Greater Greater Washington

MARC's chief engineer wants to allow bikes on some weekend trains

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is seriously looking at how to let passengers bring ordinary bicycles aboard MARC trains. A background briefing by top MARC officials last week left bicycle advocates with the distinct impression that they want to allow bikes on some weekend trains within the next year or so.


A cyclist boarding a train in Germany (not Maryland). Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

MTA officials have long said that the combination of high speeds and full trains prevented allowing bikes. At a meeting three years ago, advocates pressed the matter with Simon Taylor, the Assistant Administrator of MTA, and John Hovatter, Director of MARC and Maryland Commuter Bus Operations.

Taylor and Hovatter made it clear that there was no real prospect for bikes on trains anytime soon. But they also said that MARC was planning for weekend service, and that bikes "should" be allowed if that service started.

At the time, weekend trains seemed like a remote possibility. Now they are a reality, and MARC officials are evaluating options for allowing bikes aboard some weekend trains.

Why MARC does not allow bikes on trains

Taylor and Hovatter explained their reluctance to allow bikes on trains to several advocates at the 2011 meeting. Federal safety rules require bicycles to be securely tied down on trains running faster than 70 mph, lest they become projectiles in a crash, the officials said.

On the Penn Line, trains exceed 70 mph along most segments except in Baltimore. On some stretches, the trains exceed 110 mph when pulled by electric locomotives. MTA engineers have been unable to devise a way to quickly secure bikes without permanently removing 3 to 5 seats from the car for every pair of bikes. With full trains, that is not a tradeoff that MARC is willing to make.

The Camden and Brunswick Line trains are not so full, so removing a few seats in favor of bike racks might be reasonable for those trains. But MARC rotates all train sets (except for the electric locomotives) between the three lines, so modifying cars for those two CSX lines would make Penn Line trains even more crowded.

Could MARC allow bikes on the Camden and Brunswick lines with the existing train configuration? Given that WMATA allows bikes on off-peak Metrorail trains, it might seem safe to do so. But Taylor and Hovatter countered that the CSX track is much poorer, generating side-to-side jostling which can cause bikes to slip out of the hands of the owner and strike another passenger. The low platforms at almost every station are another obstacle.

None of these problems is insurmountable, but in MTA officials' minds, they seemed to all add up to make bikes more trouble than they are worth.

A possible breakthrough emerges

Last year's gas tax increase provided additional funds for transportation, making it possible to finally add weekend service. Last summer, I reminded Hovatter that he had said "bikes should be allowed" when weekend service starts, because the trains will not be crowded. I asked if he could provide us with an update of his thinking.

He responded:

I would suggest we wait a few months to see how it is working and how many passengers we will be hauling. We are only running 3 car train sets to start off. If the trains are packed, and we hope they are, I doubt we will be able to handle any bikes, except the folding ones that we allow right now. Check back with us when it starts.
I was not encouraged by that response, but other members of Maryland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MBPAC) were more optimistic. Greg Hinchliffe, who represents Baltimore on the committee, pressed MDOT's Michael Jackson to set up a meeting with MARC officials and MBPAC.

As soon as the meeting began, it was clear that something had changed. Rather than listen to cyclist pleas for better service, the MDOT officials decided to have Erich Kolig, MARC's Chief Mechanical Officer, start the meeting with a presentation that gently lampooned MARC's existing policy. With a perfect deadpan, Kolig showed the MARC website:

Here is our bicycle policy: "Due to safety concerns, MARC's bicycle policy allows for the transportation of folding bicycles only... However, folding bikes are no longer restricted to those carried in a case." You see, we do have a bicycle policy.
All the advocates, and Jackson, laughed loudly.

Kolig then explained that he thinks the weekend service and MARC's capital equipment upgrades provide an opportunity to start carrying bikes on some trains. While the trains have attracted more passengers than expected, they still carry fewer people than the weekday trains. His presentation included illustrations depicting how bikes can be safely stored aboard the trains. He had clearly thought through how to do it, and how to keep the cost low enough to make it economically feasible.

Kolig and Hovatter asked the advocates to not reveal any details of the proposal.

Hovatter seemed favorably disposed to the proposal, although he did not promise that MARC will actually implement it. The decision to go forward is a few steps above his pay grade. And some unanticipated problems may arise, since railroads are highly regulated and MARC owns neither the track nor the largest stations on the Penn Line.

Hopefully, the Maryland Department of Transportation will approve Kolig's recommendation and at least start a pilot project with bikes on weekend trains, as soon as practicable. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) has offered to help MTA officials get cyclist feedback on any draft plan.

Cross-posted at WABA Quick Release.

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Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George's County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George's on the state of Maryland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified. 

Comments

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What is the seat pitch on a MARC train? Is it feasible that a bike could roll into a row, on the side where there are three seats, without the pedals tearing it up? If so, a simple loop through the seatback, and around the frame of the bike would "secure" it, per the federal regulations, and in reality, it wouldn't go far (other than into one of the seats it's already propped against) in an accident. I would love to use this service to ride in Baltimore (or maybe in the future, Havre de Grace/Perryville/Port Deposit) on a nice weekend day!

by Joe in SS on Apr 22, 2014 2:12 pm • linkreport

I wonder if MARC could fit one of their more aged cars as a luggage car and run it on weekends for bikes.

by Richard on Apr 22, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

Kolig and Hovatter asked the advocates to not reveal any details of the proposal.

I am very confused. Did that change? Why is this being released?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 22, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

Doesnt Caltrain run their "baby bullets" at high speeds? Do they care about bikes being tied down?

Not sure the max speeds on SEPTA, NJ Transit or MBTA, but they all allow bikes in the off-peak direction.

by JJJJ on Apr 22, 2014 2:17 pm • linkreport

What is the seat pitch on a MARC train? Is it feasible that a bike could roll into a row, on the side where there are three seats, without the pedals tearing it up? would only work on the aging longer cars, but maybe. It is sounding like bikes could be taking up a lot of passenger room, I suppose it is up to the conductor if the train gets crowded to kick the cyclists off, or change more for bikes.

by Richard on Apr 22, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

The next push needs to be to get Metro to allow bikes on during rush hour. Reconfiguring the train cars to provide more room would be a plus.

In SF, BART now allows bikes at all times. In LA, where I visited last week, bikes on the metro at all times, with a separate area in each train car corner for bikes and/or wheelchairs.

But even though Metro is seeking to have better bike and ped access to their stations, a recent quote from a WAMU story on this issue is troubling: "Metro is not going to reverse its ban against bringing bicycles aboard rush hour trains, but Kannan said the underused stations would benefit from bike share docks." Kanan being Shyam Kannan, who heads Metro’s office of planning.

http://wamu.org/news/14/03/19/bike_and_pedestrian_access_could_breath_life_into_underused_metro_stations

So they want more bikers using Metro, yet won't actually want many of them near their stations for 6 hours of the day.

by Steve Seelig on Apr 22, 2014 2:30 pm • linkreport

Other commuter railroads have some provision for strapping bikes down when you bring them on. On the bike cars on Metrolink it is just a bungee strap.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 2:39 pm • linkreport

@AWITC: Mr. Kolig said he was not passing out the drawings, because he did not want them to leak out given that the whole proposal is still under review. I asked whether they were just concerned about the drawings, and they said that they did not want us to characterize the details of what those drawing showed either. The agreement was that we could tell the world that they are working on it.

Others are free to guess detail, as the early commenters(other than you) have done. But I'll have to stay mum for now.

by Jim Titus on Apr 22, 2014 2:55 pm • linkreport

No to bikes during commutes (say 6-10am) and (3-7pm) there are just too many people. Yes during off hours and weekends which only really applies to the Penn Line.

by BTA on Apr 22, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

Also I hope it goes without saying, yes to plentiful bike parking at all stations and ideally bike lanes or amenities within the immediate vicinity as well.

by BTA on Apr 22, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

Caltrain is an obvious comparison, but they do have straps to tie the bikes and large bike storage on cars. Any reason MARC can't do the same?

by h st ll on Apr 22, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

Seems reasonable. Good luck in their plans & implementation.

by asffa on Apr 22, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

This would be amazing! I would love to go up to Baltimore with my bike, but the only options now are to rent a car for the entire time I'm there and drive (expensive) or take a metro to bus to light rail (time consuming), so I basically don't go there often. This would certainly change that, and I'm thrilled to see this moving forward. Hopefully it'll happen by the time summer rolls around.

by TransitSnob on Apr 22, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

Bikes and trains are natural range extenders for each other.  But bikes on trains can be a problem. 

Unlike MARC, Caltrain has station platforms and coaches that are configured for easy and quick loading and unloading; also its one line handles a great deal of short-haul traffic between intermediate stations so its trains don't get as full.  MARC's ridership on all three lines peaks at the closest-in stations so space in its cars and on station platforms comes at a real premium. 

Why drag bikes onto the trains at all?  MARC already has bikeshare at three stations with two more in the pipeline (and VRE has it at four).  A bikeshare fob or card doesn't consume space on the trains, and for less than the cost of retrofitting MARC's trains and stations for on-board bikes, Capital Bikeshare and its Baltimore equivalent could be built out from MARC's stations with no need for peak-hour usage restrictions. 

by intermodal commuter on Apr 22, 2014 4:13 pm • linkreport

Intermodal commuter:

What MARC stations have bikeshare, other than Union Station?

Are you counting Silver Spring and Rockville?

by Paul on Apr 22, 2014 4:20 pm • linkreport

As MARC expands beyond 3 dinky little cars they can add a luggage car, or a car that had some luggage space for bikes. Right now with so few cars having cars dedicated to serving bike users would be hard but not impossible logistically.

by Richard on Apr 22, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

bike share wouldn't work financially in Balt. in all likelihood because of the distance between stations and placement of stations. But they could come up with a special offer for use with MARC trips that could provide a discounted rate.

It'd be worth testing in any case.

by Richard Layman on Apr 22, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

@Paul,

Yes: Union Station, Silver Spring and Rockville already have it; Gaithersburg (Old Town) and Metropolitan Grove have been announced by the City of Gaithersburg.  Didn't include College Park (because their bikeshare is said to be on hold), Frederick (because it's not clear how far they are from implementing) or Baltimore (not sure whether it will serve MARC stations). 

VRE already has bikeshare at Union Station, L'Enfant, Crystal City and Alexandria. 

by intermodal commuter on Apr 22, 2014 4:45 pm • linkreport

@Richard,

MARC is already maxed out for train length and platform capacity on weekdays for the Penn Line.  The existing weekend service uses several train sets, so multiple baggage cars would have to be acquired, fitted, and then switched into and out of weekend consists (and might require additional on-board staff) -- and once that was all done MARC still wouldn't be doing anything for its primary passenger market. 

Sponsoring bikeshare at MARC stations would solve the first- and last-mile problem with less operational impact while extending the service to the complete customer base. 

by intermodal commuter on Apr 22, 2014 5:09 pm • linkreport

Baltimore also has the free Circulator shuttles to get you downtown.

by BTA on Apr 22, 2014 5:13 pm • linkreport

@steve silling: "In SF, BART now allows bikes at all times. In LA, where I visited last week, bikes on the metro at all times, with a separate area in each train car corner for bikes and/or wheelchairs."

Steve, the issue here is that BART and LACMTA's passenger loads on rail are nowhere near those of peak-hour travel on WMATA. Ridership is 162k per day on LACMTA's two heavy rail lines (Red/Purple) - which are the only ones with the space you mention, by the way. Its about 150k on the light rail lines (Blue/Green/Gold/Expo). BART only has about 300k on its system. Passenger loads per car are substantially less, and thus there si more space for bikes than there currently is on WMATA (in peak direction during rush hour, of which there is...well, not really any)

by AA on Apr 22, 2014 5:41 pm • linkreport

BART's peak hour loads are not that substantially less than WMATA's. BART carries fewer TRIPS but a comparable number of passenger miles.

BART also just started letting bikes on at all hours after a pilot period. WMATA should try that and just make the rule that you can't bring a bike on a crowded train. There was no outcry in SF.

by MLD on Apr 22, 2014 5:45 pm • linkreport

LIRR, MNR, and NJT, with maximum speeds of 80, 90, and 100 mph respectively, all allow non-folding bikes on non-rush hour trains, and none have special bike securement areas or cars. I don't see why MARC can't do the same. On weekends they only use their diesel equipment on the Penn, which can't hit 125 anyway.

by Sunny on Apr 22, 2014 8:51 pm • linkreport

But bikes on trains can be a problem.

If there is room for them without taking space from paying customers, I don't see what the problem is.

Why drag bikes onto the trains at all?

So that one can use their bike to get where they're going once they get to the train station.

by David C on Apr 22, 2014 10:21 pm • linkreport

@intermodal commuter Agree that bikeshare is probably a better long-term solution for heavy bike-transit-bike trips, but bike share is expensive to run and takes time to set up at a large number of stations--certainly much longer than a bikes on trains policy.

by TransitSnob on Apr 23, 2014 9:15 am • linkreport

"Kolig and Hovatter asked the advocates to not reveal any details of the proposal."

Yay! Secrecy over transparency! You know, the kind of thing for whichthis site frequently advocates

Come on, it's not like this is the dang Manhattan Project here.

(I wonder who will be the Eddie Snowden of the rails?)

by Kolohe on Apr 23, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

I'm still not understanding the "Bikeshare" fascination when the company keeps requiring huge amounts of financial sponsorship and crowdfunding and then goes under or gives inadequately, especially anywhere that isn't wealthy. Whey oppose at all letting people bring bikes at least to the last car at off peak hours? Engineers can say whether that's feasible - I'd trust them.

by asffa on Apr 23, 2014 9:23 am • linkreport

There are places where there is a good case to be made for bikeshare. The number one criteria for it is high density. Three or four bikers on trains that run a handful of times each weekend day does not qualify as high density. Also, the Baltimore area stations are not in high density areas - West Baltimore, Halethorpe, Penn Station, BWI, etc. None of those would support bikeshare on their own without a train station there.

by Joe in SS on Apr 23, 2014 9:33 am • linkreport

Joe in SS I agree Bikeshare's not a great idea at these stations, for your reasons and the reasons I gave, too. My response was to TransitSnob, etc. who think the trains instead ought to have BikeShare.

by asffa on Apr 23, 2014 10:12 am • linkreport

I'm still not understanding the "Bikeshare" fascination when the company keeps requiring huge amounts of financial sponsorship and crowdfunding and then goes under or gives inadequately, especially anywhere that isn't wealthy.

Which company? Bixi? Alta? Capital Bikeshare? B-cycle? There are easily 20+ bikeshare companies.

by David C on Apr 23, 2014 10:43 am • linkreport

Not to mention "huge amounts of financial sponsorship and crowdfunding." Huge compared to what, and which systems are we talking about?

by MLD on Apr 23, 2014 10:47 am • linkreport

I'm also not understanding all the naysaying on viability of bikes on trains. How about, rather than throwing stats about how it cannot work, or suggesting instead that we build more bikeshare, we try doing it.

Some of the blah, blah about how it won't work is the same blah, blah we hear about bike lanes before they get installed. And then after they are installed, there is no problem!

If it is not working, we can stop. Seems simple enough. BART did that incrementally, and discovered that the sky did not fall. Let's try it and be surprised.

by Steve Seelig on Apr 23, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

@JJJ

MARC runs the fastest commuter trains in the nation at 125mph on the Penn Line with electric locomotives. All the other commuter railroads in the Northeast have top speeds of 80mph-100mph. Many other commuter railroads in other regions run even slower. Caltrain's "Baby Bullet" trains are fast because they're limited stop and only run at a top speed of 80mph (the top speed of MARC's Brunswick Line).

Even the diesel-only weekend MARC service runs up to 100mph.

by King Terrapin on Apr 23, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

king terrapin people have luggage and stuff, if it's on the fast moving train with them, it's safe to them and other passengers, if it's thrown at someone outside the train at 125mph, then it's something to worry about. Relativity.

by asffa on Apr 23, 2014 3:27 pm • linkreport

@asffa

True. I wasn't really arguing whether it was safe or not. I was just saying responding to comments comparing MARC's speeds to those of other commuter railroads.

by King Terrapin on Apr 23, 2014 3:32 pm • linkreport

@King Terrapin

If FRA says the bikes have to be tied down on trains faster than 70MPH, then I would question how MNR, LIRR, and NJT get away with not doing so (so Sunny says) when they run faster than that.

If the rule is 70MPH, then there shouldn't be any RRs that are exempt because they all run faster at some point I believe.

by MLD on Apr 23, 2014 3:39 pm • linkreport

King Terrapin, Okay! nice to know some actually go fast
MLD - I don't know who FRA is, but if it's necessary, then they may need to have straps available to help tie the bikes in the last car. (Impossible!!)
And I hope people being able to take their bikes on the trains on off hours happens soon. seems reasonable.

by asffa on Apr 23, 2014 7:06 pm • linkreport

With the higher ridership of passengers at BWI on the weekends with numerous large luggage, I don't see bikes on the Marc trains for a long time. Just pushing them in the aisle could cut someone with the pedals. Conductors can barley get through the trains now without some yahoo and his bike in the way.

by Thomas on Apr 24, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport

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