Bicycle rider on Amtrak trains

With my Davidson bike in the baggage car, Dervla Murphy’s classic bicycle book Full Tilt on my lap, and my wife by my side I’ve been riding Amtrak: The Cardinal from Indianapolis to Charlottesville, the Piedmont from Charlotte to Cary (both in North Carolina), and the Silver Star from Cary to Deland, Florida.

One of Amtrak’s positive features is its approach to traveling with bicycles. With pedals removed and handlebars turned, bikes can travel in cardboard boxes purchased from Amtrak for $15, or they can be transported in other bike cases of the passenger’s choice. In either case, the transportation charge per ticket is only $5.00. Since my bike is equipped with S & S couplers, it packs in a soft case that travels as checked baggage at no charge. On some trains, bikes can be ridden to the baggage car where they travel hanging from a hook on the wall.

Most of my train travel, which started 75 years ago, has been on western trains, such as the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight, the Cascades (the local Amtrak subsidized by Oregon and Washington), and the San Joaquin (subsidized by California). The trip this year has reinforced my determination that henceforth overnights on Amtrak will be on cars with sleeping compartments!

Train personnel are polite and pleasant. Most seem interested in helping passengers travel comfortably. Station crews differ from one place to another. Some are civil but impatient, with little apparent interest in helping travelers. Others really want to help. The outstanding examples on this trip were personnel at the Cary station.

Equipment varies widely. In contrast with our favorite air carrier where standardization rules, Amtrak accepts diversity. Cars come from different manufacturers, with differing design characteristics, and they stay in service for a long time. Some are double deckers, which I enjoy, and others are low riders, which are adequate for short hauls. Club cars and diners differ in their services and style. Western trains have observation lounges, but this amenity was missing on the trains we used on this trip.

Cars are well-equipped with electrical outlets, and electronic devices are easy to use. Mobile phone service is available, depending on the terrain, and Wi-Fi is advertised as available, although I made no use of it.

Stations differ widely from one city to another. Faded glory survives in some stations from the classic era, with Portland and Seattle as good examples. Our local station in Vancouver, Washington, is another station from an earlier era, and it has recently been renovated so that it is functional, clean, and pleasant.

The grubbiest we have seen on this trip is in Indianapolis where the station is a bare-bones space, salvaged under an elevated track, with gray I-beams, dirty floors, dim lights, and station personnel whose manners seem just right for such a disheartening space.

In contrast, newer, smaller stations, in places like Charlottesville and Charlotte (and Martinez, California), are bright and clean, and they communicate a sense of wellbeing. On this trip, the station in Cary, North Carolina, was best of all. Its construction included funds from the National Recovery Act.

Although North Carolina’s presidential vote was for Romney, Wake Country (where Cary is located) was Obama territory and he won with 35,000 more votes than he received in 2008. Brochures in the station make it clear that the city of Cary is interested in passengers and wants them to notice their community.

The state subsidized Piedmont (Charlotte-Greensboro-Cary-Raleigh) is a model of good public transportation. The cars are beautifully restored and modernized coaches from an earlier era. A volunteer host, with blue blazer and red tie, greeted passengers, offered assistance, and tidied up the seats when passengers detrained. The train stopped frequently as it made its way across the state. Although many of the riders traveled relatively short distances, most seats were occupied most of the time.

There were no food services on the train, but the club car provided complementary coffee, tea, and bottled water. Vending machines offered a wide variety of beverages and snack foods at ordinary prices. The rest rooms were modern and clean, and they worked. Our three-hour ride was thoroughly enjoyable.

Some of our travel on this extended tour has been by air and on highways in rental cars. The ugliest part of the trip was on the interstates and expressways of Greensboro and Charlotte. The finest parts were on Amtrak, which on the right trains is the next best thing to a bicycle ride.

Our Amtrak journey through the New River Gorge in West Virginia was the travel highlight of this trip. More about that another time.


10 Responses to Bicycle rider on Amtrak trains

  1. This is very helpful! Ive never tried to travel with my bike on a train yet. Oh, and I especially liked the bonus info about the funding! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment, including my politically motivated note on funding. If you have occasion to take your bike on Amtrak, I hope your experience is as positive as mine has been.

      • No problem at all! And thanks for stopping by my blog and following! And I think I will! I don’t fly, but I love to travel and like to bring my bike with me…so it just seems like a perfect fit!

  2. Joe Culpepper says:

    I brought my bike back on Amtrak from my bike ride to St. Louis in Sept.& was thoroughly pleased, as well. It cost $10, but I could just wheel my bike, loaded with rear paniers & handlebar bag, right on the car with me, no packing necessary. The route from St. Louis to Chicago is used a lot by commuters so has this easy bike compatibility. The track is being upgraded and a short section will start travelling at 110 mph in Jan. with 80% of the route being high speed by 2014! Spacious seats, nice scenery, no worry with keeping your eye on the road for driving, time to read, nap or daydream about the next bike trip! What could be batter for the bicycle traveler?
    Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving! Give our best to Billie!

  3. Thank you for the pictures and text.

    I travel often in New York State, along the north coast (Great Lakes), and along the east coast to Washington DC from New York City.

    Six years ago I purchased a used folding bicycle (Bike Friday/New World Tourist) to avoid the “boxing a bike” syndrome when traveling by train or intercity bus.

    In fact the intercity buses, Greyhound and most Trailways franchisees, do not require a bike to be boxed. A bike simply has to be placed in a sturdy canvas like bag.

    On airplanes the bike does have to be boxed and it is very expensive to transport a standard diamond frame bicycle on a plane. It is actually less expensive to ship a bike via UPS or FedEx than shipping it as baggage with your flight. With the folding bicycle I simply cut a box to the proper size required by the airlines (usually 62″ total in all dimensions) and make certain the box weighs no more than 50 pounds.

    I have been advocating for roll on roll off bicycle carriage service on Amtrak trains traversing New York State for more than 25 years.

    I would like your permission to use the pictures, with proper attribution, when advocating for improved bicycle carriage facilities on Amtrak trains.

    Thank you.
    Harvey Botzman
    Director, New York Bicycling Coalition
    Director, Rochester Cycling Alliance
    Director, Canal New York Marketing & Business Alliance
    Author, Cyclotour Guide Books

    • Harvey, Thank you for your response to my post about traveling with a bicycle on Amtrak trains. You have my permission to use the pictures and comments in your advocacy for improved bicycle carriage on Amtrak trains. Keith

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