Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Testing Amtrak's roll-on bike service

On Tuesday, I participated in an historic opportunity, to be part of a pilot project to test roll-on/roll-off bicycle transport service via Amtrak. It is not generally available to the public yet, but Amtrak wanted to see how well their idea would work in a real time situation. Some 20 cyclists were recruited to ride segments of the Capitol Limited between here and Washington DC to try it out.

As background, I have been asking Amtrak for years for just such service. For our silver wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, I had hoped to be able to have my bride and I do a day trip from Pittsburgh to Altoona. The plan was to bus our bikes into the city, hop on a train, exit in Altoona, two hours to the east, grab our bikes and ride three miles across Altoona to Lakemont Park to ride the wooden rollercoaster and other rides for a few hours, followed by a short bike ride back to the train station, picking up an ice cream sundae along the way somewhere, hop aboard a train, ride Amtrak two hours back to Pittsburgh,  and finally a bus ride home. It would have been a wonderful plan, if it were only possible. But having to disassemble a bike and put it in a box, and ship it, and reassemble at destination, times two bikes, times two trips, made it a non-starter. Ever since, I've tracked the progress of the request on the Bike-Pgh message board ( I can't count how many times I would have ridden Amtrak if such a trip were possible. Instead I've ridden zero.

I boarded Amtrak #30 in Pittsburgh, bound for Connellsville, 60 miles down the line. This was arranged by personal invitation over two weeks ago, for which I was emailed instructions and a ticket. I arrived at the Amtrak station at the appointed time, where I met up with the other five cyclists invited. Two I knew well, the other three I had not met. I knew a couple of others who would be getting on in Connellsville when we were exiting.

The train was almost an hour late, which I knew about from an overnight email directly from Amtrak. Harris Cohen, from Amtrak's Chicago office, with two other officials, Don Skinner from D.C., and Derrick James from Chicago, were to assist us with boarding, then ride with us, and assist with exiting, as well. I sensed that they were less hands-on people and more the type who arranged the whole affair and wanted to watch things unfold, first-hand, as they would develop and implement any changes needed, and/or worked with those who did.

We previously were emailed a diagram explaining how to use the racks. In short, bikes ride suspended from a hook on the wall, with a swinging arm secured to the floor on a spring to hold the rear wheel against the wall. I watched the first five bikes go in and up, and from that, was able to figure out how *not* to do it. When it was my turn, my bike went in and up, and was secured, in 10 to 15 seconds. I captured the entire loading process on video via my hand-held helmet camera [].

Once in place, we continued walking through the bike loading area, climbed a staircase to the passenger area, and seated ourselves in an observation car in which the seats swiveled 360 degrees. Mr. James gave a brief speech explaining the program and what they hoped to accomplish []. We filled out a paper survey which asked several relevant questions. It seemed quite well designed, with plenty of opportunity for detailed explanations. We gave it to them right then.

A small coffee shop was open, and a bit later on, the restaurant opened. There was not time to eat a meal on our short trip, but I did make use of a coffee and cinnamon roll to rack up a bonus Coffeeneuring excursion []. I think the 60-mile trip back counts, and it was a day off, though more a vacation day than a routine day off.

We arrived in Connellsville, and with video again rolling [], retrieved our bicycles in a mere 3:50. This involved the six of us getting our bikes off, us off the train, and boarding and loading six more. One of the main concerns Amtrak has is increased dwell time, especially on a train that is already running an hour late, as this one was. If that was their worry, I think we allayed their fears. That sub-four minutes was from when the train came to a halt to when it was moving again, as the video shows.

From there on, we were on our own. Amtrak mission accomplished. V, SR and I then had a most wonderful excursion down the Great Allegheny Passage on a soaringly beautiful early autumn day.

So how do we get to have this system wide? Money. They need to fit or retrofit eight cars (seven beyond this one) to support the service on the Capitol Limited. A similar number would need to be done for every other line in the system. Getting Amtrak funded properly would make this a lot easier, just like public transit. The money to do this competes with such other trivialities as rebuilding track, repairing rolling stock, fixing landslides, and fuel. To my way of thinking, though, the money is there; it is just being diverted to other things, other transportation things. The cost of retrofitting a couple thousand cars is probably a low-end eight-digit number, maybe $20 million. In the overall scheme of things, that's chump change. One big bridge repair, somewhere in the U.S. One rebuild of a big suburban intersection, somewhere. One lane-mile of expressway somewhere. If they didn't rebuild or expand one lane-mile of an expressway, somewhere in the country, once, we could retrofit the fleet, effectively forever. Any new ones would just have them. It's crazy that money is standing in the way. Surely we need to spend some car mode money on making rail mode truly usable.

It happened once, though, it seems to work, and the demand is already there and growing. Our time will come. I just hope my wife and I can still ride bicycles when we can finally make that trip to Altoona.