Open Letter to Amtrak (wittco posted on March 29th, 2012 )

Open Letter to Amtrak

Dear Amtrak,

I value Your transportation system, and I appreciate the wonderful service I have experienced in the past. My admiration for Your train system is the impetus for the letters I sent last week, one to SEA and one to PDX. I also filled out the comments form online. I am part of an organization that promotes cargo bike usage.

On Sunday, I received a call from an employee at the PDX station because he had been given my letter to “deal with.” He was polite and entertained my queries, but could not possibly speak for Amtrak as an organization. He responded with policy. Plus, he had the task of “dealing” with me, rather than having a fruitful conversation.

The goal of my proposition is open opportunities for You and Your customers. Given the increased numbers of cargo bikes in our northwest region (in cities along the Cascades service line), I think You will benefit from a review of Your bike policy, updating it to match the changing needs of Your customers.

Meeting customer needs through policy review is not uncommon. In 2009, Jet Blue had the opportunity to review one of its policies. The policy was a $50 fee for bikes shipped. A passenger had a bike that folded and fit into a standard suitcase, and was, therefore, “luggage,” but was being charged the fee because there was a bike inside. The policy was reviewed and changed “By 8:13 a.m. the next morning, Morgan [a member of JetBlue’s communication team] had helped to facilitate a policy change so that folding bikes in cases with standard bag dimensions were treated like any other checked bag and refund the fee for the customer that had helped bring it to our attention” (BlueTails, January 19, 2012).

Can You present a similar response to the service needs of Your customers? I believe You can. Yet, every solution I presented came down to being asked, is the bike under 50 pounds? Believe me; I understand the 50 pound policy. You want to keep Your baggage handlers safe. I respect this care of Your workers.

What I want to pursue is a promotional event to showcase You and bike usage. I did take my cargo bike on the Cascades train last year, placing it in a near empty train car, lifting it myself. It was a wonderful experience. One that left me thinking, hoping. Taking my bike on the train was possible. My bike is not a heavy or cumbersome bike. It is not a 400 pound taco cart.

It does not have to be a complicated deal. It is possible. However, in the case of Julian Davies’ family, their bike was denied, changing their weekend plans, which he shares in the sardonically titled, Why We Drive. He and his family are Amtrak riders. He is an example of the changing needs of Your customers.

My conversation with the Your employee was cyclically unproductive because there appeared to be two issues, and we kept coming to one after answering the other. After reflecting on the conversation, I delineated the issue into two questions: (a) is Amtrak interested in a promotional opportunity with a Portland, OR bike group and (b) is Amtrak open to solutions to the 50 pound ruling?

In the case of the first question, if You are not interested, the rest is moot. However, from the conversation I had with the Your employee, You are interested, but a solution or modification is needed.

In the case of the second question, are You willing to be creative with a promotional opportunity? I think You will want to be, and I would like to help.

For me and my travel along the I-5 corridor, taking the train makes sense. It is an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the sights, and take part in a civilized form of travel, but once I get to the train station, I am left without my cargo bike. For me, this is a loss.

I would love to continue this conversation with you.

—————————————————
Are you a customer that would like Amtrak to review its policy? Please join the conversation.

31 Responses

  1. Barb Grover says:

    Large transit organizations making adjustments for their customers is not without precident. Recently, BC Ferries agreed to not only accomodate bicycles but to add a special sailing to accomodate a bicycle event. Here’s a story link: http://www.gulfislandsdriftwood.com/news/139916813.html

    Like you, I love the train. I’ve been a passenger on many trips and hope to hop aboard some time soon. It would be even more wonderful if I could hop on with my cargo bike…maybe even head to Velo Village and the all-bike BC Ferry.

    • wittco says:

      Barb, you bring up a good point in the phrase “large transit organizations making adjustments for their customers …” in that it can be done. The organization is large and can make changes given their size. They have the muscle to do so. In addition, being around for a length of time, these organizations and companies have lived through other changes and have benefitted afterward. It is good for all.

  2. Lindsay says:

    My husband and I would certainly use Amtrak’s service if we could take our bikes (mine is a longtail). One of the problems I’ve heard is sometimes bikes are accepted with boxes, other times without, (and sometimes not at all depending on length.)
    My issue is if I’m traveling with my family and small child I need to be able to rely that the service is available at all times- I need to know ahead of time if I need a box or not- it’s not easy to box a bike on a platform with a small child present…rather than risk it I’ve never used the service. I know there has to be many more people like me, who would use and appreciate a service we could rely on.

    Thank you for opening this conversation, within the last month I have been to the Amtrak site twice to look for tickets and both times decided against it based on bike toting issues.

    Cheers Lindsay

    • wittco says:

      Some day it will happen. I know it will. The question is when. Will Amtrak review its policy and make a change that will be timely and useful to its customers this year? Or will they wait, perhaps too long, and lose opportunities?

      I know they can make changes for the positive good of their customers. They are a good organization/business. I love the train.

      The part that I find most troublesome is that what I am proposing is only a promotional opportunity for Amtrak to see how it goes: real situation for informed review of policy. I do not expect Amtrak to change its policy overnight, over a web post. However, JetBlue, in many ways did that, and they are a stronger company for it.

      • wittco says:

        In addition, I have not heard back from Amtrak save the one phone call from the baggage handler who was given the task of “dealing” with my letter.

        I have not received an email, a letter, a comment, or a response on any media outlet.

        • Lindsay says:

          Is there anything else we can do to support this? Any contact information, like an email we could send letters of support?

          I really want to ride the train again!

          • wittco says:

            Lindsay, thank you for asking. We want to work with Amtrak on this so I recommend polite letters, emails, and comments, encouraging a serious policy review through conversation. The goal is to get passenger cargo bikes on Amtrak trains. Personal use cargo bikes are a valid form of transportation for many of us. My daily rider is a cargo bike. When I travel to Seattle or Tacoma, hopefully to Vancouver B.C., I want to take my cargo bike with me.

            Amtrak has a place for comments, and you can write to a specific station.

            In addition, sharing your thoughts here is useful as Amtrak will read this post and comments and get a feel for interest.

            Thank your involvement.

  3. Charlie says:

    Increased train ticket sales would undoubtedly occur if I knew that I could reliably take my cargo bike. If I’m relying upon a particular employee to be “cool about it” then I could very well be stuck far from home, kids with me and in quite a predicament. I’ll spend my money riding amtrak more frequently if I can plan ahead. And…Understand that… I am not alone.

  4. Lindsay says:

    I decided to post about this topic today on my blog too, here’s a link:

    http://youaintgotjack.blogspot.com/2012/03/cargo-bikes-by-train.html

    It would be great to get more letters and conversation flowing!

    Cheers, Lindsay

  5. KYouell says:

    I gave them my 2-cents on their comment form. Here’s hoping this dialogue becomes an actual dialogue. I loved riding the train as a kid and young adult, but it’s not happening without the bikes.

    • Will says:

      Thanks for taking the time to add your comments! Amtrak needs to hear from all of us that we really want to work with them to make riding a train easier and more convenient for more people.

    • wittco says:

      I like your thinking: dialogue. An open and earnest dialogue.

  6. Nat says:

    I would like to see AmTrak succeed. Being able to transport cargo bikes with their riders seems like a smart move for them. A win-win situation all the way around.

  7. Doug Salzmann says:

    Hi, Folks.

    I just happened upon your letter campaign as I was investigating the possibility of traveling from San Francisco to Portland and back, with a WorkCycles Fr8, via Amtrak. It doesn’t look promising.

    I’ll join you in writing. Have you also considered expanding and perhaps speeding the campaign with help from one of the online petition sites?

    I like change.org.

    Thanks, and good luck.

    • wittco says:

      I would imagine a Fr8 is similar enough to a traditional bike that it would work. Usually it is heavy or odd shapes bikes. Let us know how it goes.

      I too would like to head to SF with my cargo bike, travel around the city on bike, and eat at Süppenküche.

      • Doug Salzmann says:

        Süppenküche — almost perfectly Bavarian, a *major* treat. I hope you make it here, with the cargo bike.

        As for the Fr8, it does look more “normal” to the average eye, but mine weighs well over the 50-pound limit, so I’d have to rely upon meeting nice-guy Amtrak folks.

        I’ve left a message in their little comment box. Among other things, I’ve told them that accommodating utility/cargo bikes, especially on the Cascades routes and the Coast Starlight, could create a new group of dedicated customers and become a reliable revenue source for them.

        We’ll see. If *lots* of people contact them. . .

        • Travis A. Wittwer says:

          Doug, true, the FR8 is over 50 pounds. Bikes that are over weight can usually go into a bike box. This is what is done for tandems. Tandems usually are over 50 pounds. Where your bike, and my bike struggle is that thy do not fit in a box bike.

          My bike weighs less than most tandems. However, the pallet makes it not boxable. You FR8 rack will likely create a similar dilemma. Why I mention that your bike is more traditional looking is that Amtrak is more likely to see it as a bike worth working with. Let us know how it goes and take a photo of your bike on the train.

        • Lindsay says:

          Doug-

          I agree, the Coast Starlight and the Cascades would be major avenues for cyclists. Good luck meeting Mr. Nice Guy! I think that is the part that bothers me the most, that its all a stroke of luck! That is too much stress for me when traveling!

          Lindsay

  8. Will Samolis says:

    We have received your suggestions and we do appreciate you sharing your ideas with us. We regret to inform you that due to their size, our trains are currently not set up to accommodate them. The Cascade bike racks were designed to fit a standard, adult sized bike. That being said, we could possibly handle the bike if it is checked in it’s own specially designed container, or if the weight does not exceed 50 pounds. We could also facilitate transport if the bike is palletized and shipped as package express (Heavy Express Stations only). We hope this helps, and again, we do appreciate your feedback and the passion you hold for getting your ideas brought to light.

    Will Samolis
    Senior Officer, Social Media
    Amtrak

    • My tall bike is only 45 lbs. As someone who’s only mode of transportation is bike or public transpo it would be really awesome if I could bring my tall bike up to Seattle when I visit my mom – It’s only 4′ 8″ tall, but it is almost 6′ long… so I think we’re getting into tandem territory.

      • wittco says:

        It would be awesome indeed. There is room on the train and I am happy to pay for this service. The sticking point is some mix of keeping the baggage handlers safe and bikes not fitting into the current framework of acceptable for shipping. I wish Amtrak were more open to discussion and exploration. As of this point, Amtrak replies with a We are not interested in pursuing this idea at this time.

  9. Will Samolis says:

    We have received your suggestions and we do appreciate you sharing your ideas with us. We regret to inform you that due to their size, our trains are currently not set up to accommodate them. The Cascade bike racks were designed to fit a standard, adult sized bike. That being said, we could possibly handle the bike if it is checked in it’s own specially designed container, or if the weight does not exceed 50 pounds. We could also facilitate transport if the bike is palletized and shipped as package express (Heavy Express Stations only). We hope this helps, and again, we do appreciate your feedback and the passion you hold for getting your ideas brought to light.

    Will Samolis
    Senior Officer, Social Media
    Amtrak

    • wittco says:

      Do tandem bikes have to be under 50 pounds? I took a tandem on the train that fit in a bike box, two, and was over 50 pounds. Why did that work? I am trying to understand the protocol.

      My bike weighs 60 pounds. I could take a part off to make it 50, but it would not fit in a box because of the pallet. Is it the weight or the shape that is the greatest factor in the “no” I am hearing? Thank you for responding. Appreciated.

      • Will Samolis says:

        Dear wittco,

        We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Whether it’s a bike or a regular suitcase, a combination of an item’s weight and shape is taken into account when we determine what is allowed on our trains and what isn’t. Our official baggage policy states a 50 pound limit. You may reference our policy here: http://bit.ly/fi7MOQ. Some cyclists have been able to check their bikes, which do exceed our weight maximum; however, this is a rare case and is only permissible when space is available. http://bit.ly/dHrFin. Space is not always available so we must adhere to our official policy. We hope this helps answer your question.

        Will Samolis
        Senior Officer, Social Media
        Amtrak

        • wittco says:

          Mr. Samolis, I think we may be getting somwwhere now. If heavier bikes can get on when space allows, then it is feasible and already done within the policy practices of Amtrak. This is wonderful. This means two things (a) it would take very little effort to figure out a time when space allows to do a trail run with a group of cargo bikes, and (b) since it is already done, there must be a way so that a person with a cargo bike could get information on whether or not a train has space.

          What I read in your comment is that Amtrak has let heavier bikes on and it is an really an issue of space determining if the bike can or cannot gain passage. Am I reading your comment correctly?

          I can happily plan my trips on Amtrak based on space avaiability. That is different than the No I have received in previous conversations on this issue.

          Please contact me at transportPDX@gmail.com so we can set up a time when space is available on a train from Plrtland to Seattle and back.

  10. Dear Mr. Samolis,
    The crucial piece of this picture for me is planning. Before I had children, travelling with bikes on Amtrak was ideal: I could ride to the station, put my bike in a box, and re-assemble and ride away on the other side. Since I have had kids, I get around my own town with them via cargo bike. I would love to be able to travel with them via train and bike, but I need to be able to plan the trip beforehand. Arriving at the station and being told that there is no room is not an option when we are dependent on the transportation at the other end of our trip– especially if we are not travelling with car seats, so that an emergency car rental or taxi is not possible.

    If there were some way to reserve the space, or particular trains in the schedule that would be guaranteed to accomodate, or even a promise that the bike would be sent on the next train if the current one would not serve, those things would make it possible for me to travel on Amtrak far more often with my family.

    Thank you,
    Katie Proctor

  11. Will Samolis says:

    If a bike does not meet our requirements, we can not accommodate it. We have a 50-pound weight limit as well as space restrictions, unfortunately, cargo bikes do not adhere to our policy.

    Will Samolis
    Senior Officer, Social Media
    Amtrak

    • wittco says:

      It is understood that if X does not meet the requirements of Y, then X cannot meet Y. However, the question that a business has to ask itself is if requirements Y are still valid, are open to progress, or are in the customer’s best interest.

  12. [...] in conversations with Amtrak to allow families to bring cargo bikes on the train. As of yet, this has not been [...]

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