The greatest advantage of Amtrak's new baggage cars: bike racks

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, April 02, 2015

The “Viewliner II” series of baggage cars, built by CAF USA, are starting to enter revenue service. I have seen reports that they have already taken the place of Heritage baggage cars (many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s as coaches, then retrofitted into baggage cars) on the Silver Service, Palmetto, Carolinian, Crescent and Cardinal. And I witnesses a string of four Heritage baggage cars at the head of the westbound Capitol Limited leaving Washington, DC on Saturday afternoon. These are most likely headed for Beech Grove to be either kept in reserve, sold, or used for parts.

A 'Viewliner II' baggage car spotted today as part of the consist of the northbound Crescent at Birmingham, AL. Photo courtesy of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
On a mid-March trip from South Florida to New York City in mid-March, I saw “Viewliner II” baggage cars parked on sidings in Orlando, Jacksonville, Savannah, Richmond, Philadelphia and New York Penn Station. These were almost certainly being used to train both on-board and station crews on the new cars, getting them used to how baggage loading, unloading and storage is different on them compared to the Heritage fleet. Among the new cars’ advantages is that all have two sets of large doors on both sides that open in from the center, rather than sliding to the side (most Heritage baggage cars had only one large door on each side, while some had two). They also have racks allowing bags and boxes to be stored on two shelves, which none of the Heritage fleet had, thus giving them greater capacity. 

The “Viewliner IIs” can also travel at up to 125 mph on the Northeast Corridor, while the Heritage fleet was limited to 110 mph. As Heritage diners are also replaced, long-distance trains (along with trains 66 and 67, the only Northeast Regionals that carry baggage cars) should be able to tighten their schedules on the NEC portion of their routes. The increased size of the baggage car fleet allows for more Regionals to be equipped with baggage cars, though there is no word on whether Amtrak intends to so equip them. 

A bicycle secured in a demonstration Viewliner II baggage car in Elmira, NY. Photo by Amtrak Unlimited discussion forum user AmtrakBlue.
But the aspect of the new baggage fleet that has the biggest potential to be a game-changer in terms of making more types of travel possible is the fact that each car comes pre-installed with six racks in which bicycles can be secured vertically, unboxed. If passengers had the ability to bring bicycles with them on any train that offers checked baggage service — without having to partially disassemble them and put them in boxes, as is currently required — this would make car-free trips much more convenient. Imagine being able to undertake your own two-wheeled exploration of many of the 500 destinations that Amtrak serves, including a host of smaller communities that may not have a place to rent a bicycle. This would save travelers a good deal of money, and enable a new form of tourism that could benefit local economies, particularly in smaller Amtrak-served communities. 

I took part in a pilot test in November 2013 for bicycle carriage on the Capitol Limited between Pittsburgh and Washington. I took my Trek 7100 on Metrorail out to Rockville and took it on the elevator up to the inbound Amtrak/MARC platform. When train 30 arrived, I rolled my bike to the middle of the three Superliner coaches, whose lower-level baggage compartment was outfitted with six vertical bike storage racks. With help from the conductor, I hoisted my bike into the compartment, tilted it vertically, hooked the front wheel onto a hook near the ceiling, and secured the rear wheel with a bar that I pulled up from the floor. Upon arrival at Union Station 25 minutes later, I reversed the process, took a giant step down to the ground-level platform, rolled my bike onto the elevator and into the station. The step from the car to the platform was the most challenging part, but it was otherwise a straightforward process that did not noticeably add to the train’s dwell time at Rockville, and I felt my bike was secure. However, I can see why people of limited physical ability may have difficulty with the process, and there will likely have to be a crew member present to help passengers to secure their bikes. But then again, people who take their bicycles on train trips are likely to be in decent physical shape. 

Five boxed bicycles ready to be loaded on the Empire Builder at East Glacier Park station in 2007. Photo by Grant on Flickr.com.
Unfortunately, Amtrak has yet to officially declare its intention to take advantage of this feature of the new fleet and announce a timeline for the addition of unboxed bicycle carriage on more national network routes, as well as on trains 66 and 67 and any other Northeast Regionals that may be outfitted with baggage cars in the future. Granted, a great deal of crew training and testing will have to occur and a number of issues will have to be worked out before the railroad is assured that bicycle carriage service can be offered safely and efficiently on a number of routes. However, it would behoove Amtrak management — particularly from a marketing and public relations standpoint — to evince a commitment to the ultimate goal of allowing passengers to bring their bikes with them on as many trains as possible, and to detail the steps it plans to take towards achieving this goal and set dates by which these steps are to be taken.

Comments
To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy