Trying Out New Roll-on Bike Service on the Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee

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Maybe “Hoist-on service” would be more accurate, but simply handing your bike to an Amtrak worker is much more convenient than boxing and checking it. Photo: John Greenfield

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This morning as officials cut the ribbon for roll-on bike service on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service trains, a whole new set of destinations that can easily be accessed without a car opened up for Chicago and Milwaukee residents.

While the Hiawatha line has allowed passengers to check boxed bikes as luggage for years, it’s a relatively expensive and cumbersome affair. There’s a $10 surcharge each way, the boxes are $15 if you purchase them from the railway, and then you have to dissemble your bike and box it up on each leg of the trip.

Now passengers can pay a mere $5 surcharge each way and simply roll their bikes up to the baggage car, where a staffer will hang it on a vertical bike rack. The one-way adult fare for the Hiawatha Service is $25, with discounts available for ten-ride tickets and monthly passes.

Reservations are required for the roll-on service. To reserve a space for your bike, select “add bike” when booking your trip online, on the phone at 800-USA-RAIL, or when using the ticket counters or the Quik-Trak SM kiosks at both stations. Only standard-size bikes are permitted.

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Bikes in the baggage car — some were more festive than others. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday I rode Metra to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with my bicycle (one-way weekday fare from the Ravenswood stop was $9) and then pedaled some 40 miles to Milwaukee for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by a dozen or two local bike advocates.

“We have worked with [the Wisconsin Department of Transportation] by thinking ‘out of the box’ and mounting 15 bike racks in the [baggage car] on each of the Hiawatha trains,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak’s senior regional director for state corridors. “This will make bringing your bike along on these trips more welcoming and get you on your wheels and pedaling away immediately after arrival.”

“No assembly required, starting now for bicyclists,” said John Alley, WisDOT’s transit, local roads, railroads & harbors manager. “This saves our bicycling passengers money and makes their everyday journeys or vacation trips to explore Milwaukee and Chicago so much easier.”

When the folks with bikes approached the baggage car, Amtrak employees cheerfully hauled their cycles onboard. I was asked to remove my panniers beforehand.

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Passengers line up to pick up their bikes at Chicago’s Union Station. Photo: John Greenfield

Onboard the train Amtrak spokesman Mark Magliari discussed how the new program came to be. “For years we’ve been receiving requests for roll-on service from our customers who ride bikes,” he said. “We’ve always had the desire to do this – the question was what changes we could make to accommodate that.”

Five baggage cars have been retrofitted with racks at a cost of $4,000 each, with one bike car on each Hiawatha run, Magliari said. Amtrak paid for retrofitting two cars, WisDOT paid for two, and the Michigan DOT paid for one. Why Michigan? Because next week Amtrak will be launching roll-on service on the Pere Marquette Route between Chicago and Grand Rapids, according to Magliari.

Wisconsin Bike Federation program manager Jessica Wineberg (a former Chicago Department of Transportation bike program staffer), riding the train with her son Everett, said the federation had lobbied for roll-on service for years. “We’re going to continue to advocate for roll-on service on the Empire Builder [route to the Pacific Northwest],” she said. “We also encourage Amtrak to expand roll-on service to include cargo bikes and trail-along bikes.”

Wineberg said the added convenience of roll-on service could spark an exchange program of sorts between Milwaukee and Chicago bike advocates. “People from Chicago can come up here and enjoy the great trails in our city and, on the flip side, Wisconsinites can see protected bike lanes in a dense urban environment,” she said. While Milwaukee has plenty of conventional bike lanes, it doesn’t yet have protected lanes. “They’ll see how protected lanes can make downtown riding safer and more peaceful.”

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Active Trans’ Bob Hoel speaks at this morning’s ribbon-cutting in Milwaukee. Photo: Amtrak

Active Transportation Alliance board president Bob Hoel rode the train up from Chicago for the event. “This is great,” he said. “The roll-on service takes away many of the barriers to traveling with a bike. To some of us, our bikes are our babies, and it’s stressful to have several different people manhandling your boxed bike. This way you’re turning your bike over to only one person – I felt very comfortable with it.”

Heidi Anders, an airline employee, and her daughter Molly were traveling to Chicago with their bikes for a few hours to have lunch and check out Millennium and Maggie Daley parks, including the giant playgrounds at the latter green space. “The roll-on service is fabulous,” Heidi said. “This way it will be easy to explore more of Chicago.”

But Ben Krumenauer, an Oshkosh-based transportation planner who drove down with his bike down for the ribbon-cutting, didn’t intend to linger in the Windy City – he was going to immediately turn around and pedal the 95 miles back to Milwaukee. Even though there was a stiff wind out of the north, he expected to complete the trip in a mere five hours. “I’m tenacious that way,” he said.

If you’ve ever thought about bringing a bike to Milwaukee to check out its many great museums, music venues, restaurants, cafes, and breweries, but were deterred by the cost and hassle of boxing your cycle, it’s now easier than ever to enjoy the many charms of Cream City on two wheels.

This post is made possible by a grant from the Illinois Bicycle Lawyers at Keating Law Offices, P.C., a Chicago, Illinois law firm committed to representing pedestrians and cyclists. The content is Streetsblog Chicago’s own, and Keating Law Offices neither endorses the content nor exercises any editorial control.

  • al_langevin

    Kudos to Amtrak for doing this. Kinda funny seeing the Amtrak conductor helping the rider as that’s the last thing a grumpy Metra conductor would do. Metra – Are you listening? Find a way for bike riders to take bikes on ALL trains.

  • what_eva

    Bikes are allowed on all Metra trains, just not during rush hour.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I’m surprised that Michigan is using this design for the Pere Marquette. The system with racks in the club car appears to be working well on the Michigan Service Blue Water and doesn’t have the limitation of only being able to offer roll aboard service at stations with baggage service. Since the stations are further apart in Michigan only having service at some stations is a bigger problem and it would seem to make sense to have the same design on all trains running in a corridor.

  • How are they held up? I can’t see where the connection point is. Presumably it’s top and bottom.

  • Brad Kort

    So you’re saying bikes aren’t allowed on all Metra trains.

  • Serge

    Yes, but it’s only once a day, four (4) bicycles per train…

  • planetshwoop

    Folding bikes are allowed on all trains.

    But honestly, there are very frequently people standing during rush hour. The solution is more trains, rather than arguing that we should try to cram bikes in.

  • skelter weeks

    I liked when I went to St. Louis a few years ago I actually rolled it on and locked it myself, then took it off at the station. None of this waiting in line at a baggage car.
    Now we just need bike on Amtrak service to Detroit.

  • mike w.

    Is this service available at the intermediate stations of Glenview and Sturtevant?

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    I’m under the impression its not.

  • Nope, only when the baggage car is opened — so Union Station in Chicago and downtown Milwaukee. Period.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Bikes are allowed during rush hours on reverse commute routes:
    https://metrarail.com/metra/en/home/utility_landing/riding_metra/bikes_on_trains.html

  • Anne A

    Folding bikes (folded, in bags) are allowed on all Metra trains anytime.

  • what_eva

    Let me split a hair here. Bikes are allowed on all trains, but roll on is not allowed on all *runs*.

    The distinction is important because “all trains” implies there may be a technical issue to be solved such as storage location. ie, exactly what Amtrak solved in this article and NICTD/South Shore still needs to work on. Metra doesn’t have any of these issues.

    While it would be nice if there was capacity to allow bikes on rush hour trains, it’s simply not realistic right now. Similarly, CTA bans bikes during rush hour.

  • what_eva

    I’d like to see Metra get more granular about it. ie, instead of a blanket “not in rush direction for these hours”, pick specific runs that get crowded enough and don’t allow on those runs only.

    eg, I sometimes ride NCS up to Antioch on Friday afternoons (my family has a cabin just across the cheddar curtain). Those trains have plenty of room for bikes. Opposite example, UP-N trains are often SRO in rush hour.

    But Metra won’t do that, it’d take actual thought.

  • Brad Kort

    I see what you’re saying, makes sense.

  • Turner

    Yeah, it’s not clear to me how that’s going to shake out.

    There’s no baggage service on the Pere Marquette in any case (not even any station staff once you leave Chicago), so it’s already not quite the same thing.

    Also, less than half of passengers on the route are going to or coming from Grand Rapids. In contrast, MKE sees about twice the passenger activity of all of Hiawatha’s intermediate stops combined.

    I can’t find any other source of news on this subject, and Amtrak hasn’t yet updated its reservation system to reflect the change.

    Hey, John, do you have any more information?

  • Ryan G-S

    I think it has to do with what locomotives and cars are used on each train. The Hiawathas (and presumably the Pere Marquette now) use a gutted locomotive on one end as a cab and baggage car (“cabbage”), which is where these new bike racks are. The Blue Water (and Wolverine) use two complete locomotives for 110mph operation, which is why the bike racks are in the cafe.

  • Turner

    Updated! You can now buy a spot for your bicycle on the Pere Marquette.

    It looks like you’ll be able to book bikes for trips to and from intermediate stations at Holland and St. Joseph, but not Bangor.

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