Elena Studier reads up places to visit during the next leg of her trip. Image courtesy of National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Elena Studier reads up places to visit during the next leg of her trip. Image courtesy of National Association of Railroad Passengers.

For most college students, a good summer internship can be a great learning experience and an opportunity to explore career options while gaining a glimpse of life after graduation.

And then there is Elena Studier, a 20-year-old sophomore at George Washington University, and her summer internship. It’s one of her own creation and a reminder to the rest of us of that the power of one person with a bold idea is immeasurable.

Elena is riding Amtrak trains across the country with a bicycle and a backpack, stopping in 20 cities in 15 states and a couple of national parks over 38 days along her 10,000 mile journey.

At each stop, she is connecting with local bicycle advocacy groups and promoting multimodal travel in an unconventional way. Amtrak is expanding its Walk-On Board Bicycle Service, inviting cyclists and their bikes on all its national routes. Elena is encouraging cyclists to park their cars, travel by train with bikes on board, and enjoy their two-wheeled mode of  transportation along the way and at journey’s end.

This isn’t a solo lark for Elena. It’s a public policy initiative.

Elena, who lives in Ithica, N.Y., spent her freshman year in Washington, D.C. studying international relations and human geography, participating in athletics, and working as a transportation and policy intern at the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) in her spare time. The NARP advocates for expanded rail transit in the United States. You can read its Vision for Trains in America to learn more about its mission.

Elena conceived the summer journey as a way of bringing attention to national rail travel and its growing multimodal options for people who want to combine riding the rails with pedaling in new places.

Her bosses at NARP bought it, and the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which is developing a 3,000-mile trail system from Maine to Florida, signed on as a partner. On May 15, with much fanfare, Elena and her bike Stevie embarked from New York’s Penn Station on her Summer by Rail journey.

“NARP’s excited about supporting Elena’s project because it allows us to tell the story of how Amtrak’s national network connects Americans,” said NARP Vice President Sean Jeans-Gail. “Too many people think of a rail pass as something you do in another country, without realizing that you can use a train to see some of the most beautiful parts of this country, in communities large and small. Amtrak’s commitment to make their trains more bike friendly only expands the network’s reach.”

Elena is blogging as she makes her way across the country, now three-fourths of the journey already behind her. Read her first post on April 20 sharing her inspiration for the internship and follow her trip, city by city, although it appears that Elena, like most of us, is a few postings behind schedule.

Along the way, she is generating some very positive press about her quest to travel the country by rail and bike. The Atlantic’s CityLab, among others, sent a reporter to ride with Elena and write about her. The U.S. Department of Transportation republished one of her blog posts and Elena even met Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

I’ve been reading her blog with admiration (and envy) since first hearing about her trip. How many 20-year-old students can speak about the difference between cycling along Chicago’s 100 miles of protected bike lanes in the urban core versus a two-day ride around Portland?

She’s stopped and visited the Grand Canyon and Glacier Lake National Park as well.

“A lot of these national parks came about because of trains,” Elena said.

Here’ a video of her in Seattle:

Friday morning Elena pulled into Sunset Station in San Antonio. Her boss, Jeans-Gail, had flown down to San Antonio to accompany her through her Texas swing.

They were met by Robin Stallings, the executive director of Bike Texas; Beth Nobles, his deputy, and their colleague Jack Sanford, and Ruben Lizalde, a special projects director on Mayor Ivy Taylor’s staff. The seven of us set off on a leisurely 15-mile spin. The Bike Texas crew was riding eProdigy electric bikes they are promoting for urban commuting.

“The experience is changing my life,” Elena said before we left on our bike ride. “I’m traveling alone, but I am surrounded by more people than I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve met incredible people all along the way. Trains are the most civilized way to travel, in my opinion.

“I generally arrive in a city and go on a ride with a bike advocacy group,” she said. “They show me their cities, the good sides and the (problematic) sides.”

Our route was a World Heritage-plus tour in a tight window of time. We left St. Paul Square, hopped on to the new protected bike path on Market Street, pedaled through Hemisfair, past Yanaguana, Garden and into King William. We jumped on the river path at the San Antonio River Authority headquarter’s offices, and passed by Blue Star and Roosevelt Park.

We came up from the river for a visit to Mission Concepción and then took Mission Road to Mission San José. Time was short and we came back on Roosevelt Avenue, cut over to South Flores Street from Probandt and made our last stop at Main Plaza and  San Fernando Cathedral.

Elena Studier steps into Mission San José. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Elena Studier steps into Mission San José. Photo by Robert Rivard.

After a quick lunch of enchiladas at Poblanos on Main, Elena and Stevie boarded the train and left for Austin that afternoon with a stop in Dallas-Fort Worth next on their agenda.

Her journey ends on June 20 at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

I had never heard of the National Association of Railroad Passengers until learning of Elena’s summer by rail. For years, I took Amtrak service for granted while living and working in New York in the 1980s, where population density and government subsidies make the rail system an indispensable transportation option between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C.

Unfortunately, there are few Amtrak options in San Antonio. You can head north on the Texas Eagle daily if you’re heading to Austin, Dallas and beyond to Chicago. However, friends of mine who decided to return from a San Antonio to Austin cycling ride waited for hours as the return train to San Antonio was way behind schedule.

The Sunset Limited departs three times weekly in all directions, taking passengers to Los Angeles or to New Orleans if they’re going in the other direction. 

There is no way, however, for cyclists to board a train for New Mexico or Colorado for a cycling sojourn in the mountains. The Sunset Limited does stop in Alpine and Marfa, but those are not Amtrak stations. If there is no baggage service at those stops it means passengers cannot access their bicycles in the baggage compartments.

Many light rail and some urban rail systems accommodate bikes. If we ever get a train that runs from San Antonio to Austin, many of us will make the commute with our bikes and be truly mobile without ever touching IH-35. Until then, there is Elena Studier’s Summer by Rail blog for living vicariously.


Top image: Elena Studier reads up places to visit during the next leg of her trip. Image courtesy of National Association of Railroad Passengers.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.