Amtrak Bicycle Task Force: Bringing Bikes on Board

Jun 4, 2014

Today we are featuring a guest post by Deborah Stone-Wulf, Amtrak's Chief of Sales Distribution and Customer Service. She manages all of Amtrak's distribution channels including Amtrak.com, mobile applications, the Quik-Trak kiosks and Amtrak's Contact Centers. Deborah also sets and implements the strategy for each of Amtrak's distribution channels as well as their intermodal distribution strategy. She is a co-chair of the Amtrak Bicycle Task Force, along with our Travel Initiatives director, Ginny, and is an essential partner in the initiative to expand accommodations for bicycles on Amtrak. 

I am very excited to be working with Adventure Cycling and the other representatives of the bicycling community on the Amtrak Bike Task force. I believe the partnership we have created will lead to some very exciting developments in Amtrak’s ability to expand the level of service available to the bicycling community. 

What many outside of Amtrak don’t know is that we have been working on this issue for quite some time. We understand and appreciate the synergies between rail and bike travel, and continue to work hard to better serve the bicycling community. We, however, have many challenges, primarily with our core infrastructure. Among the key issues are finding space for bicycles on our trains and developing the ability to safely and efficiently load and unload bicycles. Much of Amtrak’s fleet is quite old with many cars more than 40 years old and bikes were not a consideration during the original design. The good news here is new equipment for long distance trains is on the way, featuring design elements that will help on this front. That still won’t help with our station platforms, however, which are of varying heights and present an obstacle for loading and unloading bicycles. The challenge to identify space on the train where bikes can be safely loaded, stored and unloaded is another big one we’re examining.

Amtrak created the task force and teamed up with bicycle experts to help us identify solutions that perhaps we hadn’t thought of. We are looking to the experts on the Bike Task Force to bring new ideas and a fresh perspective on the challenges, while also helping us understand the market that exists for bike-train customers.  As Amtrak strives to deliver the best possible financial performance, it is important for us to understand customer demand, as we want to find a solution that does not negatively impact our financial performance.

I’m happy to report that things are moving forward with the Amtrak Bike Task force. We’ve had several productive discussions and are already seeing some creative ideas which should be beneficial. I expect that we will be ready to announce the pilot routes that we will be focused on very soon.

All photos courtesy of Amtrak.

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc.

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by Ginny Sullivan and Saara Snow of the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc.

Comments

Tim Smith

I have looked at using amtrak for one leg of my bike trips but no sevices in my area, so I end up renting a car. I look forward to amtrak expanding there bike carrying abilities thank you

June 4, 2014, 2:24 PM
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John Ludway

VIA Rail (Canada's system) has had wheel-on service for years. I rode the train (from Jasper to Toronto) after cycling the Icefield Parkway in 1999, and the convenience of not having to box the bike was great. I doubt that Amtrak's trains or sidings are any older then VIA Rails.

June 6, 2014, 8:27 PM
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Beth Power

By choice I do not have a car so use my bike and public transportation exclusively. Being able to bring my bike on Amtrak would increase my horizons greatly! Keep up the investigation.

June 4, 2014, 2:51 PM
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jim guenther

We tried to use Amtrak during our across America ride 2 years ago, but the stations we wanted to use did not have baggage handling staff which was needed to handle our bikes.

Last summer I took the California Zephyr from Denver to Sacramento and it worked out great. At both stations the staff were very helpful boxing my LHT. The bike arrived undamaged and on time. The senior fare is very reasonable.

I hope Amtrak moves forward with bicycle traveler improvements.

June 4, 2014, 3:01 PM
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Tom Kabat

I enjoy using Amtrak Coast Starlight on my return trips after riding south down the Pacific Coast. It works great so long as the station has the Amtrak bike boxes. They don't let unboxed bikes on.

June 4, 2014, 3:07 PM
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Scott McAllister Morgan

I rode the Capital Corridor to commute between San Jose and Davis for two weeks last Summer and loved the roll on bike service. I don't know how much space Amtrack can set aside for bikes on non-commuter lines, but as soon as they do, I'm sure people will use it.

June 4, 2014, 3:41 PM
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Kenneth Feucht

After using the train system extensively in Europe with my touring bike, the experience with Amtrak is most pitiful. One should NOT have to box their bike to haul it on the train. Fortunately, I can take my bicycle from Seattle/Tacoma to Portland or Eugene without a bike box. I believe this to be the only good situation that exists with a bike unfriendly Amtrak. If I wished to stop off with a friend in Salem, or head over to Montana or the east coast, my only recourse is to box the bike. At the cost of Amtrak, I'm better off paying a hefty bicycle fee and still come out way ahead by taking the airlines.

June 4, 2014, 4:01 PM
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DK Hood

Totally agree. Having lived in Europe several year and experienced total welcomeness of bikes on trains it is most painful here in US. I'm in the DC area and realize that during morning commutes there isn't much extra room for bikes. But weekends and non-communte hours are another story and I would love to be able to roll on my bike onto a train. I know many others who would welcome this service as well.

June 5, 2014, 5:52 AM
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Dave

not Amtrak, but you can certianly take your bike on the metro

June 6, 2014, 9:41 AM
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adventurepdx

I'm a bit confused. Salem, OR has Cascades service, which means roll-on bike service. Why would you need to box it?

June 6, 2014, 1:43 PM
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Judy Loukras

I'm hoping that amtrak is not striving for perfection and ideal conditions for bike travel. That would be nice be I'm sure most cyclists will deal with platform levels and difficult storage.

We took 2 trains in Eastern Europe last week and the trains and bike situation were much less than ideal but it worked, that's all that was important. Carrying the bikes on and off fully loaded up 3 steep steps and turning in an almost impossible corner while the stop was only minutes was certainly a challenge but doable.

Please amtrak, the old cars will be fine, we don't need a level entrance, let the cyclists give it a try. We just want to get on the train ASAP.

June 4, 2014, 4:06 PM
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Gary Lee

My fellow cyclists and I used to take the Vermonter from Brattleboro, VT to Burlington, Vt and ride south back to Brattleboro. It was an annual adventure we thoroughly enjoyed. Amtrak benefited by selling half a dozen passenger tix and $10 each for our bikes -which we simply lifted up and handed to a conductor standing in the doorway of the luggage car. It was easy and fast. A level platform was not available but never an issue.

June 4, 2014, 7:08 PM
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John Stechschulte

I biked across the country in 2008, and then took the train back. It was a fun and restful coda to an incredible trip. I'd love to travel more by bike and train, and having more bike-friendly routes and stations would greatly increase my options.

June 4, 2014, 8:51 PM
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Edmond Dorne

More than 10 years ago I took the train from New Haven to Burlington VT and rode home. It was great. I tried again the following year and was told I had to box my bike. I seem to remember it was quite expensive as well. Seems like Amtrak is moving backwards. Every time I investigate Amtrak as an option for travel of any kind with or without bike it is always cheaper and more convenient to fly or drive. Their lack of flexibility and vision perpetually rule it out as an option. I am exasperated that they are just now entering into discussions about the bike issue when as others have pointed out Europe is light years ahead. I agree. Platforms don't need to be perfect but it is unreasonable to have to disassemble a fully loaded touring bike to box it and have reassemble and pack it again on the other end. It is a deterrent and sadly I gave up on Amtrak quite a while ago. Hopefully they will get their act together at some point.

June 5, 2014, 4:35 AM
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Seán O'Shah

This is great news. I travel from Europe to the US every year to cycle and know many others who would also do so if Amtrack were more easily able to accommodate bicycles.

June 5, 2014, 5:39 AM
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Lucia

Cyclists are usually in OK shape and are used to having to carry bikes up and down stairs... we can handle old platforms, steps, and other obstacles while being aware of other passengers - why not try it out and see how it goes? Amtrak said the pilot project to allow bikes in cars from Pittsburgh to DC worked out perfectly - that was back in October - has any progress been made since then?

June 5, 2014, 6:38 AM
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Anne Welch

This is great, but all I want to be able to do is take my bike from Jackson, MS to NOLA for weekend trips without having to box it!!! If it wasn't for kind station workers that have in the past let me store the box at the station for free for my return trip home, what would I do? Find another box in a city I don't live in, in the small amount of time I'm down there? All I have is a bike...how am I to get the box to the station? I don't care about carrying my bike up stairs or that the platforms are not even...I just don't want to hassle of boxing it!

June 5, 2014, 8:06 AM
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Karol

I truly hope this is implemented on the Missouri River Runner between KC and St. Louis. Folks can take advantage of the Katy Trail, jump off at Sedalia and head east for a beautiful ride.

June 5, 2014, 2:46 PM
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William Abbey

The station agents and baggage express crews are almost always very helpful. I believe this could work, assuming the personnel, particularly conductors, are allowed professional input. Bikes, even in boxes, are no more cumbersome than elderly, disabled or infant passengers. I love Amtrak and highly recommend it to all bicyclists. BTW, not all stations need to have bicycle capability. Penn station would be a pain in the ass. for everyone.

June 5, 2014, 9:16 PM
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adventurepdx

I definitely welcome roll-on bike service on all trains! I don't really think that platform height would be that big of an issue. With the roll-on service on Amtrak Cascades, cyclists simply hand the bike up to the baggage handler or on-board personnel in the baggage car, and vise versa when the cyclist needs to get it off the train.

I agree that boxing the bike is a hassle and more expensive than what it should be (but still less than a plane), but I think some folks are making it out to be more of a hassle than it is, or they're assuming it's the same as boxing it for an airline. The Amtrak bike boxes are HUGE, and simply require one to remove pedals and turn handlebars to get in the box. There's no reason to disassemble a bike.

June 6, 2014, 1:14 PM
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Matthew Cole

First, I want to thank Amtrak and Ms. Stone-Wulf in particular for what they're attempting to do. Compared to not only the abrasive treatment but the complete disinclination to change that we get from the airlines, its refreshing.

That said, I'd like to echo what Judy L. said above: please don't wait to perfect the service before rolling it out nationwide, Amtrak. We're a hardy bunch, and we'll tolerate hiccups if there's continuous progress in-between the hiccups.

To me, the most important things, in order:

1. I can get the bike on at any station. Some stations don't accept checked baggage and don't allow bikes as "carry-on" luggage as it is now. Unfortunately, these stations are often near endpoints in ACA and USBRS routes (Newport News, VA comes to mind immediately).

2. No confusion caused by station employees who are unfamilar with Amtrak's actual bicycle policies.

3. I can bring the bike on without additional packaging prior to going on the train. (Alternatively, Amtrak provides the packaging at every station if they deem it impossible in the long term to provide space for unpackaged bikes.)

4. I can bring the bike on, and it goes in a designated bicycle spot in the baggage car (like racks or hangers). I love what the Amtrak Cascades route is doing right now.

5. I can bring the bike on, and station architecture makes it simple to get around the station (ramps instead of stairs, elevators that fit bikes, ramps at train level so the bike doesn't have to be lifted).

I would encourage Amtrak to do what it can now, and move towards doing everything later as resources permit. Thanks!

June 9, 2014, 2:20 PM
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Dale Oswald

This is an issue that does not have a simple solution. It's good that we're willing and able to put our bikes on the train, but where will you put it, once it's aboard? The greater problem is that many trains do not have baggage cars, and there's no place in a coach. For those trains with baggage service, the new equipment will remove the need for boxing, but that only helps on certain trains and stations.

Be aware also that sometimes when you build it, they won't necessarily come. The Adirondack had a roll-on car for several years, but it was severely under-utilized. The cost of maintaining a very old car wasn't justified.

It looks like all parties are sitting down to think about good solutions, and that's the right thing to do.

June 10, 2014, 9:04 AM
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Lois Moss

Thank you Adventure Cycling and Amtrak for working on this! I sent this yesterday via Amtrak's "Contact Us" and was quite annoyed when I wrote it. With a cooler head, I searched the Adventure Cycling site and was very pleased to see this blogpost. As other commenters have written, bicycles on trains are routine in most other countries; Amtrak could take best practices from other train companies and get this fixed.

Hello, my dad and I took Cascades from Portland to Mount Vernon two weeks ago and had an absolutely wonderful and stress-free time bringing our bicycles on the train. Thank you for that experience. Tonight, we wanted to put him on Empire Builder at Sandpoint and it was a frustrating and stress-filled experience. Firstly, bicycles can not be put on at Sandpoint, so we had to rent a car and drive to Spokane. Secondly, having to take the bicycle apart and put it into a special box was a frustrating hassle for us and for your staff. As much as I like train travel and never rent a car while I'm in Europe, the lack of simple amenities for bicycle travelers is a huge, huge negative that will make me not take Amtrak other than on lines that have bicycle hooks in the baggage car. I can't believe that it is very difficult to add a few bicycle hooks and it seems like a great way to increase passengers. I know I'm not the only person who desperately wants Amtrak to accommodate bicycles because I've seen many, many others write about it in blogs and Facebook posts. Thank you, Lois Moss

June 16, 2014, 11:54 AM
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Rebecca C.

Having roll on service on Amtrak would be amazing. We are struggling finding a way home from NYC after a bike tour and if Amtrak was an option we would have jumped on the opportunity. I imagine NYC trains are probably last on the list for upgrade because of how busy they are but any bike service on trains would be awesome. I look forward to the Niagara-Albany leg picking up bike service for sure and even though someone stated the Adirondack was under-utilized it would be toward the top of my list. I think that most cyclists can make the train layout and step up challenges work for them if the bike rack space is given. Not many forms of transportation are conducive to bike transport so we already deal with lifting and contorting our bikes no matter what we do. Just avoiding boxing my bike for shipping is worth a couple of measly steps up in my book. I really believe many train routes would gain from the addition of bike service due to the large number of people who travel and tour on bikes now.

July 7, 2014, 2:23 PM
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Ned W

Love all the current comments. Currently, I'm only concerned about the policy between Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. for using the C&O / Gap trail. I heard through the grapevine that Amtrak now allows roll-on service as opposed to their previous box up the bike regulations. Has anyone have first hand knowledge of the policy?

August 1, 2014, 7:57 AM
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