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Bikes and trains: Free meetup at the Green Dragon tonight

Bikes and trains: Free meetup at the Green Dragon tonight

Bikes on Amtrak

More Amtrak lines are allowing this.
(Photo: Will Vanlue)

They’re the smallest and the biggest vehicles many people use during their lives, and they keep becoming a better travel pair.

A free event Wednesday evening will bring a rail-riding college student to Portland to talk about various aspects of bicycle-and-train travel.

The latest major improvement on this front in the United States is Amtrak’s expanded roll-on bike service, a 2013 shift by the national passenger rail company that came after years of advocacy from people who saw the potential.

Eleven Amtrak lines (including the Eugene-to-Vancouver Cascades line through Portland) now offer roll-on bike service, and seven more offer checked bike service.

By removing some of its trains’ old requirements that you disassemble your bike with every boarding and pack it into a special box, Amtrak has greatly improved its potential for people looking to combine the two modes.

To promote its new service, Amtrak has hired Elena Studier as a summer intern to travel the country by train and with her bicycle, whose name is Stevie. Studier will visit the Green Dragon brewpub in southeast Portland tonight to briefly discuss and answer questions about her trip, which started in Manhattan last week and will last for four more weeks.

The happy hour is being organized by the Portland chapters of Young Professionals in Transportation and WTS International. It begins 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at 928 SE 9th Ave.

Studier is blogging about her trip at — hopefully not exclusively with Amtrak’s on-board Wi-Fi.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Possible cuts to Amtrak service raise stakes of Salem’s transportation limbo

Possible cuts to Amtrak service raise stakes of Salem’s transportation limbo

Bikes on Amtrak

The Cascades line is arguably the bike-friendliest
in the country.
(Photo: Will Vanlue)

One of the country’s most-ridden Amtrak lines could have its southern tail chopped off unless Oregon legislators find another $5 million to keep it whole.

The state-sponsored Amtrak Cascades service between Eugene and Portland, with stops in Albany, Salem, Woodburn and Oregon City, is likely to be eliminated unless the state is willing to cover the one-third of the line’s operating costs, $28 million annually, that aren’t covered by ticket revenue.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has already found $18 million from non-general funds, and the legislature’s working budget framework reportedly adds another $5 million from general funds. That leaves about $5 million left to find.

The Cascades line, which also runs north to Seattle, Vancouver BC and other cities, is maybe the country’s bike-friendliest train line; for $5, it lets you add a bike to any trip, rolling it on and off the platform yourself to hang it in the luggage car. This has proved popular; the line has been adding more bike parking hooks as its existing ones fill up on weekends.

The passenger rail service is just one of many transportation decisions caught in the crossfire of a fight between Republicans and Democrats over creating a low-carbon fuel standard in the state. Republicans have been blocking all action on a proposed gas tax hike unless Democrats kill the fuel standard, which would add an estimated 4 to 19 cents per gallon to the cost of gasoline by 2025.

The City of Portland, meanwhile, has put its own search for transportation revenue on hold in hopes that Salem will hike gas taxes.

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Three Cascades trains currently run south of Portland each day. The Coast Starlight, a different line that is less reliably on schedule, adds a fourth run.

On Monday, the Wallawa County Chieftan reported that State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) was saying there is “no story here” because legislators would not fail to find $5 million.

Johnson suggested to the Chieftain that in order to get its state subsidy, the Cascades line should adjust its schedule to capture more commute traffic between Portland and Salem.

The Portland-to-Eugene route has been discussed as a future high-speed rail corridor, too. But ridership demand for that segment falls far short of those for the Portland-to-Seattle corridor, one of the nation’s most popular city pairings and the key segment on the Cascades line.

However, passenger rail advocates say that cutting Willamette Valley cities out of the network would hurt the entire line’s viability.

“If you think of it as a system, any change to one part of the system is going to affect all other parts of the system,” David Arnold, president of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, told KOIN last month. “So this line is really critical.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak Cascades has faced private competition from BoltBus, a low-cost bus line with runs to Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC. BoltBus relies on the Interstate highway system, which is paid for by a combination of gas taxes and general funds, including its exemption from property taxes.

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

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

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.

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

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

Texas Eagle

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.

Elly Blue at WABA event

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.

Disaster Relief Trials -40

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.

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

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

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.