Long-unused and deteriorating railroad tracks in the Adirondacks have been put to use by a new tourist attraction imported from South Korea — pedal-powered rail-riding vehicles called rail bikes.
After plans to start a rail-biking business in Australia were derailed by high costs and red tape last spring, Alex Catchpoole and Mary-Joy Lu brought their shiny red contraptions to the Adirondacks. Their first summer on the 6-mile stretch between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear brought more than 10,000 customers paying $25 a ride.
But the future of Adirondack Rail Explorers is in doubt. The tracks, owned by the state, have long been at the center of a tug-of-war between railroading buffs who favor fixing them up and rail-trail advocates who want the tracks replaced by a multi-use biking, hiking and snowmobiling path.
After months of public hearings, two state agencies have proposed a compromise that would upgrade 45 miles of tracks for a tourist train on the southern part of the 119-mile rail corridor at an estimated cost of $11 million and would convert the northeastern segment to a 34-mile multiuse recreational trail for an estimated $7.8 million to $9 million.
Catchpoole and Lu are looking to form partnerships with other scenic rail lines in other parts of the country even as they urge customers to lobby to save the Adirondack tracks.
"These are the only rail bikes of their kind in the world outside of South Korea," Catchpoole said on a recent sunny morning as he prepared to ride off with a group of tourists.
The vehicles look more like go-carts than bikes, with two or four chair-like seats mounted on a steel frame that rides the rails on four steel wheels. Each rider has pedals, and one controls a hand brake.
The fleet of 12 rail bikes starts on scheduled tours together but spreads out as people pedal at their own pace or pause for pictures. Most of the route is through dense forest, with several spots where the view opens to ponds and meadows. Employees go along to act as road crossing guards.
The grade is mostly level with several gentle slopes that allow energetic pedalers to reach speeds of about 15 mph on the downhill.
"It was very cool, a great idea," said David and Angela Salabsky of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who took a ride with their two young daughters.
"This was my second time. I loved it," added Barbara Blum of Brant Lake.
Railroad advocates say the rail bike business, like the tourist train, provides a recreational option for people of all ages and abilities.
But trail advocates say the smooth, wide path they're promoting would allow people of all ages and abilities to ride their own bikes, at their own pace, on their own schedule, for free.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has said it would issue a final plan for the tracks by the end of the year.