Riding the Rails — AMTRAK Juggles Bike Policies

Amtrak, the traffic decongestant

Touring is my favorite part of bicycling; I love to get out on the bike for several days at a time. The challenge is getting to the start of my expeditions and when it’s at the far side of this Los Angeles megalopolis, Amtrak can whisk me away nicely.

But my Amtrak multi-modal journeys are mixed and I’ve learned some lessons the hard way.

Bringing bikes on board and the policies for doing so have been turned upside down recently. Are the new reservations-required policies better for most users, or is the process more frustrating for most bike passengers?

It depends.

If you’re an infrequent bike tourist like me then you’ll love the new reservation policy. In fact I already have my next long distance AMTRAK/bike trip all planned out with reservations set for 2 bikes. That’s a big relief for me and leisure travelers like me; in the past I’d make my plans and hope to get aboard early enough to secure a spot for my bike — that’s all changed with the new system. But pity the frequent commuters, their daily routine has become much more troublesome.

Is there a compromise, a balance to be struck?

AMTRAK has converted many of its rail routes to the reservation system. I’m guessing that makes life easier for their staff that actually have to deal with passengers with bikes — no reservation, no bike — simple, but lacking.

I come from a railroad family. One of my oldest memories — it must have been a Christmas present from my dad — as a kid I had a giant wall-sized map of the US showing all the rail lines. The railroad logos were splashed around the margins; it was something to behold. I wonder what I did with it?

I grew up is what happened, but railroading would be a part of my life for years to come. My dad worked for the Boston & Maine RR in Industrial Real Estate. As railroad revenues were declining in the 70’s and 80’s his job was selling off their vast real estate assets to keep them afloat. Their track beds were in constant need of repair and that would be where I fit in — for 6 summers and one cold month of January, through most of high school and college, my dad got me on the track gangs; I was a Gandy dancer. It was miserable hard work in the desperate hot summer months and bitter cold that January, but it paid very well for a college kid. As my long career on the tracks approached its end I made 2 vows: first, to someday get a job that would take more than 2 weeks to master and secondly, never take a brown-bag lunch to work again.

That would be the end of my railroad stories until this current stage of my life where I’m avoiding automobiles and riding my bike everywhere possible. I’ve learned that bringing my bike onboard can greatly extend my range, but there’s a trick to making it turn out right.

My earliest multi-modal journeys were too ambitious and I was too inexperienced — my 2010 family vacation was a stressful disaster; that’s how my wife remembers it. I knew the Surfliner would take us and our bikes on board, if there was room enough, but what I didn’t plan for was that innocent looking transfer at Los Angeles that would’ve had us boxing up 4 bikes on the fly. I made a snap decision and left the bikes behind; we carried the panniers because that’s how we packed, and instead we rented bikes at our destination.

Fast forward to next month’s getaway plans — I’ve scoured the schedules and found the routes that will accommodate the bikes from start to finish. The new reservation system is perfect for someone like me, an advance planner who knows exactly where he’s going. It better work this way as this trip celebrates our 39th anniversary.

Fold-up bikes easily fit overhead

Prior to this advance reservation policy I’d often take my Brompton fold-up bike aboard. Maybe it wasn’t the best bike for the riding I was planning, but the train travel was no sweat — pop off the panniers and hoist the bike into the overhead compartment. No reservations to make and never a situation where there weren’t enough bike racks. This was great for a weekend getaway to San Diego or duffing around Santa Barbara, but eventually my choice of touring bike made this approach obsolete.

Like we do all the time, can we look to Europe for a solution?

Surely the Dutch have solved this problem.

Last November I spent a week traveling around the Netherlands. I was speaking at events in Rotterdam and The Hague as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week while sneaking in as much sightseeing as I could. All my prior visits were Amsterdam only, so I was quite impressed with the nation’s train network. I took my self to Utrecht one morning to interview Tom Godefrooij at the Dutch Cycling Embassy.

Tom informed me that Dutch bike-share is operated by the train company — I wouldn’t see many bikes on the train he told me; only tourists brought their bikes on board.

So if you’re a Dutch commuter you have nothing to worry about. You can bike along one of the ubiquitous separated bike paths to the train station and when you arrive at your destination a bike-share awaits you.

As I was researching this topic I came across an astute observation from DC.Streetsblog commenter, Miles Bader:

“The problem is that if bicycling becomes really popular, bringing-your-bike-on-the-train is, well, not very scalable… Trains work well because they can fit lots of passengers; if a significant fraction of those passengers tried to bring a full-sized bike along, it just won’t work.”

-Written by Frank Peters who is the founder of bikeNewportBeach.org and a member of the Newport Beach Bicycle Master Plan Oversight Committee. Follow Frank’s more personal stories at cdmCyclist.com.

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