill area next year and also hopes to have a division in Newport, Rhode Island. Nevertheless, she said, “it would have always been ideal to have the Adirondack location as our flagship location.”
Lu said the business climate is just not friendly enough to operate here. She cited a recent bill from the DOT that calls on Rail Explorers to pay $6,400 per month for use of the rails, retroactive to May. She added that on average, Rail Explorers is paying the lease holder, ASR, about $10,000 per month, depending on ridership.
Lu added that $1.50 of each Rail Explorers ticket goes to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
“By the end of the season, they probably will have had $45,000 from us.”
“As a business, we’ve brought nearly 20,000 people here. We’ve had 34 jobs and our payroll averages $75,000 per month,” she said.
“We’ve got too much invested here, and we need to make a decision now. I can’t even get a loan because we’ve only got a 30-day permit. So this operation for us is causing too many headaches.”
Meanwhile, Rail Explorers has been operating without a state Adirondack Park Agency permit all summer, but Lu said this is not why the company is leaving the Adirondacks. The agency let the company apply for an after-the-fact permit, but its application has been incomplete since July.
Lu said the town of Harrietstown and the DEC did not inform Rail Explorers that an APA permit was needed, but one was.
Rail Explorers began running the tourist attraction between the Union Depot train station in the village and a residential property in Lake Clear earlier this summer. The property is owned by Bonnie Ohmann and is just 0.28 acres. It is classified for moderate intensity use by the APA. According to the APA Act, a permit from the agency is required before undertaking any commercial use on moderate intensity use lands in the Adirondack Park.
Shortly after Rail Explorers started its second season of rides this June, APA staff investigated and found no permit had been obtained. Instead of issuing fines, the agency worked out a settlement agreement with Rail Explorers and the property owner in which they agreed they need to obtain a permit. Ohmann, Rail Explorers representative Spencer Morrissey and APA Executive Director Terry Martino signed the agreement, dated July 12.
Rail Explorers submitted an after-the-fact permit application on July 27, but in a letter the next day, APA staff notified Rail Explorers that the application was not complete. On Aug. 11, the agency issued a formal Notice of Incomplete Permit Application, or NIPA. Rail Explorers had 30 days to abide by the terms of the NIPA; otherwise, the case may be turned over to the APA Enforcement Committee. The APA says a second NIPA was issued to the company late in September.
Rail Explorers said in its permit application that it plans to operate until Nov. 15 this year. The application also said Rail Explorers is paying Ohmann rent of $2,000 per month for use of the property.
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said information about Rail Explorers’ rent to Ohmann was found in the settlement agreement, when in fact it was found in the permit application.)
One aspect of the agreement was that comments would be solicited from owners of adjacent land. Seven property owners were identified and sent letters requesting comment on the approval of the commercial operation.
Four homeowners responded, all opposed to the approval. They objected to the noise and loss of privacy.
“I am vehemently opposed to the issuance of this permit after the fact,” David Grebe wrote. “For someone to come in here and start marching over 1,000 people a week through here … just does not fit in to what is clearly a residential setting.”
Kerri LaDue, who lives next door to the Ohmanns’ property, said the noise is too loud and too frequent.
“I hear the employees and Rail Explorers for one hour while the transition is going on,” LaDue wrote. “This happens three times daily, seven days a week.”
Tad Collins added, “Rail Explorers exceeds the noise level that should be allowed in a neighborhood.”
The NIPA identified 13 areas of the original permit that were incomplete.
The APA said Rail Explorers needs to prove that the DOT gave it permission to operate on lands owned by the state. Rail Explorers also failed to “provide documentation from the NYSDOT stating that a highway work permit or other authorization is not required for the loading and unloading” of passengers using a commercial shuttle bus.
One issue highlighted in the NIPA was a lack of explanation how Rail Explorers would mitigate the noise impact on adjacent landowners. The APA also said the pick-up and drop-off procedure had not been adequately explained.
Rail Explorers at one time had portable toilets at the site for customers to use, but LaDue noted in her letter that as of the end of July, the porta-johns had been removed.
“I have no idea where they’re going to the bathroom, but hopefully not in the woods surrounding the yard,” LaDue said.
The NIPA asks Rail Explorers to fully explain how many porta-johns would be provided for the 240 customers and 31 employees who arrive at the site each day.