Newport, Rhode Island sure is a happening place during the summer. Vacationers flood the city to such an extent that primetime June reservations at the most in-demand restaurants are best booked in the dead of winter. People come for the food and numerous other attractions, including the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad, which runs various excursions in and around Newport, and Rail Explorers.
Rail Explorers is a company that allows people to ride custom-built bicycle-like contraptions, which I will henceforth refer to as “bikes” for lack of a better term, along the rails. The opportunity to essentially bike down the tracks sounded like a unique and fun activity so my wife and I jumped at the chance to participate on Saturday, June 24, 2017.
One of the consistencies between all of the train rides I have taken is that I have always been restricted to watching the scenery whiz out the side window of a passenger car. Never do I get to see the tracks straight on, to look up the rails and see what lays ahead. Normally only the engineer enjoys this view, but Rail Explorers gave us the opportunity.
Still, I wondered about the logistics. With only one set of tracks, how do inbound riders return to the point of origin without crashing into those traveling outbound? Without any way to pass, would speed be limited by the slowest rider at any given time like it would on a single-lane road with no passing zones? These are active railroad tracks; would we need to worry about train traffic?
Turns out that Rail Explorers considered these challenges too and figured out solutions. In order to avoid head-on collisions, trips start at specific pre-determined times so that everyone is simultaneously riding in the same direction. Rail Explorers also coordinates with the Newport and Narragansett Bay Railroad, from whom they sublease use of the tracks, to ensure that trains are not on the tracks while people are pedaling down them.
The company website recommends that interested customers make reservations in advance, as the trips oftentimes are sold out. Trips are either booked as one-way excursions, which include a shuttle bus that picks people up at the end and brings them back to the starting point, or round trips. My wife and I booked the one-way trip, which would entail a northbound six-mile journey beginning in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
Before the excursion began, the staff gathered the riders together for a couple of speeches, the first was a promotion about the company itself, while the latter focused on safety. Rail Explorers has reportedly never had an accident and they emphasized that they wanted to keep it that way. They showed us how to use the braking system and told us over and over again that we must put our right arms up when braking so the riders behind us know that we are slowing down.
Once the speech about safety concluded, we were told to pick our bikes, and this is where the chaos began. Some of the bikes had tags indicating that they had been reserved, but it was unclear who had reservations and who did not. We had booked our trip online ahead of time, so were we to look for a reserved bike or take an open one? To add to the confusion, some of the bikes were clearly four-seaters and some of them were obviously two-seaters, but others looked to be two two-seaters linked together so were those for parties of four, or would they be separated before the trip began? Also, we were told that if we wanted to go faster we should choose bikes towards the front while riders who wanted a more leisurely experience should gravitate towards the back. That sounded good in theory, but all of the confusion led to people just taking whatever bikes they could get instead of organizing themselves by speed. Hopefully Rail Explorers can figure out a way to make the bike selection process more clear and efficient.
Once everyone was in their respective bikes, the trip was ready to begin. The staff let the bikes go one at a time in approximately 30-second intervals in order to intentionally create gaps between riders and minimize the chances of a crash. After a final safety quiz about how to brake and signal, the staff let us go and we were off.
My wife was nervous that we might derail, and honestly I can understand her anxiety, as some of the tracks looked a bit uneven and rickety, but I reassured her that real trains still use these tracks daily without incident, and that if we did derail we would probably simply slip off the tracks and stop, no big deal.
In terms of exertion, these bikes are similar to exercise bikes in that one can peddle as fast or as slow as they want and make the experience anything from a leisurely stroll to an exhausting workout. Some riders were dripping with sweat at the end, but most looked refreshed, not the least bit worn out. We saw little kids, elderly folks, and all ages in between enjoying the experience.
The ride was much more bumpy and louder than I expected. After all, rides in passenger trains tend to be quiet and smooth. In contrast, we could feel every bump in these bikes. Each time our wheels passed over the small space between rail beams – which was quite often – we got a jolt. The shaking of the bike’s frame was so loud that my wife and I were shouting to each other even though our heads were maybe a foot apart. In all seriousness, next time I would bring ear plugs. Maybe something was wrong with our bike, or maybe the noise was an intentional safety feature so other bikers and cars at street crossings would have a better sense of our presence, but I have to believe that if Rail Explorers wanted quieter bikes there would be a way to make that happen.
Besides, the issue of street-crossing safety was largely taken care of by the staff, who were stationed at virtually all of the crossings along the route. Like crossing guards in front of elementary schools, the staff stopped the cars so riders could safely traverse the intersections.
When we were not having to keep an eye out for intersections or other riders slowing down in front of us, we were able to enjoy the scenery. We could see Narragansett Bay to the east for much of the ride, while to the west were the back yards of upscale residential properties. During the latter portion of the route, we passed two golf courses and a wildlife sanctuary. The staff met us just north of the Mount Hope Bridge and took pictures of each rider with the bay and bridge in the background. These were not the sort of for-profit photos that get taken at places like the New England Aquarium or Major League Baseball games, where the photographers then try to sell the pictures to you; rather, the staff used the riders’ own cameras so the photos were free and instantaneously available. The pictures were a nice touch and we certainly appreciated it.
When the excursion concluded, we piled onto a bus with the other riders for a drive back to our starting point six miles south. Along the way, the driver told us some history about the area as well as the railroad. According to him, the tracks we rode down were part of the passenger route that used to connect Boston and Newport. Said passenger service has long since ended, and freight traffic ceased in the 1980s after a storm damaged a portion of the corridor beyond repair. Today, the tracks are used for scenic train rides and Rail Explorers, while the state has their eye on the corridor as the site of a possible light rail system sometime in the future if road traffic becomes overwhelming.
Start to finish, with the exception of the bike selection chaos, we loved our Rail Explorers experience and hope to do it again. They have a southbound route out of Portsmouth in addition to the northern route we rode. Their website shows locations in New York and Delaware as well, and the staff said they are looking to open up new locations in Nevada and Colorado and to expand internationally to France and Ireland.
While the expansion plans sound challenging, I think about all the hurdles Rail Explorers has cleared in order to achieve the level of operation they already maintain. Their perseverance is inspiring and it made me wonder about the other possibilities associated with rail biking. Imagine biking through the Hoosac Tunnel or maybe even from coast to coast. Sure, many logistical challenges exist, but rail biking has already come this far, who knows where its limits lay?