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February 5, 2023

Railbike operators find success in US

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Rail Explorers come in two models – a two-seater and a four-seater.

A couple who took their railbike tours to the US have returned for the summer holidays and say that since launching Rail Explorers in 2015, they now operate rail bike tours in five locations – Newport, Rhode Island; The Catskills, New York; Cooperstown, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Boone, Iowa.

The Echo reported in 2014 that Alex Catchpoole and Mary-Joy Lu proposed to use the 13km of abandoned railway line that runs between Bangalow and Byron Bay as a ‘tourism experience’. 

After their pedal-powered rail carts failed to get traction here, they have found success overseas and say their business is booming. 

Alex says, ‘Next year we plan to open two more divisions in the US. In the process, we launched an industry – there are now more than 20 copycat operators spread around America, bringing new life to old railroads and new revenue streams to scenic rail operations’.

A fleet of 150 railbikes

There are 150 railbikes in the Rail Explorer fleet

‘Rail Explorers now have a fleet of 150 railbikes – both Tandems (two-seaters similar to the one we had in Byron Bay in 2014) and Quads (four-seaters). During the peak summer seasons, we employ up to 160 people (approximately 30 per division plus bookings and support staff).

‘Since 2015, we have seen over 500,000 riders, and average about 30,000 riders per year, at each division.

‘Bookings are often sold out weeks in advance’.

‘The technology of the railbikes has also come a long way – each is now fitted with an electric-assist motor to help pedalling uphill’.

Alex told The Echo that coming back to the Shire and seeing the railway all overgrown and unused, ‘has brought back many memories and many moments of ‘What if…?’

Overgrown tracks

‘We still dream about bringing this amazing experience to the rails in Byron Bay, and it is heartbreaking to see the track so overgrown and neglected when Rail Explorers could have brought it to life. For the past seven years, it could have been attracting visitors to the area, creating jobs and generating revenue for the community’.

Both Lismore City Council and Tweed Council are in the process of creating rail trails on their section of railway, which has seen the rail line covered with road base and concrete.

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  1. Wow! Sounds great. Almost like a rail trail except you can’t walk, cycle, scooter, wheelchair or horse ride it. All that money to fix the bridges, tunnels and tracks so that someone can charge you $185 to use it for two hours. Yes, that’s what it costs in the US, see americanrailbike.com.

    • Byron to Bangalow on the railway is 13km. Easy enough if you have a decent bicycle or a horse (I have neither). But walkers, scooters, and wheelchairs? Lets see. Walking the 26km from Byron to Bangalow and back is going to take upwards of 6 to 8 hours. If you are in a wheelchair? I don’t think so. Families with little kids? No way!! On a railbike you, your friends, and people of all ages and all abilities (including those in wheelchairs) could do the entire out and back trip in an effortless 2 hours. And have a great time together while they do it.

      ‘All that money’? what money? who mentioned money? Unlike the ‘I just wanna ride my bike on it’ crowd, Rail Explorers is prepared to invest in the infrastructure, to bring the rail up to the safety standard for railbike use. And the ‘railbike use’ standard is not the same as the track rebuild necessary for light or heavy rail operations.

      Ticket prices for Bangalow to Byron also were not mentioned in the article above, and comparisons with operators In the USA are irrelevant. For clarity though, Rail Explorers’ ticket pricing is per vehicle, not per person. A Quad (4 seats) at Rail Explorers averages about $160 for a 2 hour, 20km ride. That is $40 per person. And a chunk of the ticket price goes back to the community and/or the State as a lease fee, which in Byron Shire could support other projects. For example, Byron could lend the money to Tweed Shire to pay for the upkeep on their rail-trail which will generate zero revenue and will require constant taxpayer support to maintain.

      The only part of Bref’s comment that I wholeheartedly agree with is ‘Wow! Sounds great.’ It really is.

      Come and ride with us in the USA and you’ll understand.

      • Alex starts by dismissing the typically seventy percent of trail users that ride bicycles. Because he doesn’t have one. A bicycle can easily cover the distance each way in well under an hour.

        Walking to Bangalow, in the morning, having lunch and walking back in the afternoon sounds like a pretty pleasant day out. Rail trails have very little gradient, even this section which is considered “steep” by railway standards at 1:50, so it isn’t difficult to walk quite a long way in a day.

        So the whole rail bike experience is all over in two hours? That is great for the operator to collect their money but nothing in it at all for any hinterland business. And at $40 each a go (is that USD or AUD ?) , not something people are going to do often. Many people will use the trail weekly, some much more often.

        Tweed has been working on our trail plan for years. A lot of money has already been collected from the the lease of part of the station to Murwillumbah Cycles. There are more spaces that will be available for rent once the project is completed. Funding models are being explored with the goal to make the asset cover its own costs.

        The maintenance cost of the trail has been estimated at $200K per year. Even without a cent of income from the leases and events on the trail, that is less than one thousandth of the Tweed annual budget, amounting to four cents per week for each Tweed resident. For comparison, Tweed spends $3 million per year on maintaining the swimming pools and $9 million on parks and gardens.

        Byron lending money to Tweed? Hilarious. Exactly how does Byron make money from someone running rail bikes on a state owned asset? Byron already struggles financially. Wasting money on futile railway dreams certainly doesn’t help.

  2. I tried to do similar for the Murwillumbah to Byron line many years ago using an interchangeable system with passengers traversing the same single track each way by swapping cars with those they meet along the single track and it was flat out rejected by the NSW rail authorities .
    With the brain dead imbeciles we have in the bureaucracy little wonder why we can’t have a rail & trail ,they get scared just thinking .

    • I have found that Australians are not allowed to have good ideas, our governments won’t allow it. But if foreigners come in with the same idea…no problem. That’s how I ended up moving to Singapore. It didn’t used to be like this.

  3. Railways in the US are privately owned and operated. Rail bikes would be a great enterprise once the trains no longer run and entirely the prerogative of the railway owner to negotiate with whomever they wish.

    Putting rail bikes on the old Casino Murwillumbah railway would effectively privatise a public asset for the exclusive use of people who can afford the very substantial fares and for the profit of the operator. Neither rail nor trail advocates wanted that to happen so it was never going to go ahead here.

    There is no opportunity for rail bikes to pass or overtake on a single line. The highly structured tours are run for groups with the whole experience typically lasting about 90 minutes and typically covering ten to fifteen kilometres. No opportunity to stop and enjoy what one finds personally interesting. Definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and really quite exclusive.

    Our trail will attract far more users and visitors than any rail bike ever would, with a lot more widespread benefits to the regional economy.

    Byron could have been opening their section of the rail trail in March along with Tweed, except the council wasted so much time and money pursuing futile dreams of reinstating railway services. Talk of rail bikes is just another pointless distraction.

    • Private, for profit companies have been working in partnership with State and Federal rail authorities in Australia since Federation. Although the construction and ownership of railways has typically been undertaken by government, it is common practice to outsource the operation of services on the infrastructure to private companies.

      In the USA, Rail Explorers negotiates with the rail owner – sometimes ownership is private, sometimes municipal, sometimes the state owns the tracks. In each case, a lease is negotiated and Rail Explorers pays a lease fee to the rail owner. This is attractive for many communities and state agencies who do not have the funds or will to rehabilitate their railways, or are reluctant to tear them out for bikers. ‘You’ll fix up this old track? and then pay us to use it? and advertise it to bring in tens of thousands of people and millions in economic impact?! And we don’t have to do anything???!!! Where do I sign!’

      I have heard the ‘our trail will attract blah blah blah, and our trail will bring in so much blah blah blah’ story so many times from so many trail advocates that now all I hear is ‘I WANNA RIDE MY BIKE ON IT!’ Their airy fairy claims to represent the ‘public good’ and the ‘wider benefit’ are just trite phrases that really don’t mean anything – the evidence is vague and comparative, the figures are speculative, the benefits obscure.
      Mary Joy and I have watched Rail Explorers’ business transform communities by bringing dormant or underused rails to life. Our numbers are factual, and the benefits are clear.

      Rail Explorers’ tours may not be your cup of tea Mr Clitheroe, but there are more than 500,000 people that have ridden with us who LOVED it. Don’t take my word for it – search tripadvisor.com for ‘rail explorers’ and read some of the many thousands of 5 star reviews.

      Right now you have an overgrown and rusting public asset. I think a ‘pointless distraction’ like Rail Explorers would be an improvement.

      • The “blah, blah, blah” Alex is hearing is of course his own attempts to drown out the cries of the people of NSW who own the corridor saying what we want. What I’m hearing from him is “I WANNA MAKE MY PROFIT”, with a subtext of “How dare people use what they own for free when there is private profit to be made”.

        What he calls “vague and comparative evidence” for trails are factual numbers directly from rail trails all over the world, including within Australia and NSW. Communities have certainly been transformed by rail trails. How is it that his evidence from his rail explorers in the USA not also comparative?

        The USA has a population thirteen times that of Australia and they are considerably more wealthy. New York state, where one if his sites is located, has nearly 20 million people in an area that is just sixty percent the size of Victoria. 500,000 riders at five sites over five years scales to rather unimpressive numbers here.

        Clearly Alex is not aware of the condition of the track between Byron and Bangalow, particularly on Hayters Hill. No doubt it would be less costly to repair it for rail explorers but he would have to find it first. The section is notorious for land slides and giant washouts. Intrepid trail advocates have battled their way through the corridor on hands and knees and were unable to locate some parts at all. He mentions “overgrown and rusting” but not the biggest problem of “rot” of the wooden infrastructure. It would still cost millions to get the track up to a standard that would support his explorers.

        The rusty overgrown asset is not that way for lack of people wanting a rail trail. Tweed Valley Rail Trail is nearing completion after nearly a decade, including many years of lobbying to get the legislation changed. Had Byron Shire Council responded to Tweed’s 2016 offer to join us in the project, it would have helped advance those changes greatly and the people of Byron Shire could have been using their trail in six weeks time too.

        We don’t need or want this public asset effectively privatised for the exclusive use of a small minority and the profit of investors. We have long wanted a public trail free to use for both locals and visitors and that is what we are going to have.

        • From America here. Rail Explorers have ruined a group of property owners homes with their extremely loud bikes and search for profits at all costs here in NY. They have been slowly but steadily wearing out their welcome here except with the tourists from the cities who seem to have no clue they are going from morning to night through peoples neighborhoods, by our front yards and our back yards, and crossing our roads and highway. They are very, very good at advertising and promoting their company and they are by all means a success but when you make your success while ruining the peace of others there is a cost to pay for it somewhere down the line. All the other rail bike companies in America have lighter weight bikes made in the USA with polyurethane wheels which means they are blessedly quiet! Rail Explorers bikes, made in Korea, are all steel resulting in a horrid sound of metal on metal. This also has a terrible effect on the wildlife. We would give anything for any other rail bike company to be here than the one above or even a rail trail which has been successfully done on other sections of the track close by. People love it, it’s free for everyone and it’s…quiet! It kills us that this company is making so much money off the tracks while ruining our properties.

  4. Futile dreams of rail services? ah well…just further proof we are doomed idiots still hooked on fossil fuels, truck transport and expensive roads.

    For those misguided folks who still think tourism is the answer…phooey! Look around you at destruction of community (thanks air bnb!).
    Rail trails are yet another example of privileged, tourism focussed development overtaking any real consideration of how we approach transport.

    Quit finding more ways to “play” and figure out how we will all live, work, travel and survive in the future.

  5. Great article and great points being made here in the comments section. RailExplorers has had massive success overseas. Setting up here would be a no-brainer and would of course be met with strong community support. Actively maintaining and preserving rail infrastructure through usage is a big plus, as is opening the route up to all ages and abilities via their rail vehicles.

    Sincerely hope they get started here. Count me in on the first trip!

  6. These appear appealing but they are expensive to set up and run , and can only be used by a handful of people at a time. They privatise the use of corridor land that belongs to all of us in NSW and like any rail use , would add greatly to the cost of building the rail trail. The rail trail in Tweed is already popular before it’s even opened. Unless there is a genuine funded shuttle rail proposal found this year from Byron Bay to Mullumbimby, let’s just stop fart-areseing around and get on with finishing the rail trail.


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