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

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

MTA officials have long maintained that the combination of high speeds and full trains prevented them from allowing bikes. At a meeting three years ago in Washington , advocates pressed the matter with Simon Taylor (Assistant Administrator of MTA) and John Hovatter (Director of MARC and Maryland Commuter Bus operations). The officials made it clear that there was no real prospect for bikes on trains anytime soon.

Yet they also told us 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. But now they are a reality, and MARC officials are evaluating options for allowing bikes aboard some weekend trains.

Why MARC Does not Allow Bike on Trains

MTA explained its reluctance to allow bikes on trains to several advocates at the 2011 meeting. MTA has long said that allowing bikes on trains is economically infeasible. Federal safety rules require bicycles to be securely tied down on trains running faster than 70 mph, lest they become a projectile in a crash, they 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 means for quickly securing bikes without permanently removing 3 to 5 seats from the car for every pair of bikes that could be potentially accommodated. 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 configuration of the trains? Given that WMATA allows bikes on off-peak Metrorail trains, it might seem safe to do so. But MARC officials countered that the CSX track is much poorer, resulting in 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 was another problem. None of these problems are insurmountable, but in MTA’s mind, they seemed to all add up to make bikes more trouble than they are worth.

Signs of a Possible Breakthrough

Last year’s increase in the fuel tax provided additional funds for transportation, making it possible to finally add weekend service. Last summer, I reminded Mr. Hovatter that he had indicated that “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, MARC started the meeting with a presentation by Erich Kolig, its Chief Mechanical Officer. His presentation started with a bit of a lampoon of MARC’s existing policy: With a perfect deadpan, he showed the MARC web site:

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 [loud laughter by all the advocates and Mr. Jackson].

Mr. 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.

MARC officials asked the advocates to not reveal any details of the proposal.

Mr. 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.

We hope that the Maryland Department of Transportation will approve Mr. Kolig’s recommendation and at least start a pilot project with bikes on weekend trains, as soon as practicable. WABA stands ready to assist MTA officials on any aspect where obtaining the cyclist perspective might be useful.

Jim Titus is a bicycling advocate and member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince George’s County, Maryland.