Dirt Rag rides the rails

Now I hope it don’t be too long

Waiting on a train come to take me home

So I’ll sing another funky song

Just until another one comes along

— The DFLO Shuffle, by Digital Underground

by Karl Rosengarth

Mountain biking in far-away destinations is one of the top perks of my job. Too bad it’s such a hassle schlepping bike to/from said destinations. Not to mention the expense. When plotting how to transport eight Dirt Rag staffers’ bikes to Sedona, Airzona, for Spring Break as economically as possible, we explored a number of options.

Flying with bikes is a royal PITA and can be very expensive. Kudos to Southwest for flying a checked bag for free, and only charging $50 each way for your bike. However, the other airlines pretty much bludgeon you on baggage charges. We ruled out flying with bikes relatively quickly.

Shipping bikes to a friendly bike shop via UPS or Fed-Ex works, but the cost of round-trip shipping adds up fast depending on the shipping weight and distance. We ended up shipping a couple of our bikes via UPS. However we came up with another scheme for transporting the majority of our bikes. The train!

Amtrak is known for being bike friendly and affordable. So, despite the looooong choo choo ride from Pittsburgh to Flagstaff, we exercised that option. The Cliff Notes version is that you can transport up to six bikes with you on the train (as checked baggage) for $10 per bike (six is the maximum allowable number of checked items). Fortunately you can carry three pieces of luggage onto the train, allowing plenty of room for your personal effects.

What’s the catch? For one thing, many of the Amtrak stations are classic "whistle stops," and do not allow checking baggage nor unloading of checked baggage. These stops are just long enough to allow allow passengers to get on/off with their hand-carried items. Fortunately, both the Pittsburgh and Flagstaff Amtrak stops offered baggage services, so we were golden. Check Amtrak or check online for details on your city.

Another catch is the duration of the trip. Including a layover in Chicago, our train trip took around 48 hours each way. We decided to split the train riding (and bike schlepping) duties between Eric on the outbound leg, and myself on the return trip. At $205 each way, the ticket price was competitive with air travel.

Eric had a relatively easy time getting dropped off at the Pittsburgh Amtrak station with six pre-boxed bikes. The only issue was that one of the boxes was an AirCaddy box (shaped like massive triangular wedge of cheese), that Amtrak would not accept. Eric was forced to un-box the bike and purchase one of Amtrak’s $20 bike boxes, and re-box the bike.

The roomy $20 Amtrak boxes are actually a good deal for those who’d like to pedal up to the train station and board the train. All you have to do is turn your handlebar sideways (or possibly remove it from the stem, and then roll your bike inside the box. That’s exactly what our Bicycle Times crew did to transport their bikes for a recent Pittsburgh-to-DC bikepacking trip.

I, on the other hand, had a panic-stricken adventure getting myself and our bikes/gear onto the train at Flagstaff at 4:36 in the morning.

I tried to plan ahead, honest. I decided to not wait until the last minute. I knew better than to roll up to the train station at 4:00 a.m. and try and check in six bikes. Instead, I got dropped off at Flagstaff the evening before departure, planning on getting ticketed and checking in my load of precious cargo well in advance. Unfortunately the devil is in the details, and I had a devil of a time.

Turns out that I showed up the evening before my eastbound departure at the same time that the westbound train was scheduled to roll into Flagstaff. There was only one station staffer on duty, and she was so slammed with trying to singlehandedly check in the departing passengers/bags, and then assisting the arriving passagers with their baggage, ground transportation and hotels that she didn’t have the time to check in my bike boxes. She did allow me to stash my six, unchecked, bike boxes in the Amtrak storage room overnight. She assured me that the two staffers on duty in the morning would be better equipped to assist me.

Sounded good to me. By 9:30 p.m. I was out of there, then walking two short blocks to my hotel, where I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m. and hit the hay by 10:00 p.m.

Not bad. Five hours of sleep, I’ll take that. After a quick shower and vending machine orange juice, I was checked out and pivoting on my heels towards the train station when my cell phone rang. There’s one thing I now for sure: when your phone rings at 3:30 a.m., it’s rarely a good thing.

It wasn’t. "Mr. Rosengarth, this is Amtrak, there’s a problem with your bike boxes. They’re overweight, you need to get to the station as soon as possible and address it." I hate starting the day with a panic attack!

Off to the station as fast as I could drag my roll-on luggage. The attendant gave me the bad news: four of the six bike boxes were over the 50 pound weight limit, thanks to my co-workers stuffing them full of personal belongings.

My begging and pleading and offering to pay overweight fees yielded no compromise from Amtrak. Their verdict: Bike boxes are for bikes only, no personal gear allowed, no exceptions on the 50-pound limit.

So, what’s the solution, I implored? The response: "You gotta open the four overweight bike boxes, remove the gear, pack them into these $3-each Amtrak cardboard shipping boxes, and pay to ship them via Amtrak Express. Oh, by the way, you’d better hurry, because it’s nearly 4:00 a.m. and you need to have everything ready and paid for by 4:30 a.m."

With a carpet knife in one hand and tape gun in the other, I was a veritable blur of opening, unpacking, repacking, and re-taping. my heart rate spiked higher than it had during my prior week of mountain biking.

I made it! With about four minutes to spare.

My wallet was $85 lighter and I’d lost six pounds of water weight. No I didn’t pee my pants, but at my age that’s not out of the question. Rather, I left behind a pool of my sweat on the Flagstaff station floor, as a grim reminder of my ordeal. Best laid plans, indeed.

Fortunately, the rest of my two-day choo choo trip was less hectic. Actually, if it weren’t for the poor excuse for parenting going on in the row behind my seat, the entire journey would have been quite relaxing. I did, nonetheless, manage to enjoy the ride home, get some work done, meet interesting people, and snap photos along the way, which I’ve shared below. Enjoy the ride.

Bikes boxes, home safe and sound in the Dirt Rag shop. The wedge-shaped box on the right was the one that got rejected and did not make the train trip.

Train station at Lamy, New Mexico.

House built into the hillside in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.

Albuquerque is one of the few stop between Flagstaff and Chicago where the stay is long enough to stretch your legs and visit the station.

Rolling through Trinidad, Colo. Note snow on the peaks.

View from the observation car. Gambling riverboat on the Mississippi river.

Getting some fresh air during layover at Chicago’s Union Station.

Sunset reflecting off the Chicago skyline.

View from the Dirt Rag mobile office.