LMB's ongoing bikes on trains campaign took a major step forward recently, with an Amtrak demonstration ride that took place on May 15th. The demonstration ride was aimed at generating feedback from bicyclists on a new prototype bike rack design Amtrak is in the process of field-testing.
The well-coordinated event by Amtrak and MDOT, had bicyclists board and deboard Train #350 at various legs along the Wolverine service route. Bicyclists participated at stops in Chicago, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Royal Oak.
John Lindenmayer, LMB's Advocacy & Policy Director and Rory Neuner, LMB's Board Vice Chair were along for the demonstration which showcased a recently retrofitted café car outfitted with angled bike parking to accommodate four bicycles.
Amtrak currently does not allow bicycles on board most of their Midwest routes, including all that pass through Michigan. For the past several years LMB has actively lobbied Amtrak to change their policies and urged them to modify their existing cars with bike racks to help bridge the 'last mile' problem many commuters and potential commuters face.
"The connection between bicycling and transit is fundamental," said John Lindenmayer. "Passengers can currently travel from community to community by Amtrak, but how do they get to where they need to go once they step off the train? Allowing bikes on trains will provide seamless multi-modal connections for passengers giving them options to travel to and from train stations by bike."
With Michigan being home to over 300 annual bicycling events each year, with a number hosted in or near Michigan communities serviced by Amtrak, many Michigan communities could also benefit from increased tourism spending from both in and out of state bicyclists.
That's why LMB is so excited Amtrak is taking positive steps to accommodate bikes on board trains servicing Michigan and applaud them for responding to the requests of the Michigan cycling community.
"LMB worked to ensure that bicyclists were including in the Michigan State Rail Plan," said Lindenmayer, "and we delivered a petition that collected over 3,500 signatures urging Amtrak to accommodate bicycles on Michigan service lines.
Thomas C. Carper, Amtrak Board Chairman at the time, responded favorably stating, "Amtrak has placed an order for 130 new, single-level cars. This order...includes 55 new baggage cars and 25 new baggage-dorm cars. These two types of cars will be equipped with bicycle racks."
Additionally Carper stated, "Amtrak Mechanical has been working on designs to retrofit food service cars used on some Michigan services to accommodate bicycle racks. One design has been tested and proved unsatisfactory, but our design team has developed an alternate solution based on what was learned from the initial design."
LMB provided feedback on this initial design, which indeed proved unworkable, as it had three parallel floor wheel racks that were boxed in on three sides. The tight spacing made it nearly impossible for it to be used by more than one bicyclist at a time.
The May 15th demonstration ride, however, showcased Amtrak's "take two" on a proposed café car retrofit. By removing an additional booth (two total) Amtrak made ample room for four angled bike parking. The racks have a floor base that the bicycle's front wheel sits in and use simple bungee style tie downs to secure the bike tight against a padded posts that supports the bike in multiple places.
The prototype racks are a vast improvement over their initial design. All in all, LMB is very pleased with the new design. While the racks were relatively intuitive, we did encourage Amtrak to provide signage with visual instructions on how to use the racks. When we tested the racks, the café car was empty, so we imagine that it could be a bit more difficult to board the train and park your bike during peak times.
Our biggest concern was not so much about the racks themselves, but simply about the boarding process. Without raised platforms at most Michigan stations, a bicyclist must carry their bike through a very narrow door and up narrow stairs, before making an immediate left turn to get into the café car. We were traveling light during the test ride, but having additional luggage would likely make the boarding process more difficult. This problem can likely be addressed, however, by having Amtrak attendants available to help bicyclists with the boarding and deboarding process. Since bicyclists will be required to reserve space for their bicycles in advance, however, Amtrak would know when and where bicyclists were getting on and off, and could have an attendant available to assist.
The current racks will not accommodate non-traditional bicycles such as tandems, recumbents, tricycles, or oversized items like pull behind trailers. We are optimistic that in the future Amtrak will be able to accommodate these larger bikes within the baggage cars currently under construction.
Lastly, LMB encouraged Amtrak to offer bike service at no additional cost to passengers, as is currently the policy on a number of their lines across the country including the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner, and Piedmont lines.
Pending the feedback from the Michigan bicyclists involved in the May 15th test ride, and a previous demonstration that involved bicyclists from Active Transportation in Chicago as well as the Illinois DOT, Amtrak plans to systematically install bike parking within existing café cars. Due to funding cuts caused by the sequestration, however, Amtrak is currently unable to comment on how long it will likely take to modify enough of the existing café cars to officially offer this as a service on Michigan lines. They currently plan to retrofit café cars one at a time as the cars are brought in for service. To make the service widespread across Michigan they will need to convert at least seven to nine café cars to ensure consistent service across the system.
"Amtrak considers expanded rail travel one of the solutions to address climate change and traffic congestion. Marrying passenger trains and bikes is a no-brainer and a win-win for the traveling public. We'll continue our work at making it easier for our customers to complete that last mile to or from our stations, whether on foot, by transit, or on a bike," stated Derrick James, Director, Government Affairs - Central Amtrak.
While bikes on trains is still not yet a reality in Michigan, LMB is extremely pleased that we continue to make positive strides towards accommodating bicyclists. We sincerely thank Amtrak and MDOT for inviting us to participate in the demonstration ride. We look forward to promoting the new service once it is officially available across the state. Watch our website for updates.