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After complaints, Amtrak clarifies: folding bikes always allowed as carry-ons

Posted by Michael Andersen (News Editor) on December 18th, 2013 at 9:54 am

Amtrak Cascades Mud Bay Surrey BC 2007_0917_1052
Amtrak Cascades, the regional line several BikePortland
readers said is bike-friendlier than many.
(Photo by Stephen Rees.)

A late-night incident in which Amtrak workers awoke two Portlanders to tell them, incorrectly, that their folding bikes weren't allowed as carry-ons has led the agency to clarify its policy.

Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said last week that every passenger car in the system allows folding bicycles as carry-on luggage "if they fit the dimensions described in the policy and can fit in the areas designated for carry on baggage or bikes."

The maximum dimensions are 34 inches by 15 inches by 48 inches, as stated in Amtrak's policy. Mass-market folding bikes meet those constraints, Dean Mullin of local shop Clever Cycles said Wednesday.

In addition, a different Amtrak representative told Elly Blue and Joe Biel of Portland that the national passenger rail company has sent a memo about its bicycle policies to all on-board staff, a number that Blue said is between 10,000 and 15,000 people.

A folded Brompton bicycle.
(Photo by Christopher Lance.)

On Dec. 2, Blue said, while she and her partner, Biel, were riding in a sleeper car through Texas on a business trip, Amtrak employees woke her at 11 pm and made a series of seemingly inaccurate claims, including one that she and Biel would have to deboard, purchase two of Amtrak's bike boxes and pay to check their folding bikes to their destination, despite the policy saying foldable bikes are valid carry-on baggage.

Blue said Debbi Stone-Wulf, Amtrak's chief of sales distribution and customer service, "apologized profusely" for the mix-up and said that "all the staffers involved in our incident have by now had 'multiple conversations' with management about it."

In a long comment thread beneath our story about Blue's experience and on social media sites, many Amtrak riders offered suggestions or frustrations to the publicly owned company. Blue passed many on to Stone-Wulf in the form of a curated list.

"It is clear from your list that we can probably fix some things just by being more clear about our policy and effectively communicating that to our customers and employees," Stone-Wulf wrote in an emailed reply to Blue. "That is good news as those are relatively easy things for us to do. ... I plan to review your list with my team to use as a guide as we are putting our plans together to improve the customer experience for our bicycling customers. I’ll keep you updated as we move along and begin to make progress."

Elly Blue at WABA event
Writer and publisher Elly Blue earlier this year.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Blue adds that she has "cautious optimism" about further improvements at Amtrak with regard to bikes, starting with the launch last week of an automated interactive guide for Amtrak staff called "Super Julie":

I think the biggest change, though, will come from Super Julie — this has been in the works for a year and just launched last week, unrelated to our incident (though very much related to the bigger picture problem behind our incident. Essentially, it means that staff will no longer be operating from a constantly updated series of paper manuals, but instead will have access to a very comprehensive version of the customer-facing "Julie" CMS that we know and love. It means that all staff now have instant, online access to consistent policy information. I do suspect it'll make a big difference.

In the longer term, Stone-Wulf is part of a new Amtrak task force that's focused on "providing better service to the bicycling community." Since bikes and trains can be such a perfect match for travelers, we'll be eager to report on the outcomes of this task force's work.

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Comments
  • tony tapay December 18, 2013 at 10:05 am

    What was most disturbing to me about this story is how often the term "yelling" was used to describe how the employees were behaving. Not being clear about policy is one thing but to have your employees yelling at customers is beyond unacceptable.

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    • Kimberly Kinchen December 18, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      And surprising. I ride Amtrak a good deal and the people are always among the best/most helpful/pleasant overall. Not perfect, bur more consistently with it than any other public or private organization I've deal with.

      Anyway, it's clear the bike policy needs work and I'm glad it's getting attention. Bikes + Amtrak = so much potential.

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      • 9watts December 18, 2013 at 11:47 pm

        hurrah for Blue & Biel and Bikeportland! 15,000 employees! That is a lot of mail. Maybe they should have just emailed all of them the first round of this story on bikeportland. What fun that would have been.

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  • Dave December 18, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Funny you should illustrate the article with the most bike-friendly train in the country.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 18, 2013 at 10:17 am

      As noted in the caption!

      Recommended Thumb up 5

      • Parker December 18, 2013 at 10:38 am

        That photo by Stephen Rees is unusual: it shows a Cascades locomotive pulling 3 "Superliner" cars like those on the Coast Starlight. All the Cascades trains I've taken (with my bike and with pleasure at the helpful and courteous service) are Talgo trainsets - so go figure... Cheers :-)

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        • Chris I December 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm

          Up until just recently, Amtrak operated the Cascades service with just 5 Talgo trainsets. This required 100% equipment reliability, as every train needed to operate every day of the week. Occasionally, they did require maintenance and repair, so Superliner equipment would be substituted. Oregon just acquired two new Talgo trainsets to add to the fleet, which will allow better schedules for the trains to and from Eugene, and additional service between Portland and Seattle in a few years.

          http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/COMM/Pages/nr13120602.aspx

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          • Michael Miller December 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm

            In addition, this substitution of the Cascades equipment with Superliner equipment happened most frequently and for the longest periods of time on the Seattle to Vancouver, BC, segment of the service, which makes it less likely that people from the southern end of the corridor would have seen a consist like the one in the photo.

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  • Todd Hudson December 18, 2013 at 10:09 am

    This is great but doesn't change, outside the Cascades and Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a horrendously unpredictable means of travel.

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    • Jane December 18, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      Agreed, I could never see why anyone would ever take Amtrak more than a couple hundred miles (aka the cascades route). The longer distance trains are all the drawbacks of air travel, bus travel and automobile travel combined.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • Chris I December 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm

        Personally, I feel the biggest drawback of auto travel is that I have to drive.

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      • Robert Burchett December 19, 2013 at 10:19 am

        With regards to the manifest problems of Amtrak, such as producing and keeping an accurate schedule (and I know the reason for that) let me say that one negative part of air transport is not found on the train. Personally invasive 'security' is rarely a concern on Amtrak.

        You can decide for yourself if that is a good or a bad thing.

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    • Pete December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      The primary reason for this is that most passenger routes are on rails leased from freight companies, whose trains get priority. Rail freight schedules are based on demand that fluctuates pretty rapidly with economies and events, while passenger schedules are (relatively) predictable otherwise.

      In Europe and Asia passenger trains run on dedicated tracks (and are much more reliable and popular). Attempts at doing the same here in the US (like the California corridor) are expensive and highly political - especially when budgets are pitted against highways and interstates.

      We'll see if Elon Musk is on to something...
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop

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    • JJJ December 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      Wrong.

      The Harrison corridor, the three Amtrak California Routes and the Michigan Routes are just as reliable, if not more so than the Cascades.

      Dont let your ***moderated*** lead to such large assumptions*

      *Woah there JJJ. We do not tolerate personal insults in our comments. It's not cool at all and it certainly doesn't help make your point. Thanks for toning it down in future comments. -- Jonathan Maus

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    • Caleb December 19, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      I've only taken five Amtrak trips, but they've all involved travel that took place mostly in the middle of the country, and none of them involved anything unpredictable.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Biketrain December 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      One other exception - the Quincy, IL service

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Tessa December 18, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Great news! Thanks for the update, and for the energy so many folks have put in to get us within sight of consistent service policy on this issue.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Dwaine Dibbly December 18, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Thanks, Elly, for publicizing the original incident. You troubles were rewarded and we should all be grateful.

    Thanks, Amtrak, for correcting the misinterpretation by the front line employees.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Ian C. December 18, 2013 at 11:47 am

    "Stone-Wulf" cool name

    Recommended Thumb up 9

  • q`Tzal December 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you Amtrak for agreeing to what amounts to common sense in regards to folding bikes.

    Please, please, PLEASE aggressively update your employee training program regarding this issue and frankly all training.
    If you have to charge a couple more dollars extra per ticket to do this we won't notice.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Richard Risemberg December 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Well, we've ridden the Coast Starlight, the Southwest Chief, the California Zephyr, and the Pacific Surfliner, all but the last with bikes, with great pleasure, and we have watched Amtrak become a mostly on-time railroad in the years since 2007. There's definitely room for improvement, but there's no better motorized way to travel. Comfort, conviviality, great scenery, room to move. Relaxing!

    We've taken both folding and full-szied bikes along, but of course the folders are much easier. Never a real problem with staff.

    Recommended Thumb up 7

  • Todd Boulanger December 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    So now in the future....Amtrak Staffer talks to Super Julie...

    Amtrak Staffer, "I have this small folding bike, Brompton thingy what ever...what do I do with it?"

    Super Julie "Brompton, I got it, silly question, you ride it,.."

    Super Julie, continues with excitement, "...it is a cute very rideable folding bike named after a London district where is was made,...though they always seem scratch my chrome baggage racks on the Cascades."

    Amtrak Staffer, "Thank you Julie..."

    Super Julie, "Would you like to connect to Amazon now and purchase one? And may I strongly recommend the titanium version with the 6 speeds and standard bars..."

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Kay December 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Agreed! I took amtrak to Vancouver bc and back once. But it was the version of the trip where you had to take the train for the first leg to Seattle, then the amtrak bus for the second leg to bc.

    When I booked my ticket, I specifically asked amtrak if I would need to box my bike for the bus portion, and was told no, they would just put the bike in the undercarriage. I was still worried, so called back, spoke to a different amtrak employee on the phone, who said the same thing. Okay, good!

    (You all know what's coming next)...

    I get to Seattle by train, am waiting for amtrak bus to bc. Bus pulls up, bus driver jumps off bus, takes one look at my bike, and says "you need to box that".

    The bus is about to pull away, I have no bike box, no bike tool allen wrench to remove pedals and turn handlebars. I was so livid, I was actually shaking with anger. Totally awful customer service that utterly jeopardized my trip.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • Joe Biel December 18, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      I had this exact same thing happen with the added bonus that at the border I was told that because I had brought by bicycle that I was "clearly on a soul-searching mission." [their real words] and they took me to immigration to cross-interrogation me about "the real duration of [my] stay."

      Recommended Thumb up 6

      • kittens December 18, 2013 at 8:46 pm

        Thats insane! People are so weird

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        • 9watts December 18, 2013 at 11:38 pm

          Weird, but in semi-predictable ways. Bikes freak lots of people out; they make them uncomfortable such that they make up rules on the spot to demonstrate that they are still in charge, won't be bullied by the bikey folk.

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    • noah December 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm

      Same happened to me at the bus from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle. Both the driver and the VIA Rail agents insisted I needed a bike box. I had no intention of buying one, and I didn't have the proprietary tools I needed to disassemble my bike anyway.

      A helpful Amtrak CSR called the bus company to ensure I could take my unboxed bicycle on the next trip. Unfortunately, the next trip that would get me to Eugene in one day was the next morning. So I stayed in a hotel in downtown Vancouver.

      I wrote Amtrak to request compensation. They denied it. I wrote again, less politely, by certified mail, mentioning "material breach of contract". They gave me a travel voucher in the amount of my hotel bill.

      Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Biker December 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Amtrak conductors need a lot of retraining in basic customer service. Too many behave like petty dictators. They crowd people into tightly packed assigned seats in cars on long-distance trains rather than letting them spread out to vacant seats/cars to dramatically increase sleeping comfort. Why? Because they are too lazy to walk a few more feet between cars. In Europe, friendly conductors allow people to spread out and the trains are far more efficient.

    On the way down to SF for a bike tour, a friendly conductor had no problem with people using part of an empty car without seats to lay down and sleep. On the way back, an officious conductor kicked everyone out of the empty car in the middle of the night for no apparent reason.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • 9watts December 18, 2013 at 11:44 pm

      Yes/no. On the Coast Starlight, which happens to be the line I know well, many of the stations have short platforms and the train stops in the middle of the night. The ridiculous seeming and very un-European practice of assigned seating is very much related to the conductor's need to find/wake/herd people off the train and not have folks plunge to their deaths, or into snow drifts in Chemult at midnight.

      Of course one could leave those responsibilities to the passengers (as they do in Europe) but Amtrak has this curious 19th Century vibe that manifests itself in a need to fuss over the customers a lot, talk to them over the PA, etc.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Joe Biel December 18, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    We (or perhaps just I singular) have a trip to Detroit in a month and it may prove a good test case to see if this happens yet again!

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • annefi December 18, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    So, Kay, what happened next? Did the bus leave without you? Did you find a wrench and a bike box? Did the bus driver relent? Please don't leave us hanging!

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  • Jonathan R December 19, 2013 at 5:18 am

    Great followup article, but is it possible to swap out the Brompton picture for one of a bicycle that when folded just about meets the size guidelines you report on?

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  • Eric in Seattle December 19, 2013 at 9:31 am

    The actions of these Amtrak employees are not unlike the actions of police officers who enforce the law as they think it is or ought to be, rather than what it actually is. Unfortunately we still have a ways to go before bikes (on roads or on trains) are considered normal by some people.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Ted December 19, 2013 at 9:53 am

    I'll start right off and say that I'm an Amtrak conductor in upstate NY. One of the reasons we assign cars is all of our platforms with the exception of a very few, are low level platforms that require a crew member to manually open the door and lower the steps. We can only open as many doors as we have crew members, which on most of our trains are only two people. So that means we seat passengers according to destination to expedite loading and unloading at stations so we can attempt to keep the train fairly close to schedule. Now onto the use of the PA. Every crew is different in their use of the PA. Some crews use it a lot, others don't use it at all. Most use it correctly to let passengers know what the next station is, reason the train is stopped, any delays, etc. Of course in this modern age of technology and ear buds with loud music, conductors sometimes have to make multiple and loud announcements to ensure that everyone has heard the message. And in my experience the passengers who complain about the PA are usually the first ones to ask why the train is stopped and/or late.

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    • 9watts December 19, 2013 at 11:17 pm

      Ted,
      thanks for chiming in here. Good to get some conductor perspective on all of this. Whenever I take Amtrak I think - You know, it would be so amazing for the crew on this train to do an exchange with a crew on a German or Italian or Norwegian train. Does that ever happen? I'd love to be a fly on the wall if that every did happen.

      Sometimes I feel like Amtrak is a bit like the Amish - they hue to a past way of doing things that to everyone else is kind of quaint and sometimes hard to understand. The Amish have their reasons, their beliefs. I am still trying to figure out what Amtrak's reasons are for doing some of things the way they do - using funny language, assigning everyone seats, refueling trains with passengers on board, falling back on a fleet of buses, etc.

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      • Ted December 19, 2013 at 11:41 pm

        I've had a railway worker from the UK on my train before who told me he was very impressed how very efficient he thought we were. I also had a woman from Japan who was very pleased with how the crew made announcements about station stops. She told me that in Japan the railway workers just stuff people into the trains like sardines, then don't say anything else. So I guess that's what a "modern and efficient" passenger is like. I personally pride myself on running a good train. Safety is my number one priority. I'm responsible for everyone on that train. I'm sorry if you don't like not being able to sit in a car all by yourself. There's a reason for that. I shouldn't have to be forced to explain my actions on everything I do. I could go on forever talking about what we deal with on a daily basis, but I won't bother.

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        • 9watts December 20, 2013 at 7:01 am

          "I'm sorry if you don't like not being able to sit in a car all by yourself."
          Not sure who you're talking to. I have gotten used to being assigned a seat. I now understand why it is done this way, but I still think it is quaint - along with a lot of the other stuff. Not complaining, just musing. I'll take the train, any train, over the competition.

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  • Biker December 19, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    I love riding on trains, but the not allowing customers to spread into vacant seats is just mean and stupid. Just have people walk through the cars to the doors that are opening on the platform. Duh. That's how far more efficient, friendly train conductors do it in Europe.

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  • James Langford December 20, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    This is good news, indeed. Let's hope Amtrak will make travelling with a non-folding bike easier, too. Doing away with the requirement that they be boxed and allowing them to be taken on or off trains at any station would make things a lot easier for cyclists and lead to more customers for Amtrak.

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  • Pedersen December 21, 2013 at 12:11 am

    One statement after having travelled several european railway companies and systems:
    You can't call amtrak "bike-friendly" as long as you have to box your bike to take it along. Hazzle-free and bike-friendliness means: Get on the train with your bike (be ticket needed or not), lash it to the rails in the bike-compartment, find your seat and – travel.

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  • Daniel R. Miller December 21, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    All Hail Super Julie!

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  • C2C in2006 December 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    So why is it allowed that passengers take almost any size luggage on board and block aisles, seats and overload baggage racks but an item way smaller than the average sized piece of luggage caused the above described fiasco? Regardless of what the item is if IG is smaller than the allowable luggage piece Amtrak and its customer contact folks are wrong, wrong, wrong. Bicycles and trains are so right for each other so Amtrak needs to get it's act together. PS; My Amtrak experience es have all been good with or without bike.

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  • zbicyclist December 24, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Amtrak trains entirely within Illinois have roll-on service (bike needs a bike ticket). I've used this three times, and two of the times there were major hassles with conductors -- despite having a ticket for the bike, and boarding at the start of the route. (most recent trip was March 2013, Chicago to Carbondale; this is with a full sized bike, not a folder; we had bike tickets AND a printed copy of the Amtrak bike policy).

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  • Biketrain December 27, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    zbicyclist: You should move to the other side of the state. My wife and I have boarded the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sanburg 6 or 8 times a year for many years with both full size and regular and have only been hassled once and that by a newbie conductor. I was able to set him straight without much to do. The regular conductor usually asks me where I'm headed and how far I'm riding.

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  • Maria April 6, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    I am more concerned with using Amtrak to get to locations about 2 miles from the station or less--both ends of trip. Takes much $ to get a taxi to go less than 2 miles each way--from and to stations on both ends of trip. Buses and sometimes a taxi can take a bit of time to wait for--some AMTRAK station arrival times are not complementary with Bus or Taxi timing/service. Parking isn't cheap either--and no station is exempt from crime/vandalism. I see a folding bike as a tool--just like my phone and computer--I have to be able to use it with what I have where I am and when required.

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