Weekender Ride

Amtrak’s trains keep getting bike-friendlier, but its buses aren’t keeping up

Posted by on February 20th, 2015 at 12:36 pm

bikes on Amtrak bus

It’s sometimes possible to talk bikes onto an Amtrak
bus, but the variety of contractors is an obstacle.
(Photo: Mark Hogan)

As Amtrak invests in improving its trains to carry bikes, some customers are warning that Amtrak’s buses are falling behind.

The Amtrak Cascades line, between Eugene and Vancouver BC, is both one of the most-ridden regional rail lines in the country and maybe the bike-friendliest. For $5 on top of your fare, you can easily check an unboxed bike to most stops on the line and reclaim it like any other bit of luggage.

The service has been so popular that the hooks in Amtrak’s baggage cars started filling up. So two years ago, the Cascades added more hooks, boosting its bike capacity by 67 percent.

But as Northwesterners have begun to plan their travel around that useful service, it’s led to problems when Amtrak taps its far-flung network of buses to fill in for trains, or to run routes that trains don’t. Here’s a story from reader Richard Browning, who lives in Seattle, about bus problems that scuttled his attempted bike tourism to Portland earlier this month:

I don’t own a car. I use my bike for transportation. I had a reservation on the Amtrak Cascades to go from Olympia to Portland on Saturday. On the agenda were meetings with friends, and ironically – a prepaid entry to Worst Day of the Year Ride. In other words…like anyone traveling, I had plans that were contingent on reliable transportation.

Arriving at the Olympia station (staffed only by volunteers) after an 8 mile ride in the rain I was told that mudslides had closed the tracks and Amtrak would be sending a bus instead. Would the bus be able to take my bike? Volunteer staff shrugged. They didn’t know. They didn’t care. From the station I called Amtrak’s national ticketing line and – after a long delay – talked with an agent. Would the bus be able to take my bike? Virtual shrug. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She could put me on hold and try and ask her “team” if they knew, but – she told me – they probably wouldn’t know – or care – either. Of course, I could wait for hours for the tardy bus to actually show and find out for myself – but she was “95% sure” it wouldn’t take bikes. I cancelled the reservation, and all my plans for the weekend. Then rode back 8 miles in the rain to Olympia.

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This is the third time I have had more or less the same scenario play itself outlike thiswith Amtrak, each time stranding me somewhere and upending my plans. I have never had the slightest indication Amtrak even understands there is a problem. I would say that at a bare minimum – since Amtrak is charging cyclists to bring their bikes on board the Cascade line and assuring them they will be accommodated – Amtrak should at least be able to tell us with certainty if the substitute bus they are sending can accommodate bikes.

Beyond that – how much more difficult would it be to have a rack to carry a bike or two? That Amtrak can’t even do the extreme minimum of informing cyclists if they will be accommodated or not in times of disrupted service shows just how trivial and inconsequential this national mass transit company considers use of bikes as transportation to be. Would they in the same cavalier manner blow off passengers with – say – two pieces of luggage instead of one? “Sorry – we can’t tell you if the bus will accommodate your second piece of luggage or not. If not you may permanently abandon the luggage or we will simply leave you standing at the curb. Sorry for any inconvenience this may be causing you”?

A mudslide is a mudslide, and obviously is going to disrupt travel plans in many ways. Still – especially since Amtrak competitor BoltBus typically hauls bikes in its undercarriage luggage area for free – it’s clear that allowing bikes to be carried on its buses would be within Amtrak’s power to achieve.

I asked Vernae Graham, Amtrak’s regional spokeswoman, what the biggest obstacles are to offering the service on its buses.

“Many operators,” she replied in an email Friday. “We contract out with various bus companies.”

Graham didn’t respond to a question of whether Amtrak has any plans to address this situation. For the moment, the only reliable way to carry bikes on Amtrak is to scrape together the cash for a folding bike. (Well, mostly reliable, anyway.)

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28 Comments
  • Christopher Sanderson February 20, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    The caption under pic does not make sense.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) February 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm

      It sure didn’t. Fixed.

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      • Ron G. February 21, 2015 at 8:37 am

        Fixed, really? It must have been quite confusing before, because I still don’t know what that’s a picture of, only that I hope I never find my bike in that situation, whatever it may be. The rear derailleurs on those bikes are getting much too intimate.

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        • adventure! February 21, 2015 at 10:29 am

          It’s a picture of two bikes in the cargo bay under the seats on a bus.

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  • Donnie February 20, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Even the regional bus companies themselves can’t always give reliable answers to this question. I’ve called multiple stations along a bus route and gotten completely different answers – even though it’s the exact same physical bus making the stops.

    As someone who tries to create routes around public transportation as much as possible, it sure makes it harder than it should be.

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  • Patrick Barber February 20, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve carried bikes on Amtrak buses, after a lot of vehement arguing with a driver. Once it was on a connector from the San Joaquin in Bakersfield to the Surfliner in LA — which was the only way to get to LA on trains that had bike hooks. The bus driver raised a great protest, but we talked her into it because what were we going to do? Ride over the San Gabriels to LA? We’d already paid our ticket and of course the obligatory person on the phone had assured me that everything would be fine.

    Amtrak is like this about everything. I never use the train, with the exception of the very occasional, no-bike-included trip from Portland to Seattle. Given their hilariously bad customer service and complete lack of accountability, I choose to drive or fly rather than take the train. There is a lot of romance and pleasant experience associated with taking the train, and I certainly love the IDEA of it, but a few bad experiences with Amtrak (i.e. a few trips on Amtrak…) cured me of my starry-eyed optimism for good.

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  • Todd Hudson February 20, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Aside from the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak will always be horrible.

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    • adventure! February 20, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Have you actually taken the Cascades service?

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    • adventure! February 21, 2015 at 10:27 am

      Have you ever used the Cascades service? I’d hardly define it as “horrible”.

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  • Mike Quiglery February 20, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    Photo shows bikes tossed on top of bikes, and, I imagine, luggage tossed in on top of the bikes, especially at later stops. Then the door is slammed shut to keep the whole thing from cascading out of the bus.

    I Eugene I caught an Amtrak baggage handler literally tossing bikes from a train onto a baggage cart with some of them falling off onto the pavement. When I confronted her all she could say was “oops, sorry.”

    I doubt if I’ll ever take my own bike on a train (unless it’s boxed). Better to rent one at your destination.

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    • Todd Boulanger May 18, 2016 at 6:12 pm

      I wonder if that was the Amtrak Coast Star[Late] service where you saw the handler throwing (boxed?] bikes onto the baggage carriage. With the Amtrak Cascades the bike owner has to be trainside to be handed the bike as luggage. That is unless they were missing or waiting for the bike in the wrong location.

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  • Tom February 20, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    If an Amtrak station states they sell bike boxes, don’t assume they will have them in stock. The Portland station seems to always have these, but smaller stations could be out. A Plan B option is to check with the nearest bike shop, box the bike there, and take it back to Amtrak, or just have the bike shop ship the bike for you.

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    • Terry D-M February 20, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      That is easy to do if you are on a bike….carry it boxed on your back I suppose?

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      • Tom February 20, 2015 at 7:51 pm

        It is in Carbondale. There are three bike shops within a half-block of that Amtrak station!

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  • Terry D-M February 20, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    Any news on the retro fit with bike hooks on the long haul trains to California or the Empire Builder? I read last year the were being retrofitted as well, but a train trip with boxes for us adds $200 to the train tab, so we are not taking a tourism vacation to California again until the bike hooks are installed! (Read that California tourism board….and AMTRAK).

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  • Robert Burchett February 21, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Bolt Bus drivers have been amazing. They go out on the traffic side to load, or facilitate loading, bikes. Tip your Bolt Bus driver!

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  • Jeff smith February 21, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Amtrak cascades did the same thing to me on a cancelled trip (track work) from Eugene to Portland. I would really like to know why providing assurance that bikes can be carried on a bus is so difficult. What exactly are the obstacles? I would be willing to believe that Amtrak has discussed and examined this at length with the bus transport providers, but given my own experience and everything I have heard from other amtrak bike users, I’m pretty sure they just don’t give a rat’s patootie.

    As Patrick B observes above, I really do want to like amtrak, but they make that pretty much impossible with their beyond-bad customer service.

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  • noah February 21, 2015 at 9:06 am

    The regularly scheduled Amtrak bus between Eugene and Portland is solid. You never have a problem getting your bike reservation honored on that.

    You might think it would be the same for the scheduled bus between Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle. You’d be wrong, as borne out by the experience of me and many other travelers through the years.

    Back in 2012, the operator just refused to take my bike on board, even though I had a bike ticket. Since it was late morning, and I was traveling all the way to Eugene, my choices were to [not] sleep overnight in an Amtrak station, or to stay at a hotel in Vancouver and try again tomorrow.

    At first I got stonewalled asking Amtrak to compensate me for my hotel room. In my second letter, I threatened a lawsuit for material breach of contract. That did get me compensated, for exactly how much I paid for my hotel room, pretax, and nothing more; and in Amtrak fare good for one year instead of cash.

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  • Donnie February 21, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I would agree that Amtrak is hit or miss. In the “hit” column: They went above and beyond when 80+ of us rode down to Klamath Falls last year for the Outback, all with bikes. And the previous year the KFalls station called us a week after our trip to see if we still needed our bike boxes – they’d held onto them for us in case we were round tripping it.

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    • adventure! February 21, 2015 at 10:17 am

      That’s great! A lot of stations will never hold on to bike boxes, nor give you a perfectly good used one, even if it’s available.

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  • Sean February 21, 2015 at 10:42 am

    I take my bike on the cascades train every month, sometimes every week between Seattle and Portland to get to a variety of business meetings in PDX, and I throw in an occasional one in Vancouver, BC. I’ve always been able to get the bus driver to put my bike on if the cancellation is out of the blue (eg mudslide), but that’s not to say I like tossing it in the underbelly of a replacement bus. Most weeks I roll right onto the cascades train and right off to my meetings on time and without incident (thank you helpful amtrack staff!) Yes the trains are sometimes delayed, yes, trains are sometimes cancelled, yes, the 1800 go rail folks don’t know about regional corridors such as the cascades about 50% (75%?) of the time. Given how woefully underfunded amtrack is, most staff I’ve come in contact with in person or over the phone overall do a pretty decent job in this frequent traveler’s opinion. If you monitor congressional happenings, silly representatives try every angle to cut their funding, each and every year. It’s not that amtrack staff don’t care–I know many that care an awful lot and do a lot to help me travel every week. I’m impressed at their efforts given that the reps many of us elect are cutting the amtrack budget at no less than every opportunity–and even proponents don’t push legislation increasing funding nearly hard enough. All I can suggest is to write your congressional reps and suggest they subsidize west coast rail to a smidge of a fraction of the subsidies for driving, and at that point a lot of things would be improved, including having a dedicated rail line instead of a borrowed one.

    Thanks again amtrack staff –and see you again next week!

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    • Dave Thomson February 21, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      Well said. Amtrak with a rational level of funding would be awesome. In the meantime I use them whenever I can and accept the occasional challenge as part of the adventure.

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  • SW February 21, 2015 at 10:57 am

    >>It’s sometimes possible to talk bikes onto an Amtrak bus

    is that really “take” or just weird wording ?

    the imagery of “talking bikes onto a bus” is funny.

    “go ahead get in there , you can do it”

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  • adventure! February 21, 2015 at 11:10 am

    I’ve dealt with a similar situation to Richard describes just a few months ago, when there was landslides on the Cascades route between Seattle and Everett, requiring a bus connection to get all the way up to Vancouver, BC. Despite assurances that everything would be ok beforehand, when I got to the bus at Seattle King Street Station, the driver balked at first when he saw my bike, saying I needed to wait until “everyone else gets their bags on first.” (Bags, mind you, that they probably didn’t pay “extra” for, unlike my bike.) Thankfully the station employees took the situation into their own hands, opened the baggage bay, and loaded my bike, while the driver looked on.

    And before this thread becomes a “let’s dump on Amtrak” forum, I will say that I’ve had plenty of good experiences with riding the train in the US, and always consider it when I can. To add to what Sean says, Amtrak has been running underfunded and threatened by elimination since its inception in 1971–forty-four years at that mentality is not healthy. It would help if there was more advocacy about bikes on Amtrak, but there isn’t. The main pro-train advocacy organization, National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) has a full-time staff of five and is constantly fighting the whole funding/shutdown battle. The other most-likely non-profit to work on this issue would be Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), and it appears that they’ve started to give attention to this in the past few years.

    Still, taking a bike on Amtrak (when you can) is still loads easier and cheaper than flying with a bike. And there’s something to be said for inter-city transportation that doesn’t involve full body scans and taking off your shoes to get on board.

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    • Jay T. February 22, 2015 at 3:53 pm

      Thanks, adventure! You’ve said it well. My experience is quite similar. I ride on the Amtrak Cascades route several times a year. My bicycle is safe, whether under the coach or in the baggage car of a train.

      I feel like a regular person in the stations, on the phone or on board. Roll up and onto the platform; roll off at the destination depot. These are marked contrasts from airline travel.

      I treasure the exercise I get within the towns I’m visiting. It makes it possible for me to attend meetings all day and stay relatively sane. The bike fare is reasonable: $5 each leg of the trip.

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    • Todd Boulanger May 18, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      And the only reason Amtrak came into existence was due to our nation’s rail companies wanted to keep their freight rail business (and original land grants) but not the passenger services.

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  • Beth February 21, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Now that I travel for work, I generally don’t take trains anymore.
    What I do instead is to arrange to have a loaner bike on hand in my destination city. For employers in cities where I am a regular repeat visitor, I have a cheap bike in my size that lives there. I now have such bikes in two locations. It’s much less stressful than taking Amtrak cross-country with a bicycle.

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    • Todd Boulanger May 18, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      Yep that or a Brompton is the best option…if one can do it.

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