Bike Adventure to Seattle

Despite a few bumps in the road (and delays on the tracks) The Boy and I had a good time in Seattle.
I have always loved trains, and I would love to be able to wax poetic about going by train with your bike, but I have to say, our experience was mixed, for example, the Station in Portland insisted we box the bikes (which required partially disassembling them and paying $10 for a bike box that was only slightly stouter than a grocery bag, Seattle allowed us to use the bike racks.
and in speaking with other cyclists who have traveled with their bikes on trains throughout the US, I heard more negative stories than positive one's.

In theory, cycling and train travel complement each other beautifully, and ought to offer a near perfect travel option for families traveling on a budget, as well as cycling enthusiast who want to be able to tour on two wheels. However, not knowing whether, or under what circumstances one might have to box one's bike is a huge deterant to cyclist going by train, at a time when Amtrak is desperate to increase ridership. The solution would seem to be a no-brainier, by catering consistently and respectfully to folks wishing to bring their (fully intact) bikes, Amtrak could greatly increase ridership, improve rider satisfaction and word-of-mouth, while contributing to the reduction of pollution Nationally. It would be a win-win situation, if only they were willing.

In the mean time, here are a few tips:
*Make your bike reservation during the same transaction in which you pay for your tickets. Tell them you want a bike rack.
*There are only 6 racks on each train, so make reservations early
*Racks can accommodate standard sized bikes, but tandems, long tails, and cargo bikes need to be boxed
*The racks CAN accommodate Adams Trail-a-Bikes, but individual stations may or may not agree to put them on racks
*Check in early, at least an hour before your train is scheduled to depart, so that you will have time to sort out any issues without missing your train.
*Do not assume that all stations on your trip will have the same policies, or that all employees will interpret them consistantly. One station (or a given emplyee) may insist on doing it one way, another may be more flexible. So check and double check, and be prepared with fall-back plans.
The best bet is to visit the station a day or 2 before your trip with the bike(s) you intend to bring, and speak to the Amtrak staff.
When I had called the Amtrak info line before the tip and described our bike/trail-a-bike set up, they insisted that both bikes be shipped; I think part of why Seattle allowed us to use the racks is that we arrived at the station for our return trip with the unboxed bikes, well ahead of our trains departure time. When the staff saw our bike/trail-a-bike set up they clearly understood that both bikes could be accomedated on the racks; Seeing is believing I guess.

If You DO Need to Box:
Avoid buying one from Amtrak, instead get a shipping box from your local bike shop, or put one together from refrigerator boxes. Either way, it will be a hundred times stouter, and certainly more affordable
Building a box allows you to size it to your bike, so that you will not need to remove pedals, swivel handlebars etc. All of which is a real chore.
The folks at Amtrak tell me that the box need not be a standard bike box size, as long as there is only one bike per box, the box clearly indicates it contains a bike (write "BIKE" on the side with a sharpie) and the box weighs no more than 50#

The photo shows the bike box I was forced to purchase (on the right), in taters and shored up with duct tape, next to the one I was able to get from the bike shop. This shot was taken, before they were loaded on the first train at the beginning of our trip, the purchased box was falling apart before we even got it to the station, while the free shipping box, already used to ship a bike cross country, survived my bringing it home through the rain, and was still in fine shape at the end of the train ride

The Up Side
I can think of no better way to See Seattle, or just about any other town, than by bike. The Boy and I were able to zip along the waterfront, zip over to the museums and up to Pike Place market. No worries about figuring out the bus systems, or the expense of cabs, we were free to move about the city at will, and see far more than we would have under any other circumstances. It was a blast. We also had a handy bike rack on with which to carry souvenirs.

We had planned to catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island, but there was work being done on the tracks in route, resulting in delays and our getting into Seattle too late for the ferry. Absent the bikes I'm not sure what we would have done with the little time we had, but because we had the bikes we were able to get around easily and see more than we otherwise would have.


mytzpyk said...

Thanks for the report. Kudos to your The Boy for hanging on through all the uncertainty and to you for completing the trip.

A lot of kids couldn't handle that, and a lot of parents wouldn't attempt it. I'm learning it's experiences like this that make life real.

griffin said...

Thanks. There were bumps along the way, a few grumpy moments, and we would have had more fun had we not been jumping through all the hoops.
The Boy IS an amazing kid, that said I did what I could to shield him from the uncertainties, and to keep us both focused on the notion that it was an adventure. It was definitely a learning experience, and an opportunity to learn to roll with the punches.
We are thinking of taking another run at it in the Spring, with a custom box to carry the Xtracycle

adventure! said...

Hey there! I've taken Amtrak with bike many a time in the last few years and I can attest to your frustration with their inconsistent bicycle policy.

A couple things to note:
1) If you are taking the Cascades service (short distance services between Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver BC) and are bringing your bike, always reserve the bike space when you purchase your ticket! Like you I learned the hard way about the limited space in their racks. However, the Portland station allowed me to put the bike in the baggage hold sans box, so it is all depending on who is working.

2) I'd disagree with your comments about the Amtrak bike box. The one you got in Seattle seems a bit tattered, but the ones I have had to get have looked better than that. (In fact they often won't let you use a perfectly good used Amtrak box because they're worried about it holding up) Yes, the Amtrak box is $10, but it's a big one and is designed so all you have to do for a standard sized bike is a)turn handlebars and b)remove pedals. Other smaller bike boxes require you to remove the front wheel (or both) and take off other things. There's two reasons this can be a problem: a)you have to put it all back together and readjust everything b)the forks and/or front chainring can eventually poke through the bottom of the box, and sometimes the baggage handlers drag those boxes along hard concrete surfaces, not good.

It's not impossible to travel with a bike on Amtrak, but it does require a bit of research, which is definitely a deterrent for wider use. Here's their "offical" webpage for bikes-on-trains info:

griffin said...

Hey Shawn, thanks for the tips! It is good to have a variety of perspectives.
We were on the Cascades, and were joining a group who had already reserved the tickets, so that did complicate things, but even with a lot of advance planning and calls to Amtrak, there were still a lot of inconsistancies. It does seem as though everything depends on the individual employees you encounter. I had assumed that I would need to box the bikes both ways, but the folks at the Seattle station were very kind, flexible and willing to work with me. We showed up at the Seattle Station for our return trip fully expecting to have to plunk down $20 for boxes that would not survive thr trip, and were pleasently surprised not only at their willingness to hang the bike with no advance reservation, but to battle their computer system to create bike tickets at the last minute, seperate from our group ticket. They really went way out of their way for us.
For our next trip north, we are thinking of taking the Shared Routes Biodiesel bus!