Bike Test on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited

Update: we’re one step closer to roll-on bike service.

The Capitol Limited Pulling into Harper's Ferry

The Capitol Limited Pulling into Harper’s Ferry

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.

Amtrak worked closely with Linda Boxx from the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the group responsible for the Great Allegheny Passage.

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.

Cyclist Getting off in Harper's Ferry

Cyclist Getting off in Harper’s Ferry

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.

Racked and Ready to Roll

Racked and Ready to Roll

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 SuperLiner was Equipped to Carry Six Bikes: Four on the Front Wall, Two on the Back

The SuperLiner was Equipped to Carry Six Bikes: Four on the Front Wall, Two on the Back

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.

VBF's Tom Bowden Enjoying the Ride

VBF’s Tom Bowden Enjoying the Ride

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.

National Association of Rail Passengers' Malcom Kenton Observing the Test

National Association of Rail Passengers’ Malcom Kenton Observing 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.

VBF's Matt O'Toole Exiting Stepping Off the Train, Bike in Hand

VBF’s Matt O’Toole stepping off the train, bike in hand

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.

The Only Option for GAPCO Riders Today

A car or van shuttle is the only option for GAPCO riders today.

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.

–Champe Burnley

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6 comments… add one
  • persons interested in persuading Amtrak to implement roll-on, roll-off bicycle service between Pittsburgh and DC should send a snail mail letter to:
    Amtrak Customer Relations
    40 Mass. Ave., NE
    Washington DC 20002
    cc:Harris Cohen
    cc: Derrick James

  • As a participant in the New York State Roll-on/Roll-off Amtrak demonstration and as a bicycle advocate for such train facilities for over 40 years, its about time Amtrak began to think of its market rather than its organizational structure.

    Y’all have the GAPCO and we, in NYS, have the Erie Canalway and Adirondacks to explore by bicycle.

    While Amtrak contemplates placing these racks in its passenger cars and takes its time to retrofit the racks an intermediary method might be to allow all bicycles to be transported (without being partially disassembled (i. e., handlebars turned & pedals removed) in the passenger cars as long as they are enclosed in a sturdy canvas like bag (see Rome (a California Company) bike bags ( Amtrak might charge a small reserve space fee to assure space for carriage of unboxed bicycles in canvas like bags.
    These bags can be used to transport a bicycle (full sized) on intercity buses (Greyhound, Trailways).
    As an author of bicycle tour guide books the intercity buses have been successfully using this method for at least 40 years. Of course the problem is bus stations do not stock the bags! How’s that for an economic model! But like Amtrak, they do stock boxes at most but not all bus stations.

  • One last comment. California bi-level Amtrak trains have had bicycle carriage for many years. In fact, the bi-level cars were built in Hornell, New York State by Alstom Manufacturing.

    Alstom is prepared to work with Amtrak to alter the passenger rolling stock for its NYS Empire Service trains as well as other older passenger car rolling stock trains for the carriage of unboxed bicycles in the passenger cars.

  • Champe,
    Great Article! Thanks for all that you are doing to make cycling accessible for us all!

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