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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Test-Riding Amtrak Roll-On Bike Service, Pittsburgh DC

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Riding your bike from Pittsburgh to DC, or DC-Pittsburgh, or even some segment of the GAP-C&O is a wonderful experience - but there's a logistical problem that presents a barrier to many folks; once you ride from one end to the other, how do you get yourself and your bike back to your starting point (which is often where you left your car). How do you make a round-trip out of a 335-mile one-way ride? You could take the train for $80, but it's not so easy to take your bike on the train.

Until now, the only way to move your bike between Pittsburgh and DC via amtrak was to box your bike - to scrounge or purchase a box, take the pedals off your bike, take the handlebars off your bike, maybe take the seatpost off your bike and then hand the bike-box off as cargo to be carried by the railroad.

I have never heard of any trouble using the bike-box between Pittsburgh and DC, but I have been reluctant to take my bike apart (after having it dialed in) and handing it off to strangers. Fortunately, Adventure Cycling and other advocates have been urging Amtrak to deliver Roll-On, Roll-Off (RORO) service in the DC-Pittsburgh corridor, and they're about to roll this new service out.

I had been an Amtrak RORO test-rider in October 2013, when the project was starting to firm up to something "possible" and I've been waiting for the announcement.

Sept-Oct 2015 is a very exciting time for Pittsburgh bicycling on the GAP and C&O. The Montour Trail will be opening two new bridges to eliminate at-grade crossings. The Pinkerton Tunnel, between Confluence and Rockwood will be opened. And: Amtrak RORO is promised!

This follows up on what's already an exciting year in Pittsburgh, what with the introduction of Penn Ave (and other) bike lanes, and Pittsburgh BikeShare (HealthyBikePittsburgh) rolling out in May. It's an explosive time in Pittsburgh cycling.

My wife and I were asked to be test-riders for one more evaluation ride between Pittsburgh and DC before the railroad finalizes its procedures, placards, documents, etc. The invitation was wonderful but involved being at the Amtrak Station well in advance of our 05:20 departure. Waking up at 0230, to leave at 0330, to be downtown at 0430: I am not the 24x7 guy I used to be.

We parked our car at the Greyhound station and walked across the street to the Amtrak terminal. There were six cyclists onboard for the first leg; friends Yale and Paul, a new friend Don, and Lilly an editor from the Post-Gazette. Our group did stand out a bit in the waiting room.

At the appointed time, we rolled our bikes out on the platform. As we walked out we met a family who had boxed their bikes for this trip, and wondered why they couldn't do the RORO; we had to say this is just a test, sorry. Maybe soon!

We walked our bikes into the bike-car, mounted them in the racks, then took our gear and found seats in a passenger car. It was very straightforward. (Participants were asked to not show pictures of the equipment because it's not formally locked-in yet.) It was just as easy as it should be.

We rolled out of the Pittsburgh metro area and rode for about ninety minutes, stopping in Connellsville. The nature of the evaluation ride is they want to simulate max riders coming off the train, and max riders coming on the train at stops along the way, to see if there's any delay presented by the cyclist shuffle.

As we got off in Connellsville, six fresh-faced cyclists were ready to get onboard. I recognized Linda Boxx, the Great Lady of the GAP. We got off, they got on, and the train rolled away leaving us with our bicycles, 60 miles of trail to Pittsburgh, and a great weather forecast.

One member of our group was eager to depart quickly, because he intended to ride the GAP to the Montour Trail and make a 100-mile ride out of the day. The others rode together over to Village Dairy for breakfast. We used the Connellsville Loop route to get to the other side of town.

Breakfast was excellent, as it always is there, and then we rode behind Martin's Foods and joined the GAP Trail. It was still a bit foggy and chilly close to the river, but in August a cool ride is a welcome thing.

photo: Don Erdejlac

My plan was to ride 25 miles with Karen to West Newton, about halfway to Pittsburgh, and overnight at Bright Morning B&B. My friends Yale and Paul were going to ride back to Pittsburgh, along with Lilly (the newspaper editor).

We rolled much faster than I thought we would, maybe because of the chilly morning and we needed to generate some heat. The fog burned off and it was a pretty, blue-sky day.

In West Newton, we split off and crossed the river to have lunch at Gary's Chuck Wagon. It's an authentic local mom-and-pop, which is the sort of place I'd always rather stop at. There were no espressos to be found in town but we did enjoy an excellent lunch.

We crossed back to the trail. It was early to check-in at the B&B but the room was unused from the night before and we were able to check in early. Hot showers, naps, books and wifi; awesome.

We walked to dinner at the Trailside Inn, located on top of the bike shop. Then we called it a day.

Saturday morning we enjoyed a tremendous breakfast from our hosts and got to talk with the other guests. There was a solo rider from Chicago, riding DC to Pittsburgh and a Canadian family with three young children riding Pittsburgh to Cumberland. It was a very solid breakfast.

We rode out with 36 miles on the agenda. Bought some Gatorade at the Buena-Vista mini-mart, stopped to drink them at the Dravos Cemetery Campground which is always a very nice stop.

Continued through McKeesport and Duquesne into Homestead and the Waterfront complex. Stopped at Red Robin for lunch. Then we rode into Pittsburgh proper; I always appreciate how the first skyscraper visible to inbound cyclists on the GAP is the Cathedral of Learning and not the downtown banks. Reaching civilization, we immediately detoured for some high-power caffeine at Big Dog Coffee on the Southside.

We saw quite a few friends who were out riding: Amy and Sara; Stef, Dan, and Ted doing the 90 Neighborhoods Ride; DanY setting up for the next day's ride at REI, and Stu coming into town.

After coffee we joined the Jail Trail, rode to Grant Street and then rode crosstown on Grant to pick up the car at the Greyhound station. It was a great demonstration of a non-extreme overnight ride, made possible by Amtrak roll-on, roll-off service. I look forward to the rollout.

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