Tagpassenger rail

Can we standardize rules about bikes on trains?

Every transit agency across the United States has different rules about bikes on trains.

I think every bus operator with front bike racks has the same rule: “all day, every day”. But taking your bike on the train is a different story.

In San Francisco, there’re three operators with three sets of rules:

MUNI, a city agency, doesn’t allow bikes on trains, ever. I almost learned about it the hard way. I was returning from downtown on Market Street to my temporary apartment in the Castro District and I took my bike into the MUNI subway. I entered the station without seeing a sign or a staff member that would indicate I couldn’t do this. While walking along the platform, I saw a rules board and noticed no bikes. The trains were not busy, but they’re also not very big. I can see where some people would say, “Oh, I’m new here and I didn’t know”.

But that’s not me. I went upstairs and rode the bike all the way home.

Update May 26, 2011: Streetsblog SF tells us that MUNI will now allow folding bikes on the light rail trains.

BART, a state-controlled transit agency, allows bikes on their trains most of the time. Just not at certain stations, at certain times, and in certain directions. You either memorize these restrictions or carry a brochure.

And BART trains run on broad gauge track making them wider than all other rail transit vehicles in the country. This makes for a lot of space – dedicated space!

Finally, there’s Caltrain, a commuter/regional rail system operated by a joint committee of three transit operators. They seem the least restrictive: every train has a bike car or two, capable of holding about 40, 48, or 96 bikes. “But by the end of 2011, every gallery train set will have two bike cars, allowing for 80 bicycles minimum.” (See last photo.)

In Chicago, the Metra (like Caltrain) and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA, like BART and MUNI) have their own rules that differ from each other and from above.

It’s quite simple to remember the rules of one transit agency, but to be subject to the rules of two or three makes bicycling with rail transit a bit more complicated. The size and design of train cars has a big influence on rule making, but so does politics – the Active Transportation Alliance, né Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, had to lobby the state and the transit agencies here in Chicago to open up their trains to bicycles, and to further liberalize the rules as the agencies became more comfortable.

National or regional planning efforts could ensure that the designs of future or upgraded transit systems follow guidelines that “standardize” the rules of bringing bikes on board. The first step in this direction could be a dialogue between BART and CTA about carrying bicycles onto escalators:

BART did its own study on the “safety issue” years ago and concluded that escalators and stairs were equally safe for cyclists to use in BART stations. (Via Cyclelicious)

The rule banning bicycles from escalators is expected to be lifted this year. The CTA, and other rail operators, could review BART’s study and come to the same conclusion.

Photo of a loaded Caltrain bike car by Richard Masoner.

Where I went in 2009 through 2011

I think my trip to San Francisco this past weekend for visiting friends and Transportation Camp West winds up over a year of domestic and international travel. This post links you to all the recap entries and Flickr photo galleries for the awesome cities I traveled to, rode the train in, and biked through.

2009

September

December

Approximate 2009 travel distance: 3,792 miles*

2010

April

August

September

November

December

Approximate 2010 travel distance: 17,515 miles (does not include intercity train trips)*

2011

January

March

May

August

September

Approximate 2011 travel distance: 8,271 miles (does not include intercity train trips and one car trip)*

*Travel distances exclude biking, walking, and trips on transit.

Taking the train

A bunch of people asked me how much I paid for my train ticket between Portland and Seattle. I paid $29, one way, 310 miles, for a comfy ride. Every seat pair has a power port, ample leg room, and tons of luggage space. The train left on time. I didn’t pass through security, and I didn’t have to turn off any electronic device.

The last time I took an Amtrak train was in the 1990s, from Minneapolis to Chicago. That was during the time Amtrak and United Airlines had a partnership where you could easily book a trip that involved a plane in one direction and a train in the return direction. Interestingly, I took a coach bus to Minneapolis just last September for a trip to try out their bicycling infrastructure.

The Amtrak Cascades trainsets from Talgo feature remarkable branding and livery. Find more photos.

Why Amtrak’s not on time

“Over the last 12 months, Amtrak operations and equipment contributed between 11 and 18 percent of the total delay.  Likewise, “third party” causes of delay, such as inclement weather and police activity, contributed only between 6 and 8 percent of the total.  The delay that Amtrak ascribes to the “host” railroad, on the other hand, averaged 79 percent of total monthly delay.”*

Amtrak operates some commuter trains in California.

Breaking down delays attributable to the host railroads (across the national system):*

  • Freight train interference (25 percent)
  • Passenger train interference (this really means other Amtrak trains)
  • Commuter train interference
  • Slow orders not related to weather (“likely in response to track conditions”)
  • Signal delays

And the reason Amtrak can’t report: Continued underfunding at a time when ridership is increasing. Congress makes yearly allocations to Amtrak and without an expectation for stable long-term funding, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation can’t make long-term investment plans or seek alternate, additional funding (like bonds). Recently received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding gives Amtrak a necessary booster shot to clear out a backlog of maintenance. But this doesn’t solve the year-to-year fight for dollars.

An Amtrak train emerging from Chicago Union Station (CUS).

State of Illinois-supported routes (from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) show a 20% increase since 2007. The Illinois Department of Transportation has spent millions of dollars in the past few years to upgrade track, crossings, and signals to improve travel times. You can see the effect on ridership when you improve service. I think this makes Illinois a strong contender for high-speed rail stimulus money not yet awarded.

*Delay information comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s 2009 Freight Snapshot draft report.

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