I've been meaning to write this for a while now, and seeing the recent thread about bringing a Brompton+B&W case onto Amtrak spurred me to write this. Disclaimer. The conversation is an approximation of what I remember!
Scenario: Last summer, I had a conference in Chicago. I live over in Windsor, Ontario. My initial plan was to rent a car, throw the Brompton in the back, and then drive to Chicago (5 hours). The morning of my departure, my colleague mentioned that she and her husband and kids took the train from Southfield (just outside of Detroit) to Chicago previously, and really enjoyed it. I had overlooked taking the train. So, I jumped on Amtrak's website, confirmed that the train indeed run from Detroit to Chicago, and that they allowed folding bikes. So, I cancelled my car rental, bought a ticket online (how reasonable), and then grabbed a taxi from Windsor to the Detroit rail station with the Brompton in the back.
Mistake 1: Well, the Detroit station is pretty, ah, "rough". Not the best neighbourhood. If any of you decide to take the train, go to the next station, Southfield: it's a more secure and arguably safer area. I won't go into many more details, but lesson learned.
Mistake 2: Don't assume the train runs on time. I don't know about other Amtrak service corridors, but I was an hour late getting into Chicago, and 90 minutes late on the return. Some of the delay was weather related, but I'm skeptical of the service schedule.
Mistake 3: How does this relate to the folding bike? After I got out of the taxi, I went to the counter to show my online ticket. The service agent looks at my Brompton, and asks, "What's that?" I indicated it was a folding bike. I did not pack it in my B&W case, but just had it "as is". The agent then replies that the bike is not allowed on board.
"What? The Amtrak policy allows for folding bikes."
"Yes, but only if there is a BAGGAGE CAR. This service corridor has not baggage car, so there is less space in the overhead racks for luggage. You won't be able to bring your bike on board."
Now I'm stuck. Taxi has left, I'm in a less than great area, and I don't have enough time to head home to drop off my bike. So, I explain my predicament to the agent.
"Well, it's up to the conductor. You'll have to ask him. If he allows your bike on board, then fine. If not, you're out of luck."
"What if I cover up my bike?" I ask the agent.
"What do you mean?"
I had brought the black vinyl Brompton cover that I could just throw on.
"Well, that might help..." (In other words, if it doesn't look like a bike, maybe nobody will care.)
"But what about the return trip?" I ask.
"I suggest you find a box and pack it up and ship it back from Chicago back to Windsor then." (Ugh. This means I'll have to run around Chicago and locate a shipping box. Wasn't there a Brompton dealer in Chicago that maybe I could beg a box from?)
So, I throw the cover on, try to make the bike inconspicuous, and just wait anxiously. The train arrives, I get on board. When I get to my seat, I toss my covered bike in the overhead rack, and wait for the conductor to get to me. Note: It might help to travel "business class". It only costed a few dollars more.
The train leaves, I relax just a little, and then the conductor comes by 10 minutes later.
"So, I understand the agent wanted me to talk to you... about?" And he looks at me questioningly. I explain that I wasn't aware of the folding bike policy on a no-baggage car train, but that I couldn't bring the bike back.
"Where's the bike?" I point to the overhead. He just kind of looks at it disbelievingly, and says, "As a far as I'm concerned, that's small enough and looks like luggage." (In other words, if you didn't tell me, and if I don't have to ask, I don't care.)
"What about the return trip?"
"Well, you might have to box it up. You'll have to take your chances."
Okay... so now I have to worry about the return trip.
Return Trip: I do the same thing. Wrap it up in the black cover; unzip the top just enough to grab the saddle; and walk on board the train. Nobody asks, and nobody cared. Frankly, most people had rolling luggage a lot bigger than the bike.
Moral of the Story: Sometimes, the less said, the better. Cover it up, sit quietly, and hopefully, all goes well. Your mileage might vary...