By Caroline Helmkamp, local resident and experienced bicycle traveler.
Earlier this summer Amtrak announced that it was expanding bike service with specially designed baggage cars to carry bicycles without being placed in a shipping box. Amtrak is still in the planning stages for bike racks in the new baggage cars, and specific information about how this will all play out is not currently available. They do intend to improve service to cyclists and to make traveling with bikes easier according to Ms. Deborah L. Stone-Wulf in an email message to me.
This is very good news for those of us who want to take bike tours away from our local region. Amtrak currently has a policy that allows bikes to be taken on some Amtrak routes, and we have done this a number of times. We have taken full sized bikes and our folding bikes on board. We have also shipped our full sized bikes on Amtrak and flown to our destination, collecting our bikes at the Amtrak Station.
There are several caveats about planning an Amtrak journey with your bike. The most important is to ensure that the Amtrak route you plan to follow is on a train that can actually accommodate your bike; not all trips will. Most cyclists in our region are already aware that the River Runner with twice daily service between Kansas City and St. Louis allows four bicycles on the train with a reservation. The cost is $10 per trip.
The Southwest Chief which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles with a daily stop in Kansas City in each direction will also take your bike, but it must be placed in a box and may not exceed 50 pounds. The fee for this service is $15 for the box and $10 for the trip. The essential thing to know, however, is that this service is only available if the station you go to has BAGGAGE HANDLING. Kansas City does, but if you are going east on the Southwest Chief, the only place you can take your bike with you is to Chicago. None of the intermediate stops currently has baggage service.
The Amtrak staff at Union Station can always tell you the stations with baggage handling, and the baggage icon on the official Amtrak schedule also shows those stations. On one occasion we had to change our tour when we realized that a train we wanted to transfer to did not have baggage handling.
When we first shipped Long Haul Truckers on Amtrak, we wrapped our frames in pipe insulation, stuffed lots of bubble wrap inside the box and added additional padding. Then we taped them shut with a vengeance! Now that we have some experience, we don’t worry so much about their being damaged—because they NEVER have been.
The process takes less than an hour, but it is a two person operation. At the station in Portland, Oregon and Washington DC, Amtrak personnel actually assisted us in the process.
The box that Amtrak sells passengers is enormous; don’t think about the boxes you get from your local bike shop. Those are meant for bikes that are broken down and are a lot smaller. Our Long Haul Truckers roll into the Amtrak boxes with their fenders, front and rear racks and often a tent strapped to the rear rack. We often fasten our helmets and shoes onto the frame as well. Of course, you have to loosen the handlebars, turn them, and strap them to the frame. Pedals also come off. George’s bike is a large frame; mine is a 42 cm, so there is room to spare, but both go into the Amtrak boxes with no other alterations to the bikes.
Unlike at the airport, we have never seen the bike boxes disappear on a conveyer belt. There are cutouts on the sides of the boxes for human hands. We have seen them in railway baggage carts, and on their ends, but they seemed no worse for the wear.
You can also check your panniers in the baggage car. We zip tie two panniers together so they become “one” bag to check. We carry the other panniers onto the train with us. Everything goes on the train you embark on. If you transfer from one train to another as we often do, the baggage handlers take care of bikes and panniers in the station. Upon arrival, bikes and panniers are off loaded and presented to you. It’s handy to have a knife to open the taped-up boxes and tools to reconnect the handlebars and the pedals. Then you attach your panniers and lights, put your helmet on, and roll out of the station.
O.K., I know that many travelers have terrible Amtrak tales to tell. We have a few as well. But overall we find traveling with our bikes on Amtrak is pleasant, efficient, and economical. There was a time when we used the airlines, but the days of free shipping + free boxes are long gone. In addition, going from one Amtrak station to another is usually a lot more convenient than using airports far out on Interstate Highways.
It seems to us that the slow-paced tempo of a train ride matches the slow-paced tempo of our tours. We look forward to the changes that Amtrak has in store, but we’ve already found that taking our bikes on board is a fine way to get to and from a self-contained tour.
Caroline Helmkamp is a retired educator and experienced bike touring guru. She is also involved with bicycling education and advocacy in Kansas City. Check out her list of resources at http://caroline-touring.blogspot.com