Trains and Planes – Europe's Multi-Modal Connections

August 13, 2014

This is a series of posts by Ginny Sullivan, director of Travel Initiatives, which highlight the lessons learned from a month-long bicycle trip in Europe. Ginny, her husband, Tom, and friend, Neal, cycled on several different bicycle tourism routes and their journey took them through nine countries. Nothing could have prepared them for the reality of touring through some of the most beautiful places on earth while witnessing the institutional support and high visitation on the routes. These trip reports focus on 1) big lessons learned; 2) infrastructure and wayfinding; 3) Multi-modal connections; 4) Tourism promotion and the role of the hospitality Industry. 

Since starting the Amtrak Bicycle Task Force in January, I’ve wondered how the Europeans have effectively dealt with rolling bikes onto trains. I had this vision that all the train stations were modern, spotless wonders and every train had wide doors at platform height. In my mind, it worked because trains and stations were designed to make it work.

Boy. Was I wrong.

Europe has many of the same bike-rail barriers that we have in the U.S. Train stations have various platform heights, sometimes you have to go down stairs and then back up to get to your platform, elevators are small, escalators are broken, stations are under construction, there are large crowds, train entrances are narrow and have a sharp turn radius and/or steep stairs, and sometimes no designated space for bikes. Add to this the fact that there are several countries, international trains, regional trains, and local trains. Each probably has its own agreements between jurisdictions and countries, and this must make consistency a huge headache. 

But it still works.

Sometimes we had our own baggage car with people to help load our bikes and gear. 

This was heaven. When we rode the Bernina Line between St. Moritz and Chur Switzerland we thought that all the Eurpean trains would be like this. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the train sees a great deal of tourists — on bicycles and off. But most of the trains did not have a staffed baggage car and we adapted to each circumstance with realtive ease. 

Most often we had a designated bike passenger car with folding seats. 

These were the best option because space could be converted to passenger seating as needed. As you can see, the bicycles stacked against each other with cyclists bringing their own bungy cords to secure them against a railing. While the bikes remained secure, we enjoyed chatting with the other cycle tourists on their own adventures.

In one case, we shared a compartment with wheelchairs (though you can't actually see the chairs in this photo, trust me I stood right next to them). This is something unheard of in the U.S. but was simply a matter of business in Switzerland.  

Sometimes we made due with little or no designated space. But we always found a way. In one situation, putting our bikes on the train with no designated space required the conductor to decide if it would be permitted. When we asked the ticket agent what would happen if the conductor didn't agree, the salesperson replied, "Wait for the next train." Luckily, the conductor was an accommodating fellow and we loaded up, removed our front tires and trailers and stacked our bikes in the foyers. We then enjoyed a rather hot, but pleasant ride over the Belgium foothills. 

Now let’s talk about plane travel. We took Iceland Air to Amsterdam. They charge $56 for your bicycle each way. Boxing is required. At the Amsterdam airport, the bikes arrived on their own luggage platform (so cool) and we were able to store them for a few days while we visited our daughter who was attending Amsterdam University.

We flew to Mestre, Italy on British Air. We were charged $50 for a second bag and the bike was boxed. The bike arrived in a timely fashion and then we were able to load the bikes on a coach bus with service to the Mestre train station.  It all worked pretty seamlessly.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, we descended to the lower level of the Schiphol Airport using a freight elevator (nice and roomy) where baggage is stored. They sell bike boxes which cost about $32 and we didn't have to remove our wheels. Then the airport stored our bikes for us until our flight the following day — again at a reasonable rate of about $20 per day. Here we are boxing our bikes in a nice spacious area.

Compare this to our arrival back in Seattle on the return trip. After going through customs, we waited until all the baggage from the Iceland Air flight was unloaded. This took about 45 minutes. After finally getting our bikes and going through the security check, we were informed we could not take our bikes on the transit train to the main terminal and that the airport baggage staff would have to deliver it. Another 45 minutes later, we finally received our bikes. Tired and hungry, we felt like second class citizens for having bikes. Add to this that the baggage carts, free and plentiful in European airports, cost $5 each in Seattle. Unwilling to pay the toll, we dragged our bikes and weary bodies out to the loading zone to await our niece's pickup. It’s no wonder more people don’t bring bikes on planes. Not only do most domestic airlines make it costly, our airports do not serve cyclists' needs. 

The next day, as we checked our boxed bikes on Amtrak to return to Montana, the staff informed us that one box was over 50 lbs. We'd had no trouble with weight checking in at Schiphol so we were perplexed. We quickly rearranged our boxes to acheive the desired weight distribution to then learn bungy cords were not allowed for our BOB Trailers. We heaved a sigh and gathered our trailers in our hands to carry on. We did make it home, but it was a lesson in patience and perserverance to be sure. 

Photos by Neal Fisher and Ginny Sullivan.

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


Juliane August 20, 2014, 7:12 PM

Really? 9 countries in a month??? sounds more exhausting than enjoyable. We're doing a month on bike but just around France.

Houston Miller August 13, 2014, 1:54 PM

Thanks for the latest edition, Ginny. For sure, the domestic US situation is a bit rough around the edges (with some nice surprises like the bike building station near baggage claim at PDX. ). For our recent Pacific Coast tour we opted for FedEx delivery from Maryland to Portland and back from San Francisco which came in about $30 cheaper than United (and $130 cheaper than Delta) for each one way trip. Maybe more logistics at either end is the price you pay. In related news, and closer to my home, I am anxious to see how Amtrak's Capital Limited service helps out the GAP riders. We might have to wait for next years statistics to see if this is enough incentive to attract more riders.

Greg Moore August 13, 2014, 12:09 PM

Great article, Thanks! Sounds like an excellent trip! Looking to ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs and return to Denver on Amtrak. Disappointed that I have to go to the trouble of boxing up my bike for the 6 hour train ride back to Denver. Honestly didn't occur to me I'd have to box the bike until reading the article, so thanks for the heads up.

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