October 12, 2015
by James Knox
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In mid-September Amtrak started offering what they call Walk-On service for bicycles on the Capitol Limited train that runs from Chicago to Washington D.C. For a fee of $20 (not including your train ticket) you may roll your bike into the spacious converted cargo area in the belly of a train car and hang your bike up by its front wheel. You must be able to lift your own bike to shoulder height and hang it yourself. Your bike may not exceed 50 pounds and 70”X 41” X 8.5” (so NO recumbent bikes). There are only seven slots per train.
I thought it would be fun to bring a group of trail veterans through this process just to see how it all worked out. Our team was made up of myself 42, my wife Katie, 43, Joe Brandt, 55, his wife Becky, 48 and Steve Swartzlander, 44. We have close to twenty trips up and down the C & O between us. So, here are some things we learned.
[I call this “Waiting for Santa”]
- Arrive early
I am someone who is always on time or way early. So is Steve. My wife, too. But, Joe and Becky were at the station by 3:50 for a 5:20 departure only to be rewarded with a 45-minute delay. The trains are usually delayed because they share the rails in the Northeast with freight trains that get priority. Amtrak had a 21% on-time rate for the capitol limited during August of 2015. That is not very outstanding. But, if you know this going in you won’t be so ticked off.
- Amtrak has awesome employees
It must be a great job because everyone from the ticket lady to the porters were attentive, helpful and unbelievably cheery at the early hour.
“The service itself is solid,” Steve said. “The Amtrak folks were helpful in pointing out where the bikes needed to go, since it was not really obvious. The racks were solid and very easy to use. It was also a secure area of the train. The cost was a bit high, given that it was more than the base ticket to add a bike. $10 would be better.”
- The cost
On the ten Amtrak trains nation-wide that offer the walk-on service the Capitol Limited is the most expensive by double. Amtrak Cascades offer 10 bike spaces per train at only $5. Not sure why this is. There was much hand wringing before this launch about the price. Which from one report was as high as $25 before it was dropped to $20. Is this price gouging or capitalism at work? Let’s call it Capitol-ism.
- Your bikes are safe
You must be able to hoist your own bike to shoulder height and strap it down. The porters, nice as they are have a schedule to keep and they are not allowed to help you lift your bike. But, the process is pretty self explanatory and if you are with a group you’ll have plenty of help.
“I was pleased the process was relatively simple and easy,” Joe said. “One hook, one strap and a safety chain, all done in less than a minute, even by beginners.”
- Order your tickets WELL in advance
We bought our tickets about three weeks out from our trip. We left on a Monday. I bought my two tickets and called Joe, Becky and Steve and told them to go ahead. Turned out that after my two bikes there was only one of the seven slots left on the train. So Joe spent the better part of a week trying to figure out a solution when all of a sudden there must have been a cancelation of the group of four and we were good to go. That said I would recommend making sure your group can all fit before you book. I would also book at least four weeks in advance.
“Current capacity limits will prevent the service from being useful for any large group, even if they book well in advance,” Steve said. “However, for individuals and small groups it is going to be quite useful. Normally for trail rides you are limited to a fixed distance from your starting point. This service opens up a much wider range, since you can plan to ride only one way. It will make larger sections of the GAP and C&O feasible for day trips. It will also make planning multi-day trips simpler and cheaper, since small groups can now get their bikes transported long distances without complicated logistics.”
Is this the best solution? Transportation is all about choices and this is another great one. We spent about $31 per-person to ride from Pittsburgh to Connellsville. It was a day trip 60-plus miles on the bike after a delightful train ride. If we were going all the way to DC you would have to weigh the cost of hiring a van to drive you and your bikes the 4 hours, take the all-day train or just rent an SUV and drive yourself. However, if your group is over 7 people the options get smaller. They all run close to the same price from Pittsburgh to D.C. when all is said and done. But, for shorter day trips it adds a lot of flexibility. You could take the train to say, Hancock, MD and ride your bike to Harpers Ferry, WV. Then ride the train back to Pittsburgh. The options are great. The train ride is the bonus to the journey.