South Shore Line: We Want to Accommodate Bikes But Don’t Know How Yet

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The Chicago Perimeter Ride passes under a South Shore Line train. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

As I discussed yesterday, the agency that runs the South Shore Line commuter rail service, between Chicago and South Bend, is considering piloting a bikes-on-trains program, but not for six long years. The Northern Illinois Commuter Transportation District’s ridiculous feet-dragging on the issue prompted the Active Transportation Alliance to sarcastically bestow them a Broken Spoke Award as “the least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.”

Even though the South Shore is the only commuter line in the country that doesn’t accommodate cyclists, NICTD recognizes the importance of bicycle access, according to marketing and outreach director John Parsons. “There are a lot of great places to get on a bike around here,” he said, adding that the agency knows that it can be challenging to access destinations from its train stations on foot.

Parsons acknowledged that there has been an outpouring of support for a bikes-on-trains program from people who took a NICTD survey and signed online petitions. “We know the demand is there, so we want to do it right,” he said. NICTD doesn’t think it can successfully accommodate bikes until it gets new rail cars, which wouldn’t happen for several years. “Without additional capacity, we would have to remove seats from cars.”

The South Shore isn’t currently planning to buy new cars, but they’re exploring options, Parsons said. Most of the agency’s capital budget is earmarked for installing Positive Train Control, a federally mandated safety system that automatically brakes trains when operators drive too fast for conditions or lose control.

Last year, bids for a PTC system for the South Shore came in at three times over budget, according to Parsons. NICTD is currently reviewing a second round of bids and determining how much of the capital budget would have to be spent on the system. “In the long term, we certainly want to buy additional [rail cars],” he said. “We need additional capacity. Used equipment may become available.”

At a recent NICTD board meeting, consultants proposed adding a bike-specific train car to only two train runs a day: one per rush hour. However, Parsons said this isn’t the only possible scenario. The number of bike cars per day would depend on how many older cars could have seats removed to make room for bike racks, he said. Another X factor is that not all South Shore trains make the the full run to South Bend. Some are split or combined at Michigan City, Indiana.

A NICTD bikes-on-trains feasibility study took into account the South Shore’s rolling stock and considered the best way to accommodate cyclists without removing a large number of seats or displacing wheelchair users, Parsons said. The Active Transportation Alliance’s south suburban outreach manager Leslie Phemister, who attended the board meeting, told me that the train line could immediately begin accepting bikes if they allowed cyclists to use unoccupied wheelchair spaces on the cars.

Since it’s difficult to carry a bike onto South Shore train cars at stations that don’t have level boarding, Phemister proposes that the ADA-accessible stops should also be designated on the schedule as bike-friendly stations. At these stops, cyclists could simply roll their bikes from the platform into the center door of the car to the wheelchair space.

“We’re not going to pit a bicycle rider against a passenger in a wheelchair, competing for spaces,” Parsons responded. It’s true that, if a wheelchair user needed the space, the bike rider would need to leave the car. However that’s the way things work on Metra, which has successfully accommodated cyclists for a decade.

Parsons added that the South Shore’s ADA spaces aren’t large enough to hold a standard bicycle, although he declined to provide a photo illustrating that point. If that truly is the case, perhaps a seat or two could be removed on some cars, and those cars could be labeled with bike symbols.

Bottom line: If NICTD management really has the will to accommodate cyclists, they’ll find a way. The other roughly two dozen U.S. commuter lines have all come up with solutions. It’s time for the South Shore to stop making excuses, put on their thinking caps, and come up with a short-term plan for accepting bicycles.

Parsons invited the public to attend an open house on Thursday, July 16 from 5 to 8 p.m., where the full bikes-on-trains feasibility report will be available. The meeting takes place at the Indiana Dunes Visitors Center, 1215 State Road 49, Porter, Indiana, a half-hour walk from the South Shore’s Dune Park station.

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