Anita Metlen and her grandchild, Hazel Hartz, give the rail rider prototype a tryout. The rail rider is essentially a pedal-powered rail cart. Kim Metlen, the retired former owner of Mountain Works bike shop in La Grande, is proposing a rail rider service that could start as early as next summer.
Kim Metlen proposes rail riders in Wallowa County that could begin next summer
The idea is still in the early stages, and it has significant hurdles to leap, but Wallowa County may soon be the second place in the nation, and one of a handful of places worldwide, with a rail rider concession.
Thank Kim Metlen. The retired former owner of Mountain Works bike shop in La Grande is proposing a rail rider service that could start as early as next summer.
The rides would be offered from mid-May through September.
“The excursion trains only run from Elgin to Minam, and the part from Minam to Joseph has not been utilized for several years, so I thought, why not use it,” Metlen said. “I looked at rail bikes and thought it was not safe. Then I Internetted and found these rail riders.”
The rail rider is essentially a pedal-powered rail cart. There is one rail rider concession in Maine, the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, several in France, one in Great Britain, one in Australia and one in South Korea.
“I love speed with bicycles. And I love this,” Metlen said. “It’s totally different. You’re side by side with whoever and there’s conversation going on and it’s beautiful. You’re there by yourself. Don’t have to worry about traction. There is no friction. No resistance.
“It’s essentially a Fred Flintstone car with brakes,” he said, laughing. “Only you don’t have to drag your feet to stop.”
Sure, there are obstacles. Insurance is a big one. As soon as insurance people hear the word “rail,” Metlen said, they think of a bug on a railroad track with a locomotive bearing down. They think imminent
Not so fast, Metlen argues. Rail riders, especially the ones he has in mind, with a prototype already having been tried out on the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority line, connecting Elgin to Joseph, is about as safe as spreading mayonnaise with a kitchen knife.
“I can’t think of anything safer that gives you fresh air and exercise,” Metlen said. “There’s no steering wheel.”
It’s also true that although the Minam to Joseph portion of the rail is currently decommissioned, it could be brought back to service at any time by being inspected and having any deficiencies repaired should rail officials decide there is enough commerce to warrant it. At this time, Metlen said, the rail rider program would become null and void.
Metlen’s proposal has received enthusiastic WURA support and verbal approval but still needs formal written approval before he can start to build the rail riders, with help from the capable welders and metal fabricators at Barreto Manufacturing.
“The machinists can’t wait to put them together,” Metlen said.
The rail riders will cost about $3,000 to produce, with Metlen doing “everything but the welding,” and Metlen conceives of putting together about 10 in all.
The most promising route, the one he perceives as having the most use, is Joseph to Enterprise in the heart of the Wallowa Valley scenic zone, a two-hour round trip. He also plans options for a one-day ride from Joseph to Minam and a four-hour ride from Wallowa to Minam and back, so tourists with a yen for slow-paced recreation can get their scenery fix.
The cost for riders to rent the rail bikes, and ride through the magnificent Wallowa County scenery, could be $15 for the two-hour ride. That, however, depends on finalizing insurance, which at the present time is a big, big if.
The rail riders aren’t Tour d’ France bikes, mind you. They don’t have outriggers, like rail bikes. They will travel at 5 to 10 mph, at most, and most often be ridden by two people sharing the adventure. They can’t topple over. Riders will not split their skulls on a rail.
The rail riders look formidable. But Metlen said, although they have to be trailered due to their width, will weigh just 100 pounds and can be moved, and put on the tracks, by a healthy human with a good back.
“It has an aluminum frame kind of like a river raft frame attached to the wheels,” Metlen said. “The wheels weigh 18 pounds apiece and the axles feature three-quarter inch stainless steel. It’s single speed, so there’s nothing to wear out.”
Metlen said his idea has been met with positive feedback at meetings and will put Northeast Oregon on the map as far as one more novel recreation option for the plethora of visitors escaping to Wallowa County each summer.
Rail riders may not be for speed freaks. They may not be for people wanting a lot of recreational bells and whistles.
“The rails aren’t going away, anytime soon, so we need to find a way to maximize utilization of the resource,” Metlen said. “Rail riders will help us do that.”
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