Rail-Bikes, the Latest Hit Attraction for the Valley Railroad Company in Essex

The Valley Railroad Company in Essex has halted operation of its popular Essex Stream Train and Riverboat rides while the state adjusts to life with COVID-19, but is instead offering, for a limited number of dates this summer, a novel rail-bike experience along the scenic lower Connecticut River.

“The rail-bikes were going to be one of our season opening events, but it was originally slated to just be in an addition to the things we’re already doing,” said Valley Railroad Company Vice President Rob Bradway. “It was never anticipated that the rail-bikes would be the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat for any amount of time, but that’s kind of what we’re doing right now.”

The Valley Railroad Company offers the only opportunity in Connecticut to peddle the tracks on rail-bikes, and so far the experience has proven popular with the public.

“It’s kind of an undiscovered, new gem for us and it’s the perfect thing right now where everything is kind of outdoor and open-air based,” said Bradway. “It’s a nice way for people to start coming out of the hibernation that we’ve been locked in and come out and do something on the rails—enjoy the beautiful Connecticut River Valley—and start to engage again safely.”

“The whole experience in the countryside with views of the water—it’s a unique thing,” said Jane Ladmesser, who was invited from New York by her boyfriend who works with the riverboat. “I highly recommend it.”

On weekends during the months of June and July, riders can peddle a four-mile, approximately 60-minute round trip from Goodspeed to Shailerville. Two-seat and four-seat bikes are available — seven in total — for nine rides a day.

“It is very welcoming and laid back, not too difficult,” said Pennsylvania resident Lauren McKay, who is visiting her boyfriend who works for the railroad. “It’s not strenuous, so I think anybody can do it, which is great.”

Bradway said that the rail-bikes are hit with the public.

“They’ve exceeded our wildest expectations as far as how popular they are,” Bradway said.

Valley Railroad ran a pilot program last year with two two-seat bikes that ran for four weekends in October and November and was well received, he said. The company purchased an additional five bikes just before the pandemic.

Over the next months, Bradway said that they plan to offer an extended trip from Goodspeed to Deep River and return, which will take about an hour and 45 minutes, over close to 10 miles of track not currently being used.

In July, the idea is to expand to Haddam Meadows State Park and run the rail-bikes along track that is not currently used by trains. Additional trips leaving Essex and an early morning rail-bike excursion to the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, are also being considered, said Bradway.

“At the ferry, we would park the bikes, let people go down [and] walk down the street, [then] take the ferry across to Hadlyme, hike up to Gillette Castle, then come back down across on the ferry later and connect with our steam train down to our riverboat,” he explained.

Bradway said that the safety procedures in place have succeeded in letting the public have fun and feel safe.

Guests are instructed to wear masks while waiting in line for the excursion to begin and in areas where others are congregating. Visitors are not required to wear a mask while riding a bike as long parties maintain an acceptable distance from other riders and pedestrians.

The Valley Railroad Company employees also thoroughly sanitize each bike before riders board and hand-sanitizer is available at the entrance and exit.

At present, the company is working with state and local officials to determine when they will be able to safely reopen their main attractions, but in the meantime the opportunity to ride the rails on bikes appears to be yet another popular addition to one of the biggest tourist draws to southeast Connecticut.

“The whole experience in the countryside with views of the water—it’s a unique thing,” said Jane Ladmesser, who was invited from New York by her boyfriend who works with the riverboat. “I highly recommend it.”

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