May 15, 2016

Bike touring gets assist from Amtrak

Travelers at the Waterbury station show their approval of Amtrak’s new carry-on bike service recently.

Provided Photo

Travelers at the Waterbury station show their approval of Amtrak’s new carry-on bike service recently.

The first carry-on bike service for trains on the East Coast recently made its debut on the Vermonter, the Amtrak route that connects St. Albans with New Haven, Conn.

The service is being offered on a pilot basis through foliage season of 2017, although the bike racks will remain on the train throughout the year. The Vermonter can currently accommodate three bikes per train, according to Amtrak. However, that will change in June, said Dan Delabruere, the rail program director with the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Current arrangements are subject to change, Delabruere explained, depending on the pilot experience, including cancellation after 2017 if there is insufficient demand. Still, he said there is a “very good” chance of expanding to the Ethan Allen Express after the pilot period.

“There’s a lot of things for us to learn,” Delabruere said.

The state of Vermont has been considering carry-on bike service on trains for some time, Delabruere said. The Agency of Transportation gets regular requests to bring bikes on the train, he noted.

While trains have always been willing to carry bikes as baggage, the new service removes the need to box up bicycles for transport. As the Vermonter has no baggage cars, bikes go straight into a designated coach car in the luggage area, where they hang from ceiling mounts. Standard-frame bikes can be hung up intact, while longer bikes may require removing the front wheel, Delabruere said.

The project involves a public-private partnership between Amtrak and the states served by the Vermonter. Amtrak has the role of service provider, and in Vermont, the Agency of Transportation stipulates the type of service that will be offered. All revenue from ticket sales and bike fees will offset the respective state’s subsidy. The bike fee is $10 from St. Albans to New Haven, Conn.

Brattleboro is the southernmost Vermont station on the Vermonter line, and local businesses were enthusiastic about the Amtrak project.

Bob “Woody” Woodworth at Burrow’s Specialized Sports, a sporting goods and bike shop, said he could see his Brattleboro customers riding north on the train to St. Albans and bicycling back home from there. He observed that “it’s a bit of a double-edged sword” because the shop rents bikes, but he expected a positive overall impact.

“Bicycle tourism will be expanded, there is no question about that,” Woodworth said.

“There’s a lot of things for us to learn,” he said.

At the Latchis Hotel & Theatre, Executive Director John Potter said such a service is “very much needed, for sure.” The Latchis hosts bicycling groups and offers secure bicycle storage and advice on routes.

“Bikers are a key part of our business in the summer,” Potter said. He called it a “dream scenario, not just for the Latchis but for the whole town — leave your car at home, come up to Brattleboro. … It would be smart for all of us in Brattleboro and in the region to tap into that and market to that.”

Greg Lesch of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce called the service “a great idea … very advantageous.”

Megan Smith, commissioner of the Department of Tourism & Marketing, said her department will use every channel available to get the news out, including social media, the department’s consumer newsletter, upcoming trade shows and the VermontVacation/Amtrak webpage.

Smith’s department helps develop what Delabruere called the “last mile connection,” helping people answer the question “How do you get from the train to wherever you’re going?” — whether that means lodging, places to eat and buy supplies, or special destinations.

Another organization poised to jump in is the Burlington-based Vermont Mountain Bike Association, or VMBA.

“VMBA is the statewide voice of mountain biking advocacy,” said Executive Director Tom Stuessy. Its 26 chapters around the state help connect bikers to each other and to their communities through events and tour planning. VMBA’s online store has statewide trail maps.

“Every network on the map is attached to a shop, lodgings,” he explained.

Many of these trail networks center around the stations on the Vermonter line. VMBA is “very excited to see this access has been created in Vermont,” Stuessy said.

How will the Agency of Transportation meet the need of bikers to safely share the road with cars and trucks? Repaving, widening roads and adding bike lanes, was the answer from Jon Kaplan, the agency’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager.

In early 2016, the state published its Bicycle Corridor Priority Map. The Agency of Transportation studied the entire network of state-maintained roads, including surrounding land use, gathered bicyclists’ input on the routes they use, and developed a map showing bike routes color-coded by popularity and intensity of use. The map shows that many high-use roads radiate like wheel spokes out from the stations along the Vermonter route: Brattleboro, Windsor, White River Junction, Waitsfield, Randolph, Montpelier, Essex Junction and St. Albans. Most of the high-use routes also see high vehicle use. The downloadable map can be viewed at vtransplanning.vermont.gov/bikeplan.

“The state highway is an important place where people may want to ride,” Kaplan said. “Which roads are most important in the state for bicyclists so we can target investment?” he asked.

The Agency of Transportation will use the map to study high-priority roads and then develop projects to improve them for bicycle travel. One key constraint is dwindling federal funds. Although the agency’s focus is on “system preservation at this point, existing bridges need to be taken care of, roads need to be repaved,” Kaplan said.

He explained that planning for bicycles and pedestrians is now a routine component of every state transportation project. Kaplan cited the example of the Barre-Montpelier “Road Diet,” which involves lane reconfiguration to create a three-lane road to free up space to add bike lanes on the sides.

It’s a economical fix that “basically involves paint,” Kaplan said.

The transportation agency “tries to be as bike-friendly as we can,” Delabruere added.

 

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