Chances are, if you're planning an Amtrak trip with your bike, you're feeling intimidated and overwhelmed by the unknowns. How do bike services work? Will my bike be accepted? Do I need to reserve a bike space and how does that work?
Fear not! While Amtrak bike services are far from perfect, they are fairly straightforward once you learn the basics. These tips will help you get on track to take the bike-train trip you've been dreaming of (puns very much intended).
Before planning your Amtrak trip with your bike, know that there are two types of bike services and they work differently.
If you have any bike other than a folding bike or a standard two-wheel bike with a maximum tire width of 2 inches (e-bikes under 50 lbs are also good to go), then we're sorry to say you can stop reading this post. Amtrak doesn't take recumbents, tandems, trikes, or other non-standard bikes, but Adventure Cycling is actively advocating for this and we have some hope it will change soon.
Carry-on bike service is just like carry-on luggage.
Differences in train equipment explain the carry-on capacity and configuration differences: some trains have dedicated bike cars with racks, some have café cars with floor racks, some can take one bike per coach car, and some have bi-level coach cars that use the lower level for bikes.
Check out this video from Path Less Pedaled on how carry-on service works on the Pacific Surfliner.
Trainside checked bike service is just like checked bags.
Check out these tips from the Path Less Pedaled on how to use trainside checked service. (They call it carry-on or roll-up, but it's actually checked bike service.)
For many years, boxing a bike as baggage was the only way to travel with a (non-folding) bike. Good news — you don't need to box your bike anymore since the routes that offer bike service now provide bike racks. You can still box it if you want on routes with trainside checked service, and some stations still sell bike boxes (but don't count on it).
The one exception is that if you are going to or from Portland, Oregon on the Empire Builder you have to box your bike. The route splits in Spokane, and the baggage car with bike racks goes to Seattle.
Note: Folding bikes are treated as carry-on luggage on all Amtrak lines. Passengers can put them on the regular luggage rack on the train.
Next, you'll need to find out which type of bike service (if any) the route and stations you want to use provide. If you don't yet know which route(s) will get you to where you need to go, just plug your trip into Amtrak's ticket booking system and it will tell you which routes connect those destinations.
You can also see which stations with bike service align with Adventure Cycling and U.S. Bicycle Routes by using this interactive map.
Click on OpenCycleMap in the lefthand corner to see U.S. Bike Routes.
The map is best used for determining which bike routes align with stations, not which type of bike service is offered. Make sure to use the spreadsheet to determine the type of service.
Once you're sure about what bike services to expect and which stations you'll be able to use with your bike, you can book your ticket.
There should be a little bike icon that shows up on your ticket options (see above), with a number indicating how many bike spaces are still available.
When you choose your ticket, it will prompt you to add bike(s) to your reservation and will display the reservation fee. If you don't purchase a bike reservation with your ticket, then you won't be able to get your bike on the train, unless you're taking the Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin services in California.
If the bike icon does not show up, or there is a zero shown, it could be for a few reasons.
If the bike spaces are sold out or there aren't enough spaces for your group, you can still box your bike, and Amtrak will treat it like other checked baggage.
If you're checking your bike, Amtrak requires all checked luggage to be checked 45 minutes before the train leaves. The station staff will give you a ticket for your bike when you check it. You'll want to get there early to make sure you know where to go and can deal with any last minute issues if they come up.
A few things to know about traveling with your bike:
Unfortunately, Amtrak only owns 3% of the 21,400 route-miles traveled by its trains, so it pays host freight railroad companies millions of dollars to use their tracks each year. There is a federal law that prioritizes passenger rail over freight if there are conflicting uses; however, it is often ignored by the host railroad companies.
Amtrak produces a report card grading these host railroad companies for on-time performance each year. You can check out the report card to see what percentage of the time the route you are planning to take is on time (defined as within 15 minutes).
Amtrak would provide carry-on bike service system-wide tomorrow if it could; however, there are a number of reasons why it will take time to reach that goal.
Amtrak decision-makers: Prioritizing the direction of Amtrak starts with its leadership, and unfortunately, with the arrival of Amtrak's CEO Richard Anderson in 2018, bike services were downgraded as a priority. Also, Amtrak doesn't have decision-making authority over state-funded routes, so whether or not to offer bike service is determined by those state transportation agencies.
Train equipment: Much of Amtrak's equipment is 40 years old and needs to be replaced. Until that can happen (dependent on government funding), the old equipment needs to be retrofitted to add bike space. This space can be limited, especially for non-standard bikes. Train cars are also shared between routes for efficiency, so they need to ensure that all of the cars on a particular route provide consistent bike service.
Then put on your reading helmet.
Station platforms: Some stations have short platforms, making it impossible to load bikes into the baggage car without adding too much dwell time. Other platforms are too low relative to the height of the baggage car and so there is no service at those stations because the reach is too high for customers to hand up their bikes.
Reservation system: It's possible that Amtrak could provide some limited service for non-standard bikes like recumbents and trikes, but the biggest barrier to offering that option right now is the reservation system. It only allows Amtrak to sell one category of bicycle, which means there's no way to sell and ensure space for other types of bikes. We're hopeful that this will change by 2020.
If you've done your research and reserved your bike space, you should be set, but you may run into a situation where the bike service doesn't function as expected or described. We hope your experience goes smoothly and are always interested in hearing your feedback in the comments below, whether positive or negative.
Adventure Cycling is an active co-leader of the Amtrak Bike Task Force, and we are working to address issues and expand carry-on bike service system-wide. The more Amtrak sees and hears the demand for bike services, the more they will listen and be willing to prioritize it. So thank you for contributing to that demand and showing Amtrak that the bike travel community wants better, more convenient and affordable transportation options. We can't make progress without you!
This story has been updated and was originally published on August 11, 2016.