Thursday, 13 October 2016

Amtrak improves long-distance bicycle transport

Over the last month, Amtrak has quietly rolled out a major upgrade to its services for transporting bicycles on long-distance trains: Amtrak has added bike racks or hooks for unboxed bikes in the baggage cars of almost all of its long-distance trains.

Kudos to Amtrak, whose headquarters isn’t always so highly regarded for marketing savvy or customer responsiveness. (Amtrak’s front-line staff, especially onboard, on the other hand, are known among regular riders for going the extra mile to accommodate passengers.)

This changes makes Amtrak a better choice than ever for bicycle transport across the USA compared to planes, buses, DHL, Fedex, or the U.S. Post Office. But the latest change has gotten remarkably little fanfare from either Amtrak or cycle-touring organizations such as the Adventure Cycling Association, which is why I’m bothering to call it out here.

Intermodal transport of bikes on trains is long established as a way for cyclists to get to and from their rides, whether using a bicycle for the first and/or last miles of their daily commute, putting their bike on a train to get out of the city for a Sunday ride in the country, or getting to the start or home from the finish of a cross-country tour.

As members of the hospitality network for touring bicyclists, we get many cycle-touring guests in our home in San Francisco who are riding up or down the West Coast or across the USA. San Francisco is often the start or end of their ride, and we often find ourselves talking with our visitors about options for getting themselves and their bikes across the country or back up or down the coast. Our answer to, “What’s the best way to do this?” is usually, “If you have the time, Amtrak.”

There are racks for two or three bikes on many city buses in the US, and a tired cyclists can sometimes use a local bus as a “sag wagon” if it has a bike rack. But bikes on buses don’t scale if there are a lot of cyclists travelling together. You can slide your bike on its side into the luggage compartment under a long-distance bus, but it’s vulnerable to damage en route unless you dismantle, pad, and box it.

With some exceptions, bringing a bike with you as airline luggage is expensive (US$150 per bike, one way, is typical for a boxed bike checked as airline luggage on a flight within the USA) and requires you to partially dismantle and box it. Sending a bike as unaccompanied air cargo is even more expensive, and also requires boxing it. Within the USA, shipping a boxed bike by UPS or Fedex Ground is cheaper than sending or bringing it with you by air, but still not cheap and still requires boxing to meet package size limits.

Some of these fees and restrictions can be avoided by getting a bike with S&S couplers so that the frame can be split in half. You can even get couplers retrofitted in an existing steel frame, for a price. But breaking down a bike with couplers to fit into airline luggage is still a non-trivial task that requires finding or cutting down a box to exactly the right size.

A train (or in most cases a ferry) has room for many more bikes onboard than a bus or plane. If there’s a dedicated baggage car, it’s relatively easy to fit it with racks, hooks, and/or straps to secure numerous unboxed bikes. And for both historical and business reasons, passenger railroads around the world generally charge much less to transport bikes than do most airlines or other cargo shipping companies.

What does this mean if you want to bring your bike with you, or ship it unaccompanied, on an Amtrak train?

Amtrak has a limited route system. But it does span the USA from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada. Between places where Amtrak offers bicycle transport service, Amtrak was already the best way to transport a bicycle, whether as accompanied baggage or as unaccompanied freight.

Bringing or shipping a bike on Amtrak is usually cheaper than shipping your bike by any other means including bringing it with you as airline luggage or shipping it by UPS or Fedex Ground. Amtrak allows you to bring your bike with you either unboxed or in a box so much larger than bike shop or airline bike boxes, or the parcel limits for parcel shipping, that little or no dismantling is necessary. With most bikes, all that is necessary is to pull the pedals and turn the handlebars, and you can wheel the bike into the Amtrak box. You probably won’t have to remove wheels, racks, or fenders.

Unfortunately, Amtrak bicycle transport service varies both by route and, on many routes, by station. That means you have to check the timetable for the specific train to know whether you can bring or ship a bike between specific stations, as well as what is required to do so.

Broadly speaking, Amtrak uses three types of equipment on different routes, each with different provisions for bicycles:

  • Amtrak Thruway buses are “feeder” buses that connect with trains. They are listed in Amtrak timetables along with trains. On some routes, there are only a few trains — maybe only one train a day — but additional Amtrak services between the same points by bus. Amtrak buses have luggage compartments like those on a Greyhound bus. You can put your bike on its side in the luggage compartment under the bus, unboxed, at no charge, if there is room (there usually is), but at your own risk. I would avoid these if possible, for fear of damage to my bike.

  • Amtrak California cars and similar cars used on some other short and medium-distance Amtrak routes were designed with space to hang a few bikes in each passenger car. On these trains, you can bring a bike at no charge, without reservations, and load and unload your own bike from the train at any stop. Amtrak says that you might not be allowed to bring your bike onboard if the bike racks are already full. But in practice, I’ve never heard of this happening. Be nice, try to stay out of other passengers’ way as much as possible, and the train crew will find someplace to put your bike. Routes where these cars are used include the Capitol Corridor trains from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the San Joaquins between the Bay Area and Bakersfield (with a feeder bus from the Merced station to Yosemite), and — perhaps of most interest to West Coast cycle tourists — the Pacific Surfliner trains from San Luis Obispo south via Los Angeles to San Diego, and the Cascades between Eugene, Portland, and Seattle.

  • Most other Amtrak trains use passenger cars with no space for bicycles. These include most long-distance trains as well as all trains on the the key Northeast Corridor from Boston via New York and Philadelphia to Washington, DC. On these trains, bikes are carried only in the baggage car, if there is one, and only on trains and between stations that offer checked baggage services. The baggage car is only opened at some stops: Stops at some stations are too brief to load or unload baggage, and other stops are “flag stops” or at unstaffed stations.

The latest changes affect this third category of routes and trains:

Until now, you’ve been required to box your bike to check it as luggage on one of these trains. There’s a $10 fee to check a boxed bike as luggage, plus a charge of $15 for a box if you don’t supply your own. You probably want the Amtrak box, because it’s so much bigger than a box you might get free from a bike shop, and you don’t have to deal with transporting the box to the train station. Amtrak usually has bike boxes available at major stations, but you can’t count on it. Try to call or, better, visit the station in advance to ask them if they have a bike box they can set aside for you. Otherwise, you have to show up at the station with enough time to track down another box and fit your bike into it if that proves necessary. At best, it’s a slow and potentially nervous-making process.

Now that Amtrak has added bike hangers to the baggage cars on almost all of these trains (or at least on some trains on almost all routes), you don’t have to worry about whether a box will be available or allow time for boxing your bike. There’s a charge of up to $20, depending on the distance, to bring a bike with you, but that’s slightly less than the previous $10 + $15 for the box, and hugely less than most airlines charge. You just have to remove panniers or other large bags, which you can either check separately or carry on board. Ask the station crew to tell you where along the platform to wait for the baggage car, and hand your bike up to the train crew at the baggage car door.

Supposedly there’s a limit to how many bikes will fit in the rack in each baggage car, and supposedly you have to reserve space for your bike on a specific train in advance. Phone Amtrak at 800-USA-RAIL, or visit the station — you can’t reserve Amtrak bike space online. I asked an Amtrak spokesperson what would happen if someone showed up with a bike without reservations, and the bike rack was full. I was told that Amtrak hasn’t faced such a situation yet. In practice, I suspect that they’d find some other space for your bike in the baggage car. The worst case scenario would be having to box your bike at the last minute if the bike racks are full. But I think that’s unlikely.

You still need to check the timetable to see which trains carry bikes and which stations have checked baggage service. On the Northeast Corridor, the Acela Express trains have no baggage car and don’t accept bikes or any other checked baggage. But there are several other slightly-slower Northeast Regional trains on the same route every day that now do take (unboxed) bikes.

The new baggage cars with bike hangers went into service on most long-distance routes on 21 September 2016; the Coast Starlight (Seattle-Oakland-Los Angeles) was added on 26 September 2016.

What may be most remarkable is how quickly these changes were rolled out nationwide, less than a year after the first of the new baggage cars with bike hangers went into service. Note that as of this writing, the Amtrak overlay layer on the Adventure Cycling Association interactive route map has not yet been upodated with these new services. My guess is that Amtrak crews found it quicker and easier to hang unboxed bikes on racks than to load and unload boxed bikes.

If you want to ship an unaccompanied bike across the USA, Amtrak may still be your best choice. Amtrak’s little-known station-to-station parcel shipping service is a vestige of the venerable Railway Express Agency. Amtrak Express takes packages larger than UPS, Fedex, or the US Postal Service, including the same oversized Amtrak bike boxes, for less than the prices charged by most other carriers. Amtrak Express is available between most Amtrak stations that have checked baggage service.

Amtrak Express transit times are somewhat unpredictable, especially if your bike will need to be transferred between trains. There is not now, nor has there ever been, same-train passenger service across the USA. “A hog can cross the country without changing trains — but you can’t,” was once the advertising slogan of an unsuccessful would-be railroad reformer. Today as ever, you have to change trains somewhere, most often in Chicago. If you need you bike on a date certain, send it several days early, and it will be held for you to pick up at the destination station.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 13 October 2016, 07:41 ( 7:41 AM)
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