Update: we’re one step closer to roll-on bike service.
Three Virginia Bicycling Federation Board members, Tom Bowden, Matt O’Toole and I were invited to participate in a roll-on bike test aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Limited Route on October 15. The test was designed to determine the feasibility of taking unboxed bikes on the popular route which runs from Chicago to Washington.
Though there have been several other roll-on bike tests in Michigan, New York and Vermont, this is the first time that Amtrak has equipped its two-level, Superliner rail cars with bike racks.
The three VBF participants boarded in Harper’s Ferry, a very popular cycling destination along the C&O Canal; and the future starting point of the proposed US Bike Route 11, which the VBF has been working on with the Adventure Cycling Association and a number of other organizations.
The train was running about an hour late, and on the opposite side of the platform, causing a last minute rush to scurry under the tracks. But even in this rush, loading the bikes was a breeze.
The second Harper’s Ferry platform is small, so rather than using the large, roll-up door to access the bike area, we entered through the smaller passenger door — not an issue, but not as convenient as the larger, garage-style door would be. We waited for three other cyclists who were finishing their trip at Harper’s Ferry. We then rolled our bikes into a rarely-used, special baggage area on the two level car.
Using the train racks was less trouble than loading a bike onto a typical car roof rack!
The racks are mounted vertically with a hook at the top to catch the front wheel and a lower, spring-loaded, v-brace to stabilize side to side movement of the rear wheel. I had some concern that the v-brace might interfere with a rear rack and a fender but this certainly wasn’t an issue with my bike.
After we finished racking our bikes, the compartment was locked so there was no worry that anyone would bother our bikes during the trip.
The train departed while we were still getting the bikes situated, which only took a couple of minutes. I think that’s only because we had so many, “chefs in the kitchen” for the big test. Even so, I don’t think we delayed the train in leaving the station.
Once aboard, we were welcomed by representatives from Amtrak and given surveys to complete.
Hungry cyclists can’t resist good food. Once aboard, Tom and I hit the dining car and sat back for a very pleasant ride along the Potomac! Though I’ve traveled on European rail lines a number of times, this was my first experience on a double-decker train car and the views were fantastic. Having ridden my bike on the C&O Canal at least a half dozen times, seeing things from 20 feet in the air, and at 75 MPH is a totally different experience than from the saddle. I enthusiastically recommend the experience!
In Rockville, we were met by Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Rail Passengers who brought his bike on for the test.
On the short ride into DC, Malcolm educated us on the state of passenger rail in the US and issues Amtrak faces with funding and competition.
Once we arrived at the end of the line in Union Station, the conductor lifted the roll-up door and we unloaded our bikes. This couldn’t have been any simpler.
We took the elevator up to the main level of Union Station where we were greeted by Debbi Wulf-Stone, Amtrak’s Chief of Distribution and Customer Service for a cup of coffee and debrief.
Ironically, as we were chatting in Union Station, three loaded cyclists rolled by our table, heading home from a rather wet trip on the GAPCO!
The day before, as Matt and I drove to Harper’s Ferry for the test, we noticed a van with a dozen bikes on top heading West on I-270, probably being shuttled to or from the GAPCO. Since Amtrak doesn’t offer baggage service in Harper’s Ferry, you can’t bring your bike by train even it it’s boxed.
While in Harper’s Ferry we had met with the Harper’s Ferry Town Council to update them on continued efforts for creation of US Bike Route 11, which would begin there and continue along the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway to North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Route. Council was very receptive.
An application has also been submitted to AASHTO for the designation of US Bike Route 50, to connect Washington DC to San Francisco via the GAPCO, drawing even more cyclists to this already popular cycling corridor.
After this test run of roll-on bike service, it’s clear to me that carrying an unboxed bike on a train can work in the US, just as it does across Europe. My only concern is that on routes like the Capitol Limited, which serve bike-friendly cities and hugely popular corridors like the GAPCO and US Bike Route 50, there won’t be enough racks on each train to adequately meet demand, frustrating potential passengers.
If ever there were an opportunity to fill our trains with cycling enthusiasts and grow choice ridership, this is it.
- Amtrak tests bicycle roll-on service on Capitol Limited route between Pittsburgh and D.C. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- Cyclists Test Roll-on/Roll-off Service on Amtrak (TRIBLIVE.com)
- Roll-up bike carriage tested on Capitol Limited (National Assn. of Rail Passengers)
- Testing Roll-On, Roll-Off Amtrak Bike Service from Pittsburgh to DC (Type 2 Clydesdale Cyclist)
- Amtrak, Cyclists Test Roll-on Service (Cumberland Times-News)