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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Railriders off and running: Pedal-powered railroad excursion launched from Ione

By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

IONE, Wash. – Pedal power is taking on new meaning this summer along the scenic rails winding through the woods and across wooden trestles of Northeast Washington.

Member of the North Pend Oreille Lions Club have launched what they called the Railriders excursion, and have built specialty designed pedal-pushers that people can use to power their way up and down the tracks no longer used by trains.

Each of these rides can seat four people. The Railriders committee chairman, Dick Norton, said he hopes the offering can replace the popular excursion train rides the group had operated for 35 years.

The train rides were popular with families and those seeking an unusual way to enjoy the autumn colors. For the Lions Club, the train rides helped raise money for school and community projects. It stopped when the Pend Oreille Valley railroad quit performing costly maintenance of sections of the track they no longer used.

Instead, the excursion rides were moved south and are operated in the summer and fall by the Newport/Oldtown Rotary Club.

Tapping into a growing fad

Although these railrider pedal-pushers are becoming more common all over the United States and around the world as short-line railroads stop using some tracks, the vehicles are expensive and hard to find. They can cost more than $5,000 each.

So Lions member Larry Polluck took charge of building 11 cars with the help of other volunteers in his large shop. They started with a patented kit that include the special wheels, but found it was incomplete and uncomfortable. So he began making modifications and assembling the aluminum-framed vehicles one at a time.

There is a bicycle-chain drive system, with pedals for all four seats.

The seats were changed to the more comfortable recumbent bicycle type, laying the rider back in a reclining position. Most recumbent riders choose this type of design for ergonomic reasons, with the rider’s weight distributed comfortably over a larger area.

Each rider is equipped with handlebars and friction hand brakes in the front and rear. Braking and pedaling are easy, since the rails are on a gentle 1.5 percent grade. Polluck says they are very quiet and require no steering since they’re on the tracks.

Polluck estimates the cars will cost them about $3,000, the major expense for the first year of operations. They pay an annual amount for liability insurance.

The Lions Club had made about $60,000 from the train rides after expenses were paid. Eventually they hope Railriders ticket sales will make about half that amount – a sum still important to the community, said Mary Persons, the Lions Club treasurer.

Bob Shanklin, a Port of Pend Oreille commissioner, said the track the Lions Club is using in the Ione area is in good shape. The port, which operates the railroad, has crews that run trains from Ponderay Newsprint’s mill near Cusick to Dover, Idaho. They periodically check all the tracks and will instruct the Lions hosts on necessary crossing procedures.

Shanklin, a former railroad maintenance supervisor, rode the rails in various small contraptions here and around the country. He said this slow-moving view of the countryside is unique and beautiful, and said there is a great view of Box Canyon Dam from the turnaround area. The track is blocked there; no one will be allowed on the trestle.

A history on the rails

Pedal-powered vehicles date back to the 1850s, when maintenance workers and inspectors used them to travel along the tracks. Today, there are a variety of types of vehicles in use, with many names.

This historic railroad was built between 1907 and 1910 by Frederick Blackwell to transport people, logs, lumber and cement. This section joined a growing list of short lines abandoned or mothballed around the world.

Some people believe these pedal-powered vehicle excursions are a less-expensive alternative to removing the rails completely and building bike trails.

Norton said they decided to start at the Lions depot that the club renovated for the train excursions. There are restrooms and picnic area. It is in Ione, off state Highway 31, about 60 minutes from Newport and 90 minutes from north Spokane.

There will be three departures each day, at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.

Norton said they would leave on time, so get there early. All 11 Railrider vehicles will start the two-leg trip by heading south from the depot, spacing out as they depart. Lions Club hosts will ride in the lead and final vehicles.

The Railriders roll slowly and quietly into the forested and pastured countryside, where train crews report numerous animal sightings. They will pedal at their own pace over small wooden trestles on this stretch. The rails run away from the highway for 3 miles.

At Dennis Road, a metal hub embedded in the track base rock by the Lions will be used to lift and turn the car around to head back for the 3-mile trip to the depot. The vehicles are light enough for four people to lift and turn them if necessary.

This first leg of the trip takes about 45 minutes. Norton said they would stop for 10 minutes at the depot for a rest stop.

Heading north from the depot, the rails go across a city street and then a wooden trestle about 30 feet over Cedar Creek. They will roll through forested areas, close to the Pend Oreille River with mountain views.

Norton said riders’ hands are free to take pictures, and they can look around all they want without worrying about steering – just keep pedaling.

He said if just one person keeps pedaling, the car keeps gliding along. Children who can’t reach the pedals can be strapped in for the ride.

This leg heads towards the Box Canyon Dam lookout, with a slight uphill grade in this direction, though going back will be slightly downhill, Norton points out.

The parade of Railriders will cross state Highway 31 on this leg. Lions hosts will stop them for a moment while they drop the crossing arm and start the warning lights for the crossing, and presumably surprised, highway drivers.

The riders will stop at cement barriers just before the railroad bridge over Box Canyon Dam.

This second leg will take about 45 minutes round-trip and is 3 miles each way. With the stop in Ione, both legs take about two hours. Norton said they would space out each departure to provide plenty of time.

Norton said they are still in the trial stage for this new club project.

“Lots of ideas,” said Gayle Pollack, a Lions committee member, about what they plan in the future to enhance and improve the experience.

She said they envision groups and businesses buying entire departure times for a group experience.

They have several hundred reservations already, and some rides are sold out, she said.