How to take your bike from Los Angeles to Fair Oaks on the train
Quick note for poor souls like myself seeking to make a SoCal->NorCal biking trip:
So yes, you can place your bike in the in-train bike rack, as well as the cargo area of the bus (contrary to what Amtrak customer reps will tell you) without boxing it. There are some elements of uncertainty, however.
Option 1: Carrying the bike with you
2. Go to the Los Angeles Union Station, and print your ticket from one of the vending machines using your confirmation code.
3. Await the train in line with your bike.
4. When boarding starts, seek the car with the bike racks on them. During my OAK->SAC trip, the car was the last one. Can’t remember position of the LAX->OAK one.. I think it was about the third from the bottom.
5. Secure the bike with the chains that hang from the racks
In the LAX->SBA route there were 3 racks. In OAK->SAC there were 6 racks. I don’t know if all lines have racks, so check the Amtrak webpage.
During the LAX->SBA route, only 1 rack was taken (excluding mine). During the OAK->SAC route, there were 7 bikes on board (including mine). The late biker (boarded in another city mid-way after Oakland) was lucky enough to hold the bike by himself inside the car. The OAK->SAC line had a semi-dedicated bike first floor in the last car to accommodate the extra 3 racks, so that gave him some room to hold the bike. (Would not have been physically possible in the LAX->SBA line). This is not a guarantee – if there are no racks left for you, security may deny your bike on board. To grab the spots, it helps to arrive early and also to be the startpoint/endpoint of your particular route. However, none of the trains I took arrived earlier than 10 minutes prior to departure – there was no line formed in the loading area either. So I’m not sure if there is any merit in arriving 1 hour-30 minutes early just in order to be ahead of other bikers.
6. In Santa Barbara, get off the train with your bike and board the bus, which is just outside of the station. The bus drivers needs to authorize you to place the bike in the cargo area. I didn’t have the bike on hand (it was being shipped as checked baggage) so I couldn’t test this, but it appears that my particular driver would have not had problems putting the bike in. He said it depends on the driver, so maybe they reject the bike when the cargo area is full.
7. The bus is a bit of a nightmare.. it makes stops every hour or two, and at each stop the drivers makes an announcement and turns the lights on. The person sitting next to you may get off somewhere in the middle.. it could be Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo, King City, San Jose, and the list goes on. I think I managed to sleep about 2-3 hours.
8. In Oakland, get off with your bike and get on the SAC train.
9. Get off the Sacramento Amtrak and start biking!
10. The biking route from Sacramento to Fair Oaks is amazing. There is a dedicated, paved lane for bikers and runners. And it’s not a half-assed “dedicated” Class B lane like LA provides. Nor a Class A where you still risk getting hit by crazy drivers. The bike lane is completely detached from the car road, about 1 mile away, and surrounded by trees and bushes. If you start off by going West at Sacramento Amtrak and entering the bike route, there is a marking on the ground every 0.5 mile showing your progress. Every ~4 miles there is a water and bathroom station, next to trees. These facilities disappear after the Carmichael/Rancho Cordova mark. Also every 2 miles, there is an emergency phone booth. There were *a lot* of bikers and runners along the trail.
For me, having only biked in car streets in LA, the abundance of alternative biking routes and low profile signage was a bit confusing. In LA, if you want to go from A to B, there may be one biking route to get there, and often there is none. Here in Sacramento there were at least 2 or 3 dedicated bike lane options to get to Fair Oaks. I took wrong biking routes and street exits at least 6 times throughout the trip. The general rule of thumb is to always stick to the river – if the river is to your right, and there is a bifurcation to the left and to the right, take the right side option. This doesn’t always work as expected, however – the most unexpected one was when the bike lane abruptly ended near the 160 Highway and it had two bifurcations, so I chose the southbound one to stick to the river, but after crossing the river and seeing no lanes, I had to come back north to take on the awkward Z shaped curve to return to the American River Parkway. The phone GPS was a bit of a life saver, and towards the final stretch I started getting better at spotting and understanding the signage, but maybe it was just because there were fewer lane options at that point.
The whole trip took me about 2.5 hours over 24 miles – from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm. It was excruciatingly hot compared to LA, but a breeze with all the facilities.
11. I wasn’t able to take the return trip as a friend offered me a car ride back, but I’d assume it’s no different from the northbound trip.
Option 2: Checking in your bike as baggage
1. Buy ticket
2. Get a bike box. I got one from Orange 20 – they put out their leftover boxes in the back parking lot after a bike is sold. It’s not always there, though – one weekend they had it, and the following Tuesday they did not.
a. Carrying the bike box with you may be complicated without a car. I managed to carry a small box on the bus, but only buses that were half-empty were letting me in. For actually taking the box from Orange 20, I asked a colleague for a ride. On the day of the trip, I managed to find two buses to the station after three attempts.
3. If you’ve never unassembled & assembled your bike’s pedals, front & back wheels, and handles before, you may want to do a test run. I’ve never unassembled such things besides front wheel removal and it took me a good hour to get the handle of them via YouTube videos and in-person counseling.
a. You will need to do these things:
- remove both pedals
- loosen up and twist the handle bar
- remove the front wheel
The particular box I obtained was smaller than my bike, so I also had to:
- completely remove the handle bar to gain length reduction – just let it hang from the body with the brake wires and all
- remove the back wheel
and it barely fit.
b. In order to do so, you will need these tools:
- a 15mm open wrench (for pedals)
- an allen wrench for handles
- your wheels will come off without any tools. Just learn how to loosen the brake wires and remove and put back the wheels. I found tutorials on YouTube.
4. Print ticket
5. Go to the Los Angeles Union Station Amtrak ticket selling section. You may want to arrive one hour early to adjust for any unexpecteds. (Amtrak turned out to be kind of unreliable for me)
a. Go further inside to the right of the counters, and turn left at the Hertz sign to take the elevator:
b. Go upstairs (“T floor”, I think?) and walk into a corridor that by every look of it appears to be a personnel-only section. However, this is where you check in your bike.
6. You will get to an awkward-looking commercial docking type space. Go to the office thing in the middle and talk to the worker about checking in your bike.
Pay the $5 fee. I didn’t ask if they accepted credit card, but I paid with cash. This is a one-time fee for a one-way, multi-transfer trip. (I paid once for the entire LAX->SBA->SAC trip) Unassemble your bike and stick it into the box. Took me about 10 minutes. I brought some packing tape and taped it as well. Sometimes they’ll have bike boxes left by incoming bikers on the ground, being kicked around, and you can grab it and use it. When I went there, they had none of those boxes.
7. The worker will slap two pieces of paper on the box and process it, and give you a receipt.
8. The rest of the trip is similar to Option 1, except for the below differences:
9. At Oakland, after the Bus trip, you will be given your bike box by the bus driver, who will pull it from the bus cargo area. Don’t let the bus leave without giving you the box! Another biker who had gotten off in San Luis Obispo had left his box in the bus all the way to Oakland.
10. You are supposed to give the box to the Oakland Amtrak office so that it continues its trip to Sacramento, but I decided to assemble it, toss the box, and use the in-train rack. (I had one hour until the transfer)
11. In Sacramento, you are supposed to pick up your box in some sort of baggage claim area. In Los Angeles Union Station, the baggage claim area looks similar to a regional airport baggage area, with rotating conveyor belts, so maybe it’s similar in SAC as well?
12. This option is different from Option 1 in that it’s guaranteed that your bike will make it through for the entirety of the trip. (In Option 1 you may get stuck in train bike rack availability and bus cargo area availability) But obviously you can’t carry the bike box with you once you arrive, and you can’t just leave the bike box around hoping it will be in the same place when you return to Amtrak, so it’s a bit unclear to me how a return trip would work – find a nearby bike shop and try your luck at getting a bike box again?