South Shore Line Looks Into Accommodating Bikes on Trains

20030504 14 South Shore Line @  Hudson Lake, IN
A South Shore Line car with high and low level boarding doors. Photo: David Wilson.

Two weeks ago, at a friend’s suggestion, I started a petition to lobby the South Shore Line to allow bicycles on trains, which currently has 125 signers. Our motivation was mostly selfish: We want to be able to travel to the Dunes National Lakeshore and other places in northwest Indiana with our bikes. So I reached out to Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, the agency that operates the South Shore Line. Yesterday afternoon, when I called John Parsons, NICTD’s planning and marketing director, he said he was expecting me since he had already received many emails about bikes on trains (the petition website automatically sends them).

Note: Passengers may bring bikes if inside luggage and can fit in the luggage rack. 

Parsons said he appreciated the petition emails because they told him why people want to take their bicycles on the South Shore Line. Many people, like me, want to visit the Dunes, while others want to be able to visit family in South Bend without having to be driven to and from the station. People left comments about how bicycles can fill the “last mile” gap to your final destination – that leg of the trip where there’s often no transit service – and that allowing bicycles on trains could increase ridership.

The signatures weren’t all from Chicagoans. Bruce Spitzer from South Bend wrote, “This is South Bend’s ‘direct connection’ to Chicago! Yet we bicyclists cannot enjoy easily taking our bikes to Chicago. We’d love to bike in Chicago via the South Shore!” Russ Perdiu from Tippecanoe, IN, said, “With gas pricing sky high and traffic a total disaster no matter what city you are in it is important to allow access to alternative travel options.”

So why can’t bikes go on South Shore Line trains? Parsons said the limitations are pretty straightforward. A lot of the route’s 19 stations have low-level boarding that requires people to enter trains via narrow stairs and doorways at the end of the cars. “You literally cannot bring a bike up these stairwells,” he explained. The agency is converting more stations to high-level boarding in order to use the cars’ middle doors, which would improve access for people with disabilities.

20120218 20 South Shore Line
Interior of a South Shore Line car. Photo: David Wilson.

The other problem is the lack of space in the cars. While there is space for people using wheelchairs, these spaces cannot hold bicycles, according to Parsons. Parsons also told me about how the train line’s low frequency would affect conflicts. “What do you do when there’s someone in a wheelchair using the space and you have a family with bikes [say, at Beverly Shores] and this is the last train to South Bend? Metra has a lot more frequency than we do.”

The good news is that the South Shore Line and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) are conducting a study to see what can be done. Parsons said the study would look at “what physical changes could take place in the cars, how we go about managing bikes on trains given the types of equipment we have, and the service frequencies we have.” NIRPC and NICTD are currently discussing the scope of the study and held their first meeting last week.

Jack Eskin, a planner at NIRPC, says that the study is largely an engineering one, “to show what NICTD would have to do in capital improvements to their cars, and how much it would cost to create space for bikes.” Eskin said that the study would be published “well into 2014.”

Updated to add interview with Eskin.

  • Josh Ellis

    Good news, and good work!

  • Thank you, Josh.

  • Alfred Lord Tenniscourt

    I am super happy to hear someone is doing something positive about this.

    The Southern tip of lake Michigan is absolutely vital to transit. Anyone looking at a map can see that if you are going to travel East or West across the Northernmost 1/3rd of the United States of America, you are either going to have to take a boat, or jog South and go around the lake.

    The fact that putting a bicycle on a train through this area is not an option is a national tragedy, and a Goddamn, crying shame.

    I didn’t write an email to Parsons myself, because I was afraid I would come off as too aggressive, and would not ultimately help the cause; but if I did, it would certainly contain the sentence “So why don’t you get your dick out of the dog and do your job for five minutes?”

    And the reason I would write that sentence is that whenever I have enquired about bringing bikes on the train, they act like it is the craziest idea ever. They act like I am talking about some feat of engineering that demonstrably can’t be accomplished until some major breakthroughs are made in physics and material science. They tell me it would cost millions to just get the bikes onto the train, and that then, people would certainly perish from the imminent danger that bicycles will somehow pose to the other riders.

    I tell them that I will buy the bicycle a seat, stick it by the window, and sit next to it to vigilantly defend the population from it. I remind them that wheelchairs can go onto the train, and that ramps that could get bikes onto the train safely have already been built at every station.

    It doesn’t matter. They believe the danger still too great, and will not allow it.

    And at some point, one realizes that everything is backwards, these are the people who are supposed to know about these things. These are experts on transit, on engineering, on trains, and it seems like they should be the very people who can solve these problems. As a matter of fact, that must be their job… These are the people who should be encouraging us to bring bikes on the trains, not trying to keep us from doing it.

    And if these people cannot figure out a way to get a bicycle onto a train… Well, from an engineering standpoint, that is just about the most ridiculous level of incompetence imaginable. My Mother, who is a very talented woman, though not in the engineering sense, could figure out how to get a bicycle on a goddamned train. I see four year olds in sand boxes with a level of engineering ability that enables them to put small objects onto larger ones and move them both around for God’s sake.

    As a matter of fact, to call an engineering department that can’t figure this one out “retarded,” is offensive to the poor retarded people I have known over the years, and not so much because the word “retarded” is offensive nowadays, but because they are literally able to solve problems at and beyond this level, and do not deserve to be lumped in with the dummies down at the NICTD.

    And what the hell does Parsons do? He is supposed to be the planning and marketing director, and one would think he would therefore plan or market something, but all I see is stagnation, and if I had to take a guess I believe that he must spend most of his office time jacking off to dirty pictures, and making up for it by mimeographing old plans and marketing strategies after hastily whiting out, and updating, prices and wages.

    I try not to be too hard on civil servants, but lets get with the program! This is 2013. You can get your porn on the internet, and re-use old spreadsheets and power points for lackluster planning and marketing nowadays. The era of print pornography and mimeographs is over! That was your father’s NICTD, or perhaps your grandfather’s, but we live in a brave new world and I believe that if Parson’s could start slowly, and learn how to get some porno downloaded, it wouldn’t be long before he got the idea that in 2013 bicycles aren’t just toys for children, or some third rate way to travel fit only for the communist Chinese (and only poor ones at that) but a real, viable way to move people around a region when combined with public transit.

    Hell, after a session or two, he might find his way onto some hippie websites and figure out what his job is… He might even eventually like it!

    But let’s start small Parsons. Put down the mimeograph. Learn to use a “mouse.” Maybe try to think of one or two good ideas for the trains each day (“lets put ice cream on the choo choo! Well… That would be hard because ice cream melts, John). Maybe take a field trip and try riding one of the trains some time. Maybe drop acid and go off into the desert for a day or two to take stab at that powerful mystery “What do you do when there’s someone in a wheelchair using the space and you have a family with bikes [say, at Beverly Shores] and this is the last train to South Bend?”

    Oh, and it is not “literally impossible” to carry a bike up into a South Shore train. As a result of a vast conspiracy which I orchestrated at one point, I can say that I have done it. I freely offer to prove that it can be done at any time, and with any of my bicycles, safely, quickly, and efficiently.

  • Michigan Bicyclists

    Amtrak is undergoing a retrofit of their cafe cars along their Midwest service. We tested out the new racks in Michigan a few weeks back. While it was certainly a tight fit to get through the narrow doors, it really wasn’t that bad. Having traveled South Shore many times, it seems like it wouldn’t be any more difficult to get your bike through the door and into the car than on Amtrak.

    You can read more about the Michigan bikes on Amtrak campaign and see photos of the prototype racks on the League of Michigan Bicyclists’ website: http://www.lmb.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=829:amtrak-bikes-on-trains-demo-ride&catid=114&Itemid=94

  • C Monroe

    This is an easy solution, take out a seat or two by the door, put up a wall to keep passengers safe from the bikes in case of an emergency situation, put in the type of bike hooks that have the bikes up on the rear wheels and the front wheels up in the hooks. You could store 4-6 bikes per car and it would not cost an arm and a leg.

    Me and a friend were stationed in a different area of Germany than Berlin. We decided to take a train to Berlin and bike around that town. Only the fast trains high speed trains bikes were not allowed, but the conductors stored our bikes in a storage room for then 5 deutschmarks(about $3). We didn’t have to break down the bikes and there was about 15-20 bikes in this compartment. We just had to let a conductor know when it was our stop before hand to get the bikes out.

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