Rapid Failures: Why is it such a hassle to bring a bike on the Hiawatha?

October 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm

This post is part of a multi-part series about the failures of rapid transit in America with a general focus on Chicago, as it is a city I know well and recently moved to full-time.

When I lived in Milwaukee, I took the Amtrak train between Chicago and Milwaukee several times a year – probably 15 or 20 times last year. I enjoyed the train’s speed (even during bad weather), cleanliness, and even its price. At $24 each way (which used to be $22 for a while), less the discount I received from a student advantage card (usually $3 or so), it was rather reasonable and ran often enough to fit my schedule. Not as often as some trains in other places I’ve been, and certainly not as inexpensive as those trains, but the Hiawatha service is one of Amtrak’s most reliable lines in America, so I’ll take it.

I enjoy riding my bike here in Chicago and I enjoyed it in Milwaukee. Several times when the weather was nice, I wanted to bring my bike to Chicago. I figured Amtrak must let its riders take bikes on board, but I was surprised to find that wasn’t the case. Except on a few routes, Amtrak requires passengers with bikes to buy a bike box (I have no idea what this is; it sounds inconvenient and overpriced at $15) and then pay a fee of at least $10 to bring the bike on board.

There’s a few things wrong with this, the first of which is that I have no idea where they would put the bike (in its box) that isn’t on the train with the rest of the passengers. Unlike Amtrak’s longer routes, there is no luggage car on the Hiawatha trains I would take. I’m assuming it would go on the train with the rest of the passengers – meaning they’d have to get it on the train and store it somewhere. Which is exactly what I would do if I were to bring my bike on the train.

Second, you had to get to the station much earlier if you wanted to get your bike on the train. This entirely defeats one aspects people should love about train travel, that is, you can board the train up to about 5 minutes before departure as long as you already have your ticket. Having to arrive early defeats one of the conveniences.

Third, it’s simply not intuitive! Public transportation should be convenient. Without the normal factors that make people turn away from automobiles toward alternative* means of transportation like higher gas taxes and parking fees, public transportation providers need to do all they can to attract riders. The two things I listed above that make bikes inconvenient to bring on Amtrak fall into this category, but perhaps what is the biggest failure here is that Amtrak doesn’t realize its place in the public transportation spectrum. Services like Amtrak’s Hiawatha fall into the intercity train category. They are designed to take people from one population center to another. Most people have to travel to get from their origin to the station to board the train, then travel from the destination station to their final destination. Amtrak’s inability to let riders easily take bicycles on board removes a way for people to get to and from their stations.

That wouldn’t be as big of a deal if Amtrak’s stations had somewhere to safely park a bicycle, but most don’t. Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station and Chicago’s Union Station both don’t really have anywhere to safely park a bicycle. Milwaukee’s station is in a neighborhood that is pretty dead after dark. I wouldn’t want to leave my bike parked outside for a weekend. Union Station, while in a larger city, is still in a part of downtown Chicago that is pretty dead after dark. There is a (small) bike rack next to the northeast auxiliary exit of the station, on Adams Street at Riverside Plaza, but a sign marks the racks “For Tenants Only.” I suppose I could use this rack, since I work in the building above Union Station, but it doesn’t really do anything for anyone else who wants to bike to/from Union Station.

It’s not even that bringing bikes on trains is that hard in the first place. Metra already allows its riders to bring bikes on board (albeit not during rush periods or even when the train is full at any time, which is a problem – bikes should always be allowed on trains, and provisions should be made to ensure that there is always somewhere to place at least 2 bikes per car). Many of the regional Intercités or TER trains in France have a section on at least one car of the train for bikes. Wider doors help – Amtrak’s doors are pretty narrow, and you have to climb up at least 3 feet of steps to get on the train. That’s a whole other issue dealing with design, however.

Amtrak has not done its job as a public transportation provider. Disregard for the bicycle as a means of transportation is inexcusable for an otherwise excellent transportation option between Chicago and Milwaukee – it’s time that Amtrak realizes this and makes it easier to bring bikes on board!

*I’m not really a fan of the word “alternative transportation” to describe walking, biking, or taking public transportation. Walking is the most basic and primitive way of getting around… why deem it “alternative?” and why deem automobiles the primary method of getting around, suggesting that any other means are just “other ways” of getting around.