August 11, 2016
Bike services found on Amtrak depend on multiple factors: train equipment, station staffing, station platform design, train scheduling, etc. And many passengers don’t realize it, but not all Amtrak trains are completely controlled by Amtrak. Short-haul routes, less than 750 miles, share the responsibility of operation with state departments of transportation or other transportation authorities. With all of this in mind, one can begin to put Amtrak’s bicycle service, whether it’s bikes boxed as baggage or cyclists using the expanding carry-on service, in the context of a complex and nationally dispersed operation.
Amtrak provides information about bringing bikes on board, but Adventure Cycling has augmented that with our Multi-Modal Travel page where potential passengers wanting to bring bikes on board can find a spreadsheet listing the timetables and services. We also provide an instruction sheet on how to sort this information for easier use. In addition, there is a link to our interactive Amtrak map. Scroll over the map to see what line, station, and service is provided.
When looking at bicycle services on Amtrak, it’s good to know the lingo. There are three basic terms:
Trainside checked bicycle service is a newer service that is being rolled out on all 15 of Amtrak's long distance routes, and the latest word is that this will be complete by the end of summer 2016. As more routes receive the new baggage cars with bike racks, Amtrak is listing them on their bike page, www.amtrak.com/bikes. Bikes still need to be checked as baggage (not carry-on) but do not need to be boxed. You can roll your bike up to the train and hand it to a baggage agent, where it will be loaded into the baggage car. Just like boxed bike baggage, this can only be done at stations staffed for baggage service. Advance reservations are required, and there is a fee for trainside checked bicycle service.
For many years and for most Amtrak passengers, boxing a bike as baggage was the only way to travel with a bike. The bicycle baggage fee is $10 and Amtrak sells large bike boxes for $10 (not available at all stations). These boxes are large enough that minimal disassembly is required to box a bike.
Besides the inconvenience of having to remove the handlebars and pedals from the bike, the challenge with “boxed bike baggage” is that the service is only available at stations with baggage service, within the hours of that service, and only on trains with a baggage car. This means that if the train has no baggage car, then no bike service. And even if the train has a baggage car, if the particular station(s) you want to use are not staffed for it, passengers can’t load or unload the boxed bike. So, if you want to take your bike on the Acela Express as part of your “first mile” or “last mile” commute, no luck ... and likewise for a bike vacation on the Amtrak Adirondack.
For routes with boxed bike baggage service, you need to plan your trip after studying the schedule to see which stations are staffed and at what times. And note further that some trains on a given route have baggage service while others on the same route do not. Boxed bike baggage service may not be available for all trains on a given line because the station is staffed only part of the day.
There is a good deal of potential for expanding carry-on service. With the growing number of U.S. Bicycle Routes and the Adventure Cycling Route Network, cyclists could really benefit from having more carry-on capacity.
But there exists a good number of challenges to getting this done. With carry-on service, there are many differences in fees, bike capacity, and station service. Equipment differences explain the capacity 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. But bi-level cars can’t be used in the Northeast Corridor because tunnels and bridges don’t have enough height clearance.
State-controlled, short-haul routes (less than 750 miles) choose their fees (or lack of fee) based on their own service goals. Some stations don’t have carry-on bike service because the train runs on such a tight schedule that it can’t afford loading/unloading time (“dwell time”). Some stations have short platforms, making it impossible to load bikes into the baggage car without “re-spotting” the train and therefore, adding too much dwell time. Other platforms are too low relative to the height of the bike-baggage car and so there is no service at those stations because the reach is too high for customers to hand up their bikes.
A list of routes with carry-on service can be found on the Amtrak bike page. The newest additions, the Vermonter (pictured above) and the Capitol Limited, started carry-on service within the last year, thanks to collaboration between Amtrak and its partners in the Amtrak Bicycle Task Force. The Task Force is looking at the next set of pilot projects for this expanded carry-on service, so stay tuned for more exciting expansion news in the near future.
Today’s post was written by Kerry Irons, life member and long time volunteer for Adventure Cycling Association. Kerry has a passion for expanding Amtrak bicycle service and serves on the Amtrak Bicycle Task Force.
Top photo by Don Erdeljac, second photo by Malcolm Kenton, third photo by Ginny Sullivan, fourth photo by Chuck Gomez, and bottom photo courtesy Amtrak. Graphics provided by Adventure Cycling.
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