Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner Adopts Wildly Anti-Bicycle Policy

Starting on June 1, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner service connecting San Luis Obispo to San Diego by way of Los Angeles is adopting a new policy that will make life harder for anyone planning on biking to or from the train. The policy is so onerous for bicycle commuters, one has to assume it’s intentional.

Click on the image to see their current rider brochure for the Surfliner. The new bicycle policy is after the timetable at the bottom of page 2.

Amtrak will require reservations and a $5 fee to “accommodate” bicycles on the Pacific Surfliner. A cyclist will either have to call Amtrak or go to the ticketing window to make a bike reservation and pay the fee; there isn’t any way to do this online because Amtrak apparently is operating in 1992. This change will apply to everyone: occasional riders, Amtrak monthly pass holders and Rail2Rail/Metrolink monthly pass holders.

“The Surfliner serves the most popular bicycle tourism route in the country, so it’s frustrating to see Amtrak California antagonizing what would otherwise be one of its most loyal customer bases,” writes Eric Bruins, the Program and Policy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.  ”

For any Surfliner rider who uses a bicycle to connect to the train this new policy will add $1250 a year in costs (one-way travel on Amtrak, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year), in addition to the time and hassle of making reservations for every Amtrak trip. The Streetsblog reader who pointed this out is already making commuter accomodations that don’t include riding Amtrak services.

“Instead of dealing with its capacity issues, Amtrak is suppressing demand with a reservation scheme that makes commuting prohibitively expensive and leisure travel burdensome,” Bruins continues.  “I hope Amtrak reverses this poor business decision and instead seeks to grow ridership by promoting bike-train travel as a convenient and cost-effective way to enjoy California’s coastal destinations.”

Bruins’ anger was reflected by bike advocates at the other end of the Surfliner Tracks.

“As a society, our priority should be to expand capacity on our most efficient and robust modes of travel,” writes Sam Ollinger, a Board Member for California Bicycle Coalition and executive director of Bike S.D.

“With all the investment poured into Amtrak, it is foolish to implement policies that is not only destined to backfire but also destined to be ineffective. Expanding the carrying capacity for bicycles on trains is such a simple step to take. Amtrak should not be penalizing riders for doing something that benefits our collective pocketbooks – both from a societal perspective and from an individual’s perspective.”

An easy way for social media users to let Amtrak know their displeasure would be to tweet @PACSurfliners. If one would like to notify a local elected official, your Congressman or Senator would be the best one to contact. However, Streetsblog Contributor and Southern California Transit Advocates Board Member Dana Gabbard offers a more practical way to lodge your displeasure.

While working a booth for SO.CA.TA at Fullerton Railroad Days this weekend my railbuff contacts informed me that Amtrak Board member Yvonne Brathwaite Burke will appear at the National Train Day event next Saturday at Union Station. My guess is for the opening ceremony at 11 am. A turnout by bicyclists to protest the policy could have an effect.”

  • Nathanael

    The oldest (single-level) trains are supposed to be phased out in 2015, when new bilevels arrive. The other trains are supposed to be modified to hold 13 bikes per car (see Paul Druce’s comment below). It is supposed to be possible to make reservations online. This just leaves the problem of the fee.

  • relentlesscactus

    This is theory. In reality, the CC is going to run out of room for bikes on many trains soon.

  • S.S. Sam Taylor

    You can make a reservation on line. The link to do so is on page 6 of the Amtrak brochure.

  • S.S. Sam Taylor

    Ron: You’ve only got half the story. The fee is to allow Amtrak to offer more bike space. For example, someone gets on in San Luis Obispo and gets off in Santa Barbara. The current policy ties up the bike space to San Diego. The new policy allows for the bike space to be reused, as the Amtrak system now will know that a space will be open in Santa Barbara. The Amtrak customer base in not commuters. Federal law prohibits Amtrak from offering Commuter service. The US Government has told the State of CA to pick up Amtrak subsidies or the feds will drop Amtrak service. The state Division of Rail decided to find all sorts of fees such as the bike fee to bring up farebox recovery.

  • S.S. Sam Taylor

    Metrolink equipment can’t be attached to Amtrak due to high level doors on Amtrak and low level doors between the cars on Metrolink equipment. Food is not available on Metrolink equipment, so the two sets of equipment are a mismatch and your suggestion won’t work.

  • PC

    I respectfully suggest that you are missing the point of Patrick’s complaint.

  • PC

    “Because of the overcrowded bike racks, a reservation requirement is reasonable.”

    I disagree. The overcrowded bike racks on the Surfliner are not an unavoidable natural phenomenon; they’re the result of a choice by Amtrak California to chisel down, over the years, the number of bike racks available to cyclists on each consist. This suggests pretty strongly that a substantial portion of the demand for the finite space in the lower levels of these Surfliner cars is coming from the owners of all those bags you always see being placed there (often by people who, going by appearances, are perfectly capable of carrying them upstairs).

    So I’m having some trouble accepting the premise that cyclists alone should bearvthe cost of alleviating this apparent undersupply of storage space–I say “apparent” because every time I’ve accompanied a conductor with my bike back to the luggage car, it’s been pretty much empty.

  • PC

    You *almost* have to hand it to Amtrak for their great effort to spin this as something that will make it easier to bring a bicycle on the Surfliner. In truth, of course, it makes it more difficult and, for some people, a lot more expensive.

    Incidentally, I have a hard time believing that the Surfliner conductors will be able to continue the current unofficial policy of accommodating as many bikes as practicable in the (usually empty and wide open) luggage cars, which has done a lot to alleviate the *official * policy of cutting down on the number of available bike racks, now that throwing somebody’s bike in the extra car technically means allowing somebody to avoid a charge.

  • PC

    It had sure as hell better be a fib. Shame on any bike “advocate” who swallowed this.

  • Barney

    The story contains several errors. I learned by clicking the schedule attached to the story that reservations are available on-line at their web site starting 6/1. I gave it a try from LA to San Diego for 6/10 and it was really quick and easy. Sure beats wondering if I’ll get to the station to find out I can’t take my bike on the train I wanted, that happened to me last year in Solana Beach.

  • Bluebikes

    I called Amtrak and learned that since the space is reserved via their computer system, they will be able to manage the space better and accommodate more bike riders than the current system of just letting a conductor know where you will be getting off the train. She said that if a passenger rides from LA to Fullerton, the system will now know that the passenger has departed at Fullerton and it will allow someone else to reserve that space from Fullerton to another place. If you multiply this on/off scenario on many trains throughout a day, I am sure it would really add up.

  • Springshowers

    Thank you SS. Sam Taylor. I just took your advice to look in the brochure and there it was…don’t know what the author was smoking. The brochure says that the on line reservations are available for trips after June 1st. I gave it a try for June 20th and it took me less than five mintues to buy tickets and reserve bike space for our entire family of four. This year we will be taking our own bikes to Santa Barbara for the day, beats driving.

  • Stormy

    Click the Amtrak brochure above and on page 5 it says that reservations are available to be booked on line. The information below is copied from the brochure. I ride Metrolink and they have nice, big bike cars now for us daily commuters. When I get over to the coast to take Amtrak, I feel like I am taking a higher-end, vacation product for families and grandma. It has food, drinks and free Wi-Fi. You get what you pay for.

    Book Your Bike! Beginning June 1, 2013, bike reservations are required on the
    Pacific Surfliner. The reservation fee is $5.00 per travel segment
    and may be booked at by clicking the “Add Bike
    to Trip” tab after selecting your departure and class of service.
    Passengers are required to properly secure bicycles in bike racks.
    Book early as reserved bike space is limited and may not be
    available on all trains or departures.

  • Barney

    This is bad information. Their reservation system accommodates the bike reservations. It is in the attached brochure

  • calwatch

    Strollers can generally be folded. Folding bikes are always allowed on Amtrak, but non folding bikes require a reservation.

  • calwatch

    Exactly. And there are more frequencies on the Capitol Corridor, and more local transit options on the sections that don’t have the frequency (i.e. Oakland-San Jose), whereas there are fewer frequencies on the Surfliner. I would have to get on in Santa Barbara having all the bike racks full from people boarding in San Luis Obispo and having to wait hours for the next train.

  • calwatch

    Except do you want to take the liability of someone just throwing your bike in the luggage car? It’s called checked baggage for a reason. Having random bikes in the former bike car is also not a good option.

  • Anonymous

    Right, and that’s why the Capitol Corridor plan also boosts secure bike parking options at stations while also investigating bike share options. This plan was put together with extensive community input and review. Much different than the Surfiner approach, apparently.

  • Anonymous

    Capitol Corridor frequency is 1-2 hours between trains. Better than the Surfliner, yet, but for commuters that kind of delay is still not an option. Again, I’m not against the reservation system to ensure a bike parking spot, but if the Surfliner operators are serious about bike access they should be working to increase the number of spots while adding options for those riders who can’t secure one. They could also make unreserved bike spots available for walk-on cyclists without reservations, to make sure the system is financially equitable and to maximize the available bike parking.

  • Anonymous

    Amtrak is a private Corporation

  • BikeOnRail

    Many commenters are missing the point! I for one did my homework and spoke to an Amtrak live customer service booking agent and the author is correct! Yes you can place a bike reservation online. However the only way to pay your five bucks is in person at the station! You can’t pay the $5 online! That is enifficent on the commuters behalf!

  • The same way that the US Postal Service is a private corporation. In other words it’s at the whim of congress’ whims.

  • CommuterTom

    Give it a try for yourself. I went to, booked an early morning departure on 6/10 to San Diego and then added the bike reservation. The catch is, you need to select the train you are purchasing first and then if bike space is still available, click below if you want the bike reservation. They then total the amount and you pay at checkout with a credit card. If you are a daily Metrolink commuter like me, we have options, the Amtrak on-line system probably won’t work, but we can ride on Metrolink with our bikes for free.

  • PC

    You asked Amtrak whether Amtrak’s policy is a good idea, and Amtrak said that it was? Well, that puts my mind at ease.

  • hmy1

    I get the impression that most commenters so far are not regular Surfliner riders. Those who ride the Surfliner with their bikes regularly understand the reason behind this policy change: bike rack storage space is at a premium.

    I commute weekly between LA and Solana Beach and bring my bike about 20% of the time. The bike racks are already full on northbound trains as soon as they depart San Diego on weekday afternoons during the summer or on any daytime weekend train year-round. I’ve been lucky in that some conductors allowed me to store my bike in the lower level of the Superliner car or in the baggage car. However, after being refused boarding with my bike three consective times when the racks were full, I no longer depend on Amtrak if I need to bring my bike.

    Up until recently, a standard Surfliner consist could accomodate a total of six bikes. That’s right, just six bikes for the entire train and it’s been that way for years. There were racks for three bikes in a regular coach car and there were two regular coach cars per train. No bike racks in the business class, cafe, Superliner, or baggage cars. If you’re unlucky enough to get the old single-level Horizon/Amfleet consist, those trains have zero bike racks.

    I welcome the bike reservation system and am willing to pay $5 per trip. Since I only travel with my bike one round trip per month, the cost to me is reasonable in knowing that I won’t be refused boarding. For a daily bike/train commuter, it would be expensive. I must admit in my 15+ years of taking the Surfliner (and San Diegan), I haven’t met a daily commuter on the Surfliner who brings a bike. Most use a car or shuttle at either end. The daily commuters I know who bring a bike have a train commute that involves only the Coaster or only Metrolink.

    Interestingly, I am unable to make a bike reservation online unless I buy a single-ride ticket. For my travel pattern, I buy 10-ride tickets. I guess I’ll have to call it in…

    I’ve filled out several Caltrans’ Surfliner surveys over the years and always complained about the lack of bike storage space. The ultimate solution is to increase bike rack storage space to meet demand. But until that becomes available, I guess this is the temporary fix they’ve come up with.

    I would love to hear comments from fellow Surfliner riders who bring their bikes onboard regularly.

  • guygenie73

    I don’t think so. You don’t pay taxes on amtrak, not for your ticket, or you food, or even your lodging if you get a sleeper car. If it were a private corporation there would be sales and luxury taxes on all that.

  • TrekLush23

    Why shouldn’t someone bringing on something as big and bulky as an off-road touring bike not have to pay a little more than someone who is traveling with nothing but a briefcase? I am a cyclist who uses 100% public transit (I don’t even own a car) and I am a rail advocate, but I am also a realist. Anyone on the train demanding more space and trains be modified to suit their special equipment hauling needs (excluding ADA) should pay more. If I travel with my child, I am already paying an additional half fare for my 3 year old and am often expected to carry her on my lap when the train gets crowded, so I am already paying for space I don’t get. Why are we equating demands for a complimentary storage rack for a bike to my asking for stroller space when my fare is already 150% higher than the guy with the bike? BTW, trains serving California lose more money than anywhere else in the country. All are below 50% farebox recovery. Farebox recovery on the Capitol Corridor is less than 38 cents for every dollar. When Amtrak removed all the lower level seating to add more bike racks in some cars it gave up $1500 in potential fares for each round trip per car! At a time when CA and the federal government is on the verge of fiscal collapse, maybe we should consider paying a little more for Amtrak to haul our bikes around for us.

  • We need to organize a protest at all main stops of Surfliner, lik LA & San Diego.. Best day would be Bike to Work Day on May 19th.

  • Must be nice to be so rich that the $5 extra fee would not hurt you. Most combo train/bike commuters are on strick, small budget. Allot have had their pay/hours cut. Some are using train/bike to look for work. In case you have not heard, times are tuff.

  • Anonymous

    What I see here is a need for a series of share bike livery stables at each and every train station and bus stop.

  • In contrast, the Capitol Corridor took a proactive approach to accommodate bicyclists. Plus we are planning for secure parking and bike sharing. According to the Feb 2013 Report: “on-time performance was 97%, the best in the Amtrak system for February, and the system operating ratio for the fiscal year is 52%.”
    -Robert Raburn
    Board Member
    Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

  • Anonymous

    Looks like the Surfliner operators listened to their customers and came to their senses. The reservation system is still in place but now without the additional $5 fee.

    Any chance this same system will ever be implemented on the Capitol Corridor? I’m sure some folks don’t commute on the train with their bikes specifically because they can’t be guaranteed a spot.

  • foldie

    Even Folding Bikes are challenged by mis-informed Amtrak employees. Several times I’ve been told to check my folding bike. I just point them to their website and move on.

  • Anonymous

    Because bikes weigh less than your three year old, don’t require heat or air conditioning or food, and most importantly, don’t annoy fellow travelers. If you’ll let us stick your progeny in the luggage cart, your rant might be worth the time it took to read.


Family Bike Touring Along the California Coast

My wife Carrie, our three-year-old daughter Maeve, and I bike-toured the central California coast last week. We took an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Salinas, then an Amtrak through-bus to Monterey. From Monterey we biked down the coast through Big Sur and to San Luis Obispo, where we caught the train back to Los Angeles. […]