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South Shore's bike service starts April 2

March 17, 2016 - Andrew Steele, The Times

PORTAGE — The South Shore commuter rail line's long awaited bikes-on-trains service is set to start April 2 and continue on weekends through the end of October.

Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District General Manager Michael Noland discussed the service at Thursday's Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission meeting.

"For a long, long, long time bikes weren't allowed," Noland noted. "There was a lot of advocacy to make that a reality."

Noland said he also expects to see use of the bike racks by Chicago residents coming east, with the state and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore parks providing a draw.

"We believe we're going to have robust ridership coming out of Chicago," he said.

The service will be available at high-level platforms — ones that allow level entry and exit. Low-level platforms, requiring use of a narrow staircase to enter and exit cars, won't accommodate bikes for safety reasons, Noland said.

Stations with high-level platforms are South Bend, Dune Park, East Chicago, Hammond and all Illinois stations. Noland said NICTD's upcoming double-tracking project will make its other stations bike-ready.

"We are actively working to improve our stations," he said.

NICTD has removed half the seats from three South Shore cars, and one quarter of the seats from four others. That will allow 26 bikes on the former and 14 on the latter.

Noland said the total number of spots available for bikes on all trains through the course of the summer will be 130,000. Train cars with bike racks will be designated by a decal.

"We believe we're going to be able to meet the demand, but we don't know," he said, acknowledging that demand levels can't be predicted. "We're putting our toe in the water."

All standard bicycles will fit the racks, Noland said. The racks hold bikes at a 45 degree angle, and are "about as easy to use as can be," he said.

Fourteen of the 18 weekend trains will accommodate bicycles. Westbound, those include the trains arriving at Chicago's Millennium station at 7, 9:13 and 10:16 a.m., and 2:39, 5:23, 7:11 and 11:43 p.m.

Eastbound, trains with bike-ready cars include ones leaving Millennium station at 8:40 a.m. and 12:12, 1:35, 6:22, 9:15 and 11:15 p.m. and 12:45 a.m.

Noland said NICTD is ready to expand the service.

"At some point in time I'm sure we're going to be asked to consider off-peak service," he said, referring to non-rush hour weekday trains.

The bike service will not be available on weekends of special events in Chicago, including the Blues Festival, Taste of Chicago, Air and Water Show, and Lollapalooza.

He said NICTD would like to explore bike trail connections. He also said NICTD would like to expand bike-related opportunities by locating a Divvy-type bike rental service at stations, with bike rental racks at nearby locations that could help draw visitors.

If communities have an interest in partnering in that, "I would recommend to our board getting involved," Noland said.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., a NIRPC executive board member, said Hammond officials are considering a bike rental program and said having a bike rack at the train station is "a great idea."

"If you have one at the station, that makes a lot of sense," he said.

Visit the NICTD website at www.nictd.com and click on "Bikes on weekend trains set to launch on April 2, 2016" for more information on the program, including a full schedule.