The South Shore Line, which is the only major transit operation serving the Chicago area that prohibits bicycles onboard, is working to announce a bike program by next spring, railroad officials said.
A date has not been set, and any launch likely won't happen as quickly as environmental, tourism and bikes-on-transit advocates in Illinois and northwest Indiana are requesting.
Nine groups on Friday presented a letter to the board of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which operates the South Shore Line, asking it to allow bikes on trains starting next summer, beginning with a pilot phase in the spring.
The South Shore Line operates between Millennium Station on Randolph Street in downtown Chicago and the South Bend Regional Airport in Indiana. An average of 15,000 people use the service on an average weekday. They include Indiana residents who work in Chicago and visitors to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Mount Baldy and other national parks along the route. The National Park Service has supported allowing bikes on the passenger rail line.
The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and the South Shore are conducting a bikes-on-trains study. The South Shore also surveyed riders this year. Officials previously indicated that bikes might be allowed on trains in 2015.
"We're talking about allowing bikes on their trains, not landing them on the moon, and we hope they will have a final policy allowing bikes in time for peak riding season next summer," said Max Muller, director of government relations and advocacy at the Active Transportation Alliance, which took the lead in pushing for the changes.
Sixty-two percent of respondents in the South Shore survey said bikes should be allowed on trains, although 19 percent said they would bring a bike on a train, railroad spokesman John Parsons said. The support fell to 35 percent if seats were to be removed from rail cars to provide bike storage, he said.
South Shore officials said several safety and customer service challenges must be resolved, including that some stations have low-level boarding platforms that make it difficult to hoist bicycles up and through the narrow stairwell entrances on trains.
"We don't want someone to bring a bike on the train and for them or other customers to have a bad experience," said Gerald Hanas, general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.
Metra permits bikes aboard weekday trains arriving in Chicago after 9:30 a.m. and leaving the city before 3 p.m. and after 7 p.m., and on all weekend trains except when major events are held downtown. Metra also prohibits bicycles if rail cars are crowded.
Bikes are allowed on CTA trains on weekdays except from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., with exceptions when overcrowding is expected. Bikes are allowed on trains all day on weekends.
"We don't want to get into a confusing policy with a complexity of rules and regulations that are hard for the customer to figure out," Hanas said.
"Our board basically said we would like to be able to respond to the market of people who want to travel with us so they could ride their bikes on the expanding system of bike trails in national park territory in (Indiana's) Porter and Lake counties. But it has to be done safely and with customer care,'' Hanas said.
Of 23 commuter rail systems in the U.S., 17 allow bikes on board at all times and 20 allow bikes in some capacity, according to a new survey conduction by the League of American Bicyclists.
Caltrain, the commuter rail system in California between San Francisco and San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, might provide the best model for the South Shore to adopt, Hanas said. Caltrain has retrofitted two rail cars on each train into bike cars, with bicycle storage racks and seats for the bike owners.
"Over time, it is going to be very important for us to get bikes on trains," Hanas said.