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

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

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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