On April 2, the South Shore Line commuter railroad began allowing bikes on trains during weekends.
So on a sunny Sunday in early June, joined by Times photographer Damian Rico, I took my bike to downtown Chicago to see what the ride was like. I'm a newbie when it comes to both riding the train and the bike, which I purchased last summer.
I love riding Chicago's Lakefront Trail, so I wanted to experience what it was like to bring a bike to Chicago on the South Shore Line, which as of last year was the only commuter railroad in the United States that banned bikes.
I arrived at Dune Park station in Chesterton to catch the 9:01 a.m. train. Dune Park has a bike-ready, high-level platform as do South Bend, East Chicago, Hammond and all Illinois stations.
I drove my Jeep, bike stowed inside, to the station where, unlike on weekdays, parking was plentiful. I walked my bike up a ramp to the train platform and went to purchase a round-trip ticket to Millennium Station, the last stop on the line. Both ticket machines in the main station were not working, so I went to the east end of the boarding platform where machines were in order and I was able to purchase my $16 two-way ticket.
I met another passenger bringing his bike on the train for the first time. Chris Kirby lives in Indianapolis but visits and bikes in the Region. Normally he would have his wife drop him and his bike off in downtown Chicago and he would ride the Lakefront trail back to Indiana. But with bikes being allowed on the train, he hopes he's found a new option.
"Hopefully this takes off," said Kirby, who was staying in Portage. "The way they have the bike trails set up you can almost ride all the way back on the trails."
Loading our bikes onto the bike racks on the train cars was easy (as was unloading them). There was only one other bike on the two rack-equipped cars, but the conductor told us bike traffic has been "picking up."
There was some confusion when we departed the train with our bikes at the Millennium stop. We weren't sure if we could follow pedestrians through the station. A conductor recommended exiting at a bus pick up/drop off area at a lower level service road or what I'll call "lower Randolph."
You can take your bike east down the road and when it comes to an end directly under the Harbor Point condominium buildings, turn left and you'll find what probably is a little-known path (except for condo residents) to the Lakefront Trail. You'll exit at DuSable Harbor next to a little cafe and the hustle and bustle of the trail.
This is about the center of the Lakefront Trail. You can either go north toward Navy Pier and Oak Street Beach, or south toward the museum campus. I did a little of each. Going south was a little rougher because there was a charity walk going on and they took up a good, long portion of the trail. But there are sections where the trail breaks into two trails — one closer to the lake and the other along Lakeshore Drive. It gives you the option to pick whatever looks less congested.
After the trip I talked to John Parsons, planning and marketing director for Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, who said passengers with bikes are allowed to follow pedestrians through the station and head to the lakefront (or anywhere else) that way. I'll probably still use the service road, however: less congestion.
After my lakefront ride I caught the 1:35 p.m. train back to Dune Park. Although there were no bikes on the first two cars (the ones with bike racks), the seating was nearly full. Despite there being plenty of seating on other non-bike cars. John Parsons explained this to me too later, that the 500 series trains terminate in South Bend, which has a 1 1/2 car-length platform so passengers like to be in the first two cars so they don't have to walk through the car to exit the train at South Bend.
My advice for guaranteeing a seat near your bike (you have to stay in the same car as your bike, and why wouldn't you, anyway?) is to arrive early and board the train as soon as possible.
Despite the initial confusion at Millennium Station, taking my bike on the train to Chicago was a simple, fun experience. It's great for someone who wants to tackle the Lakefront Trail one-way only, or if you want to bike anywhere else in Chicago.
Prior to this train trip, I would pack my bike in my Jeep and drive to the area around the South Shore Cultural Center (see sidebar), park, and begin my ride. I'm sure more experienced riders would access the Lakefront Trail from the trails and streets of Northwest Indiana.
And to reiterate what officials and others have said, I can easily see the draw of Chicago residents wanting to take their bikes east on the South Shore to enjoy the Dunes or Region bike trails.
Visit the NICTD website at www.nictd.com for more information on the program, including a full schedule.
Click here to view a larger version of the map.