Thursday, May 1, 2014

Coming Home: Amtrak and a Folding Bicycle

The modern bicycle is an intricate machine, one designed to roll along the earth, to gear up or down according to the terrain, and, of course, to brake when necessary.

Traveling with a folding bicycle that is protected only by a soft bag presents other challenges because the bicycle is no longer meeting the planet as designed--tires to the ground. With a second Amtrak trek across the country with my Montague Navigator, I better understand the unique challenges of traveling with a folding bicycle by train.

Folding and packing the Montague into its soft traveling case was easier than my first time, chronicled in my January 17, 2014, blog entry. This time I had removed both fender attachments. In the California Central Valley's Mediterranean climate, rain really isn't an issue. When I travel this route again in late summer, I may not bring the fenders, or I may protect them with bubble wrap and attach them to the bike's frame during the trip.

I covered the gearing and chain with a protective cover as before and also slipped the shipping protectors onto the rear hub over the derallieur and through the front fork wheel slots. My one concern now is that the large front gear sprocket rests on the bottom of the bag (and, hence, the ground). It seems this may be a potential cause of damage if not to the sprocket then at least the bag. I tried placing insulating foam tubing around the sprocket, but the wheel and sprocket can turn some, dislodging the protection.

My additional protection I'll try next time is pretty simple--a  piece of rug that fits the bottom of the bag. The rug should be thick enough to protect the bottom of the bag from the sprocket and the sprocket from the ground. I'm not sure yet what dimensions the rug will be. I'll have to think that through and probably experiment.

Other than that, I think further discussion should be on the Amtrak experience.

My return route with the bike this time was from California to Iowa. The first leg of the trip was on an Amtrak Thruway bus from Oroville to Sacramento. When the bus arrived at the pickup location, I told the driver that my "package" was a folding bike and that I'd like it stored with the derailleur up.

The driver said, "We're instructed with folding bikes to not touch them and let you store them exactly as you like," to which I replied, "That sounds perfect." I placed the bicycle in the lower storage area of the bus myself and also removed it at destination.

In Sacramento, the train tracks are about three hundred yards from the station and Thruway bus terminal. Electric shuttle carts are available for passengers and luggage. The cart driver told me that I could load "my more delicate items" myself. So once again I was able to take care of the bike myself. Riding on the cart, I situated the bike case so that I could sit in my seat and hold onto the carrying strap to keep the bike from shifting.

Once the Zephyr arrived, I asked the official where to put the bicycle on the coach car. "Just in the lower level luggage area if there's room." There was room for me to place the bike on top of luggage already resting on the floor section of the luggage section. My concern, of course, was luggage leaving and arriving as the train progressed on its journey, and whether the bike would end up being jerked around by passengers unaware of spokes and derailleurs, or whether new passengers would pile luggage on to of the bike.

I was traveling with the bike bag as one piece of my carry-on luggage, though, so the only solution I could think of was to walk downstairs after train stops and check out the bike, moving any luggage if needed to secure the safety of the bike. If I felt it necessary, I would talk with the conductor about any problem.

Folding bike = lighter grey bag, lower left
Sure enough, the next morning when I went down to the baggage area, there was a large suitcase on top of my bicycle. Had the bike been damaged? Was the derailleur bent? I found out when arriving home that the bicycle was okay.

I talked with a conductor about how the Amtrak folding bike policy was great--right up to when the carry-on bike was piled with other baggage. At that point the policy becomes risky or not user-friendly.

We considered options and decided that the lower coach area could be utilized. Sometimes there are no seats in this area, and sometimes seats are added for customers who have difficulty climbing the stairs to the main coach area.
  1. Could the seats in the lower seating section, which mount on rails that run the length of the area, be mounted starting 16-18 inches from the back wall, leaving two spaces at the back in each lower coach section where folding bikes could be stored?
  2. Could eye fasteners be added to the front of the seating area so that folding bikes could be placed against the forward bulkhead and fastened with bungee cords?
Either option could provide safe space for folding bicycles in every coach car for little or or no cost. Another conductor (who owns a Fuji folding bike) also mentioned that the bikes might be placed in the above-the-seat baggage area in the lower section. It will have to be seen how stable that situation would be. I might suggest it my next trip, bringing along a few bungee cords to further stabilize the bike if need be. 

I am sending a letter to Adventure Cycling Association, which as created a task force with Amtrak regarding bicycle policies, in order to forward my experiences and suggestions.

I arrived home in Iowa from a sunny and warm spring in California to a cold, wet spring--from green and blue back to greys and browns. It's still above freezing, though, and I'm glad to have my Montague Navigator back home for riding. I think I'll put the fenders back on, though.

Copyright 2014 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Friday, January 17, 2014

Montague Navigator Folding Bicycle, Burley Travoy Commuting Trailer, and Amtrak

Two carry-on bags and an underseat bag.
Last April, 2013, I was planning to take Amtrak with my Navigator and Travoy out to see my parents. I chronicled my hopes in an April 21 post. Then I had to suddenly leave by airplane and stay six months. Now I'm ready to try again. Writing this on a Friday, I will be on the train Sunday, January 19. (Article updated at the end, describing my--and the bike's--journey.)

It's in the 40's to 60's in California. Below is what it looks like in Iowa. I'm looking forward to some warm bike-riding weather, even though my 89-year-old mom is saying "it's cold out here" in California.

This is the bicycle weather I'm leaving for two weeks.
The Montague Navigator will be packed in its soft carrying bag. I'm hoping that the carrying and stowing will just be done by myself as I board and depart the train. I also will be taking the Amtrak shuttle bus from Sacramento to Oroville, California. I plan to add to this post after I arrive, detailing the ease of Amtrak service.

Although Montague boasts its under-a-minute breakdown of its folding bike line, I'm being more cautious because of the length and manner of the bike's transport. Here are some precautions I've taken while packing the bicycle:
  1. I've added folding pedals. Montague provides this option when purchasing. I bought folding pedals online from a different source at a later date. The folding pedals really slim the width and allow for easier bagging because the slimmer profile allows for more space when zipping.
  2. I removed the fender attachments which are added to the braking bolt assemblage. When the bike was folded the "prongs" for the fenders stuck out and could easily be bent, could scratch the bike, or could damage the bag--in my opinion, anyway. This will add maybe ten minutes bike assembly, but if it's not raining, I'll just add the fenders later. Hey, it's the California Central Valley.
    The folding pedals and the sprocket protection are shown.
  3. I've bought some plumbing pipe insulation tubing. Cutting a section, I slipped it around the sprocket to protect and lessen grease stains. I also bought an inexpensive backpack rain cover that I've slipped around the drive train.
    Drive-train cover, fenders, and extra bags.
  4. I'm adding some ditty bags with clothes and sundry to the bag, since my two carry-on bags for Amtrak will be the bike and the trailer. Both bike and trailer bags can hold extra. If I were really serious, I'd tuck more carefully, but I have cooking access and extra clothes at my parents' place, since I go there regularly to support them. If I were heading out to tour, I'd probably send a general delivery box to my departure town in advance of the train trip. I could include food and cooking materials in that box.
    I might add a small ditty bag to this.
The entire arrangement will consist of three "bags," the bike, the trailer, and my underseat knapsack, which fits with the Amtrak folding bike policy:
"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."
 A recent flap regarding folding bicycles and Amtrak was posted by BikePortland. It involved a Texas route and car attendants who were under-informed and probably over-worked and tired. The article makes me nervous, so I'll see what happens in a couple of days. My feeling is that the folding bike policy states they are allowed on "all trains" and count as one of the two carry-on bags. My bike bag fits easily within the allowable size standards, the Zephyr certainly is one of "all trains," so I see no problem. I'm bringing along a hard copy of the online policy.

Wish me luck--and I'll add an addendum after I reach California.


At the Sacramento Amtrak train/Amtrak bus terminal

The stationmaster and the Amtrak conductor at the Zephyr's arrival in Ottumwa never questioned the "oversize" bike bag, although I did at the appropriate moment state, "It's a folding bike." I did not have to use my printing of Amtrak folding bike policy or explain anything.

The conductor at boarding told me to put the bike in a separate storage room right next to the baggage area, a room whose sliding door was marked "Authorized Personnel Only." Opening the door revealed a large room that was empty except for a scoop shovel and a broom in one corner. I leaned the bike upright against the wall nearest the door.

This was great because placing the bike in the bike in the storage area would have meant placing it on its side. During the trip I could peek through the door's lower ventilation grate and see the bike safely upright in its bag. Later, the last Amtrak crew before arrival brought the bike out and placed it on the baggage rack near the coach car's door. Luckily, it was placed on the side that kept the derailleur up.

Arriving at Sacramento, the train arrives about a half mile from the station because Amtrak is in the process of moving and upgrading the facility. Little electric shuttle cars transport passengers and luggage to the terminal building. The driver of the electric shuttle asked me, "What's that?!" in a somewhat panicked voice when seeing the size of my bike bag, and asked me to help him load it. I was more than happy to help because it allowed me to keep the derailleur upright so it wouldn't be bent.

The Amtrak "Thruway" shuttle bus driver didn't blink at my mention of the folding bike. I helped load again, mentioning that I wanted the derailleur up when placing the bike on its side.

Arriving at the Oroville pick-up and drop-off site, I assembled my rig on the sidewalk before a gas station (having the station's canopy lights as an aid) and then rode my bike nine miles to my parents' place.

Ready to roll after two days of sitting
As a folding bike traveler, Amtrak was very easy for me. Amtrak personnel seemed knowledgeable in policies--at least, there was never any questioning of policy. The bike was not damaged in any way, and I felt just plain smug-happy self-sufficient to slap my bike together and pedal on down the road.

Rocky Mountains, sightseeing and heading toward warmer climes
For a fuller description of the Amtrak journey (with more photos) see my January 22 writing blog post at Tom Kepler Writing.
Copyright 2014 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved