Bicyclists test out roll-on train service for Amtrak
Passengers no longer have to box their bikes
August 29, 2015 10:27 PM
Paul Heckbert, left, of Edgewood and Yale Cohen of Squirrel Hill, after getting off the Capitol Limited in Connellsville Friday morning. The two were trying out Amtrak's planned new service that allows cyclists to roll their bikes onto the train without boxing them.
Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Bicylists began testing the new roll-on service for Amtrak trains.
By Lillian Thomas / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At 5 a.m. Friday, six bicycles and their riders were on the Penn Station platform in Downtown Pittsburgh, ready to roll onto the Capitol Limited Train 30.
In the early-morning darkness, the bikes went up a ramp to the last car on the train, were flipped vertical and coaxed into front-wheel hooks, then Velcroed into place by their riders, who then took their seats for the 95-minute ride to Connellsville.
A couple of bicyclists who had paid $10 for the privilege of buying a box, disassembling and crating their bikes and handing them over to Amtrak personnel to stow on the train looked vexed. The half-dozen with roll-on rights were part of a demonstration ride as Amtrak prepares to introduce the service on the Capitol Limited, which runs between Chicago and Washington, D.C. The roll-on service will cost $25 on top of ticket price.
Amtrak has not announced the start date for the service but a spokeswoman said it could be as soon as this week.
On the train, it was too dark and foggy to see outside, but Don Erdeljac knows the route well and pointed out landmarks as he tracked the blue dot on his phone to follow Train 30’s progress as it went through a tunnel under Oakland, pulled through Panther Hollow, slid through a spot near the Riverton Bridge where the bike trail crosses the tracks, and snaked along the Mon, then the Yough. Mr. Erdeljac, 61, of Shaler, who planned to add to the 58-mile ride back to Pittsburgh to make it a triple-digit day, talked about railroads and cycling as the train rolled by dark-green trees at the edge of a bank of fog that blotted out the river.
He and his companions — Ed and Karen Quigley of Monaca, Yale Cohen of Squirrel Hill and Paul Heckbert of Edgewood — had long advocated for the roll-on service, which Amtrak has been discussing for years. Veterans of the Great Allegheny Passage and other bike trails in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, they see it as a way to ease trips and get more people on the trails.
A few minutes before the train pulled into Connellsville, the conductor came to get the cyclists so they could ready their mounts and disembark quickly so as not to delay the train. Others participating in the test run got on in Connellsville and at other stops on the way to D.C. The feedback after the ride, and later in comments sent to Amtrak, was positive. A number of people said the $25 fee was too high though; a basic coach ticket to Connellsville is $14, so the bike fee more than doubles the cost.
Mr. Erdeljac took off for his ride, but the rest of the crew stopped at the Valley Dairy Restaurant in Connellsville for breakfast before heading out on a beautiful cool, sunny day for the ride back toward Pittsburgh. Ed, 57, and Karen, 54, split the trip into two legs to take advantage of a bed-and-breakfast stay in West Newton before heading back Saturday.
The complicated relationship between rails and trails was evident on the trip.
There are double mile markers along most of the trail, sometimes a few feet apart, sometimes yards apart. Old thick humped ones are the railroad’s distance markers, with Ground Zero at Station Square, once a hub of rail yards. Thin white stakes are the GAP markers, and they march north from Cumberland, Md. So those on the trail can decide whether they are 100 miles north of Cumberland or 48 miles south of Pittsburgh. The trail parallels the train tracks, the two rail beds following the bends of the river on opposite banks for most of the trip. Though those on the trail can hear the trains that pass from miles away, the thick summer growth along the banks made it difficult to see trains as they roared by just across the river.
Many think of trails as a way to get into the wilderness, and the GAP trail does go through beautiful riverside scenery, but it is also a ride into the industrial past of the region, all of it fed and fostered by the rail lines.
Near Blythedale there is the Red Waterfall, created by mine runoff that turns the rock bright orange. Near mile marker 107 there is a memorial to the more than 200 miners killed in the Darr Mine explosion in 1907, one of the worst mining disasters in the nation. Nearby is a massive concrete cylinder and a marker with a photograph showing the structure as part of a vast coal works that once sprawled in this section of the river valley. Farther north on the trail are carcasses of buildings that were part of the Banning No. 3 mine.
Since only the decline of railroads made the use of their infrastructure for nature paths possible, it’s not surprising that rails have not always embraced trails. Amtrak’s warming to the idea of letting people get on and off trains more easily is welcome to Mr. Erdeljac, since trains have ever been the companion to those along the trail.
“Camping along the river and hearing the train on the other side of the river — it’s such a friendly sound,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be freezing, and I would see the train and it was like a ghost coming through at night.”
Lillian Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1613.
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