Bikes on South Shore trains to Chicago? We go for a test ride.


Going for a ride as the train line preps for April

GUEST // 11.16.2015

New bike racks from Sportworks are currently being tested on the South Shore Trains to Chicago in anticipation of being offered more widely in April 2016.

The following article originally published in the South Bend Tribune on November 11, 2015

Article and photos By Joseph Dits

For as long as Dorreen Carey has been an avid cyclist — decades, in fact — she recalls how she and fellow bikers have yearned for it: “When will the South Shore allow bikes on its trains?”

Then, as Sunday dawns, she and I along with six others make local bike history. We roll our bikes onto the commuter train for a trip to Chicago, where we take a few hours to ride the city’s ample trails, then come home on the train.

We were testers, trying out the on-board bike racks that won’t become a public amenity until April. South Shore officials invited a select few of us as guinea pigs these past two weekends to look for potential issues. Advocates count the South Shore as the last commuter train in the country to finally permit bikes.

I am the first to roll my bike onto the train at South Bend International Airport. I quickly figure that I just have to push my front wheel into one of the 12 empty racks. It snaps into place. Later, when the other cyclists board at Dune Park, it goes just as easily, including for a 6-year-old boy whose bike remains upright even though its 14-inch wheel is too small to snap into place.

We take our seats right next to our bikes since the racks take up just one side of the train car, where a column of seats have been removed. That mimics how the South Shore will set it up in April, though with about 25 to 30 racks per train car. We can watch and make sure no one messes with our bikes. And it leaves plenty of room for people to walk down the aisle.

At Chicago’s Millennium Station, we disembark just as easily and walk our bikes down the platform, push through a set of metal doors and stroll past the underground cafes.

Then we must decide whether to climb one flight of steps to Randolph Street or turn left and use a dingy elevator with discolored metal and glass that has room for perhaps two bikes.

John Parsons, South Shore’s planning and marketing director, says the elevator belongs to the city. South Shore officials would love to see it replaced, but he understands that the elevator suffers from the winter elements and road salt. I’ll take it later, on my way back, fitting in with a man and a stroller, as the man says, “It smelled worse last time, so, actually, this is an improvement.” At least it works smoothly.

Bike-Racks-on-South-Bend-Train image Sportworks Bike Racks on South Shore train photo by Joseph Dits

For now, we carry our bikes up the steps. I wave to the others as they head to attractions along the Lakefront Trail. I venture in the other direction, northwest to the 2.7-mile elevated Bloomingdale Trail that opened in June.

We return on the same train departing at 1:35 p.m. There are so many passengers that a couple of us stand to stay close to our bikes. None of this seems to impede anyone from getting on and off the train.

Jim Chaddock, of Beverly Shores, tells me how he and his 6-year-old son, Oliver, rode along the Lakefront Trail to the Shedd Aquarium and stopped off at the Maggie Daley Park, with a play garden, climbing wall, ice skating path and other features that opened next to Millennium Park last December.

When I ask Chaddock for feedback on the bike racks, he says, “It’s going to bring so many people that this is going to need an online reservation system.” He notices a lot of people already driving in from Illinois to ride the dunes near him, and he adds, “People who really like to bike like to have their own bike.”

loading-bikes-on-train bikes are easily rolled up into the racks and are secured in place photo by Joseph Dits

Carey feels that bikes on trains will make it easier for city folks to access the “globally unique” natural areas near her home in Gary, like Miller Woods in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and, yes, even Gary’s “beautiful urban areas.” The trains will save them biking an hour from Michigan City or two hours from Chicago, says Carey , who coordinates a coastal water quality program for the state.

The tourism options have been obvious for many years. Among the cycling testers, Jay Brown and Kate Gerblick tell me how, shortly after the young couple moved to northwest Indiana from St. Louis this summer, “We verbalized it: Oh, too bad they don’t allow bikes.” They didn’t even get into biking until they came here.

Another tester, Geof Benson, who serves on the Beverly Shores Town Council and on the committee that explored the bikes-on-South Shore project, says bike advocates “hit our heads up against this issue” for several years until they flipped their perspective. Instead of looking at it as a “bike issue” — with no way to cram a bike safely into the existing trains — they looked at it as a “train issue.” Sponsors pooled together $450,000 for a feasibility study to see what kinds of engineering changes could be made to adapt the trains. That led to next year’s pilot project.

I tell Parsons that people will ask about bringing recumbent bikes, which look like an easy chair on wheels. They are a minority among bikes, but they are found in almost every community. I have one. And while I didn’t have it there on Sunday, it looks like my back wheel could fit in the rack without interfering with the derailleurs. But there is a huge range in recumbent bikes — varying lengths, wheel sizes and steering columns.

A tandem bike wouldn’t fit in the racks unless it hogged up more than one space. I don’t know whether it would make the turn around the doorway.

For those of you with fat tires, I measured: The racks will accept tires that are up to 2½ inches wide.

And as I chat with Carey, a 28-year-old man in a motorized wheelchair, Joe Gainer, asks me whether he’d be able to hook his adult tricycle into the racks. He says he’s able to walk limited distances, thanks to a traumatic brain injury when he was a child that limits his motor skills. Now living in Chicago, he says he rides his trike for both exercise and transportation, and he could use it when he visits his mom in Portage, Ind.

Gainer tells me that he exercises a lot. It makes him feel good. And, he says, it has stretched the distances that he can walk.

Parsons talks with him and says he’ll explore that, along with all of the other bike configurations, as the South Shore forms its bike rules this winter. In the end, space limitations may keep it to fairly standard bikes. Thanks to the test run, he says, “That’s the only way we’re going to find these things.”

How Bikes on Trains will Work-

South Shore officials say the trains will permit bikes on board Saturdays and Sundays only from April through November. No extra fee will be charged for bikes. Bike racks will be available on three or more of the 82 train cars with 25 to 30 racks per car. Cars will be added to the train so that there will be enough passenger seats. Only certain trains on the schedule will accept bikes; South Shore has yet to decide which ones. Bikes will be able to board only at stations with high-level platforms where passengers walk straight onto the train without climbing steps; that means bikes won't be allowed to board at Michigan City, Ogden Dunes, Beverly Shores and Gary. Later this decade, South shore hopes to incorporate permanent bike racks as it begins to replace its fleet of train cars.