Better Amtrak service for bikers still around the bend

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"Roll on/roll off" train service for riders using the bicycle trails between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., is coming.

The question is exactly when.

The Allegheny Trail Alliance, a coalition of rails-to-trails support organizations, hopes service can begin as early as spring. Supporters want it to be available at all Amtrak stops along the passenger railroad's Capitol Limited route between the two cities.

An Amtrak spokesman was not as confident about a 2011 start-up. "We are interested in doing this, but there are some basic operation issues that have to be settled," said Steve Kulm, media relations director.

Existing Amtrak equipment has to be adapted for the safe storage of bicycles, he said. Decisions remain to be made on whether bikes would be carried in baggage cars or on racks in passenger cars. Train schedules likely would have to be amended to reflect the extra time needed to load and unload the bikes, he said.

With six stops between Washington and Pittsburgh, even an extra few minutes at each station could affect the length of the trip. After leaving Pittsburgh, the Capital Limited continues on to Chicago. Amtrak leases very busy CSX freight track for its passenger train, and an increase in the amount of time the journey takes would require renegotiating its deal with the private railroad.

Currently, riders must box up their bicycles and can ship them only between staffed passenger stations. Pittsburgh and Washington are the only two cities along the bike trails that qualify. Passengers can buy a reusable bike box at either station for $15 and must pay an additional $5 baggage charge.

Roll on/roll off would allow cyclists to transport their unboxed bicycles between communities near the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Park where the train now stops. Cyclists, for example, could put their bikes on the train in Pittsburgh, travel with them to Cumberland, Md., Connellsville or Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and then ride back to Allegheny County.

The Allegheny Trail Alliance and the Trail Town Program, which seeks to encourage trail use as an economic development tool, are longtime boosters of roll on/roll off. The two groups also are pushing to add a stop to the Capital Limited in Rockwood, Somerset County, which is about halfway between Connellsville and Cumberland.

Amtrak is supportive of roll on/roll off plans, Mr. Kulm said. One sign of that support was the agency's decision this summer to buy 55 new baggage cars with built-in bicycle racks for its fleet. The baggage cars are included in a $298 million contract to purchase 130 pieces of rolling stock over the next five years.

The new cars will start to go into service in 2012. In the meantime, Amtrak is looking into retrofitting some existing cars with bicycle racks, he said.

"We understand that there is more to this program than pulling out a few rows of seats and installing racks," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance.

"The good news is that Amtrak doesn't have to invent the wheel," she said. Examples of roll on/roll off service already exist. One provider is the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which links Cumberland with Frostburg, Md.

While members of her organization are confident that roll on/roll off service is on the way, Ms. Boxx said they aren't taking any chances.

The alliance continues to promote a letter-writing campaign to Amtrak and to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, urging support for the program.

Additional information is available at the alliance website, www.atatrail.org, or by calling 1-888-282-BIKE (2453).


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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