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Amtrak’s Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee Is Launching Roll-On Bike Service

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 5.27.32 PM
Biking into Milwaukee on the scenic Oak Leaf Trail is fun, but it will be great to have the option of easily taking a bike on Amtrak. Photo: John Greenfield
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It just keeps getting easier to combine bike and train trips in Chicago. Last month, after years of lobbying by advocates (including Streetsblog’s Steven Vance) the South Shore Line, which runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, finally launched a bikes-on-board pilot.

Now Amtrak, which already allows unboxed bikes on all routes within Illinois (reservations required, $10 surcharge), is introducing roll-on service on its Hiawatha Servicee between Chicago and Milwaukee with a mere $5 charge. The service starts this Wednesday.

The Hiawatha Service is the busiest Amtrak corridor in the Midwest, with about 800,000 passengers in 2015. It offers seven round-trips a day Monday through Saturday, with six on Sundays. This relatively frequent service is partly funded by the Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation.

The news is a welcome surprise, and the resolution of a longtime pet peeve of mine. Boxing a bike for the short Amtrak trip to Cream City has always seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Not only did you have to drag a bike box to Union Station or purchase one at from the ticket agent, you had to take an elevator to the basement, dissemble your bike, box it, and check it as baggage, reversing the steps in Milwaukee.

I’m reminded of a particularly aggravating bike-and-transit experience I had after I pedaled across the Cheddar Curtain with New Belgium Brewing Company staffers after they staged the Tour de Fat in Chicago’s Palmer Square. After we caught a show at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, it was too late for me to catch the Hiawatha back to Chicago, so I tried to buy a bike box from an Amtrak agent in order to take a midnight Megabus run. He refused to sell me a box to use for a competing transit service.

Amtrak Hiawatha Service
A Hiawatha Service train. Photo Dan Grudzielanek

After I pleaded and cajoled, the agent finally sold me the box when he saw I had an upcoming Amtrak reservation for another trip. Of course, after I’d boxed my bike, the Megabus driver made me unbox it in order to fit it into the crowded cargo hold. Read the whole sorry saga here. Nowadays I’m guessing that Megabus drivers strictly adhere to the company’s no-bikes policy.

Since then, my default way to get to Milwaukee is to ride Metra commuter rail, (which allows unboxed bikes) to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then pedal 40 miles to the city center. Of course, bagged folding bikes have been another option on Amtrak and Megabus.

But roll-on Amtrak service will be very handy for those times when I just want to get to Milwaukee without driving and have a bike to use for sight-seeing once I’m there. (The Bublr bike-share system, with a mere 29 stations compared to Chicago’s 475 Divvy stations, is too small to be of much use for seeing the city outside of downtown.)

The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin has lobbied for the service for the last five years. “We have worked with WisDOT by thinking ‘out of the box’ and mounting 15 bike racks in the control unit on each of the Hiawatha trains,” Amtrak’s Jim Brzezinski told BFW communications director Dave Schlabowske. “This will make bringing your bike along on these trips more welcoming and get you on your wheels and pedaling away immediately after arrival.”

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.

The BFW hopes Amtrak will add roll-on service to other routes that service Wisconsin, such as the Empire Builder service to Seattle and Portland. I once used that line to take a car-free backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. I’m sure many people would appreciate having the option of box-less bike service for mountain biking and bicycle touring.

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.

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