Travel by bike often translates into travel with bike. That is, when you need to make an intermodal connection, your vehicle becomes a piece of luggage. So it was for me at one point this summer: I needed to get back to Rochester for a few days of paid employment, in part to finance my summer rambles, and that meant a quick zip west from Schenectady by train or bus. For this “detour,” I picked the train, mostly because I like Amtrak – which you should keep in mind when you see the criticism below. (And did I mention I’m a member of the Empire State Passenger Association, a fine public transport advocacy group that works to bring rail service up to par? Check it out at www.trainweb.org/espa/ - and think seriously about joining.)
Now, traveling with a bike shouldn’t be a problem – after all, the thing weighs only 25 pounds or so, and though it’s bigger than a bread basket, it’s not much bigger than some bags that are wheeled through the train station or airport every day. But the transportation system, such as it is, can’t seem to handle a bike.
I chewed on this fact several times during my summer tour. The first time was when I made an abortive stop at the Fort Edward Amtrak station, which I’ve already described. The second was at the Schenectady station, a “full service” hub where, like the proverbial glass, the vessel is only half-full.
What I chewed on was Amtrak’s schizoid attitude toward bicycles. There’s a limitation that applies to all routes: you can take a bike aboard only those trains that have a baggage car, which knocks you out of half the schedule. But on east-west routes in this region, you must box the bike, while on the north-south Adirondack line, you can check the bike unboxed - apparently a special service for the New York-Montreal traveler, who’s more likely to be a cyclist. Compare this to Canada’s VIA Rail, which allows unboxed bikes as checked baggage on every train with a baggage car – slightly better, more predictable service. Neither Amtrak nor Via provides free bike service; the former charges $5 for checking the bike, plus $10 for the box (unless you provide your own and truck it to the station).
You can circumvent the problems by traveling with a folding bike, which is legal on all trains and is not treated as checked baggage; on Amtrak, your folder slips into the oversized luggage area at one end of the passenger car. (I’ve got a Dahon folder that I used for part of my tour; more about this later, in regard to the New England leg.) This is similar to the European system – only across the pond, they allow full-sized bikes to be brought aboard passenger cars and stashed securely in a special area. No reason Amtrak couldn’t do the same, except for the fact that their leadership and political sponsors suffer from what I call hardening of the arterials, a transport syndrome that closes off the blood supply to creativity and innovation.
Well, I’ve said a lot about travel considerations and the ups-and-downs of intermodality. But what about the actual train ride to Rochester? Truth is, it was wonderfully non-eventful. I bought a bike box at the Schenectady station, then packed my beloved Miyata and checked it at the desk, and then proceeded to kill a few hours checking out, first, an new Irish pub near the station, and second, the modestly gentrified old section of town only a few blocks away. Think Corn Hill, but with more limestone than brick. I finally arrived in Rochester around 11:00 p.m. Seems like it should take a much shorter time to get from there to here; indeed, if we had modern high-speed rail service, the straight shot from Schenectady to Rochester would take an hour and a quarter, and I’d have got home by 8:00. And it would have taken me about ten minutes to deboard, unboxed bike in hand, and get to my front door.
I know: Dream on.