Amtrak Across the Country
After spending 15 months rambling across the US on our bicycles, we made the command decision to take Amtrak back across the US to spend the winter in Portland, Oregon. Why Amtrak? For us, trains and bicycles seem like a natural fit.
A train is a much more civilized conveyance than an airplane. A train is slow, leisurely, restful; while an airplane is frenetic, stressful, strict. When you’re on a train, you have hours to simply sit and look out the windows, taking in the scenery around you. While you’re moving much quicker than on a bicycle, it’s a similar experience, because you have the time to meditate on each rolling hill and small town you pass through. On a train, you can meet fellow passengers, and share fascinating conversation over a meal in the dining car. Amtrak treats you like a person, allowing you to walk around, stretch your legs, and bring more than three ounces of liquid aboard. And it’s one of the cheapest ways to travel long-distance with a bicycle, as Amtrak only charges $20 to box and check your bike.
We have long been fans of Amtrak. When we were living in Long Beach, taking the train out of the city was the best way to begin a bike trip. We’ve taken Amtrak up and down the west coast many times, even as a way to kick off this journey last summer. But we have never taken a train for more than one night – and we’ve always been curious what it would be like.
So, a few weeks ago, we boxed up our bikes in Boston, and hopped aboard Amtrak, for a three-day ride across the US to Portland.
From Boston, we rode the Lake Shore Limited into Chicago. The train passes through Western Massachusetts, upstate New York, around the bottom of a few of the great lakes, before pulling into downtown Chicago. It took approximately 25 hours, arriving 2 hours late due to freight traffic. We rode coach, in an attempt to save some money, and because we knew we could tough it out in an uncomfortable sleeping position for one night.
From Chicago, we upgraded to a sleeper car aboard the Empire Builder for the rest of the trip to Portland. This train cuts across the very northern part of the US, through the endless plains of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, before crossing the mountains, and following the Columbia Gorge into Portland. The ride was approximately 44 hours, and was perfectly on time (as we’ve found is our luck whenever we get a sleeper car).
The sleeper car sounds like an over-the-top luxury, but it’s really the best way to spend two nights on a train. Not only do you sleep better, you have your own quiet spot away from the crying children and dozens of bored passengers. In the sleeping cars, the bathrooms tend to be cleaner, you have first dibs on dinner reservations, you may get to join in a wine tasting (depending on the route you take), and there’s a shower, champagne, and a car attendant. (And, here’s a big secret… When you stay in a sleeper car, your fare includes all of your meals!)
The experience of riding on Amtrak may not be the romantic vision we have of the golden age of train travel. You’re not going to meet Cary Grant, your coffee will arrive in a paper cup, and folks will likely sprawl out all over the floor in an attempt to sleep through the day. That said, I’ve always felt like I get better customer service from Amtrak employees than in my combined 20-some-years of flying. When I say they treat you like a person, I’m not joking. The conductors are approachable and (often) jovial. If the train’s late, they’ll tell you (honestly) what you can expect. If the train’s really late, they’ll pass out free snacks and bottled water.
Why do I keep mentioning the train being late? Well, because that’s the plague of Amtrak. For most routes, Amtrak does not own its own tracks. It uses the freight tracks, under agreement with the freight operators, which means that the freight trains have priority. The Coast Starlight is one of the most notoriously-late Amtrak trains. It shares tracks with Union Pacific, which operates a lot of freight traffic along the same route, and can mean a lot of delays. Riding Amtrak can test your patience, if you’re not able to let go of any ideals you may have about what riding a train should be like (i.e. don’t even think about comparing it to the trains in Europe).
Which often makes me wonder what it must be like for Amtrak employees. They must regularly deal with passenger complaints, and they constantly have to apologize for something they have no control over. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing that they would continue to be so helpful and friendly.
But let’s go back to the idea of taking your bicycle with you on the train. Amtrak operates only six trains on which you can simply bring your bike aboard. On all of the other trains, you must box and check your bicycle. This is actually a much simpler project than it sounds. Any staffed Amtrak station that offers baggage service should have bike boxes in stock that you can purchase (but make sure to check ahead). To make your bike fit in the box, all you have to do is remove the pedals and turn the handlebars and roll the bike into the box. Tape it up really well, write your name and phone number on the box, hand over your $20, and you’re good to go. Pretty simple, right? There’s just one more thing… You must make sure that your destination is a baggage stop, or you won’t be able to get your bike off the train. Yes, even though there is a stop in Alpine, Texas, 80 short miles from Big Bend and the perfect jumping-off location for a bike tour, you cannot get your bike off the train there, because Amtrak does not offer baggage service at this stop. Check the schedules carefully.
Or just get a Brompton. We’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately, especially after riding trains throughout the NorthEast. How simple to have a bike that folds so small and so neatly that you can just carry it aboard and put it in the overhead compartment. Think about all the possibilities this opens up… such as getting off the train, with your bike, in Alpine, Texas, and spending a fantastic week rambling around Big Bend country. The bike touring possibilities expand when you have a folding bike. And it would be an even-more-obvious pairing with train travel.
As we kick around several ideas for our next adventure, we can’t help but consider the possibility of crossing the northern part of the US and Canada – on a multi-modal journey that would combine Brompton and Amtrak.
If you agree with us that bikes and train travel go together really well, consider writing and sending a letter to Amtrak. Amtrak is poised to become an even-more-popular method of travel in coming years, as people get more and more frustrated with flying, and it would be great to see them expand their bike service to each station stop. If nothing else, it would be great for them to know that they serve so many cyclists.
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