Rail and trail is a match made in heaven. All over the world there are great examples of rail operators and trail users working together for mutual benefit. Sometimes that involves trails connecting with light rail stops, or it could be a train carrying riders back to the trailhead so they can enjoy a one-way ride.
For years, visitors to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) have expressed their frustration at not being able to combine their ride along the GAP and C&O Canal with trips between popular destinations on the Amtrak Capitol Limited train that runs between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh (and Chicago), and stops at a number of wonderful trailside communities including Harpers Ferry, Cumberland and Connellsville.
Why? Amtrak wouldn't allow roll-on and roll-off bike service on the train.
Local business people and trail advocates were frustrated, too, as they related feedback from overseas and interstate trail tourists that they would be much more likely to visit the area frequently if the same bike carriage service common to many countries, and a number of other rail lines in the U.S., was available along the GAP.
Finally, progress is being made toward what could be a tremendous partnership between the many thousands of people that use the GAP each year, and Amtrak, which is eager to boost ridership. On Tuesday, Amtrak conducted a very brief "pilot" run of allowing roll-on bike service, with six vertically-mounted bicycle restraints installed in a lower-level baggage area of one Superliner coach.
As Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Rail Passengers reports, riders secured their bikes by hooking the front wheel to a padded metal hook, then sliding the rear wheel into a U-shaped metal restraining device that springs up from the floor to prevent the bike from moving.
According to our friend Champe Burnley of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, 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.
The six slots were quickly snapped up by some of the trails and bike advocates who have been working toward this moment for a number of years, eager to be a part of this historic trip. The Allegheny Trail Alliance, the Virginia Bicycling Federation, and many others deserve credit for urging Amtrak to consider the great potential represented by biking customers. Tuesday was at least some recognition that the penny is starting to drop.
Largely ceremonial though it was, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and our local partners hope Tuesday's test run is a pivotal moment in our efforts to better integrate train service and trail use along this heavily travelled corridor. As Champe puts it:
"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. If ever there were an opportunity to fill our trains with cycling enthusiasts and grow choice ridership, this is it."