Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can You Hear That Whistle Blow? A RORO Kind of Ride!

An unusual opportunity this morning put me on an Amtrak train for the first time.  I've ridden plenty of trains in Europe, but have never had any reason to try out Amtrak.  This was a great experience.

Amtrak was testing out the possibility of providing Roll On Roll Off (RORO) service for bicycles on the Capitol Limited between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.  The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) hiking and biking trail connects with the C&O Canal Towpath to offer a 335 mile continuous trail between those same two cities.  Each year this trail ride becomes more and more popular, attracting riders and hikers nationally and internationally.  All along the trail businesses supporting these cyclists and hikers are popping up and growing.  The trail towns are experiencing a much needed shot in the arm economically, and with each new growth spurt and trail improvement, even more people are drawn to the region.  There has been one drawback to this wonderful ride though: the logistics of starting at one end, finishing at the other and then trying to find a way to get yourself and your bike back to the start point.  As it currently stands, you can partially disassemble your bike, box it and ship it via Amtrak, Greyhound or an airline for various fees. Besides being inconvenient (and providing the opportunity for those of us less mechanically inclined to break something on the bike while taking it apart and reassembling it), you cannot remove the bike at an Amtrak station that doesn't have checked baggage service.  So, if you only wanted to ride the GAP - which starts in Cumberland, MD and ends in Pittsburgh, PA - you're out of luck because there is no checked baggage service in Cumberland.  Your other options include pre-positioning a vehicle or renting a car with a one-way drop off fee - both of which cost you significant time and/or money.

Having the RORO service on this line would open up all sorts of possibilities for cyclists.  It would not only be the people visiting the area just to ride this trail that would use and benefit from the service.  Local residents all along the trail could take advantage of it.  Although we may love riding the entire trail length, it's not always feasible and we don't always have enough time.  BUT - if we can board the train somewhere with our bikes and jump off at any station along the way, we can do day trips or weekend trips easily.

This test run offered those of us lucky enough to participate a chance to do one of those day trips.  It.was.a.blast!

Early in the morning, myself plus five other volunteers boarded the Capitol Limited in downtown Pittsburgh with our bikes.  The bikes varied from a large, full touring bike to a small, step through hybrid.  Some had racks and fenders, some were pretty clean.

We had received a diagram showing how the bike racks on the baggage car worked, so we knew that we would have to lift our bike and hook it in vertically ourselves.  I'm a whopping 5'  3.5" (around 112lbs) and I was able to do this.  I did, however, think ahead to remove the water bottles and handlebar bag and store them in a pannier that I took as carry-on luggage.

It took the six of us a bit over three minutes to load all six bikes and head for our seats.  We settled into the observation car, but since it was still before sunrise we didn't get to observe a lot on this ride.

We rode only to the first stop at Connellsville, Pa where we unloaded our bikes and watched six new volunteers board with their bikes.  That entire process - both unloading and loading - also took just over three minutes.  Now that I know how to do it, I'm very sure I could do it faster too.  My friend (that did this with me) suggested to the Amtrak representative that they install a rack in each of the stations so that potential passengers can stop by and learn how to use it ahead of time.  The PAT buses have done this around Pittsburgh - setting up the racks used on the front of the buses in various locations so people can figure it out before they try to board a bus.

The train ride itself was very enjoyable.  A relatively quiet, smooth, quick ride.  They had breakfast service available and several in our group took advantage of it.

Once off the train in Connellsville we began our bike ride back to the 'Burgh.  One of the other volunteers (Stu) was a friend from the Bike-Pgh message board that we've ridden around town on short rides with before.  He had never been on the GAP beyond the Riverton Bridge at McKeesport, so this was a new experience for him.  He rode back with us while the other three volunteers set out on their own.

We made a stop in Connellsville for some breakfast and snacks and then backtracked to the trailhead in order to show Stu the cool piece of public art positioned there.

"From Coke to Spokes" by Jody Best with help from Scott Hostetler, was placed here in 2012.  It connects the past with the present showing how the local economy has transitioned from the old coke ovens (which can still be seen along the GAP) to the new bike trail.  What would be smoke from the old coke ovens is transformed into bike wheels.  Very clever.

On our way out of Connellsville we stopped to admire one of my favorite things along the GAP - the stained glass arch you pass under as you enter the town from the west.

Connellsville has long been big in the stained glass industry.  I've come down here to buy glass for my own stained glass projects in the past.  This archway was done by artist Steve Fiscus in 2008, as part of the "Trail Town Public Art Program" that brought 14 pieces of art to 6 trail towns along the GAP.

We rode along for a while on an absolutely gorgeous, fall day.  It was hard not to love being out there riding along a section of trail that we would normally not see unless we were riding the entire trail to DC.  Sometimes we'll drive down to Connellsville and ride east through Ohiopyle State Park to Confluence and back for the day, but we usually don't ride between Connellsville and West Newton or Boston.

What a magnificent day!  Not much in the way of nice fall foliage, but since we haven't had a hard frost yet I wasn't really expecting a nice year for that.  That's OK.  I'll take riding in 60-70 degrees well into October and enjoy whatever the leaves are doing.

As most know, the GAP is a rails-to-trails project, replacing out-of-use railroad right of ways with recreational trails.  The old railroad lines often ran along industrial routes.  Near the old Pittsburgh & Lake Erie RR Station at Van Meter was the Darr coal mine - the site of one of the worst mining disasters in the world.  This memorial sits beside the trail near that location, remembering the men who died there.

We noticed that two lumps of coal had been left on top of the marker in accordance with a Jewish tradition of leaving a stone on a grave marker to show someone has visited to honor the memory of the dead.

In West Newton - site of THE best trail rest stop BTW - we passed "Rusty" or "Spike" - as this sculpture of a Pioneer made out of old railroad spikes is known - by artist Bill Secunda.  This was another one of the original 14 pieces in the "Trail Town Public Art Project".

After a stop at a nearby store, we went to the West Newton Station trailhead and sat on the front steps with our snacks enjoying the brilliant afternoon.  Temptation to buy another GAP bike jersey was placed in front of me at the gift/information shop there, but since I had not been able to do the "Point Made" ride last June I didn't think I should have the shirt from it.  I was interested in looking through the relatively new "Trail Photography Unlimited" in the old rail car, but unfortunately it was closed.  On such a beautiful day I have to guess that photographer Betsy Haag Mandarino was out taking some new and fabulous trail pictures.  Sorry we missed her.

Well rested and fed, we pressed on toward Pittsburgh.  We passed one of these markers and once again wondered out loud what they meant.

This time we had someone riding with us that actually knew!  Stu informed us that those markers told the engineers when to start blowing the whistle for an upcoming crossing.  TIL (Today I Learned) what the stone W markers were for.

We often encounter dogs on the trail.  Some on leashes, some running loose, some riding in baskets or trailers.  Only one other time have I encountered a cat riding along though.  Today we passed Al and Debbie out riding with their two cats, Lucy and Tommy.

We stopped to talk and they told us that the cats did this often with them.  Sometimes Tommy will ride in the basket, and they've taken them to the beach, to Presque Isle, and to ride in their boat along the Allegheny River.

They get a lot of disbelieving looks, but the cats seemed quite calm and happy to be out getting some fresh air.

We made it back to Pittsburgh to find that since we'd left in the morning, the Rivers Casino had installed their October Breast Cancer Awareness decorations again.

Thousands of brasiers strung together along the fences to call attention to Breast Cancer Awareness month.  We couldn't help but notice that the quality of the merchandise was not as high as it was last year.  Last year I saw a lot of expensive, lace covered, high end bras flapping in the breeze.  This year we looked and thought: "Granny Gear!".  Hmmm.  Maybe 70 miles on the bike was too much?

If you'd like to see this Roll On Roll Off service between Pittsburgh and DC become a reality, start writing letters to your congressmen, senators and Amtrak.  The more interest is expressed in having this service, the more likely we are to get it.  Send your snail mail to:

Amtrak Customer Relations
40 Mass. Ave., NE
Washington, DC 20002

Also, if you would put two additional copies of the letter in that same envelope - for the attention of Harris Cohen and the other for Derrick James - it would be very helpful.

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