Oct 07, 2023

Rail Explorers brings unique rail bike experience to central Iowa

There will soon be a new way for sight-seers to experience the beauty of central Iowa's Des Moines River valley.

Starting in July, thrill-seekers and nature lovers will be able to pedal down the tracks of the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad on four-wheeled, motor-assisted, open-air carts also known as rail bikes. Rail Explorers USA on July 21 will open its 12.4-mile round-trip tour, which winds along the Des Moines River and features a cross over the 156-foot-tall Bass Point Creek High Bridge.

Rail Explorers is the brainchild of Australia-native entrepreneurs Mary Joy Lu and Alex Catchpoole, a wife and husband team that launched their first rail bike fleet in 2015 in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad location in Boone County, about 45 minutes northwest of Des Moines, will be the company's first Midwest spot and its fifth in the United States.

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Lu and Catchpoole never imagined a career in the rail industry. The couple lived a fast-paced life in New York City for 12 years and owned a post-production company on Fifth Avenue.

Demands of the job grew tiresome, according to Lu, who said she was inspired to create Rail Explorers while watching a Korean soap opera in 2012.

Though she can't remember the name of the show, Lu described it as a typical "boy-meets-girl" soap where, in the final scene, the characters are on a date riding a rail bike.

"The scene is them pedalingoff on some contraption into the sunset and I just went, 'Whoa, what the heck is that? I love it!'" Lu said. "I raced upstairs to my husband and said, 'This is what we're doing next.'"

Lu said railroads conjure memories of when she and Catchpoole were dating back home in Australia. On trips to visit Catchpoole's parents in Byron Bay, the couple would have to drive over railroad tracks to reach the home.

"(Alex) would look out one window and say, 'No trains my side' and I'd look out mine going, 'No trains my side' and we'd cross the rail," Lu said. "It was this really affectionate thing."

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Within 10 days of watching the K-Drama, Lu was on a plane to South Korea to meet with the designer and manufacturer of the rail bikes.

It's not a new concept, Lu said. In fact, rail bikes span back at least 150 years as a way for train mechanics to travel up and down tracks to complete rail inspections and repairs. However, commercial-type rail bikes like those used in the soap opera — and now by Rail Explorers — had never been seen outside South Korea.

The designer who Lu met was one of the first to engineer the bikes for public use, an effort that started when the artist was asked to revive the railroads of a small mining town about three hours outside of Seoul, Korea.

"Literally, it's changed the whole town. Instead of dying, the town is breathing and thriving," Lu said. "That's what captured my imagination."

While maintenance rail bikes look like bicycles on wheels, commercial ones look more like go-karts on rails, Lu says.

"That's why we liked them," she said. "They were rugged, they were strong and they have a proven safety track record, which we knew coming to America was really important."

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With some financial help from family, Lu and Catchpoole opened Rail Explorers in July 2015, with six bikes in Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.

The response?

"It sold out from the moment we opened," she said. "It was ridiculous."

Even more surprising, the couple anticipated customers of a certain demographic — athletic hikers and bikers and fitness junkies — "but what we got was people of all ages and fitness levels, which blew our mind," Lu said.

The couple tallied about 15,000 riders in its first year and another 25,000 in its second. Rail Explorers now has four U.S locations: Las Vegas, Cooperstown and the Catskills in New York, and Newport, Rhode Island.

The Boone and & Scenic Valley Railroad, a division of the non-profit Iowa Railroad Historical Society, began in 1983, according to Travis Stevenson, the railroad's general manager. The track was going to be abandoned and a group of residents got together and bought it and, eventually, a tourist railroad was born.

Today, the railroad draws about 50,000 visitors each year, Stevenson said.

The railroad organization hosts several rides including picnic, lunch and dinner rides throughout the year, as well as events like A Day Out with Thomas (the Tank Engine), pumpkin and Christmas rides. The bulk of the operation is run by a team of 150 volunteers, Stevenson said.

Some trains depart from Boone and go through the old coal-mining town of Fraser. Others, such as the dinner train, go past Fraser to the site of the former junction with the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway at Wolf.

The organization also has a museum dedicated to Iowa's railroad history. On display are thousands of the state's railroad artifacts and memorabilia such as track equipment, toy trains, dining car china, timetables, photos, lanterns, and telegraph equipment.

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Catchpoole happened across the railroad system on his way back from a train show in New Mexico.

Lu said she got a call from her husband, who was gushing over the river valley's lush, green fields and chirping birds.

When choosing a location for the bikes, Lu said she and Catchpoole examine how close the railroad is to a large city and whether the operators and owners are willing to collaborate. But most importantly, the location has to have "unique scenic value," she said. "It can't just be an average track — and there's a lot of average tracks out there."

The track starts on flat land, passing neighborhoods and farm fields before running through Boone County's rolling hills. The rail crosses the Des Moines River bridge and the jaw-dropping Bass Point Creek High Bridge, the tallest trestle bridge in the state available for public train rides.

"If you don't like heights, this ride might not be for you," Lu said. "It's exciting because it's going to be a thrill-seekers ride. People are going to come from all over the place to ride — not just locals."

The biggest challenge will be sharing the track with a robust tourist train, which is used almost every day. Both Lu and Stevenson said the solution will come down to good scheduling and communication.

Stevenson says he hopes Rail Explorers will bring exposure to the historic railroad and allow the organization to serve an untapped market.

"It's amazing the people that I talk to that, they're from Des Moines but didn't know we existed," he said. "It seems like biking is definitely a major part of Iowa, so we see this as a way to kind of offer a different experience on our tracks."

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The ride begins at the Rail Explorers' depot at 123 10th Street in Boone, and is 12.4 miles roundtrip. Riders choose between tandem or quad bikes, which have room for two or four people, respectively. The bikes have four steel wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, and the REX Propulsion System, a custom-built electric motor to help riders navigate steep hills.

Riders must pedal, but they don't have to steer, which leaves their hands free to take photos.

Tours will include about 30 to 40 people, and bikes will be spaced about 300 to 400 feet apart. Each tour will have two guides leading the pack and two following.

The quad bikes are priced at $160 and tandems are $90. Lu recommends booking tickets online in advance. Riders must sign a waiver and each tour will get a safety briefing at the start of the ride.

The tour is 6.2 miles out, with a half-hour break for guides to turn the bikes around, and 6.2 miles back. There will be multiple tours throughout the day including a sunset ride, Lu said.

Lu says the turnaround area, complete with picnic chairs and umbrellas, is a good spot for riders to catch their breath and enjoy a home-brought snack and refreshments. It's also a good lookout spot for viewing bald-eagle families and deer.

The tours will be seasonal, and though it's still unclear how long their full season will run, Lu is hoping this first year will run through the beginning of November.

The team is also looking to hire at least 35 new seasonal employees, including tour guides and depot staff.

Job seekers are encouraged to submit their resumes to [email protected]. A head mechanic position and Rail Explorers tour guide position are listed on Indeed.

Virginia Barreda is a trending and general assignment reporter for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.

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