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The next time you’re headed out into the world on your bicycle, consider using the train to help you get there.
By Laura Crawford and Russ Roca
The next time you’re headed out into the world on your bicycle, consider using the train to help you get there. We’ve found that a short train ride is a great way to get out of the city and into the countryside, and we have often used the train to start a bike trip.
Taking your bicycle on the train is usually pretty simple, but it can seem confusing and complex at first. Unless you’re taking a commuter or subway train, or one of a handful of Amtrak trains, you’ll need to box your bike. But take a deep breath, because it’s easier than you think.
Plan to arrive at the train station approximately two hours before your scheduled departure. With your ticket in hand, take your bike and all of your belongings straight to the baggage depot. Tell the baggage agent that you need to box and check your bike. He/ she will check your ticket, fill out some forms and collect the fee (around $20 in cash only). You’ll be given a big cardboard box, as well as packing tape and a large marker. Most of the time, train employees are hands-off at this point, so commit the following to memory:
Remove the pedals. You may want to pre-loosen them before you go to the station in case the job requires a heavy-duty pedal wrench. Tape the pedals together and attach them to the bike somewhere (don’t just throw them loose in the box, or they will roll around and possibly damage your bike or break open the box).
Turn your handlebars. Loosen the bolts at the stem and turn your handlebars so that they’re parallel to the frame. Then tighten the bolts again to keep the bars in place. If your handlebars are particularly large or high on the frame, you may need to take them completely off the stem and tape them down to the frame. Do this carefully to prevent kinking your cables.
Finishing touches. Remove or tape down anything on the bike that may rattle around and cause problems. If you have water bottles on the bike, make sure they’re empty.
Box your bike. Assemble one end of the box and tape it closed. Roll the bike into the box. Then assemble the other end and tape it closed. Don’t be afraid to use a lot of tape. With the marker, write your name and phone number and/ or email address on the box.
Your bike is now appropriately boxed for Amtrak and VIA Rail. Hand it over to the baggage agent. He/ she will affix some destination labels to the box and give you a claim ticket, much like checking baggage at the airport. When you arrive at your destination, claim your bike in the baggage depot and put it back together. Most train stations will take the box back from you and reuse or recycle it.
Amtrak offers a bicycle roll-on service on eight of its trains: Cascades, Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin, Capitol Corridor, Downstate Illinois, Missouri River Runner, Downeaster and Piedmont. Except for the trains in California, you will need to make an advance reservation and pay between $5 USD and $10 to take your bike on the train. In California, the onboard facilities are free and on a first-come, first-served basis. All other Amtrak trains require you to box your bicycle and check it as baggage. Note: Amtrak accepts no liability if bicycles are not boxed. Boxes can be purchased for $15.
Your bike must be checked as baggage on all VIA Rail trains for a fee of $20 per bicycle ($40 for a tandem). VIA Rail strongly recommends boxing your bike and accepts no liability if you don’t. As a bonus, if you’re traveling on the train, the box is free (you can also get a large, sturdy plastic bag if you cannot fit your bicycle into the box). On the Bike Train, you will not need to box your bicycle, but will still need to check it as baggage.
We want you and your bike to have a good experience aboard the train, so here are a few tips we’ve picked up from our travels.
+ Bring a wrench for your pedals and the proper Allen key for your handlebars
+ Bring extra packing tape and a marker in case the station runs out
+ Call the station in advance to be sure they have a bike box available
+ Practice taking off the pedals and turning the handlebars before you go to the station
+ Give yourself lots of time – get to the station early!
+ Carry a copy of any applicable bike policies (usually available online)
+ If your bike is checked as baggage, it can only be put on or taken off the train at a staffed baggage stop; budget your time accordingly.
Amtrak Bicycle Policy & Info can be found here.
Via Rail Baggage Info is here.
Laura Crawford and Russ Roca sold everything they owned in 2009 to travel by bicycle. They pedaled 10,000 miles over 15 months, documenting their experiences along The Path Less Pedaled. After resting for the winter, they are currently heading east across the US on Brompton folding bicycles and the train. pathlesspedaled.com
Packing Bike for Amtrak video from their site.