All aboard the Rail Explorers

All aboard the Rail Explorers

Pedal-powered rail bike tours start Saturday in Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH – Watch a sunset, ramble past historic sites, and unwind in the great outdoors along Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay with a leisurely ride on a pedal-powered rail bike, an adventure only offered in a few locations across the country.

Rail Explorers, featuring two- and four-seat rail bikes and operating only on railroad tracks that are free of train traffic, will begin its season on Saturday, May 11, and run through Oct. 31.

“It’s a great way to connect with friends and loved ones without the distraction of technology,” Rail Explorers CEO and Founder Mary Joy Lu, of Middletown, told The Valley Breeze. “It’s an incentive to get out of the house and try a nice adventure.”

This year, Rail Explorers will operate in Portsmouth, Las Vegas, and Phoenicia, New York. The Rhode Island division, which began in 2017, is presented by the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad.

Since it started, 43,000 riders have taken tours in R.I., said Mark Stenning, of Newport, the director of business development for Rail Explorers.

“It’s been very well-received,” he told The Breeze. “A lot of tours are sold out in advance. We encourage people to reserve (a spot).”

The rail bikes, which are are custom-made in South Korea, have four steel wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, pedals for each seat, and are easy to ride, according to the company.

With no age or weight restrictions, they’re accessible to people of all ages and abilities, Lu said. Parents can bring newborns and the bikes are dog-friendly.

While the Quad Explorer, which is 10-feet long and weighs more than 750 pounds, has four seats and four sets of pedals, only two people have to peddle, she said.

The tracks are flat, and people are encouraged to ride at 6 to 7 mph, Lu said.

“It’s not a super athletic sport,” she said.

Pedal-powered rail vehicles date back to at least the 1850s when maintenance workers used handcars and rail bikes to travel along railroad tracks to transport workers and materials, according to Rail Explorers’ website.

Lu said she’s heard from people who have visited different locations that Rhode Island is the most beautiful ride.

The tracks, once part of the Old Colony Railroad that opened in 1862, go by many historic sites, such as where the Battle of Rhode Island took place in 1778. Riders receive a history booklet showing different locations along the tracks, Lu said.

Two tours, the Northern Ramble and the Southern Circuit, both traverse the west side of Aquidneck Island and take approximately two hours.

On the 6-mile Northern Ramble, riders will pedal by private waterfront estates, two golf courses, the Newport Preservation Society Topiary Gardens and the Audubon Society Nature Preserve, as well as under the Mount Hope Bridge.

“It’s gorgeous,” Stenning said of the one-way ride. A shuttle bus will bring riders back to the start.

The Southern Circuit is a six-mile round trip that starts at Portsmouth Grove Station and heads south to Bayside Station, Rail Explorers’ exclusive waterfront picnic area.
Stenning said most of the state’s islands are visible from this ride.

During sunset tours, Stenning said riders will see “the most amazing sunset you’ve ever seen.”

Fireside Fridays take place at 7:30 p.m. and feature a lantern-lit round trip to Bayside Station where riders can enjoy a bonfire, s’mores, and hot apple cider. 

Sunday Brunch rides take place at 9 a.m. and sell out fast, Stenning said. The Southern Circuit ride includes mimosas, bloody Marys, muffins, fruit, and Death Wish Coffee at Bayside Station.

What’s the best season to go? Any season, Stenning said.

“There’s tremendous foliage in the fall and tremendous views in the summertime,” he said.

Lu created Rail Explorers with her husband Alex Catchpoole, inspired after watching a Korean soap opera in 2012 and seeing two characters riding a rail bike.

In 2015, the couple, who had been working in New York City and wanting a “life change,” opened the first location in New York’s Adirondacks.

While attending a train convention – “we basically have become train buffs,” Lu said – they met the owner of the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad who told them he had six miles of usable track.

In January 2017, they went to Portsmouth to clear overgrown brush to build a station and parking lot and have been offering adventures ever since.

“It’s really fun,” Lu said. “The locals have really embraced us.”

All tours begin at 1 Alexander Road in Portsmouth. Free parking is available at the Rail Explorers depot.

A Tandem Explorer (for two riders) costs $80, a Quad Explorer (up to four riders) costs $135, a single VIP seat next to a tour guide is $45, and there is a 10 percent discount for groups of 10 or more. Rides are available on weekdays and weekends.

For tickets and more information, visit www.railexplorers.net or call 877-833-8588.

Husband and wife Alex Catchpoole and Mary Joy Lu, of Middletown, the founders of Rail Explorers, on a rail bike in 2016 in their former Adirondacks location in New York. The Rhode Island division of Rail Explorers is presented by the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad and kicks off its season on Saturday, May 11.