Amtrak has made a large order of 130 new Viewliner II passenger cars in order to improve its long-distance travel experience. While I wouldn’t usually get to excited about the prospect of long-distance train travel, given my ability to accrue points and miles for free airline flights, the bicycle tourist in me is ecstatic!
It has been announced that, along with these new passenger cars, a number of new baggage cars have also been purchased. These new baggage cars are capable of carrying up to 15 bikes without the hassle and expense of partial disassembly and boxing. Bike boxes rightfully inspire fear and trepidation in the touring cyclist, not only because of the need for disassembly, but also because of all the horror-stories littering the internet about rough handling and the damage that sometimes occurs. Do you really want your baby in a box where no one can tell how precious it is and handle it with care?
Combined with the Viewliner II’s ability to travel at speeds of up to 125 miles-per-hour (though speed will be limited by freight traffic, rail-quality, regulation, etc.), eliminating the boxing process of bike-baggage train travel makes this mode of travel to position for a bike tour a better option.
For example, last year, I traveled from Santa Barbara, California to Tucson, Arizona to compete in the Tour de Tucson as part of Team One-11 Cycling. Booking several months in advance, I managed to snag a $70 fare for the 600-mile journey. I also had to pay $25 to bring my bike along ($10 baggage fee and $15 box fee), making the trip a total of $95. This equates to a cost of about 16 cents-per-mile (cpm).
The same trip would have cost at least $200 for a plane ticket + anywhere between $75-$150 in bike shipping costs, along with the additional hassle of airport security and more unknowns with bicycle policy (which varies widely from airline to airline). Therefore, even assuming I used frequent flyer award miles to make the trip, it’s likely that flying would cost at least as much and probably more than train travel. If I had to pay for the flight, I’d probably be looking at 50 cpm or about three times the cost of traveling by train. Reduce the train cost by the box fee and on a cost-per-mile basis, train travel is overwhelmingly cheaper.
Here’s where it gets complicated, though: the flight would have me there in five hours, even with a connection at LAX or PHX, whereas the train took FIFTEEN HOURS. I took an overnight train to minimize wasted daylight (I consider time to be my most precious commodity), but that led to an awkward night of half-sleep, sitting up in coach next to some pretty “colorful” characters. The sleeper cars were not an option as they are stupid-expensive.
Train travel (at least, in the US) is still not my favorite means of getting from A-to-B, but if ATMRAK intends to improve its speed and does indeed offer the walk-on bike option, count me in. One route in particular that I’m interested in is Santa Barbara to Klamath Falls. Last month, my friend Anthony and I completed a week-long bike tour from Portland to Klamath Falls and it would be great to pick up where we left off in the future and continue south.