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Universal Metra bicycle access via dedicated bike cars would be a game-changer

The outside of the new bike car.

Metra's bike-on-trains program is already pretty good. Bikes are allowed all year, on all non-rush-hour and reverse-commute trains, and there's decent capacity. I've never been turned away from a train because there were already too many bikes, and have heard few, if any, complaints about that happening to others.

In contrast, the CTA doesn't allow bikes on trains during rush hours at all. And while the South Shore Line offers dedicated bike cars with convenient racks, that's only a thing during the warmer months, on some, not all, non-rush runs, and you're only allowed to board or alight at the wheelchair-accessible stations, which are only about half of the stops. (That lack of ADA accessibility is problem in itself.)

On the other hand, you're out of luck if you want to bring your bike on a Metra train heading in the busy direction during peak hours. And it's a bit of a hassle to have to strap your bike to the wall of the train car, and coordinate with other passengers whose cycles are located between your bike and the wall if they need to disembark earlier than you.

The current bikes on MEtra setup. Photo: Ezra Hozinsky, Green Machine Cycles
The current bikes on Metra setup. Photo: Ezra Hozinsky, Green Machine Cycles
The current bikes on MEtra setup. Photo: Ezra Hozinsky, Green Machine Cycles

But there was good news yesterday when Metra announced it will roll out its first dedicated bike car this Saturday, November 7. The carriage has racks for 16 bicycles instead of the usual five allowed on Metra’s wheelchair-friendly diesel railcars and will be deployed on the Milwaukee District North Line as part of a pilot program that will last into this spring.

As an added bonus, beginning on Monday, November 9, Metra will temporarily relax its bikes-on-trains policy and allow cycles on all trains -- even during rush hours in the busy direction -- across all 11 lines. Stakes are pretty low, since Metra ridership dropped 90 percent during the coronavirus crisis and is only slowly crawling back to normal, so there's little risk of non-bike cars being too crowded to accommodate cycles.

“We’re committed to being part of a regional transportation network, which includes supporting the cycling community by making Metra an accessible part of their trip,” said Metra CEO Jim Derwinski in a statement. “We know this car will be more widely used in warmer months, but we decided to debut it as soon as it was ready because we’re hopeful it will create new options for residents looking for ways to get out of the house in a safe, socially distanced way. We look forward to seeing some of the region’s more dedicated cyclists using this new amenity over the winter and to welcoming everyone else aboard in a few months.”

The bike car is easy to spot from its blue and grey paint job, plus a large white bicycle decal next to the outside doors. The car will run on four inbound and four outbound trains during the week and two inbound and two outbound trains on Saturdays. Here's the schedule.

Screen Shot 2020-11-06 at 5.28.10 PMMetra will post alerts to if a service disruption causes the car to be out of service. Metra is planning to expand the pilot to Sundays once a second car is ready later this year.

Metra chose the Milwaukee District North Line, which goes to Fox Lake, due to the relatively large number of cyclists and reverse commuters who currently use the line. It also runs close to several forest preserves and trails, such as the North Branch and Skokie trails. Fox Lake State Park, located only a few miles from the eponymous station, is one of my favorite bike-and-train camping destinations.

Note that gasoline-powered bicycles or vehicles of any kind are not permitted on any trains. Tricycles, tandems, trailers, "bulky attachments" or training wheels are also prohibited. Bikes and e-scooters are not to exceed 70 inches. As is the case in the regular cars, Metra bike car users will be required to secure their bike to the rack with a bungee, strap, inner tube section, etc.

Screen Shot 2020-11-06 at 5.53.29 PM

To  make room for the additional bicycles, Metra crews removed 24 two-passenger seats on one half of the lower level of a Pullman car from the late 1960s. Seats remain on the upper level of that side of the car for customers who want to sit within eyeshot of their bike. Metra used in-house resources to design and retrofit the car.

The railroad had planned to debut the car earlier in 2020, but says the pandemic delayed the project. Over the next few months, Metra will gather feedback from riders and transportation advocates about the bike car.

In a blog post applauding the initiative, the Active Transportation Alliance said the pilot is taking place partly because Ride Illinois, the statewide bike advocacy organization, approached ATA earlier in the pandemic with the idea of lobbying Metra to relax bike restrictions. The two groups broached the subject with the railroad in September.

Here's hoping that bike cars are eventually added to every run of every Metra line during non-pandemic times, when crowding will likely become an issue again. In addition to encouraging recreational bike use, this would open up a whole new world of possibilities for people who want to bike from their home to a station, bring their bike onboard during rush hour, ride the train downtown, and then cycle to their workplace.

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