Bicyclists hoping to launch their treks to some of America's most scenic routes by train didn't have much incentive in the past. Having to take apart your bike and pack it into a box has a way of dampening the desire to bring it along.
On Monday, Amtrak announced that it is changing all that.
In a move to encourage more cyclists to tote their two-wheelers onto the rails, Amtrak has eased and expanded the storage of bicycles on nearly all of its routes across the U.S. Bicyclists will be able to hand their bike up to a conductor at the baggage car before boarding. For a $20 fee, your bicycle will be tagged and kept in a new baggage-car bike rack until you leave the train.
"We're trying to move with the customer," said Derrick James, Amtrak senior manager for government affairs. "We've been working with the cycling community for years on this."
For good reason. Amtrak nationally has seen record ridership over the past decade. But the service continues to try to increase its passenger numbers locally for the Empire Builder, which has two trains going through St. Paul each day.
To that end, bicyclists represent a potential boom in leisure travel. Cities like Red Wing and Winona, Minn., and La Crosse, Wis., already are stops along the Empire Builder route. Attracting cyclists to start their journeys at those Mississippi River valley towns makes good business sense, James said.
St. Paul's Union Depot was the logical place to announce the new program, said Charlie Zelle, state transportation commissioner. The Twin Cities area has thousands of people who bicycle to work each day and thousands more who hit the trails for leisure. Even Zelle is a self-described "bike guy." In May 2014, when Amtrak resumed rail service into Union Depot, Zelle said he hopped the train to Red Wing and bicycled back.
"Biking in Minnesota in particular has grown so much over the last 10 years," Zelle said. "Amtrak has recognized this by making it so much easier."
Talks continue about adding another train to Chicago and possible rail service from the Twin Cities to Duluth, another attractive bicycling destination.
To Peter Breyfogle, a board member of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota who volunteered to help launch the service by taking his bicycle to Red Wing on Monday, the service is an attractive option for cyclists who want to take the train to scenic river towns before bicycling back to the Twin Cities.
"I would be much more interested in touring on these types of trip with this service," he said.
Stops between the Twin Cities and Chicago that take bicycles are Winona, La Crosse, Wis., Columbus, Wis., and Milwaukee, James said. Generally, he said, the station needs to have working staff members on hand to assist cyclists in loading and unloading their bicycles. The plan is to add Red Wing and other available stops over the next year. The service is also available at Amtrak's stop in Glacier National Park, he said.
"We want to roll it out and make sure we get it right," he said.