Explore the Catskills on a rail bike

Rail Explorers marketing manager Patty Hanson and her daughter Abby try out a rail bike. (Courtesy of Rail Explorers)

Opening day, May 26, is already sold out, said Rail Explorers CEO Mary Joy Lu, as her company prepares to launch its Phoenicia rail biking operation, using custom-built, pedal-powered, two- and four-person vehicles to ride the former Ulster and Delaware Railroad tracks. Rail Explorers will be starting small, with only about 20 riders per tour, and will run four or five tours per day.

They will expand the number of bikes, by an amount as yet undecided, this summer, when a new ticket booth will be set up in the parking lot of the Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM) in Phoenicia, the starting and ending point for each tour. Initially, the two-hour tours will be conducted Thursday through Sunday and will shift to seven days a week beginning June 30.

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Originally planned to open in August 2017, the venture was delayed by objections from residents along the Boiceville stretch of the train tracks, and by Ulster County’s inability to repair washouts in that section on schedule. “They say when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” said  Lu. “Well, we’ve made more than lemonade. We’ve made champagne. You’re going to love it.”

The bikes will not use the tracks that pass in front of the homes on Cold Brook Road in Boiceville. In response to the fears of residents that their lives would be disrupted by the passage of rail bikes and the presence of coach buses waiting to ferry riders back to Phoenicia, Lu and her partner, Alex Catchpoole, considered alternatives to the route. The residents’ objections became moot when the bids for repairs to the county-owned tracks came in considerably higher than expected, and the county had to go back to FEMA to request more funding, putting the repairs on hold.

Now the bikes will travel four miles, from Phoenicia to a point west of Boiceville, roughly opposite the Catskill Interpretive Center, running in view of the Esopus Creek for much of the trip. Riders will disembark for a scenic rest among the trees while the rail cars are turned around, then hop back on to pedal back to the railway museum. The return trip is slightly uphill, so electric motor assist devices have been added to the bikes so they can be easily pedaled by children, seniors, and people with disabilities. “The motor assist is based on the design for electric bicycles,” said Lu, “modified to the axles and pedal action of our bikes. They won’t engage till after the turnaround. They’re calibrated to the degree of pressure on the chain, which kicks in the motor.” More vigorous riders will not activate the motor assist, and it will function only while a rider is pedaling.

Four staff members will accompany each tour to maintain safety and take care of any issues that may arise. Two of the staff members will serve as flaggers at Mount Pleasant, where the bikes have to cross Route 28, a process that will take just over one minute, said Lu. Once the bikes are lined up at the crossing, flaggers will lower the boom gates and make sure traffic is stopped. A plus, pointed out Lu, is that because trains are not running on the tracks, buses will no longer be required to stop at the crossing.

She said in the first three weeks of ticket sales, over 600 tickets had been purchased, many by groups who plan to ride together. People can even bring a dog, to ride on a cushion on the steel mesh platform at the front of the bike.

Rail Explorers previously operated in the Adirondacks but left when the tracks there were slated to be removed for a rail trail. The company is currently running rail bikes in Las Vegas and in Newport, Rhode Island. “We’ve had 65,000 riders, 100 percent accident-free,” Rail Explorers marketing manager Patty Hanson told the Town of Shandaken planning board on April 11. “It’s a fun activity for people of all ages. We’re a good example of eco-tourism.”

Hanson, a Saugerties resident, presented the planning board with a site plan for modifications to the ESRM parking lot. For now, the parking lot is being graded, under the museum’s permit, to accommodate about 20 cars on land leased from ESRM. By August, Rail Explorers plans to expand the parking to accommodate the expected increase in ridership. A ticket booth with gift shop, consisting of a trailer mounted on piers, will be set up, as well as two smaller, more mobile structures, a toilet station and a crew headquarters.

As a permit will be required for the later modifications, the planning board is studying the site plan and has scheduled a public hearing on the permit application for Wednesday, April 25, at 7 p.m., at the town hall, 7209 Route 28, Shandaken. The public is invited to ask questions about the plans and deliver comments.

Until the changes are made, the Rail Explorers office will be based inside the museum, which is in the process of transformation. The wood interior has been given a fresh coat of shellac. The station agent’s room, which had been used for storage, was emptied out, and a diorama of the old rail yard is mounted in front of the large window that looks out on the tracks. Paul LaPierre, who sits on the board of directors of ESRM, said he expects the presence of Rail Explorers to benefit the museum, which will reopen Memorial Day weekend. “People will hang out and picnic, and I hope they will come visit the museum. We see it as a symbiotic relationship. We will mutually support each other. It’s going to be very exciting.”

Hanson said Rail Explorers want to be “stewards of the community.” The company is looking to hire part-time and full-time employees to work from May to November or just for the summer. Local businesses have been hired to excavate the parking lot and supply the structures, with Bob’s Barns constructing the ticket office. “Our T-shirts and signs are being produced locally,” Hanson added. “We’ll have a brochure exchange at the railway museum when we open, so we can do cross-promotion with local businesses.”

On Phoenicia’s Main Street, businesspeople had mixed opinions about the new venture. “I’m very excited,” said Robin Kirk, owner of the Nest Egg. “I think it’ll bring a lot of people into town. It’s something new for people to do, and it’s good for all ages.”

Kim Houska of Mélange said she missed the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), whose excursion trains were ousted from the Phoenicia tracks when the county chose Rail Explorers to take over the local operations. “It’s good as long as people are having fun,” said Houska, “but I don’t know if they’ll walk all the way to Main Street from the train station. I’d like to see the ride extended closer to town.” CMRR used to terminate at Bridge Street, but the tracks and platform would need repairs if they were to be brought back into use.

“It’s like having an extra hiking trail,” said Cara Molnar of Phoenicia Supply, “but maybe it’ll be more family-friendly, since it’s not uphill. They might possibly bring people into town. We’ll have to wait and see.”

For information on Rail Explorers, or to make reservations, visit https://www.railexplorers.net. Information about the Empire State Railway Museum can be found at http://www.esrm.com.

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