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Packed with bikes, Amtrak Cascades adds more hooks to its trains

Posted by on July 29th, 2013 at 10:14 am

Bikes on Amtrak
Now with more room.
(Photo: Will Vanlue)

Bikes have become a big part of train travel here in the Pacific Northwest, and train travel has become a big part of bike tourism. The latest sign: Amtrak Cascades just boosted its bike hauling capacity by 67 percent.

Every run on the state-subsidized regional train line that connects Eugene, Vancouver BC and various cities in between now offers 10 bike hooks per train, up from 6. Adding your bike to an Amtrak Cascades trip, an easy step during online checkout, costs $5 for each direction hauled.

The most popular city pair on Amtrak Cascades, between Portland and Seattle, is also one of the most crowded with bikes, Cascades Operations Supervisor Kirk Fredrickson said Wednesday. Seattle-Vancouver and Portland-Vancouver regularly fill up, too.

On summer weekends, he said, about half of all trains were previously full to capacity with hanging bikes.


Amtrak also allows you to ship a bike horizontally if it’s in a box. Bike boxes, which Amtrak requires for “tandems, recumbents and other specialized bikes” are available at train stations for $15.

Earlier this year, two trainsets bought by the Oregon Department of Transportation for the Amtrak Cascades system included 10 bike racks. Now, Washington has modified its own trainsets to follow suit.

Bikes and inter-city trains go together beautifully, because trains usually roll directly into downtowns — when most Northwest cities were built, trains were the main way to get between cities. Bikes, meanwhile, make it easy to explore an unfamiliar city. As Amtrak Cascades continues to improve, it’s nice to know that bikes are continuing to be important.

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  • Todd Hudson July 29, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Question: Will the Amtrak Cascades allow a longtail cargobike? And if not, will a Surly Big Dummy fit in one of their $15 bike boxes?

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    • dr2chase July 30, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      A tandem is longer than your Big Dummy (I own one of each) so if they require a box for a tandem, and will “sell you a box”, there is some small hope that it would be large enough.

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  • noah July 29, 2013 at 10:37 am

    I was disappointed the new Oregon train sets didn’t come with roll-on bike cars. They have them in California, where they’re high-capacity, self-serve, and don’t cost extra. A missed opportunity.

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    • matt picio July 31, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      That’s because Caltrans pays for those trains. Amtrak Cascades is supplemented in part by Oregon and Washington. Most of Amtrak’s “issues” aren’t due to Amtrak, they are due to the patchwork funding mechanism put in place on the various regional “commuter” trains.

      The proper people to pester on this are Governor Kitzhaber and the Oregon Legislature.

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  • gl. July 29, 2013 at 10:51 am

    I bought a folding bike so I don’t have to use the hooks anymore, but I was thrilled they were there on several Amtrak trips before that. Thanks for making things better for bicycling, Amtrak! Wish all trains were as accommodating (I’m especially looking at you, Coast Starlight!).

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  • noah July 29, 2013 at 11:05 am

    …in fact, Michael might want to pick a different photo for this article. The one up there now depicts someone bringing his own bike onto the train in California. That isn’t exactly what happens on Cascades, and it won’t start happening with these new trains.

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  • SilkySlim July 29, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Great news! Way to go Amtrak.

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  • Anthony July 29, 2013 at 11:21 am

    What they don’t tell you:

    If you’re traveling up to Vancouver, BC, you’ll have to put your bike in a box for the Seattle to Vancouver leg (and on the way back). It’d be nice if they told you that up-front, especially when you specifically ask about it in advance (apparently, not all employees are informed), because not all of us happen to bring a spare pedal wrench with us when we’re on vacation, and the stations don’t bother to carry that tool either, despite the fact that it would be the least courtesy they could offer if they’re going to make you box up your bike w/o telling you in advance (I was lucky that I had my set of Allen wrenches to twist the handlebars). And it sucks to have to miss your train in order to look for whatever the nearest bike shop that might be open on a Sunday is (the shop near the train station isn’t) to buy a tool that you already own at home.

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    • noah July 29, 2013 at 11:32 am

      Anthony, I am disturbed to hear to had this trouble. Last summer I took my bike on the Cascades train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., no problem. It was on the return Cascades bus trip I had a problem. The driver, who was an employee of the bus company Amtrak contracts with up there, would not accept my unboxed bike.

      The driver, his boss, and the VIA Rail agents at Vancouver were very badly informed on bike policy on Cascades. The VIA agents claimed that my $5 bike ticket only entitled me to shipping, and that I’d need to box it. They were all wrong, and Amtrak readily admitted it.

      I had to pay for an extra night’s stay in Vancouver and take the first trip out on the next day. After some cajoling, Amtrak reimbursed me for my hotel bill. If you incurred any expenses because Amtrak or its agents refused to honor their contract to transport your unboxed bike, please seek reimbursement from Amtrak. You can get your money, and Amtrak will be prodded to correct their agents and prevent mishaps like this in the future.

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      • Adam July 29, 2013 at 8:30 pm

        I have taken my bike to Vancouver BC on the train, and did not have to box it for the second leg of the journey if it is all on the train.

        However – I did once do the journey where Pdx to Seattle was by train, and then Seattle to BC was by bus, and I DID have to box my bike for that.

        I too was frustrated that no-one at Amtrak told me I had to box my bike to put it on the bus. I called them specifically before my trip to double-check, and was told no.

        It was only when I was waiting in line and the bus pulled up, that the driver told me I had to box my bike. Then I panicked, as I had neither a bike box, or a tool to turn the bars.

        Lesson learned.

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        • noah July 29, 2013 at 8:38 pm

          The bus comapny was just wrong, Adam. Hopefully Amtrak taught them that after the spendy hotel reimbursement they had to give me.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 29, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      Anthony, is it possible that you and your bike weren’t boarding the direct train to Vancouver? Amtrak currently runs one of these per day, leaving from Portland in the early afternoon. If you don’t use that train, you have to transfer to a bus.

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      • shawn. July 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm

        Yeah, if you take the direct Portland-Vancouver BC train (leaves daily from Portland at 2:45pm), you don’t need to switch trains/buses or box a box.

        One thing to note about the Seattle-Vancouver bus connection (in case you opt to do that), sometimes the driver can be talked into taking your unboxed bike. Sometimes.

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        • noah July 29, 2013 at 10:51 pm

          Man, I didn’t realize this Seattle-Vancouver bus leg had such a well-known problem with unboxed bikes. I wonder if Michael or someone else can get an official Amtrak statement on it. Either the bus should accept unboxed bikes all the time, or Amtrak should stop selling bike accommodation tickets for it.

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    • Chris I July 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      Were you on Talgo or standard Amtrak rolling stock? Amtrak and Washington only have 5 Talgo trainsets, that have to run with 100% reliability. In the past, when they had to work on one trainset, they would sub in standard Amtrak rolling stock, which does not have bike racks.

      Fortunately, Oregon now owns 2 new Talgo trainsets, which is going to enable Amtrak to run more convenient scheduling for the Portland to Eugene segment, and have a spare set for maintenance rotation. They will also be able to increase service to Seattle once the Point Defiance Bypass project is complete.

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  • Alan 1.0 July 29, 2013 at 11:22 am

    What’s with the “state-subsidized” adjective? Will BikePortland be referring to roads and MUPs that way, too?

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    • maccoinnich July 29, 2013 at 11:30 am

      I suspect what they mean by this is a distinction between the Cascades services (which are subsidized the States of Oregon and Washington) and the Coast Starlight service (which is subsidized by the Federal Government).

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 29, 2013 at 1:25 pm

        Exactly. This improvement is taking place because of the state’s involvement.

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        • Alan 1.0 July 29, 2013 at 1:46 pm

          In that case I’d appreciate more about that angle in your story (source links, even). As it stands, that “state-subsidized” phrase sounds like just another car-head slur and I know that’s not your or BikePortland’s normal voice!

          Even with “state” meaning Oregon and Washington, as opposed to government in general, there are still many–nearly all!–state-subsidized roads, MUPs, bike paths and cycletracks. Maybe that’s a way to usurp the car-heads droning slur: any and everything that gets state tax dollars is “state-subsidized.” :-)

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          • adventure! July 29, 2013 at 10:50 pm

            Alan one point zero, chill. In rail world terms, it’s a valid distinction and commonly used. Much of Amtrak’s nationwide rail network is just federally subsided. But several regional routes are also funded by state governments. Not just Cascades (OR-WA) but also the many California based lines too, like Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins, and Pacific Surfliner. North Carolina subsidizes trains like the Piedmont. Etc.

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            • Alan 1.0 July 30, 2013 at 11:27 am

              I’m chill; are you riled?

              I appreciate adventure!’s and maccoinnich’ explanations but I still think that Michael–writing for a bike advocacy blog, not a rail geek discourse community–could do better in addressing his audience. I know I’m far from the only person who reads “state-subsidized” as the normal blogosphere epithet for any transpo funds not used for cars and oh, by they way, shouldn’t bikes pay road taxes? (If you think I’m advocating either of those positions, think again.)

              It’s quite a bit like Jonathan’s insistence on “person biking” rather than “bicyclist” (I tend to agree on that one) or “trail” versus “path” (those are as close as any synonyms in my lexicon), so maybe it’s just a pet peeve or whatever, but words do matter and the term “subsidized” in populist transpo jargon is used to smear to all modes except ‘free’ways and other automobile facilities.

              Be znlor ovplpyvfgf fubhyq fhofvqvmr gurve bja genvyf? <rzbgvpba>

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              • adventure! July 30, 2013 at 11:45 am

                Not riled, just jazzed, bro.
                I understand the point you are trying to make, that “subsidized” has negative connotations in the bike blogosphere. So here’s my question: How would you phrase it? In other words, what term would you use to denote a passenger rail service that receives funding from both the state and federal level?

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                • Alan 1.0 July 30, 2013 at 12:06 pm

                  I already mentioned that Michael could explain more about it than simply tossing out that one loaded term and suggested that links to other sources would be welcome. You’ve suggested another phrasing: “receives funding from both the state and federal level.” Nouns “Washington” and “Oregon” would fit well, too. He could say which budget the funds comes from, and possibly why the states consider it a good investment (tourism?). I’m not going to edit an editor’s work but it’s quite evident to me that there are about a zillion ways he could make the point that Oregon and Washington funds went into this Amtrak service without saying “subsidized.”

                  Even apart from the negative connotations I still would not use “subsidized” for the reason I already mentioned: it doesn’t distinguish the Amtrak bike service from a whole lot of other public infrastructure.

                  (obviously my writing needs work ‘cuz my first post was meant to jazz Michael and it didn’t seem to work. ;)

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              • Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 30, 2013 at 1:30 pm

                Still reading along, though, and glad for the input. You’ve got a point and I’ll be keeping this in mind. :)

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                • matt picio July 31, 2013 at 2:58 pm

                  “State-subsidized” is the proper term. Don’t shy from it. Amtrak funding is complex, and there are plenty of us train nuts on Bikeportland to clarify Amtrak’s funding particulars in the comments for those who take umbrage at the term. It’s not a “loaded” term in the context of rail, and those of us who advocate for better bike access to passenger rail will discover that for themselves in the course of discussion.

                  IMO Bikeportland should strive for accuracy in reporting rather than nitpicking definitions to the n-th degree.

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  • Lee July 29, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Recumbents fit the hooks?

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 29, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Nope. See the paragraph just below the ad.

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      • Champs July 29, 2013 at 2:50 pm

        I’m curious how this would apply to my girlfriend’s bike. It’s an upright, but the 1200mm wheelbase is relatively long (just north of 1000 is typical).

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        • Champs July 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm

          On review, I think I answered my own question.

          1200mm is the wheelbase of a downhill bike. That sounds fine.

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  • Art Fuldodger July 29, 2013 at 11:39 am

    great news! now just waiting for Cascades to add a AM PDX to Eugene run, and a PM Eugene to PDX. I believe this is supposed to actually happen in the next year or 2..?

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    • Bob Melbo July 29, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      This change probably will occur this coming month (August 2013).

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      • Art Fuldodger July 29, 2013 at 2:56 pm

        That’s fantastic. I can’t tell you how many southbound train trips I’ve forgone over the years because there’s no AM (or even early PM) bike-carrying train.

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      • Alexis July 29, 2013 at 8:43 pm

        That’s so exciting! I’d love to go to Eugene on the train more often (with my bike, obvs).

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      • gl. July 29, 2013 at 10:34 pm

        yes!

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    • Chris I July 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm

      The new Talgo trainsets are ready to go, I have heard. I believe they said they will adjust the schedule within the next year. It would be great if they could add special event trains as well (football games, Soccer games, etc). Not sure if that will happen.

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  • Ryan July 29, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Has anyone taken a boxed tandem on Amtrak from on the Cascades line (or any other)? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences.

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  • Ryan July 29, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Oops- meant to say “… from Portland north on the Cascades line…”

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  • Kristen July 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    I’m taking my (unboxed) bike on Amtrak for the first time next weekend. Are they strict about making you take off all panniers and baggage?

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  • Ryan July 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Kristen: in my experience, yes. Even down to the water-bottles (if they don’t make you take them off they’ll make you drain them.

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    • Kristen July 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Good to know. Thank you.

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  • Champe July 29, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Why does this work in the West but not in the Eastern U.S?

    http://www.vabike.org/bikes-amtrak-ordeal/

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  • Dave July 29, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Great to hear that this is happening. If travelling to the Seattle area, the Cascade lets one escape the open air mental hospital that is I-5, and having a bike along let’s you out of the clusterfuck that driving a car in the Emerald City has become. More Cascades! Yes!

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  • Dave Thomson July 29, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    You should also be aware that bikes with a “hook” reservation can be loaded/unloaded at any Cascades stop, but boxed bikes (unless Amtrak changed the policy) can only be loaded/unloaded at stations with baggage service. So if you are planning a trip to Mt Vernon, for example, you can’t check luggage which includes bike boxes.

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    • gl. July 29, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      good call. this is another policy i would like to see changed!

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  • Adam July 29, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    Great news! Remember to email Amtrak and thank them! :-)

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  • bikesalot July 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Another point to think about: we encountered a 50 pound weight limit on the boxed bikes. No mention on the Amtrak web site, but when we arrived at the station in Sacramento with the recumbents neatly boxed in doubled boxes, they were rejected due to being 5-10# overweight. We had to buy an Amtrak bike box and transfer enough from each initial box to meet the 50# limit. What a butcher job on our neat packaging!

    The limit WAS posted on the wall next to the baggage counter.

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    • adventure! July 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      It is posted on the website.
      http://www.amtrak.com/bring-your-bicycle-onboard
      Pretty much their limit on any individual item, bike or no, is 50 pounds.

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    • adventure! July 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      And did you have stuff in the bike box other than the bike? They really don’t like that, and I can attest from personal experience. You can usually get away with a helmet and (empty) water bottles, but not anything else.

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  • Todd Boulanger July 30, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    I ran across the new bike racks when I travelled down to Eugene a few weeks ago…at first I was happy to see them until I got a closer look at them (I sent photos to Jonathan). The new hooks seem underwhelming design wise…assuming the same new hooks were also used on the new Oregon train sets.

    I spoke to one of the Talgo staffers and they told me that Amtrak Cascades added the same hooks to all Cascade train sets so that there would be seamless capacity among all trains for ease of reservations if a train set were moved around on route segments due to maintenance. They reported that there had already been problems with the new rack design NOT accommodating large wheeled bikes (downhill 29ers, etc.)…due to wheel width/ wheel base length (I forgot which). This was making it difficult for stops depending on off road bikes for tourism.

    One other problem I saw on both directions of my trip was a lack of awareness and understanding of how to use the new rack design or what they were by baggage staff (when I asked them). Talgo and others told me there had not yet been any training on the use of the new racks (or scheduled by then). This was apparent on my return when I saw luggage piled high against the new racks and a cyclist had to box their bike at the station vs. using a hook as planned.

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  • Todd Boulanger July 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    And PS. At the Eugene Amtrak station I ran into a fare issue I had never encountered before on Amtrak:
    - Amtrak charged me $5 for each segment of my trip for my bike ($5 EUG to PDX + $5 PDX to VAN),
    - I was told by the station agent that this was due to the trip using two different train numbers (route segments)
    - though when asked if there was such an additional fee for traditional luggage transferred between these routes I was told no additional charge.

    Has this bike luggage “overcharge” happened to anyone else?

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  • Ted Buehler July 30, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Thanks, WSDOT and ODOT!

    If you want to send a thank-you note to WSDOT (who owns the recently upgraded trains), the contact person is:

    Andrew Wood
    Deputy Director, Operations
    360-705-7938
    wooda@wsdot.wa.gov
    Washington Department of Transportation
    310 Maple Park Ave SE
    PO Box 47300
    Olympia WA 98504

    AROW did a letter-writing night on this in 2010, we all got nice letters back from Andrew saying they’d look into it, but were noncommittal. I’m glad they came around.

    Also, if you want to suggest they order upgraded bike racks, offer walk-on bike stowage, or other improvements, start with Andrew.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Ted Buehler July 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    & if Andrew isn’t at that address any more, send your comments straight to the top —
    Ron Pate – Rail Director
    Cascades Rail Corridor Director
    360-705-6903
    Ron.Pate@wsdot.wa.gov

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  • Ted Buehler July 30, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    & while its nice that they’ve upped the bike hooks from 6 to 10, it’s still pretty underwhelming in terms of getting to where we need to be for car-free living in the Pac NW. They initiated the trains in 1994, as I recall. That’s 19 years to get the bike hooks increased from 6 to 10. At this rate, we’ll have 17 by 2032 and 27 by 2051.

    Not going to cut it. Need a major upgrade if we’re really going to bring on the revolution… Just sayin…

    Ted Buehler

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    • matt picio July 31, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      Open your checkbook. And write your congresscritters at the state and federal levels. Amtrak does what it has funding for, and it’s drastically underfunded. Improvements will be incremental until advocates demand change from those who make the budgets, and vote for the tax increases which will make it happen. We’re in a declining tax revenue period, these changes aren’t going to happen without concerted, repeated effort.

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