Rail Explorers is on track to become a Cooperstown-area favorite.
The company, launched stateside in 2015 by husband and wife Alex Catchpoole and Mary Joy Lu, offers eco-tourism via pedal-powered rail bikes. A Cooperstown site, the company’s fourth, will open Saturday, May 29 from the Milford depot, part of the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad, at 136 East Main St. in Milford.
Rail Explorers also operates in Rhode Island, Las Vegas and the Catskills. Opening of the Cooperstown branch was announced in late April.
Lu said it all started when a Korean soap opera derailed her life in the film industry.
“We’re originally from Australia and, 19 years ago, we relocated to New York City,” she said. “We used to do visual effects for film and TV and … in 2012 we lived in Brooklyn, had two kids and had been there for 12 or 13 years. I was addicted to Korean dramas — I read the subtitles — and, leading this very high-stress life, needed those to decompress.
“So, I loved my Korean dramas and I saw this couple riding off into the sunset on the rails on this crazy contraption,” Lu continued. “I raced upstairs to Alex and said, ‘I’ve found our new business, our new career. He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ but he said, ‘OK,’ and a year later we packed up New York and went to Australia thinking, ‘Let’s get this up and running there.’ We spent a couple years developing it, then came back to the Adirondacks and launched in 2015.”
Prohibitive Australian rail-use laws, Lu said, plus a notice from New York State Department of Transportation, prompted the return to America.
“I was looking for abandoned railroad tracks around the world and came across the NYDOT putting out ideas for tracks in the Adirondacks,” she said. “We had no rail bikes; we had one in Australia, but railroad laws there were so strict we couldn’t even put it on the railroad, and we were running out of money, so we said, ‘Let’s go back.’ We packed up our boys, our family, our dog and moved to the Adirondacks.”
Though the original Rail Explorers track was ultimately ripped up by the NYDOT, Lu said, it was enough to get the business chugging along.
Lu said Cooperstown felt like a natural fit for a fourth Rail Explorers.
“We were just enamored by it,” she said. “We’d never been to Cooperstown and, a couple years ago, Bruce Hodges, who was president of the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad, met us at a train hobby show — you meet all these really interesting guys who know about every single scrap of track — and he said, ‘I’ve got some tracks you can come across.’ We were opening the Catskills at the time, but we went to visit (Cooperstown) last September and were just blown away by the town.
“It’s unique and totally different to the Hudson Valley feel of the Catskills,” Lu continued. “It’s beautiful and more rural and has all this bucolic farmland. We rode the track and it was gorgeous, so we were like, ‘OK.’”
While Lu said she hopes to engage Cooperstown tourists, the Otsego County Rail Explorers offers something for everyone. The Cooperstown route, she said, will be Rail Explorers’ longest, at 12 miles round trip, or about 40 minutes each way with a 20-minute turnaround. The site, she said, is also seeking to hire about 25 employees.
“The demographics there are so different; it’s really a national audience in Cooperstown and that’s something you don’t get (at our other sites),” she said. “But if you don’t like baseball or shopping or hiking or kayaking, you don’t have many options. Cooperstown doesn’t have an all-family, all-inclusive, all-ability type of attraction and this is definitely that; we feel we’re really going to cover this niche.”
Rail Explorers’ American-made, steel-frame bikes, Lu said, fuel that user-friendliness.
“We always thought (the demographic) would be fitness enthusiasts … but when we opened, it was everyone and their dog, literally,” she said. “Our bikes are made of steel — the quad weighs 900 pounds and the tandem 650 before people are on it — so we have people over 250 pounds; grandparents and great-grandparents; moms and dads with babies or, when (a child) can’t be worn in a Bjorn, we have a five-point harness that goes over the seat for kids 2 to 4; and people with wheelchairs, as long as they have upper body strength. So, we’ve found it’s not an elitist activity at all.”
According to a media release, Rail Explorers has welcomed more than 200,000 riders since 2015.
In addition to being inclusive, Lu said, Rail Explorers has also proven pandemic-friendly.
“Even though we opened later in the season … in the Catskills, we still had a banner year, with 25,000 riders,” she said. “It was pretty phenomenal, and people felt really comfortable. We spent four months planning COVID mitigation and providing online training for all our staff. It was perfect, (because) people could finally share things together and, often, it was the only thing they’d done together for a long time.”
The appeal, Lu said, is “visceral.”
“You’re sitting about 16 inches off the railroad track and you’re riding historic rails … and you’re hearing the clickety-clack, you’re feeling the wind and the sky is above you – it just makes you smile,” she said. “It’s a shared experience, phones are put away and there’s this memory made that’s beautiful. It’s pretty profound and this is the experience we love to bring.”
Rail Explorers, Lu said, is in expansion mode, with her and Catchpoole eyeing the country’s “50,000 miles of empty railroad just begging for Rail Explorers bikes.”
“We’re hoping to partner with more communities,” she said. “It’s really important to be a part of these communities and we’re really hoping to just keep growing and finding exciting places. The sky’s the limit.”
For more information on the Cooperstown line, which will operate from May 29 through Oct. 31, visit railexplorers.net or call 877-833-8588.