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Bikers Hope Amtrak Will Expand Rack Access Soon

Callie Winkeller

Several New York bicyclists recently participated in demonstration rides hosted by Amtrak in a step toward one day allowing bikes on passenger trains. 

Late last month, Amtrak invited 36 New York bicyclists to bring their wheels on a northbound train as part of an ongoing effort to accommodate bikes on trains traveling around the state.  This particular train had a special demonstration cafe car equipped with rack space for four bicycles.  Bicyclists signed up to board at a particular stop on the Ethan Allen line and then disembarked at the next stop. 

I boarded the train in Hudson with three bicyclists, all members of the Mohawk-Hudson Cycling Club, and all eager to test out and experience the amenities that Amtrak could one day offer.  The cyclists rolled their bikes onto the platform and from there, lifted them up onto the train to a waiting Amtrak employee.

Once aboard, the bicyclists were asked to complete surveys on their experience and share their thoughts on the design of the rack.  Throughout the 40-minute train ride to Albany Amtrak representatives and the bikers discussed the ride.  These demonstrations, which took place throughout the month of July, are meant to test out the design of the cars and garner feedback from cyclists and regular passengers.

Many of the cyclists I spoke with agree that such a program would permit more intense bike trips.  Skip Holmes, director of the Mohawk-Hudson Club, says that cyclists could take the train with their bicycle in one direction and then bike the return journey.  Claire Nolan, a biker getting on the train in Albany and member of the New York Bicycling Coalition, explains how she would use the new cars: “I would use it to go up to the North Country to mountain bike and then just pop back on the train and come on home.”

Harris Cohen, Project Manager for Customer Service Solutions and a leader of Amtrak’s National Bike Project, says Amtrak sees this program as an opportunity to better serve its customers and increase overall ridership.   Cohen said, “I think it’s a testament to the support of passenger rail from the state of New York, Vermont and other New England states. [It also shows] Amtrak’s commitment to improving passenger service and options for passengers around the country.”

Currently, Amtrak’s bicycle policy is that on trains without walk-on service, standard bikes must be boxed and checked for a fee of less than 20 dollars while folding bikes are permitted. 

Bill Hollister, a Principal Officer for Amtrak’s Government Affairs, cites “increased demand” from states across the country and bike advocacy groups as Amtrak’s main incentive to test out and potentially introduce new kinds of on-board bike facilities. He said, “It’s essentially demand from our partners and obviously listening to the bicycling coalitions throughout the region.”

Amtrak says it recognizes the increased interest in bike travel and would like to serve those invested in easing the transportation of standard bicycles. Hollister also noted an interest in collaborating with partners throughout the state, such as those along the Erie Canal and in the North Country who also might benefit from the “bikes on board” program.

In June, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer spoke at the Albany/Rensselear station:  “I’m urging Amtrak to start turning the gears towards increased recreation and tourism specifically bicycle tourism in the capital region and beyond.”

Hollister says that this program and the demonstration rides have received support from many local legislators including Republican State Senator Betty Little of Warren County and Democratic State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan.

Amtrak reached out to the New York Bicycling Coalition to coordinate the ridership for the test rides.  NYBC and many of its long-time members have been advocating for this service for many years, and Executive Director Josh Wilson also participated in Schumer’s press conference.

Credit Callie Winkeller
The bike racks on a demonstration Amtrak car.

Wilson believes that there is a high demand for this service in New York and Vermont, states famed for their scenery and bike trails, and thinks that once implemented, it could benefit the northeast: “it’s great for tourism, it’s great for local economic development, it’s great for bicyclists who want to travel without using a car or who don’t have a car.”  As Senator Schumer noted, Amtrak trains connect the many different parts of the state, and by making long-distance bike transport easier, more people would have access to areas beyond their immediate community. 

Harvey Botzman, a board member for the New York Bicycling Coalition, took an interest in putting bikes on trains in New York State almost 30 years ago as he traveled the state and country and found that moving his bike on public transportation was quite difficult.   He felt that more services should be provided and began to lobby Amtrak and other transportation companies.   

While these test-rides are a step toward getting bicycles on board trains, according to the NYBC, the final decision also depends on the New York State Department of Transportation.  In October, under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, the DOT will assume responsibility for certain in-state train service fees.  State DOTs will be obligated to pay various operating and capital costs of passenger train service along some Amtrak routes.  The future of the “bikes on board” program depends on the collaboration between Amtrak and the New York State Department of Transportation.

Botzman says that New York has been slow to follow other states such as California and Oregon that allow bikes on certain train routes because of a cumbersome bureaucratic system.   He also doesn’t think that these test rides are a sign of much progress; they demonstrate what could happen, but implementation is not definite.  “It’s not going to happen unless Chambers of Commerce, bicycling organizations, bicyclists and politicians push the installation of these racks,” Botzman remarked.   

There may be more loopholes to get through before bicyclists are allowed to roll their bikes on Amtrak trains in New York, but if the program does go through, we may soon see more people loading bikes on passenger trains.

WAMC news intern Callie Winkeller is a rising senior at Vassar College majoring in Art History.

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