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Citing nonexistent policy, Amtrak workers haul away Portlanders’ bikes – UPDATED

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

The Texas Eagle in Austin, Tex.
(Photo by Ian Westcott.)

[See official response from Amtrak in update at end of story.]

Amtrak apologized Tuesday to a Portlander traveling through Texas who said train workers woke her up and yelled at her for having a folding bicycle as carry-on luggage — something the national rail service allows.

“Unfortunately, we have found that Amtrak employees at all levels tend to be unaware of the company’s policy’s regarding bikes, folding and otherwise,” Elly Blue, a Portland-based writer who is on a business trip with her partner Joe Biel, wrote in an email. (Blue and Biel didn’t end up losing their bikes or needing to check them, though they were taken away overnight.)

“I love the train because it’s low-stress,” Blue lamented. Last night’s trip, though, was anything but.

After a series of heated discussions at 11 pm Monday with a car attendant, station attendant and station supervisor, one customer service representative speaking by phone told Blue 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 a policy saying foldable bikes are valid carry-on baggage.

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

The policy is vague, however, saying only that folding bikes are allowed on “certain passenger cars,” a qualification that isn’t explained. According to Blue’s account, employees unaware of the policy seem to have interpreted that vagueness as a reason not to follow it.

Here’s the full story, from Blue, with my emphases and links added:

Joe and I travel by train a lot for business. We choose the train in large part because we can easily get to and from the stations self-sufficiently by bike. Amtrak’s bike policies are inconsistent and often inconvenient, so about a year ago we invested in Brompton folding bikes to make the process easier. So far it’s been great — according to Amtrak policy a folding bike can replace one item of carry-on luggage, and we travel pretty light so it works out perfectly. We make trips this way every few months, and on every trip at least one Amtrak employee is unfamiliar with the folding bike policy and tells us that we can’t take our bikes as carry-on. Usually, we politely explain the policy and then it’s fine. Not this time!

Last night we were sound asleep around 11pm (we have a roomette in the sleeper car on this trip) when our train (the Texas Eagle) rolled into San Antonio, where there’s an hours-long stop so it can split and the crew can change. Normally we sleep right through this process, but last night we were jarred awake by a blaring announcement on our car’s PA (which isn’t supposed to be used between 10pm and 7am), “Passenger Elly Blue, come get your bicycles immediately, you must come deal with your bicycles or they will be removed from the train.” I ran out into the vestibule in my pajamas, afraid that something was terribly wrong or someone had been hurt. But no, our two Bromptons were sitting innocently in the hallway, neatly stacked one on the other, right in front of the door, blocking all possible routes.

The new attendant for our car was really indignant that we had brought bikes on and couldn’t believe we’d been allowed on the train with them. She wanted them in the baggage car immediately where they belonged, she didn’t have room for them, what were we thinking inconveniencing our fellow passengers, didn’t we know the rules, etc. The luggage area on our train was nearly empty at this point, so I offered to show her how we normally stow the bikes and pointed out that they take up less space than several of the suitcases sitting unmolested on the shelf.

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

This negotiation was heated but civil, and I think it would have resolved in a few minutes. But at this point one of the San Antonio station attendants ran up—it appeared that she’d called him for help getting the bicycles out of her car—and he started just yelling at me for bringing bikes on a train. I pointed out that they were folding bikes and asked him to look up the policy. While he went off to do that, his supervisor came up and started yelling at me also. She told me that all their policies changed this July and folding bikes are no longer allowed on as baggage. She went off to call customer service, and the guy came back with a sheet of paper with Amtrak’s bike policy on it. He handed it to me saying, still yelling (everyone on the car must have been woken up by this point) that it said that our bikes were not allowed on. I read it out loud—it’s still the same old familiar policy. He was not to be deterred, and insisted that maybe they were allowed on coach but there was no room on the sleeper cars. He also seemed to think that we had tried to store our bikes in the vestibule, in the way—where the attendant had brought them—and started yelling at us for that too.

At this point, the car attendant was trying to resolve things, apologizing, explaining that a lot of passengers were getting on at this stop and that she was stressed out about space, and asked us if we’d mind if she put the bikes in a locked compartment at the end of the car. We were willing, but miffed—why weren’t they asking the passengers with the giant suitcases that were over Amtrak’s carry on size limit to check those? Someone had just gotten off the train with four huge rolling luggages; meanwhile we were under our baggage allowance, so why were we being summoned out of bed and yelled at? She explained that this space was for guests to put their luggage, not for us to put our bikes. We pointed out that we were also guests and that according to the policy, our bikes were the same as luggage. But no, we were told again, that was not true.

Filmmaker and publisher Joe Biel,
Blue’s partner.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Everyone was upset, and it was late, and we were willing to just let them put the bikes in the baggage car to get it over with. But as we were working this out, the station supervisor came back with a cordless phone and set it on speaker. The customer service rep told us that it didn’t matter what kind of bikes they were, we had to take them into the station, pay to put them in Amtrak’s bike boxes, and check them through to Portland—they could not be checked without a box, she insisted. I asked her to look up the policy, and after a long pause she came back and told us that it said that folding bikes could be treated as regular luggage only if the train wasn’t full. (For the record, it doesn’t say that.)

The situation seemed like it could only continue getting worse, so I told the San Antonio staff that we’d worked it out with the attendant and she would stow the bikes. They seemed to feel vindicated, and left. The car attendant took our bikes off to the secret compartment and everyone went to bed.

The next morning we woke up… and the baggage rack in our car was still about a third empty. The attendant told us our bikes were safe and said that since the train was going to empty out she could possibly put them in their very own roomette (how romantic for them). For the record, I don’t mind the bikes being stored away from our car. It’s more the fact of being jolted awake in the middle of the night with a threat and then being berated loudly and angrily and at length about breaking rules that we were actually completely in compliance with. I also could have lived without the implication that our folding bikes were a selfish imposition on everyone else and responsible for the (imaginary as it turned out) lack of room for everyone’s bags.

This incident was unusual in that we were woken up and yelled at. Unfortunately, we have found that Amtrak employees at all levels tend to be unaware of the company’s policy’s regarding bikes, folding and otherwise. We never know what will happen or when there will be an argument or negotiation, and there’s the constant worry that someone will simply put the bikes (or us) off their train because they don’t like or understand them—I’ve heard many stories about this happening. I love the train because it’s low-stress, but when the rules are so little-known and inconsistently applied, it produces anxiety.

Bike policies and practices on Amtrak are themselves often byzantine [Russ and Laura have a great blog post about the hilarious mess that is involved in checking a bike in LA]. I’m sure it isn’t intentional, but the effect is to discourage passengers from combining rail and bike trips, which is a shame—other rail systems have done this really successfully, with, I suspect, real economic benefit to all parties.

After Blue (whose work is focused on bicycles and who spent two years as a managing editor here at BikePortland) wrote about the issue on her Twitter account, the rail service replied:

In a follow-up email to Blue, Amtrak social media director Julie Quinn added:

I want to apologize because it sounds like you received sub-par service which is never our intention. We are taking action to ensure that our employees are reminded of our onboard bike policy to try to avoid a situation like this in the future, so thank you for bringing this to our attention. We are always looking for ways to best accommodate our customers and we have been working with the cycling community for quite a while now to determine actionable solutions to provide the best accommodations for our customer with bikes.

In a separate email Tuesday, Blue’s partner Biel, a small-press publisher and filmmaker, wrote in to say that Amtrak’s past training efforts seem to him to have been consistently inadequate (emphases mine):

Even if/when Amtrak changes and develops its policies, the problem is and has always been a lack of training about said policies. It’s been this way for years. The staff don’t know about bikes, let alone about folding bikes

I’ve been doing 6-12 round trips per year for over a decade and it’s constantly a matter of showing the staff what their own policy is. This was simply the most recent and egregious offense.

We’ve reached out to Quinn to ask if she has any further comments about Blue’s account or on the value of combining train and bike travel — something we’re big fans of at BikePortland. We’ll update this post if and when we hear from Amtrak.

Update 12/3 at 5:00 pm: Vernae Graham, Amtrak’s West Coast press spokeswoman, writes to reiterate that Amtrak “apologizes for any inconvenience.” She adds: “Passengers should inquire when making their reservations, if they are unfamiliar with the bike policy on a particular route. … We are continuously working with our employees to update them on new, existing or modified policy changes.” I’ve asked Graham if this means that Amtrak has different bike policies for different routes, and if so how passengers can find this information.