All aboard!! Except bikes?

Bicycles and trains are natural allies in providing alternatives to private automobiles for transportation, or they can be. When rail operators permit bicyclists to easily and quickly take bikes on trains, the combination of bikes and trains each extend the other’s reach. You bike to a train station, ride the train, and then bike from the train station to your destination. In the Bay Area, you can carry a bike onto the BART subway trains as well as commuter trains like the Capitol Corridor to Sacramento or Cal-Train between San Francisco and San Jose. Thousands of people with bikes ride on these trains every day.

By contrast, it is fairly difficult to take your bicycle on Amtrak’s long-distance trains that travel across the US. You usually have to partially disassemble your bike and put it into a special $10 box to carry as checked baggage, which limits you to getting on and off the train at the relatively few stations that permit checked baggage. Boxing the bike requires removing peddles and loosening the handle bar stem, all requiring special tools. These rules discourage people from taking their bicycles on long-distance trains.

It doesn’t have to be like this. On some Amtrak routes – like the Cascades between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, Oregon and others (see chart) – you can bring your bike on the train quickly and without boxing it up. The routes that accept bikes without boxes either have bike racks in the baggage cars or bike racks in the entrance area of coach cars.

Luckily, Amtrak ordered 55 new baggage cars in 2010 to replace the fleet of used baggage cars it inherited from private passenger railroads when it was created in 1971. The old baggage cars (the youngest is 49 years old!) don’t have bike racks, but the new ones will. They’ll be delivered in 2012.

The new baggage cars raise the possibility that all long-distance trains could easily accept un-boxed bikes, but Amtrak isn’t promising anything. According to Amtrak spokesperson Vernae Graham, “The plan is that the new baggage cars that Amtrak acquires will be equipped with some form of bicycle racks or storage capabilities. It is unclear if all, some, or any of the train services will allow ‘roll-on/roll-off’ bicycle capabilities. This will depend on route characteristics, schedule time, and other factors.”

Why should anyone care? Over the past few years I’ve become as passionate about riding the train as I am about biking. On a superficial level, these lifestylist transportation choices sometimes begin as an attempt at reducing one’s carbon footprint out of concern about global climate change. Bikes only use the fossil fuels necessary to build a bike, and train travel generates only about half as many greenhouse emissions as plane or auto travel.

But the real reason I love taking the train and riding my bike is how these experiences change my own consciousness and how they change my relationships with others. Car travel reinforces an individualized, unreflective, hurried world view that fits nicely with the type of consciousness the industrial system needs in its workers and consumers. We’re social creatures who are always deeply dependent on other people, but the car promotes the myth that each of us is an island competing, rather than cooperating, with everyone else. Car consciousness is all about selfishness. When you drive a car, it’s easy to feel hostility to the other drivers – out of my way! Cars zip around – all the speed, ease and instant gratification hiding the huge social costs of the industrialized world required to build road networks and create fuel to keep cars moving.

By contrast, train travel is often a cooperative, shared, social experience that humanizes fellow travelers. Especially on long distance trains, strangers talk to each other. Riding the train, you notice the landscapes you’re passing, not just the road ahead and your destination. The train can be a break from doing and a step into being – a time to notice things and just exist.

Bicycling engages one’s entire being in an almost meditative way, the present moment thrust forward, breaking down the split between your body and your mind as both cooperate to keep moving forward. Biking can be individualizing but often isn’t – you’re much more likely to talk to another bicyclist you pass than if you were both in cars. Biking takes time and slows down your consciousness to a more natural, human speed.

It is interesting to note that the right-wing Tea Party movement has specifically targeted funding for rail travel but has never met a freeway project it doesn’t want to throw money into. Highways eat up far more government funding than rail, so if the Tea Party was really primarily interested in smaller government, wouldn’t they go after roads? Perhaps the cooperative nature of train travel threatens their free-market, individualist ideology?

To stay in power, the tiny number of people who control the corporate system need everyone’s psychological acceptance of a deeply unjust system that centralize all power and resources created by all of us in their hands.

Within each of us, there are individual impulses like selfishness and competitiveness, as well as social impulses like cooperation and sharing. The market system only sees half of us, assuming all our decisions are “rational” i.e. made out of individual self-interest. The market ignores our cooperative actions and self-directed activity – sharing with our family, volunteering in our community, helping out friends, and taking free time – because these are not market transactions. This side of our lives doesn’t contribute to the Gross National Product or make money for corporations, is not managed by anyone, and has no marketing budget.

But for most people, the community side of our lives and our self-direct activities are far more important and satisfying. We live to share with our loved ones and experience the world. Working a job and going to the store are necessary but don’t give us a deep sense of meaning or belonging. Market-based experiences are frequently fleeting and superficial, while self-defined and community-based experiences are memorable and essential.

Those in power want to emphasize our individual, market-oriented impulses because these strengthen their power. Social institutions that psychologically individualize us and make us dependent on the system – cars, suburban housing, corporate media – make individual people see the private enterprise system with its emphasis on selfishness and competition as natural, inevitable and just. Even individuals who come out on the bottom of the economic heap can come to believe that they deserve to be there – that their poverty is a social Darwinist result of their own failures – rather than the functioning of an inherently unjust economic system which concentrates resources in one social class at the expense of everyone else.

By contrast, interactions that are outside the market system or that emphasize cooperation, collective identity and other people build our ability to think outside of the corporate system. Travel by train and bike are tiny examples of experiences that provide alternatives to dominant normalizing systems. Promoting these and many other alternative day-to-day experiences may help build a subtle psychological foundation that can help us awake from our political slumber and openly attack the unjust, inhuman and ecologically suicidal system that rules the world.

If you want to ask Amtrak to accept more bikes, call 800-USA-RAIL or use the website form at


Train name Location Served

Capitol Corridor SF Bay Area / Sacramento

Cascades Vancouver BC / Eugene

Downeaster Boston / Portland, ME

Downstate Illinois Service Chicago / Quincy, St. Louis or Carbondale

Missouri River Runner Kansas City / St. Louis, MO

Pacific Surfli
ner San Diego / San Luis Obispo, CA

Piedmont NYC / Charlotte, NC

San Joaquin SF Bay Area / Bakersfield