A bike path on Wolf Lake, next to I-90 just east of the Illinois-Indiana border Credit: Julia Thiel

About ten years ago I biked with a friend from Chicago to Hammond, Indiana—a 30-mile ride that was made especially easy by a strong tailwind. We could take the train back, my friend assured me, which was a relief because I’d been having knee problems and wasn’t up for a return cycling trip. Unfortunately, she turned out to be wrong: when we wheeled into the station we found signs clearly stating that bikes were allowed on trains only if they were packed into boxes. The station didn’t sell boxes, and even if it had, we didn’t have the right tools with us to disassemble our bikes. It was a long trip back, riding into a wind that seemed to grow stronger with every turn of our pedals.

While all Metra trains allow you to roll your bike on board (except during rush hour), until last year the South Shore Line—which goes from downtown Chicago to South Bend, Indiana—did not. Neither did Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service, which runs between Chicago and Milwaukee. Last spring both of those policies changed: the South Shore Line announced a pilot program that would add train cars that could accommodate bikes to most weekend runs between April and November, and Amtrak began offering what it calls “trainside checked bicycle service” on the Hiawatha line, which means that you no longer have to stuff your bike into a box.

As someone who’s spent the years since that miserable journey back from Hammond trying to figure out the best way to take public transit back to Chicago after a southerly bike trek, I was pretty excited about the policy change on the South Shore Line. Biking from Chicago to northwest Indiana is one of my favorite rides: the Lakefront Trail is much less crowded once you get south of McCormick Place, you can stop at Calumet Fisheries for smoked fish or fried oysters, and there’s a weird industrial beauty to the refineries and steel mills that line Lake Michigan near the Illinois-Indiana border. And, of course, Three Floyds Brewpub in Munster is a fun place to stop for a burger and an Alpha King or three. Biking home afterward can be less fun, especially if you’ve had one too many beers (what seems reasonable while you’re sitting in the brewpub often feels regrettable when you start biking home).

Until last year, though, there weren’t a lot of other options. You can pick up the Metra Electric line in Flossmoor, about ten miles west of Munster, but the route there isn’t particularly bike friendly. And actually getting on the train can be dicey, since the ME line allows a maximum of eight bikes per run—and that’s only if the priority seating area isn’t already occupied by strollers, wheelchairs, or suitcases. I’ve done the trip a few times, nervously eyeing the other cyclists on the platform waiting to board with their bikes, calculating how many open spaces we’ll need and wondering whether the conductor we get will be helpful or surly. (Conductors have the right to refuse to allow bikes for any reason, and they sometimes do.)

Although the South Shore Line doesn’t go to Munster, being able to bring bikes on board still makes for an easier trip back than riding Metra. The seven-mile ride to the nearest station is straightforward, and more importantly, the specially modified cars can accommodate about 24 bikes, which all but guarantees you a spot. The cars also feature easy-to-use bike racks (on Metra trains you have to bring a bungee cord to secure your bike to the railing of the folding seat). If you really want an easy commute to the train after lunch, 18th Street Brewery now has a brewpub in Hammond, just over a mile from the train station. It’s got good beer and food, and a patio where I’ve never had to wait for a table.

As handy as it is to be able to take the train back from Hammond, what I find really useful about the South Shore Line’s new train cars is that they make biking to the Indiana Dunes more attractive. It’s about a 55-mile ride from downtown, and from where I live it would be a nearly 125-mile round-trip. That’s doable for some cyclists, but it’s too far for me as a rule. Several years ago, after biking to the dunes, I spent the night in a hotel before moving on to Flossmoor the next day and taking the Metra back to Chicago. Last fall I finally got to do a day trip to the dunes: I arrived in the late afternoon, whiled away an hour or so wading in the lake and watching members of a kite club flying fancy kites on the beach, then headed to the Dunes Park station to catch the early evening train back to the city. As I waited, a dozen-odd cyclists started filtering into the station; it turned out that there was an organized ride from Chicago to the Indiana Dunes that day, and they were also headed back into the city. I did get a little nervous about whether there would be enough room on the train for all of our bikes—if we didn’t get onto this one, we’d have to wait another four hours for the next. But all was well.

About a month after the Indiana Dunes adventure, I biked from Chicago to Milwaukee for the first time. It might be an exaggeration to say that the new Amtrak policy made that trip possible—other cyclists have been doing it for years—but it definitely made it easier. Faster, more efficient riders than I could even do it as a day trip: the last train leaves Milwaukee at 7:30 PM and arrives at Union Station at 9 PM. My cycling style involves going slow, taking lots of breaks, and getting lost often (that last one is never intentional), so I’d already planned to spend the night. Dusk was falling by the time I saw the lights of downtown Milwaukee, nearly 12 hours and a couple unexpected detours after leaving home. The last thing I wanted to do after a 100-mile ride was take a train back to Chicago—I barely had the energy to go find dinner before collapsing into bed. But it’s nice to know that I could have. When I did finally take the train back the next afternoon, I didn’t have to worry about packing my bike into a box or being kicked off the train due to lack of space (on Amtrak, you pay a $5 fee per bike when you reserve your ticket). Biking home, my body told me, was not an option.   v