Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rail Explorers Finds A New Use For Tracks

Rail Explorers between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear on September 24, 2015Mary-Joy Lu and Alex Catchpoole worked in advertising in New York City for 20 years and decided to get out. This year they started a rail-biking business in Saranac Lake that has been successful far beyond their expectations.

Since opening Rail Explorers on July 3, they have sold nearly 10,000 tickets for a six-mile trip between Saranac Lake and Charlies Inn at Lake Clear Junction. In addition to themselves, Lu and Catchpoole employ 15 people (though the staff will be pared when they close for the season next month).

Starting a rail-biking business on these state-owned tracks was a gamble. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation have recommended replacing the tracks between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid — which includes the Rail Explorers stretch — with a multi-use recreational trail.

However, a final decision has not been made, and Catchpoole and Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs a tourist train between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, are fighting to keep the tracks in place.

Rail Explorers has enlisted its customers in a campaign to save the tracks, and scores of them have written state officials. The Almanack reviewed their comments for an earlier article. The following is typical: “I recently spent a day on the rail and can honestly say it was the highlight of my trip to the Adirondacks. I have been raving to my friends at home in South Carolina as well as those in NY. The rail explorers are a new and fun experience that should remain in the Adirondacks for a very long time.”

On Thursday morning, I took a rail-bike trip with Mike Lynch, a photographer and writer for Adirondack Explorer. You can take the trip in either direction, and a bus will shuttle you back to your car. We chose to start in Saranac Lake and end at Lake Clear Junction. When we finished, other customers rode the rail-bikes back to Saranac Lake. Tickets cost $25 a person.

More than a dozen other customers also had signed up for the trip. The Rail Explorers staff instructed us in the safe use of the rail-bikes. The tandem bikes are designed for two riders who sit side by side, each pedaling. The rider on the right controls the brake, which is operated by hand. Rail Explorers also has quad bikes, which accommodate four riders. The bikes have steel wheels that fit on the rails. The tandems weigh 400 pounds; the quads, 650 pounds.

RailExploreMLynch-4I rode with Catchpoole in the only rail-bike left—a quad. As we began pedaling, I was surprised by how much effort it took. Once we got rolling, though, the pedaling became much easier. We had to put a little knee grease into the slight inclines, but overall I would describe the trip as only mildly strenuous. At times were coasting. With my GPS watch, I clocked our top speed at about 15 mph.

As far as scenery, the first highlights were crossing the causeway on Lake Colby and soon after passing Colby’s southwest bay. We also passed numerous hidden wetlands and McCauley Pond. Most of the time, we were pedaling through a corridor of tall trees — all pretty wild except for the occasional no-trespassing sign.

I asked Catchpoole if he ever sees wildlife on these trips.

“I saw my first black bear last week,” he said. “It just ambled across the tracks in front of me. We see deer occasionally. We see lots of birdlife. There’s an osprey that nests in a tree in the clearing back there. Some tours have seen bald eagles.”

Judging from the reactions of our fellow travelers and from the comments sent to the state, Rail Explorers customers love pedaling the rails. Catchpoole said it’s the only commercial rail-biking operation in the country. (The vehicles were made in South Korea, where rail-biking is big.)

“It’s unique,” Catchpoole said. “We get a lot of people who see us online and drive up specially for this.” He added that one couple drove more than seven hours from Pennsylvania.

The success of the business — which Lu and Catchpoole hope to expand next year—puts a new wrinkle in the debate over the future of the rail corridor.

Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates maintains that a long-distance rail trail would boost the local economy by attracting tens of thousands of tourists every year — cyclists and hikers in summer, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in winter. In contrast, ARTA says the seasonal train that runs between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid does little for the economy.

But now Saranac Lake has a new business, also dependent on the rails, that is attracting tourists as well as employing local residents.

Lee Keet, one of the founders of ARTA, argues that the success of Rail Explorers underscores the recreational potential of the rail corridor. He contends that the corridor would attract many more tourists if it were open to the public for free.

“The hundreds riding the rail bikes are only a ghost of the hundreds of thousands we expect to use foot, bike, wheelchair, skis, snowshoes, and various other mechanisms to visit this pristine country,” he said.

If the rails are removed, Keet said, Rail Explorers could move to Tupper Lake or elsewhere in the corridor and offer the same type of experience.

Catchpoole said Rail Explorers is looking at other places to operate in the corridor and elsewhere in the state (including the Saratoga & North Creek line) — but with the idea of expanding, not relocating.

And if the state ultimately decides to remove the tracks? Catchpoole said he and his wife, who are natives of Australia, have invested too much time and money in the business to give it up.

“We’re fighting pretty hard to keep the rails, but if they tear them up, we’ll have to relocate,” he said.

The four customers we talked to after our trip agreed that the rails should remain. Dawn Lyndaker and Karen Roes said they had driven two hours from Carthage, near Watertown, just for the trip. The other two customers – Scott and Elaine McEwan – drove an hour from their camp on Lake Ozonia.

“It was a blast!” Elaine McEwan said of the trip.

Lyndaker said she would gladly ride the rails again. “The highlights were the scenery, the fresh air, and a good friend,” she remarked.

“It would be a shame to rip out the rails,” Roes said.

The state expects to make a final decision by the end of the year.

Photos by Mike Lynch: Rail Explorers customers between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear Junction (top); Alex Catchpoole, left, talks with a customer (below).


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

67 Responses

  1. Boreal says:

    I could see the North Hudson/Newcomb rail terminus being a very good area for this. Better than storing obsolete oil cars anyway…

  2. Scott says:

    Neat idea and good use for the tracks, though I prefer the freedom of my own bicycle. Surprisingly heavy machines. How long until someone puts an engine on a rail-bike?

  3. Bruce says:

    A gamble is right, and if we assume they succeed in keeping the tracks (which I doubt), will this company be the only one allowed to use them? Whether it is just them, or more than one company on the tracks, the concept negates the idea of an attraction which can be freely used by anyone, on their own terms. Isn’t that what a trail is all about?

    Surely there must be some rail spurs around which are not in contention, and only lack a deal between the owner of the tracks and the railcar company.

    • James Falcsik says:

      So you are suggesting the rails should not remain because the corridor cannot be freely used by anyone on their own terms? Can you freely use the I-87 corridor on your own terms? Since when is this a prerequisite for any travel corridor use? It is a railroad. I am sure if you desire to invest in a railroad operation the DOT would entertain your ideas. In the meantime, there are surely existing, previously abandoned railroad lines, that are not in contention and could be converted to a trail to see if the “100,000 visitor” mark is ever achieved. Before the tracks are forever destroyed. The Rail Explorers group is successfully bringing increased tourism and jobs to the region without spending any money for a rail-trail conversion and it is contributing to the preservation of the railroad asset for the future.

      • Glenn Keet says:

        The difference with I-87 and a railroad line is that i-87 flows both ways, simultaneously. Good luck getting the bikes on and off the tracks lots of time when they are in contention for use!

      • David P. Lubic says:

        James, you brought that up in the last article, in which you mentioned how railroad operating rules allow rail movement–or more properly, track occupancy, which may not even have a rail vehicle involved (think of off-track maintenance equipment)–but the trail people are so bull-headed they won’t listen, in spite of almost two centuries of operating experience which is still demonstrated daily.

        Of course, they can’t seem to be too honest, either. Just recently a trail supporter ran a photo of a charter bus at one of the stations, claiming it was empty and was just turning around in the parking. He couldn’t admit the bus was a load of passengers for the railroad.

      • Bruce says:


        Let me start by saying that as a rail fan, I would love to see the train go all the way to Lake Placid from Thendara, but I’m realistic enough to realize that’s highly unlikely to happen. What I meant about the trail use was that folks can come and go according to their own schedules and whims.

        So then the question becomes one of will this company generate enough business for the area to make it worth while leaving the tracks? Their projections are like any other projections, they seldom live up to the hype. It’s the same with trail use projections.

        Is there room on the tracks for other innovative users, or will Railcar fight for sole control, on the premise other users would be taking away their business? Would creating a grand hiking/biking, snowmobile trail be better for the overall economy? Who knows?

        • James Falcsik says:

          Bruce; the railroad operation and the rail-bike operation create a “value-added” service that people are willing to pay for. It is recreation and in the the case for the purpose of this article written by Mr. Brown it is unique only to the Adirondacks. With sold out reservations every day since they started it is not speculation. The fact the rail-bike operation is drawing out of state visitors is very good for the region. Trail hikers and bikers, proven to be largely local coming and going at their own whims will not do this. With a fully restored corridor, as per Alternative 6, the market ASR will target is the rail vacation traveler. These two rail operators have ticket sales and zip codes of paying customers; not extrapolated estimates based on .001% sample data. With 10K miles of snowmobile trails and hiking trails and walking trails now, why do these communities suffer economically? No value-added service attraction and perhaps they come and go at their own whims?

          • Bruce says:

            James, I don’t know what Alternative 6 is, but I don’t see the ASR (Adirondack Scenic Railroad?) operating on the same tracks as manually powered vehicles, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.

            I’m not debating the value of the rail bike use of the tracks. My point was is this one company going to be the only one allowed to utilize the trackage between Tupper and Lake Placid, or will we see more of these innovative uses?

            I do stand on my statement that benefit projections are just that, projections into unknown territory. As has been pointed out, hundreds of thousands using this recreational opportunity is a long ways from 10,000.

            Just look at the logistics, and we have to make some assumptions. Each trip takes 90 minutes including turnaround time (see Rail Explorer’s own website).


            If there are 10 railbikes with a full complement of 4 people on each, that’s 40 people each way making 8 one way trips in a 12 hour day. That’s 320 people per day.

            The season is about 60 days long which equals 19000+ people. To accommodate 100,000 people during the season, there would need to be 50 railbikes running at 4 person capacity per tour. Both ends would require a siding to have more than one tour on the tracks at the same time.

            Of course, there will be some use outside the July-August season, but based on my own experience over 10 years, the AP is a pretty quiet place outside those two months. Even if we doubled the season to 4 months, that would still be 25 railbikes at full capacity on each tour.

  4. Gary F. Heurich says:

    Thank you, Phil, for personally experiencing riding the rails, and giving Rail Explorers their due.

    It was only fair and balanced to delve a little more into the success they have created to reveal another argument for retaining the rails.

    Sadly, I found 2 comments in opposition to retaining the tracks to be disappointing.

    Given that Rail Explorers has already demonstrated 10,000 users in their first year, offering that “The hundreds riding the rail bikes are only a ghost of the hundreds of thousands we expect …” is misleading at best.

    And, perhaps I have missed it, but I have not read anywhere solid statistical evidence to support the assertion of “hundreds of thousands.” Ten thousand is an inarguable fact, but where is the statistical study that supports the other?

    In any event, under no stretch of the imagination could the time frame of reference be the same for both numbers. Perhaps Rail Explorers gets hundreds per week, but hundreds of thousands would use a trail over 10 years?

    The suggestion that “the success of Rail Explorers underscores the recreational potential of the rail corridor” is, of course, accurate. But, it doesn’t give a fair shake to the power of the draw of unique experiences.

    And, in this instance it is not necessarily a valid argument for the rail corridor to be converted to trail. Rail Explorers and Adirondack Scenic Railroad importantly add to the Park’s diversity of recreational opportunities.

    We say we want diversity in the Park. Well, diversity of uses leads to diversity of users.

    While it is great of Rail Explorers to be the first in the country, that they are the first and only in the Adirondacks is what counts for the local economy. Those 15 jobs are nothing at which to shake a stick.

    Those tracks are a gem for any type of use. But, as I have previously argued, there is no shortage of trails in the Adirondacks. Not everything has to be a trail. The Adirondack Park is more than big enough to share.

    Let this unique rail biking use and the scenic railroad have their little piece of the pie. Let those users feed, and feed from, the Lake Clear, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid communities. And, draw a different crowd of folks from outside the Park.

    There are “hundreds of thousands” of motorists and only “hundreds” of bicyclists, yet, to channel a ubiquitous and legitimate phrase of the latter, smaller, group, “share the road.”

  5. Bellota says:

    This pro article for those who want to keep the rails by Phil Brown fails to mention or answer other concerns about this private enterprise.

    What is the cost of a single ride on a rail car? Would those who have ridden repeat the experience? Do rail cars go out singley or en masse? Does “paring” the staff mean all the employees are laid off? Why should the state support a for profit company’s use of the tracks?

    The rail cars are another form of the Disney approach to “recreation.” Lee Keet is correct in stating that a recreation trail will bring much more activity for free to the area. Bike paths out of harms way have been successful around the world. It’s time the North Country joined in.

    • Big Burly says:

      Glad you enjoyed yourself Phil.

      The oft repeated assertion by those espousing rail removal that use of so called rail trails will be free is disingenuous to say the least. Those that claim the steel rails can be sold to pay for trail construction likely are unaware that the world is awash in steel making capacity, in fact the PRC has more steel making capacity, much of it unused, than the rest of the world combined — not likely scrap steel will command very much of a price. Most rail trails, when maintained, benefit from subsidy payments from some organization in construction as well as maintenance.

      At a time in the economic history of NYS when we have a Governor truly interested in and espousing improvements in the upstate economy, and in particular in these beloved ADKs, it makes little to no common sense to dismantle important economic infrastructure that is a railroad.

      Much misinformation has been said about what the current lessee has contributed to the local tourism economy … much less has been said about how disengaged NYS has been as a business partner to help implement its own policy, known as Alternative 6, adopted in 1996.

      Upgrading the rail infrastructure to the heart of the Adirondacks, not just the periphery, assures not just the preservation of the Rail Explorer enterprise, it also brings, and preserves the opportunities for, greater economic benefits to the Tri-Lakes than a rail trail ever will.

      Little media coverage has been given to the fact that the economic impact study used by NYS to purportedly support the latest Alternative 7 in fact used as its basis information obtained from studies previously paid for by rail removal supporters and ignored the impacts of a well thought out plan for future rail operations using a fully operational corridor that was supplied by the current rail operator. So the EIS is biased — not legal, certainly not acceptable under current regulations in our State.

      Little coverage has been given to the fact that this would be the first in the nation conversion of an active rail corridor to a so called rail trail. Even less consideration has been given to figuring out how the projected hundreds of thousands of new “trail users” would get here, given the existing constraints on highways within the Blue Line, or where these visitors might stay in season.

      I say, its time that NYS DOT and DEC do what was adopted as policy in 1996. ADK residents and visitors of all ages and abilities will benefit for years to come. Certainly it is affordable and brings greater economic benefits as the Rail Explorer enterprise has proven.

      • You forgot to mention the ties, Mr. Burly. They are toxic waste, and the DEC will not permit a trail contractor to simply discard them on the side of the railroad as the railroad is allowed to do. Any money generated by selling rails will go into tie disposal.

      • David P. Lubic says:

        Big Burly’s right about the costs of conversion being higher than what the trail people have been claiming.

        Interestingly, we get some of the best numbers from a report by a trail consulting company, Camoin Associates. This report, originally commissioned by ADK Action and currently available through The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA), has estimates from 2010 for the cost of converting or rebuilding the segment between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, a distance of 34 route-miles. This report has a great deal of information, including the following numbers in regard to the cost of trail conversion, here broken down to a per-mile figure:

        Railroad Rehabilitation: $320,000 per mile
        Permanent Trail Conversion: $440,000 per mile
        Temporary Trail Conversion: $550,000 per mile

        The principle difference between the temporary vs. permanent trail conversion is an estimate of the cost of storing the track material for 10 years. It does not include the cost of reinstalling this material.

        It is notable that the cost of the permanent trail conversion does include a credit for the salvage or resale of track material. This reduces the cost of the trail conversion by about $41,000 per mile, making the actual cost about $481,000 per mile.

        Speaking of rail salvage brings up the claims made by some trail advocates that “the salvage of the rail will pay for the trail.” As we can see above, that’s not quite true, at least as allowed by Camoin.

        But let’s not be satisfied with that. Let’s see what we really have.

        First, let’s figure out the tonnage in steel we have for this 34-mile stretch of track. We have the rails, obviously, and it’s a combination of sections weighing 105 pounds per yard and 90 pounds per yard, but we don’t know the proportion, so we’ll be generous and assume it is all 105 pound section.

        There are 34 miles, times 2 (2 rails), times 1,760 (yards per mile), times 105—12,566,400 pounds, which would be 6,283 American (short) tons. . .

        Then there are about 3,200 ties per mile, each with two tie plates weighing about 30 pounds each, plus eight spikes weighing about three-quarters of a pound each—more fiddling there comes to 7,180,800 pounds, that’s another 3,590 short tons. . .

        There are multiple tracks at some locations, plus the weights of the joint bars and their bolts; we’ll just fudge that at 10%. Let’s round the whole thing up to 11,000 short tons.

        What’s all that worth? Those 11,000 US (short) tons work out to a rounded 9,980 metric (long) tonnes, and in April of 2014, that would have brought $232.30 per tonne, or about $2,555,300. That’s a bit less than $75,156 per mile, and well over Camoin’s estimate of $41,000 per mile, but it is still less than 16% of the cost of the trail

        In addition, the spread between these figures and Camoin’s estimate suggests the price obtained is for the rail delivered to a scrap mill or to a port for loading on a ship for export. The last time I looked, rail was inanimate; it’s not going to get up and walk to the mill or the Port of New York on its own. Figure a scrap man will want at least half of this to get the rail delivered and make a profit, and then you are looking at a measly 8% of your trail cost—less than the 9% Camoin allowed, when metal prices were higher (in March 2014, heavy melting steel was selling at $394 per tonne).

        Of course, the cost of conversion isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. The trail, or the railroad, will require maintenance. The Camoin study uses a low but fairly realistic estimate of $1,500 per mile per year to do the things you need to do to keep the trail open. This is a bit higher than the averaged $1,324 per mile the railroad has received for the entire 119-mile long corridor. Both numbers are, in my opinion, pretty realistic, although it might be argued that the railroad has not been adequately reimbursed for its track maintenance (which is the arrangement it currently operates under). The numbers are in the range for the maintenance of a secondary road, which brings up an important point—much of what you pay for with infrastructure such as this is the supporting structures—drainage ditches, bridge painting and repair, culvert clearing, tunnel maintenance where you have those, and in the Adirondacks, dealing with beavers. The cost of maintaining what I call the superstructure or running surface—track for the railroad, whatever is the paved surface of the trail or road—is relatively minor, and in the same general cost range in any given location for a similar structure.

        All of this suggests that, financially at least, the trail and the railroad are at best a wash, with an actual capital advantage going to the railroad.

        Now, that’s not the only metric we might want to use, and the trail people will rightly claim that we might want to look at what benefits (such as economic growth)–but we looked at that in the last article that appeared on this subject. My own conclusion is that while tourism is worth something, it’s not worth that much; it’s not a substitute for a “real” economy, such as mining, manufacturing, or agriculture.

        • David P. Lubic says:


          Adirondack Rail Corridor Economic Impact Study (Camoin & Associates), pages 8-16, accessed April 3, 2014:

          International Scrap Register, No. 1 HMS (Heavy Melting Steel), East Coast, prices dated June 8, 2015, accessed July 7, 2015:

        • Curt Austin says:

          A rail salvage company considers three categories. Your calculations apply only to the lowest category, actual scrap. There is a higher category, “re-roll”, for rails that can be made nice again in a steel mill. The highest category, “re-lay”, is for rails that can be used elsewhere as-is, for sidings and rail yards, mainly.

          Ties and other hardware are treated similarly. A salvage company takes it all away, and writes you a check. I can only provide one example: the 29 miles of track from North Creek to Tahawus would net out to about $1 million (source: Tahawus mine manager). Lousy 90-lb track, rotted ties, difficult location, so expect more elsewhere.

          I studied the Camoin study as I once studied scientific papers for peer review. I would have marked it “rejected – do not resubmit”. Very bad.

          • David P. Lubic says:

            Well, I’ll have to disagree with you on this. The reason–my background is not limited to the Camoin study.

            I attempted to get people interested in a light rail line as an alternative to a four lane highway in my area. My information on the cost of construction, paving, and maintenance largely comes from that–and to the credit of the people at Camoin, I can tell you their numbers are right on for the maintenance.

            And my comments on maintenance remain–it’s mostly about the substructure, not so much on the running surface. It costs the same to paint a bridge, whether it supports a railroad, a road, or a trail. Beavers won’t go away just because the track does. Water doesn’t care what it pushes against.

            I think you are unwise to just discard the Camoin study–unless your reason for doing so is that you don’t like what it says.

            Then again, discarding it because you don’t like what is says isn’t very wise, either.

    • Phil Brown says:

      Belota, tickets cost $25 a person. I meant to include that in the article and will do so now. I will be writing a story for the Adirondack Explorer that delves into all the issues. This article is based primarily on my experience riding the rail-bike.

    • Bellota, the trail will hardly be free. Right now, the snowmobilers get a free ride because the railroad takes care of maintaining the right-of-way. Once the tracks are gone, who’s gonna pay for that? Who’s gonna fix washouts? Who’s gonna inspect bridges after a freshet? Who’s gonna cut up trees and keep the drainage ditches and culverts clear? You are. You, and you, and you and you over there. Will Lee Keet pay for this trail? No more than anyone else. But he’ll spend his money to try to get you to be forced to pay for it.

      I’m not privy to the financial arrangements between the ARE and the ASRR. I cannot imagine for one moment that the ARE is using the rails for free. Not. One. Moment.

      • Dave says:

        And NO snowmobilers don’t get a free ride on the rails. Who do you think pays to keep the rails groomed in the winter for the snowmobilers, cross country skiers, or the bikers with the fat tires, why Heaven fordbid its the local snowmobile clubs, NOT THE STATE! We pay for our own fuel, we do our own equipment maintenance, we pay our own insurance & we do it all without state help!
        And once it finally becomes a trail here, we’ll pay to maintain it, just like we do with all the other trails around the state. I guess your not a snowmobiler & you have no clue about what snowmobilers do for trail maintenance. We don’t freeload off the state for fuel cost like ASR; we don’t get grants/federal funding each year to stay afloat like ASR does, & we sure as hell don’t start a business on a rail corridor that is slated to be torn up.

  6. Joyce Lovelace says:

    I would think tandem bikes would be better so that it could be a 2 lane road. And why no mention of the cost to ride?

  7. Keith Silliman says:

    I have ridden the rail bikes twice– once with my wife, and again with a group of friends who were visiting for the weekend. It is a unique experience, enjoyable and fun. I recommend going from Lake Clear to SLK, as it is mostly downhill. I also recommend being in either the first or last rail bike– you can better control your trip.

  8. adkcamp says:

    The good new for the Catchpoole’s is that the compromise solution (trail north of Tupper, rail south) will pose no threat to their business.

    Next year they can move their operation to Tupper and send their riders south – a ride that would be just as beautiful and even more unspoiled than the Saranac -Charlie’s Inn route.

    Further, a rail bike business in Tupper would be a huge boost to towns that have few opportunities to draw tourists, such as Piercefield and Mt Arab – towns that will not benefit from the year round tourism that a trail would bring.

    • I’m guessing that you haven’t actually ridden those tracks. I have. They’re not as beautiful and not as unspoiled. There are dozens of unguarded crossings. Somebody we know was badly injured at one of these crossings.

      Where is the restaurant like Charlie’s at the other end? There is *nothing* but camps at Mt. Arab. Where are all these businesses that you think will benefit from the railbike ride? Have you ever BEEN to Mt. Arab? Or Piercefield? C’mon, get real.

      • adkcamp says:

        Actually, you guessed wrong – I have been on the tracks many, many times – by foot, snow shoe and snow mobile. Have climbed Mt Arab, paddled under the rail bridge on the Bog…. Can’t argue with you if you don’t see the beauty of this stretch of tracks – and would wonder if it makes any sense to dismiss new ideas on the use of these tracks because of anecdotal drawbacks based on a single injury at a crossing along that stretch.

        There are no restaurants or businesses at the other end – that is the WHOLE POINT. Where some might see nothing, others might see personal opportunity and economic promise.

        Once the trail is established, perhaps the rail south of Tupper will look like more like the pot at the end of the rainbow…. time will tell.

  9. Dave says:

    10,000 in 3 months . Really? Averages 111 people a day rain or shine? I find that hard to believe.

    Do they have a lease with the NYS DOT to use the rails, since they (DOT) own the rails?

    • Yes, 111 people a day rain or shine. They doubled their capacity about a month and a half ago, so every trip can now take 36 people. As far as I have heard, you cannot just walk up and expect to find an empty seat. Reservations are a must.

      The DOT owns the rails, but they have sublet the operation of the rails to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. I’m sure it’s an exclusive sublet (as these things go), so any agreement would be with the ASRR.

      • Big Burly says:

        @ Russ Nelson, you are correct, the operating lease, 30-day renewable at the moment, is between NYS DOT and the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society, the operator of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR). Rail Explorers and the ASR have been cooperating.

        It is a question of scheduling operations to have this initiative co-exist with regular rail movements — and that is now much easier with computers than it used to be when train dispatchers used morse code and paper orders.

        Your comment about sleeper disposal is accurate — my earlier comment tried to address issues that have received little or no coverage by media, including Mr. Brown, during the time since this latest debate started.

        Our Governor is being poorly served by those in the DEC who espouse rail removal in the corridor. While it is understandable that DEC personnel would have limited interest in economic opportunities that rail operations make possible, it is a welcome development that DOT staff have uncoupled from the Alternative 7 as it was proposed in June and at the public hearings held.

        For more than a generation folks who live north of Thendara have limited experience with rail operations — since the corridor was acquired by NYS, huge improvements have occurred in railroading. There is a renaissance taking place throughout the developed and developing world. Demographic trends in the USA mirror what is also happening elsewhere — more people are living in cities and fewer people are owning automobiles, preferring public transport and passenger rail amongst other options.

        As I said in my earlier comment it makes no sense to deprive the Adirondacks of the economic infrastructure that can and does support so many other economic activities … many more than just recreational tourism that is the limiting impact of a “rail trail”. Passenger rail operations will be again possible with full upgrade of the rail infrastructure in the corridor — that will help relieve the highway congestion that already exists within the Blue Line and help residents and visitors of all ages and abilities to get here and enjoy the unrivaled splendor of our region.

        • David P. Lubic says:

          One of the most interesting things about this debate is that the snowmobile people make all these claims about more economic impact from their hobby than from the railroad.

          I’d like to know where the additonal impact is going to com from when you look at some numbers, in particular trend patterns over time. How are you supposed to get more impact from a smaller market? Look at snowmobile sales from 1996 to 2014–and this is from the International Snowmobile Congress 1915:


          Anyone taking an honest look at these numbers should be shocked at the decline that’s represented. The sales figure for snowmobiles, while improved in 2014, is but half of what it was in 2004, and only a third of what it was in 1996! Sales did improve in the last season, but one cannot say they are anything like they once were.

          New York snowmobile registrations are also down considerably. This decline is not quite as bad as overall snowmobile sales—and both actually improved in 2014-2015—but the drop compared with the peak is still significant, with the last available registration figure being only 70% of what it was in 2002-2003. It’s notable that registrations still declined slightly in 2013-2014 in spite of a decent snowmobile season and increased overall sales at the time.

          New York Snowmobile Registrations—New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation


          It’s very likely the economic impact of snowmobile activity has dropped as well. Snowmobiling’s economic impact was estimated at $868 million, based on a survey by SUNY Potsdam Institute for Applied Research (commissioned by the New York State Snowmobile Association), and about a quarter of that was in the Adirondacks. But that was in 2010-2011; registrations are down over 9% even with the jump that came in 2014-2015, and presumably the economic impact is down that amount, too.

          All of this seems to shred the claims of some trail advocates that snowmobiling is greatly increasing activity in the State of New York.

          What does this mean? Well, if I were in the snowmobile trade or in a business connected with it, I would wonder what was behind that long drop. Is it generational based, as a big part of the decline in driving seems to be? (Young people today aren’t into cars as much as their predecessors were.) Is it a shrinking middle class that can’t afford what are, admittedly, fairly expensive toys? Or are snowmobiles largely being replaced by ATVs and UTVs, which have the important advantage of being usable for the whole year? Is it a combination of all these things?

          I would also be concerned about how long this drop went on, and whether the recent increase might be sustainable. Both sales and registrations had been declining for well over a decade, suggesting this might still be a trend. At the same time, rail and transit ridership has been increasing over the same time period, again suggesting a trend.

          None of this is to suggest snowmobiles are going to go away—but I think it would be very wise to keep the Adirondack Scenic Railroad around. Gasoline might be cheaper now, but we know that’s only a temporary relief; in fact, it’s on its way up again. Besides, as we Baby Boomers get older, and our eyes get dimmer, and our necks and knees get stiffer, the idea of going places without driving is looking better and better!

          • David P. Lubic says:


            “New Sled Sales”—Photo from International Snowmobile Congress, 2015 (Facebook Page):


            New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, & Historic Preservation’s Snowmobile Unit’s 2014-2015 Season Report (see page 12)


            2011 Snowmobile Owners’ Survey (Executive Summary–Economic Impact, 2010-2011)


          • David P. Lubic says:

            Bah!! Typos!! International Snowmobile Congress, 2015!

            And gasoline has gone back down for now–but for how long?

            • Curt Austin says:

              The price of gasoline bugaboo! It seemed real serious back in 1973, and 1977, and again, and again.

              My head is spinning, but it seems almost likely that in ten years or so, we’ll all have self-driving, electric cars. Or access to one with a tap on their smartphone.

              Not sure about electric snowmobiles, but I’m pretty sure gas price will not be terrible.

          • John says:

            Don’t rememeber anyone saying the ASR was going away from the Utica to Thendara, so the ASR will still be able to try & make a go for it at their supposed most profitable part of their business.
            So, snowmobile numbers might be down, but we still generate millions more in economic impact in afew short months than the rail line every will. Plus did you ever think, maybe the lack of snow the last few years might have something to do with the lack of snowmobile registrations in NYS.
            And you keep making seem like snowmobiling will be the only use of the soon to be NEW TRAIL. It won’t, but you gloss right over that fact.

            • David P. Lubic says:

              “So, snowmobile numbers might be down, but we still generate millions more in economic impact in afew short months than the rail line every will. Plus did you ever think, maybe the lack of snow the last few years might have something to do with the lack of snowmobile registrations in NYS.”

              So many missed points, so little time–

              First, you miss the really important point–the trend. It’s not just down, it appears to be long term. In fact, it looks like a classic saturation curve–sales were dropping while registrations continued to increase, and then after several years the registrations went down. That is not an expanding market–and if the market is not expanding, you are not going to get economic growth out of it. At best you will cannibalize other venues in the Adirondacks, at worst you will get nothing. Seems like a waste of money and a railroad to me.

              The lack of snowfall is another thing. Again, that points to a reason for the decline–a little thing called climate change–and it’s not something you can do anything about, at least not on this level.

              Finally, you already have thousands of miles of trail in New York. You have nearly as many miles of snowmobile trail in the Adirondacks as you have miles of roads, and many more miles of trails for biking, hiking, and the rest. You are down to this one railroad. Why put all your eggs in one basket? Why close this particular option forever?

              As to the snowmobile emphasis–the snowmobilers are the “noisiest” ones (yes, that pun is deliberate) advocating the destruction of the railroad. You make yourself loud, and in particular if you say false things (which some very prominent snowmobile advocates have done), then expect people to tell you about it.

                • Bruce says:

                  David, snowmobilers talk about millions in economic impact, citing the the cost of their machines, trailers, tow vehicles, etc. I wonder how much of that big ticket money is actually spent inside the blue line? With cities like Utica, Rome, Watertown, Plattsburg, Lake George, Potsdam, Massena all within easy drives I would guess the selection would be much larger and the prices better.

                  • David P. Lubic says:

                    You’re right, Bruce, about a quarter of the economic impact is in the Adirondacks–the other three-quarters is around the rest of the state, and is undoubtedly almost entirely in the norhwestern portion of it (I doubt you would see many snowmobiles on Long Island, and not many in Manhattan, either!)

                    The big thing to take is the general trend. It’s down, been down for a long or longish time. It’s not a growing market, at least not compared with before. It may be a saturated market, based on those sales over the years.

                    That lack of growth is what makes this conversion of a railroad to a trail at best an exercise in the lesson of diminishing returns, if not outright negative returns. As James Falscik and I have both pointed out, where is the new outside money going to come from? Local people might ride more, but they aren’t going to spend much more, as they are already here with their money.

                    I am reminded of a gentleman I had to do an audit on years ago. His business was in Burlington, W.Va., a small sideroad community not to far from Romney, W.Va. He commented on how businesses went in cycles in his area, or perhaps more appropriately ran through fads. For instance, when satellite TV came out, a bunch of guys went into business installing satellite dishes. Eventually they hit a saturation point, and now hardly anyone does that; the job was finished.

                    My client said some of those people tried to open taverns and bars; most of those went under.

                    As my client put it, “There are only so many drunks in Romney.”

        • Curt Austin says:

          Mr. Burly is invoking the distant past and an unlikely future when he touts the “economic opportunities that rail operations make possible”. He ignores the intermediate past, the immediate past, the current situation, and the predictable future. Not persuasive.

          He cites the dynamics that are leading to bigger cites and the ensuing transportation problems. Is he saying this dynamic will be occurring here? Traffic congestion within the blue line?

          Sleepers? That’s the British term for railroad ties – perhaps Mr. Burly is commenting from a considerable distance.

  10. Keith Gorgas says:

    Yesterday, we had 8 people from Toronto who came just to ride the rails. We had a gentleman who came up from Kentucky to ride the train and take the Explorer tour. Mr.Keet’s comment clearly show his lack of concern for the “little people” of Saranac Lake. In essence, he is saying ” take your jobs, the tourists you draw, and the money the spend elsewhere. I want Lake Colby all to myself, and I’m rich enough to enforce my will on an whole region.” I shuttle all the Rail Explorers riders, and ask them all where they are from. I would estimate that over 80% come from outside of the Tri-Lakes area, and over 75 % of them came specifically to ride the Explorers and/or the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. These people are spending their money, not just on the rides, but in local hotels, restaurants, shops, and gas stations. The northern end of the Railroad will carry around 15,000 people this year, despite not being able to open till late July. The southern end will carry over 75,000 people. If completely restored, at just about the same cost that the Governor intends to spend destroying this piece of living history, there is no telling how many tourists would come to Saranac Lake, but it would be more than enough to halt the current abandonment of businesses in the down town area. By the way, my wife and I walk on the other rail/trail in Saranac Lake 3 or 4 days a week. We see the occasional mountain biker and a few dog walkers.

  11. Laurie says:

    We did this yesterday with my parents: Dad who has Parkinson’s Disease and related issues with balance and walking, and mom who suffers from COPD and has difficulty walking more than a couple hundred feet without taking a break to catch her breath. Without wading too far into the “leave ’em in” / “rip ’em up” rail debate, I will say this was an experience they could never have on a rail trail. And they loved it! We’ve already talked about doing it again next year.

  12. I have bicycled every named rail-trail in New York State. . There are over a hundred. Do we need to sacrifice an operating railroad to create one more? Why, when there is a perfectly fine railbed heading north from Lake Clear Junction. I’ve bicycled that one, too, even though it’s not a named rail-trail:

  13. Dave says:

    They started this business AFTER the decision had already been made to remove the rails north of Tupper Lake, but they still went ahead & opened.

    • No such decision has been made, Dave. It’s an attempt at a compromise between what the ARTA wants (complete destruction of the railroad to Snow Junction), and what everybody else wants (complete restoration of service to Lake Placid).

      • Dave says:

        Yeah, the decision has pretty much been made. I guess you’ve been living under a rock all summer. The decision was made to remove the rails north of Tupper Lake & attempt to find someone to com in & run the rail line south of there. We are just in the final BS session of this whole thing. You rail folks have had over 20 years to try & make Option #6 work & you’ve failed, the state has failed, so it’s time to move on.

        • Big Burly says:

          I think it is you Dave that has been asleep in recent weeks. Residents and visitors alike are moving on — to a much better solution than that supported by rail removal enthusiasts — and a solution that will be advantageous to people of all ages and abilities, not only extreme sport enthusiasts.

          Time you got with the program ?

          • Dave says:

            I don’t need to get with any program, it’s time you cry-babies get with the program. The decision HAS been made, it’s time the DEC finalizes the UMP so we can get the rails rippped out & a trail put in! Enought with the repeated bitch sessions, so all we get to hear is the crying from the rail folks!

  14. Lakechamplain says:

    In the last thread on this issue there ended up being 130 comments, two of which were mine. I’ll just reinforce a point I stated before.
    This weekend I spent both days in and around Lake Placid/Wilmington/Keene. Saturday was one of the big local fall events, the Ragnar race. The roads were filled with runners and support groups as well as the expected vehicle traffic on a beautiful fall weekend. The nature of the roads with at best their narrow shoulders(most unpaved) along with the traffic made it downright dangerous for bikers. Fact is, the majority of mountain roads in the area should only be used by very experienced bikers, old enough to be aware of motor vehicles. That’s why a rail trail between LP and Tupper Lake would be such an addition to tourism. It would be especially attractive to families who would like to do different activities during, let’s say, a week’s vacation. That’s one of the strongest arguments in support of going rail to trail. And yes, people who live around here would enjoy using it on a regular basis too. A 30-mile trail connecting 3 villages would offer different options for riders. Simply put, it’s not perfect but it’s better than the current train or the rail bikes offer.

    • Bellota says:

      Bravo for common sense! A family of four riding the rail cars would cost $100. Enough said.

      • James Falcsik says:

        Since when is the money an issue? People that have disposable income for recreation is what your region is trying to capture regardless of the venue. If you are going to claim $100 is too much for this unique ride, then what happens to the argument that hundreds of thousands of trail USERS are going to create an economic wave? If you want all your trail users to do it for free then this idea that Keet, ARTA and all the other trail-economy believers will amount to about what is true everywhere else; nothing. Local users will not spend any money on the trail they don’t already spend somewhere else in the community. Rail Explorers are attracting out of state visitors. They are sold out every day. This is tremendous for your community and supporting their operation and expansion would be common sense.

  15. Curt Austin says:

    These are like paddle boats. I prefer a canoe.

  16. Glenn Keet says:

    I think it has already been pointed out that the rail bikes are a short lived entity no matter what happens to the tracks. Glad they are there, but the business will have to relocate either way. If the tracks are kept then that is because trains will be using them, and the business will have to move. The better solution that most agree on is taking up the tracks and really generating tourism to the area for all the uses of that corridor. The trains have proven a nice, but failed, idea.

  17. James Falcsik says:

    Here is another superb article just published today on the Rail Explorers operation:

    Note the two following comments by the author: “From the minute we started, I realized the ride was going to be one of the best things I’ve done since I moved to the Adirondacks in June!” And as to the cost: “It costs $50 for two people and $100 for four, and it was worth every penny!”

  18. John says:

    If you rail folks get the DEC/DOT to change their minds again & convert the entire corridor into a high speed rail service from Utica to Lake Placid, how do you expect a prviate business to run on a active rail line. The ASR can get away with it because at least they are a train! You guys are bikes on rails & I believe that would be illegal under NYS Law, just like snowmobile use of the corridor would become illegal. Plus there already is a well funded rail service from New York City & points south to Montreal Canada that makes stops all along the Adirondacks so bicyclist, hikers, skiers & just general sight see’ers can get off the train & explore the ADK Park.
    But again, it all comes down too this, will the state change its mind again ( I doubt it), The decision has already been made, & NO ONE has shown why the decision should be changed. A single private owned business has no right to monopolize a state owned asset for their own personal gain!

    • James Falcsik says:

      The rail bike operation can function and exist with the ASR operation with no problems. The track sections would be operated by “track authority” where a dispatcher controls who occupies a given section of track at a given period of time. The paperwork issued is called a “Form D”. Every railroad in the country operates in this manner with some variation. ASR and Rail Explorers USA would operate in this manner within FRA guidelines and no laws would be broken.

      This rail corridor is owned by the NYS and operated by the DOT and DEC. They certainly have the right to enter into contracts with railroad operators like ASR and Rail Explorers USA to provide recreation and tourist attractions to generate tax revenue and other income sources common with public land use. Not much different than an industrial park or other state owned property used for business development. Jobs and tourism income is what your region is crying for; why then would you obstruct this rail bike enterprise from using this travel corridor?

      • Boreal says:

        There would be a slight problem. Unless there are a lot of side tracks on the rail bike corridor, the heavy “bikes” will need to be removed from the rails every time the train passes through the corridor. It’s not like you can just move over and let the train pass. The “bikes” would need to be held up at either terminus on a side track while the train is in the corridor. Given that the train will need to travel at a slow pace through the entire shared corridor, That is going to require the “bikes” to be out of action for a considerable time at least twice a day.

        Then, when the corridor is clear, a virtual line of backed-up “bikes” would be unleashed (from one terminus only) onto the rails, all traveling at the same speed as the leader. There is no passing. One will travel no faster than the “bike” in front of you. Ever ride behind a rubber-necker driving 20 mph under the speed limit on a single-lane road? Need to stop for a picture? Snack? Rest? Pee break? You will be holding up everyone behind you.

        The venture works fine now without a working train on that part of the corridor, but I foresee dual use would have a considerable impact on the railbike endeavor. But maybe I just don’t have a good knowledge of how the system works.

  19. John says:

    I could care less about the entire process, but a decision HAS BEEN MADE! Let’s just get the UMP signed & move out with the decision, because we all know what’s going to come next.

    A. If the rail folks get their way, you still have to find a rail manager/operator willing to put money/time/effort into rehabing the rails along with the state. And since that will probably never happen, we’ll be right back here in 5 years arguing this all over again. -or-

    B. We’ll move on with what the current decision is: (remove the rails north of Tupper Lake) & rehab the rails between Big Moose Station & Tupper Lake. BUt we all know that once the UMP is signed the rail folks will be right off to court to argue the decision.
    Let’s get theis into the courts, which is right where the rail folks want it to begin with.

    And to answer your last snetence, they are a private business, tieing up a public asset for no reason other than personal gain!

    • James Falcsik says:

      No decision has been made; a proposal has been put forth and the more people that become engaged that support railroad preservation there is always the chance the proposal could be modified or scrapped. Rail Explorers USA is making an impact and the story of their operation is reaching far beyond the AP. All good.

      Yes, I believe this will end up in court. More than one and at several government levels. This will take a substantial amount of time. All good.

      If you oppose private companies tieing up a public assets, then you better turn your attention to someone flying all those planes out of JFK and all those other airports; how shameful of them!

      • Alexander James says:

        (Sarcasm warning) Yes James Falcsik! we should put an end to those ridiculous airports – who uses them anyway? I have a car – much more convenient to drive. Airports promote pollution, a waste of taxpayer money and benefit who? The few who can afford plane travel and the corporations who profit from it!
        Make the airports open to everyone! Instead of ‘Rails to Trails’ lets starts ‘Runways to Run Ways!!’
        Imagine all the tourists who will flock to these refurbished terminals to take advantage of the old runways – bikers, snowmobilers, skateboarders, curlers, kite flyers and balloonists, speed skaters and rollerbladers. If you build it they will come! A glorious future awaits! Stop the planes! Rip up the runways!

        Sounds pretty stupid right? Sometimes all we need is a little context to see how dumb it would be to remove an active transportation and tourism hub. Save the rails and save Rail Explorers.

      • Matt says:

        Can you describe the litigation you anticipate?

  20. Brooke says:

    We drove 2.5 hours to get to the railbikes! It was worth every minute of the ride. I suppose people are not looking at the tracks for the people but for the money. Sadly, money has taken over. I hope the tracks stay for the pleasure for people! There are plenty of bike trails all over the Adirondacks. There’s only one place for railbikes in the entire US. shouldn’t that be something to be proud of?

    • Bellota says:

      Please enlighten us as to where those bike trails are located.

    • Bruce says:

      Part of the problem is that for the railbikes to remain, and I’m looking forward to my first ride next year, the tracks would have to stay. This means if the trail idea also went forward, a trail will have to be constructed along the right of way.

      As was pointed out with the original rail AND trail proposal, in order to accommodate both uses, serious thought would need to be given to reconstructing bridges and trestles (making them wider) to allow safe passage of hikers, bikers and trains (or railbikes) at the same time.

  21. John Thompson says:

    Another wrinkle in the never-ending save-or-scrap the railroad conundrum!
    Another nice piece of reporting, Phil.

  22. James Falcsik says:

    Mr. Brown, here is a visual aid to understand the impact the Rail Explorers operation is having on the tourism economy of the AP:

    Note that some points represent as many as sixty (60) people who booked reservations in a group. Almost 15,000 customers is less than 100 days.

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