Residents of the Town of Olive are up in arms about Rail Explorers, the company whose contract with Ulster County will allow them to run tours of rail bikes down the Ulster & Delaware tracks alongside 39 homes on Cold Brook Road, near Boiceville, beginning in August or September. Cold Brook Road residents say their research shows Rail Explorers came into conflict with homeowners over their past two years of operation in the Adirondacks due to the noise of the bikes and issues with the large quantity of tourists passing by their properties. Rail Explorers moved out of the Adirondacks at the end of last year’s season.
On March 8, a meeting at the Olive Library quickly grew tense as Olive residents presented their concerns to Chris White, Deputy Director of the Ulster County Planning Department, and Rail Explorers CEO Mary Joy Lu and Managing Director Alex Catchpoole. Lu and Catchpoole defended their operation as positive and uplifting for riders, while White insisted the bikes would be more environmentally friendly and economically beneficial than the excursion trains of Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), which Rail Explorers is displacing between Phoenicia and Boiceville.
When CMRR’s lease on the county-owned railroad tracks was due to expire last May, the county legislature voted to turn the Ashokan Reservoir portion of the rail corridor into a rail trail and issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for operation on the two sections of track where CMRR has conducted tourist rides. CMRR was allowed to retain its Kingston excursions, and Rail Explorers was chosen last summer to operate during the 2017 season in the Phoenicia area.
“Rail Explorers offered what we thought was a better value in terms of how many people they would employ and visitors they would bring to area,” said White at the March 8 meeting. “We like that they’re not operating heavy diesel trains.” He cited the county’s disappointment with the CMRR for their 25-year failure to maintain the tracks along much of the corridor, environmental offenses such as discarding old creosote-soaked ties on county property, and last fall’s derailment of a train due to faulty track conditions, among other issues.
Lu explained that she and Catchpoole, her husband, started Rail Explorers in 2015 with six rail bikes, quickly doubled the number to 12, then added another 10. “We have four- and two-seaters,” she said. “Over two seasons, we had close to 40,000 riders from July to October.” The company expects to employ about 22 local people with wages starting at $15 per hour. The positions of general manager and operations manager will be higher-paid full-time jobs. The company earned nearly 1200 customer reviews on the Trip Advisor website, many of the writers bursting with enthusiasm over the pleasure of pedaling with ease through the countryside.
Plans call for the rail bike tours to begin alongside the vintage train station in Phoenicia. After a procedural and safety orientation by an employee, riders will pedal, as a group, east on the tracks bordering the Esopus Creek, crossing Route 28 near the Mount Tremper train station. (Catchpoole said the crossing will take place after bikes have been halted close together, and road traffic would be blocked for less than a minute.) The last half-mile or so, the tracks are sandwiched between the creek and Cold Brook Road, a narrow residential street. Because the route is on a slight downgrade, said Lu, and the goal is to make the ride accessible to children, the elderly, and even people with disabilities, they will not ask the riders to pedal back along the upgrade. When customers disembark at Cold Brook Road, a bus will pick them up and convey them back to their cars at Rail Explorers’ base of operations in Phoenicia. They plan to put in a ticketing office and bathroom facilities near the Empire State Railway Museum, expanding the parking lot to accommodate at least 20 cars.
Lu and Catchpoole expect to run four to five tours a day between 8:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., seven days a week, during the 100-day season, with up to 50 people per tour, for a potential total of 30,000 customers per season. Cold Brook Road residents do not relish the prospect of hearing the bikes pass by or looking out their front windows at a pack of passing tourists several times a day.
“I don’t understand how you can make a decision for this to come through without consulting people,” an audience member said to White. The comment was echoed angrily by others in the room.
White said the shift from CMRR to Rail Explorers is not considered a change of use, since the corridor has been used for rail operations since the 1880s. Therefore, unlike the conversion of the Ashokan Reservoir section from railroad to rail trail, no public hearing was required.
“There were hearings for over a year on the rail trail,” pointed out Christina Himberger, one of the organizers of the meeting. “But not one person was aware you were going to bring in bikes. Once you got the approvals, it would’ve been good to notify people.”
Residents expressed concerns that the bike riders would be rowdy or would leave their vehicles, that property values along the road would diminish, that wildlife would be frightened away, especially the sensitive bald eagles that nest at the nearby Ashokan Reservoir and fly over the creek. Lu said each tour is accompanied by employees pedaling at the front and back of the line of bikes, enforcing the agreement riders sign that says they will not leave their vehicles during the ride. Riders are also asked to be respectful of any property they pass by. She said tourists frequently saw eagles overhead while pedaling in the Adirondacks. And White opined that property values would increase once the Ashokan rail trail is built, with a trailhead right across Route 28A from the junction with Cold Brook Road.
White said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has not expressed concern about the eagles. “The bikes will bring less noise, less air emissions, less possibility of leakage of fuels than the trains. Our repairs to the tracks will also address sediment going into the reservoir. We’ll clear culverts that are plugged. We’re trying to do this in a very environmentally friendly way.”
Himberger, who had contacted neighbors of the Adirondack tours that ran between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear, said they described the noise made by the bike wheels on the rails as a loud grinding sound. Lu and Catchpoole said the noise isn’t that loud, although the volume goes up when the bikes pick up speed. They offered to make sure riders slow down as they pass Cold Brook Road. They also said most of the residents did not have a problem with happy people passing by, enjoying a dose of nature, and that the critics were people who wanted the rails torn up and replaced by a trail. Himberger, however, said she had made a number of calls. “Some were dead silent when I asked about Rail Explorers. If they chose to speak, I could not get one positive thing except that you bring in a lot of people.” Some of her contacts claimed the noise was audible a quarter-mile away.
“But it’s so transitory,” said Catchpoole. “We pass each house in a second. There’s not a constant barrage of noise.”
“We don’t want thousands of people on this road where people fish,” said one audience member.
“Would you rather have diesel trains going by?” asked White.
Several people shouted, “Yes!” Before floods washed out tracks at three points west of Mount Tremper, CMRR trains used to pass their houses three to four times a day, according to some residents, but only on weekends and never in the morning. The county will be repairing the washouts this spring and summer, before Rail Explorers begins its operation.
White said the county would consider building a berm or planting a screen of trees to muffle the noise, but a woman objected, “I don’t want a screen up — I want to look at the creek.” She added that she was convinced wildlife habitat would be affected. “When the railroad went through, the eagles were gone. Now they’re coming back. I don’t want to see that go away.”
When asked why they had left the Adirondacks, Lu and Catchpoole said the state was planning to tear up the railroad tracks and had become embroiled in a lawsuit with a scenic railroad that wants to keep the tracks in place. Due to the uncertain outcome, Rail Explorers decided to shift to the Catskills, with hope of reestablishing operations in the Adirondacks in the future if the tracks are allowed to remain.
White pointed out that a similar struggle in Ulster County involved people who wanted tracks removed from the entire rail corridor, but the county legislature had voted unanimously for a compromise that retained rails in some sections. His department’s job is to find the best way to implement both rail and trail.
A lengthy discussion centered around the need for a bus to convey riders back to Phoenicia. When construction of the rail trail is finished at the end of 2018, the railroad tracks will go under the rebuilt bridge on Route 28A and end at the trailhead to be constructed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). White hopes to negotiate with the DEP to allow Rail Explorers passengers to disembark at the trailhead and get on the bus in the trailhead parking lot. Until then, the bus may have to pick them up on Cold Brook Road. Residents said the road is not substantial enough to accommodate a big coach with an on-board rest room. When told that the bus would use the even smaller Nissen Lane to turn around, residents objected. Another option, said Lu, would be to rent a strip of private property along Route 28A to park the bus and allow the riders to disembark. “That’s what we did in the Adirondacks,” she said.
“I spoke to that landowner,” noted Himberger. “She said when it got out of control, she tried to withdraw permission, and you wouldn’t leave.”
At one point, when the meeting was growing contentious, a resident observed, “In general people feel hurt we weren’t consulted. From your side, you did what you were supposed to, but maybe you could apologize. There has definitely been an information gap.”
Shortly thereafter White did apologize, as did Lu, who said, “We can feel the hurt and anger. This is not the way we would’ve liked to have met you; we didn’t realize you weren’t aware. We’re a responsible company, and we want to work with you.” The couple, both from Sydney, Australia, have been in the U.S. for 15 years and are U.S. citizens. They have owned a house in Saugerties since 2005 and have two children.
Catchpoole said he could look into coating the bike wheels with polyurethane, which would reduce the amount of noise. A resident suggested ending the tours before reaching Cold Brook Road. There would be no road access from that point, but perhaps the passengers could ride the tracks back to Phoenicia. Plans call for the rail bikes to be linked together and towed back by a car adapted to run on rails. White said this plan is not practical. If riders were brought back along the tracks by a motorized vehicle, they would be considered rail passengers, and a whole other set of regulations would be brought to bear by the Federal Railroad Administration.
One resident asked White how much vetting the county had done before deciding to grant a permit to Rail Explorers. “We called their references,” he said. “We ran it like any RFP in the county. If they commit any violations, we can pull their permit immediately until it’s remedied. Or we can terminate the contract with 60 days’ notice with no cause. This going to be much better regulated than CMRR ever was. Folks who have businesses in Phoenicia are pretty excited about this.”
Boiceville businesses will not receive a similar largesse, since riders will be herded immediately onto the bus to make sure they don’t trespass on private property or the county tracks. Once the trailhead is built, that rule may be relaxed, if the DEP agrees to let Rail Explorers use the trailhead. “Please give them [Rail Explorers] an opportunity to work with us,” said White. “Give them a season and see how it goes.”
“I’m looking to leave this meeting with the sense that we have moved from a fait accompli to a consulting situation,” said one resident. “There needs to be compromise.”
“Yes,” said Lu. “There needs to be compromise now that we’ve met you.”
In a phone call a few days after the meeting, White agreed that the residents’ concerns are legitimate. “We’re going back and evaluating, seeing what changes we might make, looking to set this up in a manner that’s less or not at all disruptive.”
Catchpoole stated on March 14, “Based on the feedback from the Cold Brook Road residents we are considering other route options to accommodate their concerns.”
For more information on Rail Explorers, see https://www.railexplorers.net.