Traveling with a bike from Baltimore to downtown Washington could become a lot easier next year for riders of Maryland’s MARC commuter trains.
The Maryland Transit Administration plans to install bike racks on its trains to allow daily commuters to take their two-wheel vehicles aboard. The goal, officials say, is to have at least one bike car on every train servicing the three MARC lines by the end of next year.
Officials say they want to provide a first- and last-mile solution to commuters and offer an alternative transportation option as more people in the greater Baltimore and Washington regions embrace cycling.
“We recognize that our train doesn’t pull off right to your doorstep or right to your work, so we want to give options to be able to get you to and from where you want to go,” MTA spokesman Ryan Nawrocki said.
MARC began testing the option on the Penn Line’s weekend service two years ago. Demand for bike racks grew quickly after the service was introduced in December 2014, and the MTA doubled the number of cars outfitted with bike racks in 2015, officials said. Now, all Penn Line weekend trains, which travel between Baltimore and Union Station, have the bike-car option.
“The next logical step is to have them on all trains even on the weekday,” said Erich Kolig, director of MARC Train and Commuter Bus Services.
State transportation officials say there is a growing demand from riders who want to take their bikes aboard trains and then ride to their ultimate destination. In introducing the service for daily commuters, MARC would be catching up on a national trend to provide bike carry-on options aboard rail cars.
A similar program is so popular in the San Francisco Bay area that the Caltrain commuter-rail system expanded bike capacity. Still, people get “bumped” because of limited bike space.
This year, Amtrak, in expanding its bike options, began to offer carry-on bike service on its Vermonter line, which operates daily between Washington and St. Albans, Vt., with stops including Philadelphia; New York; Hartford, Conn.; and Springfield, Mass.
Amtrak allows passengers to ride in designated cars equipped with bike racks. But the service requires a reservation and a $20 fee for the bike in addition to the ride fare. Riders using the service must arrive early at the station, board a bike car and remove the front wheel of the bike so it fits into the rack.
In the Washington area, Virginia Railway Express, with routes from the District to Spotsylvania and Manassas, allows riders to take full-size bikes only on specific trains and only on specific cars on those trains. VRE’s chief of staff said the agency doesn’t have plans to retrofit any of its cars for bikes at this time.
Bike advocates welcomed the expansion of bike racks aboard MARC, saying it is another step to better integrate the two modes of transit and facilitate multimodal travel. But they said that if the expanded bike program is to be successful for daily commutes, the key will be to have the bike-car option on all trains.
“Then it becomes a real transportation option,” said Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. If you ride in with your bike in the morning, there has to be a rack on any train going back, he said. If that option isn’t available, transporting a bike on the train doesn’t really work, he said.
Currently, bike riders are allowed to bring full-size bikes aboard the train and secure them in one of 23 racks. There is seating for 40 people in the bike car, according to MARC. There is no charge to use the bike racks, but they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
As the agency moves to expand the service, some bike advocates expect MARC’s biggest challenge will be to work with the jurisdictions it serves along its routes to try to make the areas around stations more bike-friendly.
Kolig said the agency has a $96,000 grant and matching funds to retrofit about one-third of its trailer cars — the cars that don’t have a restroom. He said the agency will begin to install racks as early as the spring. But MARC won’t add them to the schedule until there is an adequate number of bike cars. He said he expects one bike car on each train by the end of 2017.
Folding bikes are already allowed on commuter trains, but some riders say traveling with one during peak rush-hour times can be difficult for the owner and fellow passengers.
“Folding bikes are a little bulky,” said Billing, who tried taking a folding bike on a MARC ride to a conference in Baltimore. “The train was packed. I didn’t love it.”
But a full-size bike will have great appeal, he said.
“When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. If you live two to four miles away from the train station, you can ride to it,” Billing said. “If you don’t feel comfortable leaving your bike at the station or if you want it on the other end of your trip, this is the perfect solution.”