A Car-Free Road Trip on Amtrak’s Blue Water Line Hits a Speed Bump

The last-minute cancelation of bike service left us scrambling to make other plans

Bringing a bike on board a Blue Water train. Image: MDOT
Bringing a bike on board a Blue Water train. Image: MDOT

keating

My partner and I were interested in trying out Amtrak’s new bike service on the Blue Water route from Chicago to Port Huron, Michigan, so we bought tickets to New Buffalo, in southwest Michigan’s Harbor Country region. We reserved a room a six-mile bike ride north along the coast from the station in Lakeside, MI.

The day before the trip, I got a call from Amtrak notifying me that, for some reason, bike service had been cancelled on our outbound run. It’s possible that the railroad decided to run fewer cars on that trip, so the bike car was scheduled to be removed. I was offered the chance to reschedule the train trip, but that wasn’t a practical option for us. So we kept our train reservations, and the cost of the bike tickets ($10 per bike each way, $40 total) was refunded.

Ironically, during the speedy and comfortable ride from Chicago’s Union Station to New Buffalo (sure beat fighting afternoon car traffic on I-94), I noticed that there actually were bike racks in the train’s café car. So we could have brought our own bikes along after all, but nobody notified us that bike service had been reinstated on our run.

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Bike racks in a Blue Water train car. Image: MDOT

One we got to New Buffalo, we wound up using Lyft and a local van service to get to and from our lodgings, which went smoothly. (There’s exactly one Lyft driver in the area, a guy who lives in Michigan City, IN, and happens to have a day job with the Chicago Transit Authority.)

A local bicycle rental service delivered cruiser bikes to our lodgings. We had a great time cycling on quiet country roads to beaches, a brewery, a winery, and Warren Dunes State Park. Still, these extras more than doubled our transportation costs for the trip.

The view from atop a huge mountain of sand in Warren Dunes State Park. Photo: John Greenfield
The view from atop a huge mountain of sand in Warren Dunes State Park. Photo: John Greenfield

When I got home, I called Amtrak and asked if it was possible to get compensation for the additional travel expenses. The customer service rep told me it wasn’t an option for the railroad to pay us back for the full cost of ground transportation and bike rental, which cost more than the train tickets. However, she good-naturedly and immediately refunded the full cost of the tickets.

While our net travel expenses still wound up being more than 50 percent higher than they would have been if we’d been able to bring our own bikes, I think Amtrak customer service handled the situation in a reasonably fair way.

Still, it would be great if Amtrak could do what it can to avoid this kind of situation in the future. It’s hard for me to recommend that Chicagoans take car-free road trips via the Blue Water route if there’s a danger that their plans will be disrupted by last-minute cancelation of the bikes-on-board service.

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.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    I’ve looked into that train but the schedule is awful. Doesn’t leave Chicago until 4 and then the only option to go back is late morning make day trips or one night trips near impossible. Then again I suppose the schedule may be based in people going to Chicago from Michigan and not the other way around.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Going to New Buffalo isn’t too bad since it’s before the Wolverine and the Blue Water split. After the two lines split there really isn’t enough service frequency.

  • Was Michigan City via the South Shore not an option?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    No, although that would otherwise be a cheaper travel option. The South Shore doesn’t allow bikes to be taken on and off at non-wheelchair accessible stations. The closest option was Dune park, but the 27-mile ride from that station to our lodgings was a deal-breaker for my companion.

  • How about Carroll Ave stop on the east side of Michigan City?

  • Ok so Carroll Ave adds ten miles to the trip (one way) and likely some on US 12.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Carroll Ave. isn’t wheelchair/bike accessible. The only bike-friendly stop east of Dune Park is South Bend.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • So their system map is wrong. It shows Carroll as being accessible.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Looks like Carroll is wheelchair accessible but doesn’t allow bikes. http://www.mysouthshoreline.com/about/faq “Not all South Shore stations are accessible to passengers using wheelchairs. On our train schedule we clearly denote those stations accessible to passengers with disabilities with the international symbol. The following stations have platforms that are level with the car floor: Millennium Station, Van Buren St., Museum Campus/11th St, 57th St., Hegewisch, Hammond, East Chicago, Dune Park, and South Bend International Airport. We have mini-high level platforms at Portage/Ogden Dunes. Gary Metro Center and Carroll Ave. use a portable lift to access the center door of the car. ***Portable lifts have a space limitation of 34” X 42”*** and a maximum lifting weight of an occupied wheelchair of 600 lbs (manufacturer’s specification).”

  • Oh those bums!

  • Courtney

    I’m really glad you were able to get some of your travel costs reimbursed. It’s sometimes a cruel reality that car free folks end up spending more on transportation sometimes even tho we’re contributing less to climate change, at least when it comes to transportation.
    I went to Lake of the Woods club last month and took the South Shore Line. I ended up spending $70 on Lyft to get from the train station to the club and back.
    Luckily I’ve found a way to rent a car for the day that’s cheaper than traditional rental car companies and there are a few Priuses available.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, while Amtrak isn’t always reliable, they’re usually reasonable about stuff like this.

    Ouch, that’s a stiff Lyft expense, so it sounds like you found a practical solution.

    For folks who may be interested in doing this trip via train + bike, the South Shore Line’s Dune Park station is bike-friendly, and it’s a 15-mile ride from the station to Lake of the Woods. Looks like a nice destination! https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Dune+Park+Station,+West+Dunes+Highway,+Porter,+IN/Lake+O%E2%80%99+The+Woods+Club,+1353+Sager+Rd,+Valparaiso,+IN+46383/@41.549557,-87.2095825,11z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m14!4m13!1m5!1m1!1s0x8811a4aaa5c297ff:0xbd378756039aec35!2m2!1d-87.0609137!2d41.6446898!1m5!1m1!1s0x88119a7054e4338f:0xb7223c3865feee27!2m2!1d-87.0547474!2d41.456098!3e1!5m1!1e2

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