Amtrak Unboxed Bicycle Carriage Demonstration
Empire Service, Adirondack, Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen Trains
July 17-31, 2013.
By Harvey Botzman
Amtrak has been demonstrating the use of bicycle racks for the carriage of unboxed bicycles in passenger cars on its Empire Service (including the Maple Leaf and Adirondack trains) and Ethan Allen routes in New York State and Vermont. For over 35 years I, other bicyclists, the New York Bicycling Coalition, and tourism promotion agencies have been advocating for Amtrak to allow unboxed bicycles to be transported in the passenger cars of trains traversing New York State.
In the 1950s through the-mid 1970’s Amtrak and its predecessor railroads allowed unboxed bicycles to be carried in the passenger cars or the baggage cars on trains traversing New York State. For some unspecified reason this bicycle carriage policy was changed. By the late 1970’s trains traveling through New York State and Vermont no longer allowed unboxed bicycles to be carried in either a baggage car or the passenger cars.

Oversize luggage area in Empire Service Passenger Car
Same area in the Bike Rack Demonstration Café Car
Same area in the Bike Rack Demonstration Café Car
Only the Lake Shore Limited train between New York City and Chicago has the facility, a baggage car, to carry bicycles. Bicycles must be boxed for carriage on this train. It is not difficult to prepare a bike for placing in a box. Nonetheless for many bicyclists boxing a bicycle an intimidating operation involving removing the bike’s pedals and turning the bike’s handlebars.
Limited means the Lake Shore does not stop at all stations in New York State. In particular it by passes both downtown Buffalo and Niagara Falls since the train’s route follows the southern shore of Lake Erie.  Other stations between Albany and Buffalo and Albany; and Albany and New York City with relatively light passenger use are also passed by this Limited train. These bypassed are served by Empire Service or Ethan Allen service trains.
Unless bicyclists are using folding bicycles they must transport their bicycles by some means other than an Amtrak train resulting in a loss of passenger revenue for Amtrak. The major intercity bus lines (Greyhound, Trailways, Vermont Transit, etc.) allow bicycles to be carried “in a sturdy canvas like bag” in a bus baggage hold. All of the scenic railroads in New York State and Vermont make some type of accommodation for unboxed bicycle carriage if not in the passenger cars then in a baggage car.
To demonstrate the feasibility of transporting unboxed bicycles in Amtrak’s passenger cars the railroad has retrofitted one café car to accommodate four unboxed bicycles on specially designed racks. When bike racks are eventually installed on Empire Service, Adirondack, Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen trains they should be placed in the passenger cars rather than the café car. This will allow each typical three passenger car train to transport 12 bicycles to upstate New York, Vermont, Ontario, or Quebec.

Loading a bicycle from a low level platform

Bicyclist with bike alighting from a train to a station platform level with the train car’s floor
At most stations in New York State and Vermont the train passenger car’s floor is higher than the station’s platform. At these stations bicycles are handed up to a train conductor who holds the bicycle until the bicyclist enters the train using the adjoining train car’s stairs and door. At the intersection of a passenger car’s vestibule and corridor the conductor gives the bicycle to the bicyclist who wheels the bike and secures it to the floor affixed bike racks. This is a simple process which does not appear to delay the boarding and alighting of passengers from a train. The bicycle is secured to the bike rack using Velcro® straps. The Velcro straps allow for quickly securing the bike as well as quickly releasing the bike at the destination station. The conductor checks each bike to make certain the bicycles are secure in the bike racks.

Bicyclist securing bike to the bike rack with Velcro straps

Different sized bikes in bike racks on Amtrak train
Bicyclists, tourism officials, parents of students (“Students can take their bicycle instead of a car to college.”), and Amtrak officials all agreed that unboxed bicycle carriage would be a boon for tourism throughout New York State and Vermont. Many of participants in this demonstration submitted survey forms pointedly suggesting that at a minimum there should be four bicycle racks in each Amtrak passenger car on each train wrote the survey respondents made a point of writing that there should be four racks in each of the passenger cars on each train. More than four bicycle racks per train most likely will be needed to accommodate the demand from bicyclists wanting to travel to a destination in New York State or Vermont. A minimum of 48 bicycle racks would be available if all the Empire Service, Adirondack, Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen train were fitted with bike racks. Of course Amtrak would have to do some marketing to tell bicyclists the bike racks were available for their use (reservations and a small fee needed). Rather than leave the marketing to someone at its Washington headquarters, Amtrak should provide a significant grant to both the New York Bicycling Coalition and the Vermont Bicycle Pedestrian Coalition to market this service to their constituencies.
Bicyclists, tourism and Amtrak officials consider the Empire Service, Adirondack, Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen trains’ unboxed bicycle carriage demonstration to be a valid and cost effective method to transport unboxed bicycles on trains.
When will bike racks actually be installed in Empire Service, Adirondack, Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen train passenger cars? This is a question without a forthcoming answer. It took Amtrak one year to design and build the racks, floor/wall fittings and to retrofit the demonstration café car. One New York State bicycle advocate, myself, suggests Amtrak and the New York State Department of Transportation recondition the Turbo Train passenger cars in storage for the past two decades as the first passenger cars be retrofitted with bike racks. Reconditioning the Turbo Train’s passenger cars for carrying unboxed bicycles in racks would not necessitate taking any rolling stock out of service while retrofitting the cars. Then Amtrak and the NYS DOT could simply use the Turbo Train passenger car with its bike racks on a train while another passenger car is being reconditioned and retrofitted with bike racks. It’s like a game of musical chairs or should it be termed musical bike racks!
A glitch in the plan to implement the program to fit all Empire Service, Adirondack Maple Leaf, and Ethan Allen trains with unboxed bicycle carriage facilities might be the transfer of the operation of these trains to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYS DOT) in December, 2013.
Almost all elected officials including New York State’s United States Senators, its U. S. Representatives, and most New York State legislators favor stimulating economic growth through tourism development. Finding ways for residents and visitors to use public transit to easily travel from large cities to the scenic, historic, and interesting smaller cities, villages, and rural areas of New York State is certainly a valid way to achieve this tourism development goal. Unboxed bicycle carriage on Amtrak trains affords residents of New York City, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, and Washington DC who do not usually drive or own an automobile (40% of the population of those megapoli’) to tour New York State and Vermont on their own bicycles.
Article & photograph use only with by line & acknowledgement, “Photographs by Harvey Botzman, Cyclotour Guide Books.