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.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve taken several trips in in Illinois on the three routes the accept carry-on bicycles for a $10 reservation. I’ve even been accepted and paid the fare when I didn’t have a reservation.

    Check the “Amtrak Regulations” link and you’ll find that nowhere does it state that bicycles go in overhead racks! One conductor, the same one, over many years has tried to tell me that the front wheel must be disconnected and the bike stored overhead. After it became apparent that I would delay the train if that were required did she relent. Indeed, folding bike ARE NOT ALLOWED to put put on overhead space.

    Loading and unloading panniers makes for a slight delay but no big inconvenience. It’s a great way to go on a bike tour and not have to ride through the urban, suburban, and ex-urban area first.

  • The last few times I’ve taken a bike on Amtrak from Chicago I was allowed to just bring the bike onboard with the panniers on and lean it against a wall at the front or the back of the car, the most logical space for it. I threw the lock on the wheel to keep it from rolling. Super convenient.

  • It seems like there’s a good reason to place the bike policy in a conspicuous place in each car.

    I’m disappointed with Amtrak’s bikes webpage. It’s difficult to know exactly which trains allow and which don’t. Not everyone who rides Amtrak knows the trains by name, too.

  • Anonymous

    Use the regular Amtrak page, not the bike page. . Just enter the to/from city fields, and all the trains will be listed, including information about bike.

    I sometimes return to Chicago from Mendota. It will list 3 train, two of which give you a choice to add-a-bike. On cities that don’t have this feature look for “Checked Luggage.” If it doesn’t have that you can’t take a bike-in-box.

    After you find where you’re going, then go to their bike page. Actually their website it reasonable convenient.

    There’s a good mapmash
    but you need to past that URL into a bank screen to make it full page. It, too, is pretty useful.

  • The reason I start from the bike page is when one googles “Amtrak bikes”, that’s the first result. Also, I didn’t want to create a phantom journey and instead wanted to see all the system rules at once.

    MapMash is an interesting website. It has the best national Amtrak map I’ve ever seen.

  • Anonymous

    Take that mapmash with a grain of salt; it’s outdated.

    It shows the Sunset Limited as starting in Florida; it doesn’t, it starts in New Orleans. It’s not an official Amtrak web.

  • Michigan Bicyclists

    More about the Michigan bikes on train campaign and the recent demo ride referenced in this article can be found on the League of Michigan Bicyclists website:

  • Thanks for sharing.

  • Jim M

    My experiences on IL Amtrak trains with bikes seems to depend on the conductor you get. Sometimes you’re lucky and the conductor will let you place your bike at the end of the train car. Other times (on the route from Carbondale), I’ve been told that my road bike needs to be stored in the overhead racks–I don’t see how this is possible even if i removed both wheels and pedals. Even if I could, it seems like it could be potentially hazardous to other passengers. What’s more, Amtrak’s own policy forbids storing folding bikes in overhead racks–so why should “normal” road bikes be stored there?


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