Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Bikes On Trains


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.


BART pilot will test bikes on rush hour trains

WMATA's counterpart in the San Francisco Bay Area, BART, currently restricts bikes on their trains during rush hours. But they've decided to pilot letting cyclists bring their bikes on trains during the peak period.

Video from BART.

Rules for bringing bikes on BART are more nuanced than WMATA's rules, which ban bikes outright during rush hours.

On BART, for example, the printed schedules specifically show which trains do not allow bikes. Essentially, during rush hour (roughly 7-8:30 am and 4:30-6:30pm), bikes are not allowed on inbound trains. Additionally, during peak periods, bikes are not allowed to enter or exit the stations in downtown Oakland or downtown San Francisco (except cyclists can board morning trains bound for the East Bay at Embarcadero and can ride to Embarcadero from the East Bay in the afternoon).

BART requires that cyclists not board crowded trains and give priority to seniors and the disabled. That will continue to be the case under the pilot project.

The pilot will allow cyclists to ride all trains, at all times, during Fridays in August. Depending on what happens, the rules might changeor they might not.

Could the approach work in Washington? Our trains do get crowded, as do stations. But a cyclist going from Brookland to Silver Spring in the morning, would likely be on a very empty train. Could allowing bikes on outbound trains that don't pass through the core work?

The best way to find out might be through a pilot program. I'm glad to see BART is trying to get some experiential data.


Ask Metro: Broken PIDs, bus fareboxes, and bikes

As Metro's infrastructure continues to age, broken elements have become a fact of life for riders. We asked Metro about a few of the issues cropping up from maintenance headaches.

Photo by the author.

Many riders have noticed that the PIDs (the signs showing train arrivals) are increasingly out of sync with trains, often showing "BRD" for a few minutes after a train leaves, or 3 minutes until the next train as one pulls in.

Last week, I encountered an even bigger problem. The PIDs at Gallery Place showed trains 1, 4, and 6 minutes from now, a rush hour arrangement, even at 9:54 pm, and the numbers never changed. I was able to get correct information on my phone (thanks to wireless working down in the station), at least.

Spokesperson Ron Holzer said,

We are aware of the latency problem with the PIDS and are working to find a solution. It appears the issue is with messages backing up in the PIDS server. The prediction model is still accurate and it seems the API programs are not experiencing the latency that the actual signs are.

Fortunately, this isn't a safety issue; the signaling system knows where the trains are, it's just the PIDs system that's having trouble. Unfortunately, that's not making things very convenient for riders.

Metro had originally hoped to replace the PIDs with new screens, called "The Metro Channel" that would have shown arrival times and other information including advertising. The ads would have paid for the new system. Unfortunately, the ad market collapsed with the economy, and Metro can no longer fund such a system through ad revenues.

Reader Jamie S. writes:

After reading the post about improving the 90s bus line, I visited the Metrobus Studies sites and read the improvements on some of the lines. It got me thinking about the bus fare machines and what happens when those machines aren't working, and the driver simply waves the riders on. Does he communicate with supervisors as soon as the problem is identified? Does Metro take the bus out of service? Is it repaired? It seems that in the wake of fare increases and the potential elimination of negative SmarTrip balances, this should be a problem Metro should address to avoid losing fares.
Doug Karas says:
When the bus operator realizes the farebox is broken, they radio to [control] who gives direction on what to do. Typically, the bus is instructed to continue the route where it is then switched out with another bus with a working farebox.

No repairs are made in the field due to safety issues and customer perception that workers are handling cash. Farebox techs do all repairs at the divisions. ... Our goal is that all fare boxes are repaired within 24 hours. Most are repaired in 8-12 hours.

Finally, Jonathan Z. asks:
I was getting on the College Park metro yesterday (Labor Day) with my bike. After getting yelled at immediately upon entry by the station manager because my wheels weren't on the ground, I was yelled at again (and threatened with a $50 ticket no less) because the station manager thought I was going to use the escalator. I was planning on using the stairs, since waiting for the elevator seemed pointless when there was no one else around, but of course the station manager was having none of that and demanded that I use the elevator.

Besides the arbitrary enforcement of the rules (I do concede they are the rules, but completely unnecessary to enforce them with such rigor in a sparsely inhabited station on Labor Day), it got me thinking: what if there was an elevator outage? Hypothetically, are bikers expected to call for the shuttle service? Are they even equipped with bike racks? I wonder how many more disgruntled Metro employees I would have had to deal with if that were the case.

Doug replied that the station manager could have let the cyclist use the escalator or stairs if the elevator were out and it were safe. The rules are designed for safety. If its wheels are on the ground and the owner is holding it, it's not much of a risk to other riders, whereas if it's on an elevator or escalator, the owner could drop it and it could fall onto others.

Doug added,

If the someone is on a bike, the elevator is out, and the station manager determines they shouldn't use the escalator or stairs, it would make more sense for them to ride their bike to the next station, than to wait for a shuttle. If, in fact, a person couldn't ride to the next station, all of our Metrobuses have bike racks.
It might be nice if Metro gave station managers some more discretion to let people use the escalators if nobody else is on them, for example, though that might also lead to more people trying to argue with the station manager. I've brought my bike on short escalators, like mezzanine to platform ones, at low traffic times and never been hassled, maybe just because the station manager didn't see.


Metro needn't ban bikes all day on the 4th

As usual, bikes will be banned on Metrorail all day on the Fourth of July. As usual, it will be a totally unnecessary, and even counterproductive, precaution except around the fireworks.

Photo on Flickr by neverminddtheend.

Metro's policy is:

Bicycles are not permitted on Metrorail on July 4th or other special events or holidays when large crowds use the system.

Large crowds, huh?

Last year 631,206 people used Metrorail on the Fourth of July, making it the 5th busiest Saturday in Metro history. Not bad. But on an average weekday in 2008 Metrorail had 727,684 trips. So, the Fourth isn't actually that busy. Not busy enough to ban bikes all day.

Of the twenty-three busiest days* in Metrorail history, not a one is a Fourth of July. Of those 23 days, bikes were only banned for #1, #5 and #16. Busiest Day #2 was on April 2nd of this year when Metro recorded 890,000+ rides. Metro banned bikes only during the morning and afternoon rush and yet no one seemed to have a problem with it. How come we can allow bikes on for most of a nearly 900,000 rider day, but not on a 650,000 rider day?

It might be reasonable to ban bikes on for some time around the fireworks, when Metro is crazy, but why at 9 am? It's complete overkill. Considering how much financial trouble Metro is having, it doesn't really make sense to turn away paying customers.

* To get 23 you have to combine this list of 20 from after the inauguration with this top 5 from April, which has three new ones. There may be more between five and twenty-three that weren't captured in these lists.

Cross-posted at The Washcycle.


Bike to work tomorrow, tour DC and Arlington this weekend

Tomorrow is Bike to Work Day. Bike to work!

I won't, since I'd probably take a nasty spill trying to bike down the stairs from my bedroom to my office (plus the handlebars and pedals would scuff up the walls), but I recommend it for the rest of you.

There are pit stops offering food, speeches, and more all across the region. Convoys will gather in a number of places and travel to Freedom Plaza in downtown DC.

Freedom Plaza will also host events to offically open the new Pennsylvania Ave bike lanes. Speakers include Mayor Fenty, Gabe Klein, Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Michael Brown, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, USDOT Undersecretary for Policy Roy Keinitz, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, and others.

Metro is reminding folks that Metrobuses have bike racks and bikes are allowed on trains except at rush hour. (How about also allowing them on reverse commutes outside the core during rush?)

Sunday is Bike DC, a noncompetitive and family-friendly bike ride. This year it should be more accurately called Bike Arlington And Some Of DC, as most of the route is in Arlington. It's a great chance to bike on the GW Parkway as well as the new Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes.

This weekend is also WalkingTown and BikingTown DC, with 11 bike tours and over 100 walking tours of neighborhoods across the District.

Here's Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette on Bike to Work Day:


MARC should (and must) allow bikes

Maryland's MARC commuter rail system is one of only two in the nation with a blanket ban on non-folding bicycles. The only other commuter rail line with a total bike ban is the South Shore Line between South Bend, Indiana and Chicago operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

Photo by richardmasoner on Flickr

The Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC, cites safety and a lack of storage areas as reasons for keeping bikes off of trains. However, the fact that 20 other commuter rail operators, many using the same rolling stock as MARC, allow bikes on board would suggest that MTA should be able to determine reasonable standards.

In fact, they have a legal obligation to do so, but have not. In the 2000 legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 1260, which required that "The [Maryland Transit] Administration shall adopt regulations to facilitate the transportation of bicycles on board passenger railroad services." The reference to "passenger railroad services" indicates that the law is binding on the commuter services taken over from B&O and Amtrak by the stateMARC trains.

This bill became part of the Maryland Code of Regulations, Title: Transportation §7-902 (f). House Bill 1260 was passed by the House of Delegates and Senate without dissent in either chamber. The Governor signed it on May 18 and it became law over nine years ago on October 1, 2000. Yet even today, bikes are prohibited on all MARC trains.

At some level, this is understandable. After all, some MARC trains are already running standing room only. But then, so are trains on Metro North and the Long Island Railroad in New York and on Metra outside Chicago.

Nothing in Maryland law, including HB 1260, requires that MTA allow bikes on all trains. They could easily adopt a policy like Metra's, which prohibits bikes on any train terminating in Chicago during the morning rush or departing Chicago during the afternoon rush. SEPTA, in Philadelphia, bars bikes on all trains during rush hours, but allows them at all other times. Within our own region, VRE specifies certain trains where bikes are permissible, which gives cyclists some flexibility to take the train, even in rush hour.

And of course, we have to consider crowding out other users. But that's a factor on other systems as well. The Long Island Railroad limits the total number of bikes to 4 on each train (2 at each end of the train). Dallas' Trinity Railway Express doesn't put a specific limit on capacity, but bikes have to fit in the area reserved for wheelchair users. And if a person needing that space boards, bikers have to vacate it and wait for the next train.

Some operators take quite the opposite approach than does MTA. Caltrain, operating in the Bay Area, runs each train with a "Bike Car." This means that there is at a minimum room for 40 bikes. In Salt Lake City, the UTA is looking for ways to increase bike capacity, including removing seats. Neither of these agencies ban bikes during rush hours, either.

It would not be difficult for MARC to specify in the schedule certain trains which would allow bikes. They could bar bikes during rush hours, as Metro does, or allow them on reverse commute trains only. A more proactive approach would be to add a bike car to trains. Or short of that, allow two cyclists per car. Even two cyclists per train (VRE's limit) would be a step in the right direction.

Bikes needn't compromise safety either. Many agencies require that bikers use tie-downs to secure their cycles. Others require bikers have a permit. Although none in the United States do, some transit operators abroad charge bikers extra to bring their bikes along.

Not every MARC train runs full. With cycling becoming ever more popular, providing a rail link between Washington, Baltimore, and the suburbs would improve mobility for those who cannot walk to MARC. A blanket ban on bikes fails to leverage some of the empty space on trains. And encouraging cycles might alleviate parking crushes at some stations. MTA should follow the example of other commuter rail operators because it's the right thing to do and because it's also the law.

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