Friday, September 20, 2019

We don't serve your kind here

Late this afternoon, a kid was thrown off of Amtrak's Downeaster and marooned in Boston for trying to travel with his bike.

Our young trainee David had told me that a riding buddy of his was going to ride the commuter rail from somewhere south of Boston to pick up the Downeaster and continue to Dover, NH, where David would pick him up and bring him the rest of the way to Wolfe City for a weekend of training rides. Then, sometime after 4 p.m., the friend called from North Station to say that he had been removed from the train in what sounded like a rather underhanded way.

The cyclist had been told by one train official that it was okay. He had boarded and was settling in, when another train official came and told him, "bring your bike and your bags and come with me." The lad complied, and was led off the train. The doors shut, and the train left. No warning, no explanation, no appeal. No one bothered to find out whether the kid was okay being dumped in Boston's North End on the verge of evening, when he was in the middle of a journey northward. They just knew that they had to get him and his bike off of that train.

David immediately set about figuring out how to rescue his friend. The obvious and unpalatable answer would be to drive more than two hours each way to retrieve him from North Station. Maybe the cyclist could cut a deal with the bus company to take him to Dover. Whatever they did, they were having to improvise it as nightfall marched steadily closer.

You could say, as Amtrak no doubt will, that the boy should have done his homework. I say it's long past time to give cyclists roll-on access to every train at every stop on every line, and make intermodal transportation a reality instead of a novelty. This incident is strikingly similar to the way I was treated almost 40 years ago when I traveled from the New Carrollton Amtrak station to New Brunswick, NJ, in the spring of 1980. In that journey, I was allowed to board in New Carrollton because a sympathetic conductor recognized me from the regular trips I'd been making along that route in pursuit of something that felt like love. But he could only get me as far as Philadelphia. There, he said, I could get on a train with a baggage car, scheduled to be leaving at a convenient time.

When I went to the train in Philly, the conductor told me that they don't open the baggage car there, and to get lost. Philly is such a minor city that they don't open the baggage car there? What if someone has baggage? Surely someone has the key.

I did not say any of this. Instead I negotiated a little, and he finally told me that I could ride between two cars, boarding just before the train pulled out. "I can get you to Trenton," he said. "Then you have to find a commuter train. They let bikes on."

"Get on here," he said, pointing to the door. I did as he said, and wedged myself into the wiggling space where the car platforms scissored back and forth with every undulation of the rails. About halfway to Trenton, I heard an altercation break out in the bar car, which was the leading car of my little duplex. The car door popped open, and the conductor, a burly man now red-faced with irritation, shoved a smaller man into the space. The smaller man, who appeared to be an Amtrak employee riding for free, made the mistake of taking a swing at the conductor. The conductor knocked him down. When the big man pulled his foot back to kick, I gave him the eyeball. He withdrew, grumbling.

Now sharing the tiny space with the smaller man, I had no ideas for conversation. He didn't seem to feel too chatty either. We leaned in our respective corners, lurching back and forth with the movement of the train. I was holding my bike on its rear wheel, pressed against the side of the compartment.

When the doors opened in Trenton, I squirted out and headed down the platform as police officers closed in.

I got aboard a commuter train. A guy in a uniform told me it was okay and pointed me toward a car. I leaned my bike up and sat down. A lady in a nearby seat started chatting me up. She was convinced that I must be some experienced world traveler. She refused to believe me when I told her that this was my first attempt at such a trip, and that I had started from home at 0500 when I rode to New Carrollton from Annapolis. Our conversation came to an abrupt end when the train official came back to throw me off before the train departed. I was now stranded in Trenton.

My grandfather had his optometric practice in Trenton. I rode over to his house. He was quite surprised to see me. I explained my predicament. We had a nice lunch together, and then he gave me a lift to the edge of town, so I didn't have to battle traffic making my way to the nice two-lane road through Princeton. I broke a spoke outside of Princeton, but found a bike shop (gotta love college towns) and replaced the spoke on the steps in front of it.

In the last few hundred yards of the ride, in New Brunswick, I flatted and dumped the bike in an intersection. Traffic was light. I dragged myself to the sidewalk and trudged the last bit to reach my love interest.

The return trip was less harrowing, but still relied on special circumstances, not on any kind of bike-friendly policies from Amtrak. We went down to the station, bought my ticket, walked out onto the platform, and lined up to board. There was my bike, shiny and obvious. The conductor came over shaking his head. My love interest burst into tears, explaining that I just had to make this train. She didn't even dress it up with any bullshit about my humanitarian mission or the transplant organs I was transporting. The basic version was good enough to get me onto one direct train all the way to New Carrollton.

You can't count on having an effective performer to deliver a literal sob story every time you need one. Amtrak has made a big deal about every grudging concession to cyclists, every individual station slowly added to a limited network of trains. Meanwhile, if I could roll on in Dover and roll off in New London or Old Saybrook, I might never use my car to visit my parents again. I could even go to Baltimore and get myself to and from the stations. I really like trains. It costs more money to take the train than to drive, but it's so great to be without a car.

That's so un-American. "Great to be without a car." What are you? Weird?

Demonstrably so.

Anyway, it's been 40 years since my hopscotch adventure, and about the same length of time since I got thrown off of the DC Metro for having a disassembled bike in two bags, and things don't seem to have improved a hell of a lot. I look forward to hearing how David and his riding buddy solved their transportation problem, but I hate that they had to.

All public transportation needs to embrace human powered transportation and make it easy to change modes. No requirement for folding bikes. No limitations. Roll on, roll off, every train, every line, every station stop.

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