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  1. #1
    Senior Member Ozonation's Avatar
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    Bringing a Folding Bike (Brompton) onto Amtrak

    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...
    Rivendell Sam Hillborne and Hunqapillar; Brompton M6R Sage Green; Salsa Mukluk 3 FAT Bike; Nerdy Academic; Nikonian; Wing Chun; and a Patridge in a Pear Tree.

  2. #2
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    Thank you, Ozonation. I really wish I didn't need the B&W case with me...

    At the very least, this indicates that Amtrak employees may stick to the letter of the policy (given the chance).

  3. #3
    Senior Member overbyte's Avatar
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    Amtrak policy allows folding bikes of certain maximum dimensions on ALL trains.

    The problem is that Amtrak employees don't know the corporate policies very well. The employee may have been taught before the current policy took effect. The policy on today's Amtrak website, and for several years already, is:
    Folding bicycles under the dimensions of 34" x 15" x 48"/860 x 380 x 1120 mm will be allowed onboard all trains in lieu of a piece of baggage. They must be considered a true folding bicycle.
    Reference: Bicycles and Bicycle Trailers

    If you need to bring only 1 piece of luggage and 1 Brompton, you should be fine with both of them as carry-on baggage, whether or not the train has a baggage car. If you try to bring a full-size non-folding bike, then you must either box it in an Amtrak bike box and take it as checked baggage (if there's a baggage car) or take a train that has special bike racks on certain cars. The Amtrak website says which routes have those bicycle-friendly cars. If you try to bring a folding bike and 2 pieces of luggage, you're in trouble unless there is a baggage car because the limit is 2 carry-on baggage items (excluding certain excepted items specified in the Amtrak website).
    Last edited by overbyte; 04-08-14 at 04:08 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Earl Grey View Post
    Thank you, Ozonation. I really wish I didn't need the B&W case with me...

    At the very least, this indicates that Amtrak employees may stick to the letter of the policy (given the chance).
    I wish they did. Amtrak official policy is very clear that folding bikes are allowed on all trains, whether or not there is a baggage car or baggage service at your station. There are limits on the dimensions, but they are very generous and I'd expect almost any folding bike to comply with them - even those much larger than a Brompton.

    Getting Amtrak employees, such as the counter agent and conductor encountered by the OP, to be aware of the official Amtrak policy is the problem. Usually it helps to have a recent printout of the policy from the Amtrak website available to show to them, but even that isn't always sufficient.

  5. #5
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    Very interesting topic - sounds like the Brompton truly is a multi-modal machine. Just keep it covered up and I doubt anyone who is unfamiliar with folders would ever suspect you've got a proper bike under there!

  6. #6
    Senior Member Ozonation's Avatar
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    Interestingly, if I remember, the B&W case might present less of a problem. The luggage allowance is essentially the same as for airlines, and the B&W case fits standard North American travel dimensions. The shape is square of course: not sure how that fits into the overhead rack.
    Rivendell Sam Hillborne and Hunqapillar; Brompton M6R Sage Green; Salsa Mukluk 3 FAT Bike; Nerdy Academic; Nikonian; Wing Chun; and a Patridge in a Pear Tree.

  7. #7
    Senior Member overbyte's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by keyven View Post
    Very interesting topic - sounds like the Brompton truly is a multi-modal machine. Just keep it covered up and I doubt anyone who is unfamiliar with folders would ever suspect you've got a proper bike under there!
    Look at the photos I posted on the thread about the 12"-wheel super-compact folding bike from China, here: Who else wants one of these?. That bike fits right into a normal suitcase that meets the Amtrak and airline dimension limits, without any disassembly. The suitcase has plenty of extra space for a handlebar bag and helmet (see photos and text). It's not a multi-gear bike, not a Brompton quality, but it's very compact when folded, and it rolls on luggage wheels when it's out of the suitcase. You could even make a black fabric skirt for the bike and roll it like a suitcase using the extended handlebar to pull it and the little luggage trolley wheels to roll in the super-compact configuration. This will be a champion at multi-modal travel, I think.

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    Newbie othermark's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ozonation View Post
    Moral of the Story: Sometimes, the less said, the better. Cover it up, sit quietly, and hopefully, all goes well. Your mileage might vary...
    This is my brommie experience as well. 100% I ride every day to work on the bus. Drivers change routes quarterly and are not familiar with the transit authorities folding bike policy, which is essentially 'the bike must be small and with you'. The old policy stated that the bike must fit under a seat, the bus has about 3 spaces where that could occur and they are pretty much 100% occupied. However simply keeping the cover on allows the bike to disappear from policy review and becomes another piece of luggage to occupy wherever. I don't tell them and most of the time they don't ask until I'm leaving the bus. "Where's you bike?" Noting my helmet and bike jacket. "Right here!" I lift up the bag. For the rest of the quarter I'm fine.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ozonation View Post
    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.
    Most Amtrak trains use tracks owned by freight rail, so that can make on-time performance a bit of a crap shoot.

    Carry on!
    Quote Originally Posted by gaucho777 View Post
    I know people hate seeing bikes on cycling-related forums, so my apologies for that.
    No single raindrop considers itself responsible for the flood.

  10. #10
    Senior Member Blopslee's Avatar
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    .......writing to you all from on board an amtrak train right now with my folder a few feet away.


    Ozonation, I totally empathize with your experience. I started a post about folders and amtrak toward the end of last summer because I had just sold a car and was about to try to rely on the amtrak folding bike policy on a weekly commute to/from another city. Even with the advice that others on this board gave (which I was thankful to have) about carrying the policy and Operations Standards Update (which you can find in that thread and several other places online) I had trouble every week for the first few months - or had to argue my onto trains at least.


    As you experienced I found that many conductors, gate officials, etc simply confuse the general bike policy for the folding bike policy and learning how to debate amtrak officials who often do not seem to like to hear debate has a learning curve (not sure I am really there yet). Probably the most helpful thing I found was to say something like, "I find that many people don't know about this kind of bike and have not even seen one before." "Did you know that Amtrak has a specific policy for them?" and then ask people to look up the policy in their employee information while I show them my copy. Really, most conductors just didn't seem to want the extra hassle and let me on the trains.


    I also found like you did that having a cover on the bike simply eliminates the question most of the time and is really the best bet- I would recommend covers to anyone trying to use amtrak! I just use the soft cloth cover that came with my bike. It is funny how my cover doesn't hide the wheels when I am rolling my bike, but people often look for a second and don't say anything - I know they know it is a bike, but somehow they just let it pass. When I forget my cover they say something every time.


    Lately I have had conductors who have seen me over and over start asking questions about the bike- where I ride it, do I use it every day, etc. and I always try to gently tell them that I bought it because of the amtrak policy that lets them on for free - ya know - trying to spread the word.


    In the end when it works it is awesome! Nothing more refreshing than a ride after a long day of work and two hour train ride. Did it all winter in all kinds of crappy weather and it just worked most of the time even with complications...hope you try again!

  11. #11
    Senior Member Ozonation's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blopslee View Post
    In the end when it works it is awesome! Nothing more refreshing than a ride after a long day of work and two hour train ride. Did it all winter in all kinds of crappy weather and it just worked most of the time even with complications...hope you try again!
    Glad to hear it wasn't just me! As it happens, I haven't ridden Amtrak since. I'm in Canada and I usually travel up to Toronto using VIA rail. I usually travel business class (my institution gets a decent discount), and on VIA, you do pay more for business class - maybe that let's you get away with more, so to speak. However, I suspect it doesn't really matter whether I travel economy or business. I've seen people cart on monstrosities that somehow qualify as "luggage".

    Once on VIA rail, I got on, put my folding bike in the luggage carrel in my car, and asked the conductor what the policy is about folding bikes. They said, bikes? Oh no, you can't bring that on without booking space in the baggage car. And then I replied, it's right there (pointing to the luggage carrel). And as you might expect, they reply with surprise - that's it? Oh well, if it's THAT small, I guess that's okay!

    Seriously, for anybody thinking of buying a Brompton... just get the black soft cover. I initially wondered if it would be waste of $50, but as it turns it, it's terribly useful for covering the bike. I thought originally... huh, black... how boring. And why would they put on a two way zipper? But basic black is discrete and unremarkable, and it turns the lumpy, folded Brompton into any nondescript luggage like piece. And with the two way zipper, you can open up a small space to insert your hand to grab the bike underneath the cover.

    One hint I forgot to pass on is that on my Amtrak trip from Detroit to Chicago, because I was worried if the bike would pass muster, I took off the saddle and packed it in with my clothes. This makes the bike look even smaller, less intrusive, and more rectangular (like luggage) underneath the cover. I just reached in and picked it by the main bar. On the return trip, I didn't bother removing the saddle: I figured the cover was good enough.
    Last edited by Ozonation; 04-09-14 at 11:03 PM.
    Rivendell Sam Hillborne and Hunqapillar; Brompton M6R Sage Green; Salsa Mukluk 3 FAT Bike; Nerdy Academic; Nikonian; Wing Chun; and a Patridge in a Pear Tree.

  12. #12
    Senior Member Winfried's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ozonation View Post
    Seriously, for anybody thinking of buying a Brompton... just get the black soft cover.
    +1. I had the same experience with a Birdy folder. Just put the thing in a bag, carry it on your shoulder, and go ahead.

    It's also a good idea to carry a print-out of the railroad company's official policy just in case.

  13. #13
    Senior Member Rob_E's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by overbyte View Post
    The problem is that Amtrak employees don't know the corporate policies very well. The employee may have been taught before the current policy took effect. The policy on today's Amtrak website, and for several years already, is:
    Reference: Bicycles and Bicycle Trailers

    This. I tried to take my Dahon on as carry on luggage. The ticket person said I would have to get a "bike ticket" for one of the racks in the baggage car (which was free, and I would have done it, but I knew my return trip would not have reservable bike space, so I pushed the issue). I explained that it was a folding bike, and I could take it on board per Amtrak policy. She said I could probably check it as baggage in it's folded state. I insisted it could be carried on, and she referred me to the baggage guy. He said pretty much the same thing, but when I explained that there was a specific policy allowing me to carry on a folding bike, he looked it up. Then he highlighted that section in a little Amtrak rule book, and told me to show it to the conductor if anyone made a fuss. No one did make a fuss after that. So, yes, you probably were completely in the right when taking your bike on, but the trick is getting people to realize that.

  14. #14
    Senior Member Ozonation's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob_E View Post
    So, yes, you probably were completely in the right when taking your bike on, but the trick is getting people to realize that.
    Sometimes... it just feels like a circus... or a carousel that goes round and round. The irony is that on any given long distance train at any given time in North America, there are probably fewer folding bikes than the fingers on one hand, and I severely doubt if there is a commotion on the train, the folding bike or the rider would be the cause.

    Sigh.
    Rivendell Sam Hillborne and Hunqapillar; Brompton M6R Sage Green; Salsa Mukluk 3 FAT Bike; Nerdy Academic; Nikonian; Wing Chun; and a Patridge in a Pear Tree.

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    Senior Member Rob_E's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ozonation View Post
    Sometimes... it just feels like a circus... or a carousel that goes round and round. The irony is that on any given long distance train at any given time in North America, there are probably fewer folding bikes than the fingers on one hand, and I severely doubt if there is a commotion on the train, the folding bike or the rider would be the cause.

    Sigh.
    That is true, but it is also the source of the problem. There are so few folders that no one person encounters them often enough to commit the rules to memory. As a result, they just revert to the knowledge that they do have that most directly applies: Baggage or full-size bicycles.

  16. #16
    Senior Member Ozonation's Avatar
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    Quite right. In some ways, I'm always surprised that there are not more folders given how most people actually interact with a bike. A folder is pretty practical.

    I say we all march to our respective governments and demand a $1000 subsidy to buy folding bikes!
    Rivendell Sam Hillborne and Hunqapillar; Brompton M6R Sage Green; Salsa Mukluk 3 FAT Bike; Nerdy Academic; Nikonian; Wing Chun; and a Patridge in a Pear Tree.

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