Amtrak’s Bike-on-Train Success Should Inspire South Shore Line

Proposed bike rack on Amtrak train to Michigan
Two people test the bike racks on a train to Detroit. Photo: Derrick James/Amtrak.

Amtrak riders tested new bike racks in the snack car of a train to Michigan last month, as the railroad prepares to launch roll-on service for trains to Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. Derrick James, the director of government affairs for the central region of Amtrak, sent these photos of the event.

This single-level Amtrak car has a similar configuration to single-level South Shore Line cars, where bikes are currently banned. In an interview last month, South Shore Line planner John Parsons told Streetsblog that one “literally cannot bring a bike up these stairwells” to their train cars, but a study is underway by the Northeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission to determine how bikes could be accommodated on the trains.

James said that on May 14, eight people brought their bikes on board and disembarked at various stops on the way to Detroit. “We wanted to look at the boarding process, with an eye on safety, concerns in the railroad about passengers going up and down stairs, with folks not being able to hold a handrail.”

This is the same issue on the South Shore Line trains, which also have the same 90-degree turn into the aisle. “Cyclists who bring their bikes on transit seem to have a high level of experience doing so,” James said. “[It’s] much like Metra, [going] through the doors you have to push [open]. We’re still assessing it.”

Amtrak is seeking funding to retrofit 20 Michigan-bound cars with bike racks before they launch the service. James told the Active Transportation Alliance that “capital funding is tight especially after our budget took a sequestration hit.” How much of a hit? “$100 million, but since we are getting a larger portion of our revenue from fares, we were able to absorb it.” James said that the cost of adding bike racks, given the limited funding from Congress, competes with investments in tunnels and tracks.

Proposed bike rack on Amtrak train to Michigan
Amtrak trains have tight stairwells like South Shore Line trains. Photo: Derrick James/Amtrak.

Amtrak’s Illinois routes already have roll-on service, for a fee of $10 (a reservation is required), but will soon be modified with the same bike racks. Amtrak regulations require that the bikes go in overhead luggage racks, but sometimes bikes are placed in unoccupied wheelchair spaces.

James said Amtrak will be evaluating a second passenger car, of a different design, and will invite people to test it in the same way. If these tests are successful, Amtrak will add bike racks to café cars on all Midwest corridor trains.

The Hiawatha trains to Milwaukee pose different issues. Those trains operate without a café car, according to James, and thus have no space to convert to bike storage. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker decided not to fulfill the previous governor’s stated intent to purchase modern train cars built by Spanish manufacturer Talgo in Milwaukee, which included bike racks on each car.

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