This photo of baggage handlers in Winona unloading our bikes is from my first Amtrak/bike excursion, Summer 2007.
Since then, I have traveled with bike by Amtrak roughly half a dozen times. I consider Amtrak to be a valuable service for the adventurous bicycle type who doesn't have time to pedal across large parts of the country to get to a cycling destination. Weasel and I used Amtrak on our DC-Richmond adventure, and I plan to use it at least one, two, or three more times in 2010. The procedure for taking a bike on the train may seem intimidating at first blush, but it's really pretty simple. Here are some important points:
1. Your starting and ending train stations must have luggage service (check Amtrak's website for services offered on each train and at each station). Without luggage service on both ends, you can only take your bike if it packs small enough for carry-on. Most modern folding bikes and take-apart bikes meet this requirement, but normal bikes do not. If you have a normal bike, and luggage service is available at the start/end points, read on.
2. I hear that some trains/routes permit the cyclist to simply roll the bike onto the train and hang it on a hook. I have not encountered any of these trains. The train routes I have used require the use of a bike box. The bike box is a turn-off for a lot of people, apparently, but I find it convenient and easy. The Amtrak bike boxes are much larger than the boxes that are used to ship bikes via UPS or FedEx. With the Amtrak boxes, the bike will generally fit if the pedals are removed and the handlebar is turned sideways. Sometimes the handlebar/stem must be removed and nested on the top-tube. The Amtrak boxes cost $0 (used), $10, or $15 depending on how lucky you are. There's another $5 charge for the oversized luggage. In other words, expect to pay $5-20 per bike per trip. You may save a few bucks by packing in a smaller shipping box, but that would be a lot more effort. Best just to use the Amtrak box.
3. You can get the bike boxes from Amtrak and pack your bike ahead of time, or you can just ride to the station approximately 1.5 hours (or more) before departure and ask for a box. It is probably a good idea to call a day or two in advance to make sure the station has bike boxes on-hand, but the boxes have always been available on the trips I've done. If you ride to the station, and have the appropriate tools to remove the pedals and loosen the stem bolts, it will likely take 15 minutes to box the bike if you're not in a hurry. Oh yeah, bring your own packing tape.
4. After you pack the bike and check the box, then it's just a matter of getting yourself on the appropriate train and making your connections, if any. When you arrive at your final destination, your bike box will be waiting for you at baggage claim. Simply drag the box to a low traffic corner of the room, remove the bike from the box, reassemble, and ride away. Amtrak staff will take the box. If it's still in good shape, they will save it and give it to the next bike traveler.
I have heard stories about people having bad experiences traveling with a bike on Amtrak. Most of the bad experiences seem to be the result of poor planning (for example, showing up with a bike for a trip to or from a station that doesn't have luggage service). In my experience, Amtrak staff are very helpful and accommodating.
One thing to keep in mind about Amtrak is that, for long trips at least, it's slow compared to air travel. Most of the trains get up to about 80 mph, but the average speed is slower because of stops, etc. Kevin and I traveled by train from Portland to St Paul in 2008. I think it was 37 hours with no layovers. The recent St Paul to DC trip was roughly 30 hours with one layover. Traveling this way allows one to take in the landscape and to get a sense of the distance traveled.