By Mike Faher, VTDigger.org
Among the small group waiting to board Amtrak’s southbound Vermonter Friday afternoon, April 29, no one was toting a bicycle. But that changed Sunday, May 1, when Amtrak started a new, carry-on bike service for its train that runs daily between St. Albans and Washington, D.C.
It’s a pilot project spurred by Amtrak’s work with biking advocates and state officials. And while initial space for bikes is limited, some are expecting that to change relatively quickly–in part due to expected use by visitors traveling from the south.
“If there’s demand, then they may add more [bike] racks,” said Vermont Tourism and Marketing Commissioner Megan Smith. “I don’t see it being any problem, because this train comes from our core markets for recreators, for skiers, for tourism.”
Amtrak already has been allowing riders to box up their bikes and transport them as checked baggage at any station that accepts such baggage. But that can be a cumbersome process. According to the Amtrak website, passengers must arrive at least an hour before departure; there are fees for the box and for checking it; and bikes may have to be partially disassembled, including loosening handlebars and removing pedals.
It’s easier–but also much more rare–to be able to carry a bike on board. According to information provided by Amtrak Friday, the company offers that service on only 10 routes nationwide.
As of May 1, the Vermonter will be the 11th such route. Officials said Amtrak has partnered with VTrans, the state Department of Tourism and Marketing, the Adventure Cycling Association, and other bike and rail groups to form a task force to oversee the carry-on pilot project, which will run for the next two biking seasons.
The service comes to a rail line that has seen increased use in recent years, an uptick that has been credited in part to higher speeds after track improvements. Ridership on the Vermonter line was 84,109 in fiscal year 2013; 89,640 the following year; and 92,699 in fiscal 2015, Amtrak reports.
“We’re going to be looking at how people are using it, the ease of use, the ability to walk on with bikes and walk off,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said
There are some logistics for passengers to consider. Riders have to reserve a ticket for their bikes; the fee is $10 for rides between St. Albans and New Haven, Conn., and it’s $20 between New Haven and Washington, D.C. Bike reservations can be obtained on Amtrak.com, by calling 800-USA-RAIL, or going to a staffed Amtrak ticket office.
Amtrak says passengers traveling with their bikes need to arrive 30 minutes prior to departure and, when boarding, should look for a “bike friendly” sticker on the car. Bikes will go into a luggage compartment that converts into a bike rack, but riders may need to remove the front wheel to fit into that space. Loading instructions and crew assistance will be available, Amtrak said.
State officials gathered Friday at Amtrak’s Essex Junction station to announce the new service. Vermont Transportation Secretary Chris Cole said officials had been working for years with Amtrak to get the project going.
“Developing convenient connections between transportation modes is essential to the success of our system, and this is an important first step in providing better access to Vermont’s transportation network,” Cole said in a statement.
Smith was among those who attended Friday’s gathering; later, she said state tourism officials will help market the carry-on service. “Our job now is to sell it,” she said.
Also present was Emily Boedecker of Local Motion, a Burlington-based nonprofit that promotes walking and biking. Boedecker said she believes an “enthusiastic and engaged” cycling community will help make the pilot project a success.
From his West Hill Shop in Putney, Jim Sweitzer sees the announcement as “a good first step” toward improving travel options for riders. But he said it’s difficult to gauge demand for the service. While some see it as a way to lure more people to Vermont, Sweitzer sees some potential utility for locals traveling south, as well.