A Transportation Cocktail: Bikes, Trains and Buses

It’s the best kept secret in mobility. Bicycles, buses and trains go together like gin, vermouth and olives. Ride to the station, chug along to your destination and then ride off. You’ve got your wheels on both ends of the trip. We’re especially fond of the trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Amtrak’s lumbering San Joaquin train. Sure it takes ten hours, but it’s a small price to pay for having a bike in San Francisco. Once in SF, there’s no searching for parking or waiting for those slow-going north-south buses.


1. Some Amtrak routes let you take a bike on board but on the longer hauls you have to box up your bike, which can be a major inconvenience. The California trains that don’t require boxing are the San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner and Capital Corridor. On the painfully slow Coast Starlight you’ll have to box the bike. However, a friend found a loophole on the longer haul box policy in the form of a waiver offered by a baggage handler that, once signed, allowed my friend to put his bike in the baggage car without a box (note, the worker at the counter did not mention anything about a waiver and refused to accept an un-boxed bike). Avoid this hassle by taking the above mentioned California trains.

2. Amtrak Thruway buses accept bikes on, as far as I can tell, the San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner and Capital Corridor routes. You just stash the bike below in an empty cargo hold.

3. I’ve also taken my bike on board Metrolink trains up to Ventura.

4. For you folks pondering a trip to California, the train/bike combo would be a whole lot of fun.

5. Yes, a folding bike would be more convenient, but I like my road bike.

6. Get a copy of the San Francisco bike map to avoid the big hills and find the best routes. I got my copy at the Rainbow Market.

For more info on bikes on California Amtrak routes check here or call Amtrak, but always remember that when you bring up bikes with a customer service person it will be the first time they’ve ever heard the question.

Now back to the slow, but entertaining San Joaquin train. While it takes longer than driving or flying, the views of the Central Valley can’t be beat. You’re well off the highway for most of the trip, and get a god’s eye view from the upper deck. Glimpses of farms, backyards and small towns flash by as if in a series of dream-like snapshots. Some sights from my trip on the train:

Some older Asian men crouching on a backyard patio while chopping up a big side of beef (or game?) with an axe while a teenager looked on in pajamas.

A large, shirtless white man with a Mohawk standing outside a junk strewn and isolated compound somewhere north of Fresno.

A luxurious pool plopped, incongruously, smack in the middle of an empty two acre yard, at an unreasonable distance from the house. Adjacent to the house, the largest outdoor fireplace I’ve ever seen. Can you say second mortgage?

Speaking of mortgages, the territory of sub-primelandia: endless rows of abandoned suburban tracks on former agricultural land sitting empty, tattered real estate flags flapping in an unseasonably warm winter breeze. It brings to mind the boom town expression of mortgage agents, “drive until you qualify.”

A for sale sign hanging in front of a 1920s era dilapidated shack with a equally dilapidated pier jutting out into the northeast corner of the San Francisco Bay near the town of Pittsburgh, CA. Ready to tie up that Zebra boat for a memorable daily commute into San Francisco.

Canada geese kicking back in a Fresno drainage pond.

The world’s most aesthetically challenged hot tub enclosure, also spotted in Fresno.

And along the way, in backyards, the Central Valley has two of my favorite signs of civilization: backyard chickens and nopales. At the dramatic end of the line for the San Joachin train lay the forlorn streets of Bakersfield, immortalized in Buck Owen’s song,

“I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
Just want a chance to be myself

I’ve done a thousand miles of thumbin’
I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
On the streets of Bakersfield”

Video of that song here, but beware of the distracting mullet on the bassist.

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  1. Solid advice there! I don’t remember any LA to Oakland roll on trains when I was there, but I have fond memories of seeing Xtracycles loaded with surfboards rolled on in SLO to hit some break somewhere…

    You can see great stuff on the train. I did some mixed mode bike touring from oakland train to sacto, ride to stockton and modesto, train back to oakland, seeing ball games in all towns mentioned.

    I also liked heading to points south on the train
    I loved seeing the reed and railbound prohibition shantytown in the bay north of San Jose, and the salinas picker plywood sculptures as wel as the random quarries and farms you roll through..

    I appreciate the Buck, but, ye gods, he has been Yokamized. A shame. Check some older buck for the deal:

  2. Good Call!

    We rode to Santa Barbara and then took the Amtrak back. Good times!

    I was so nervous about the “bikes on the train” that we went and scouted out a train, watched to see which car we should use and how to load the bikes etc. and then when our train came, it wasn’t like the other and we simply tossed our bikes and bags into an empty car and tied them to a rail and we were off!

    Next time we’re bringing our own food for a rolling picnic.

    Also, we’re bringing reading materials and other entertainment. We were stuck at one station for four hours while they moved some lumber through the area. Turns out that Amtrak doesn’t actually own the rail so they end up in 2nd position to freight trains.

  3. This is so timely – we were just trying to find a train route for my aunt to get to Merced. Of all the train schedules I read, I could not find how to get to Bakersfield from LA via train. What route goes from Union Station to Bakersfield, please? The San Joaquin maps all show it starting in Bakersfield, not LA.

  4. Colleeeen,

    The train ends in Bakersfield and you switch to a Amtrak Thruway bus that takes you to Union Station. There are also buses that will take you to other LA destinations such as Long Beach, Pasadena, West LA, etc. Just tell the station agent or phone representative where you want to go. Hope your aunt has an nice trip.

  5. Glad to see this post. Linda, my wife, and I took our first great train ride in April and May of 2008. We got on Amtrack in Portland Oregon and road the rails for 17 nights. We made a big loop of the Country stopping in Chicago, DC, Miami, DC, New Orleans, LA and then back to Portland. It was the vacation of a life time. We got a sleeperette all the way with 3 meals a day and snacks for $1200 a piece (hotels 6 nights extra). There is no way to say how much fun two old farts, who know nothing about travaling, had while eating pizza and drinking beer with friends in Chicago, watching the Nationals play in their new stadium while eating chili cheese fries, eating Cuban food first thing in the morning, while touring the Everglades, and testing the idea that Run Punch tastes better in New Orleans than anywhere else.
    In short, WE LOVE AMTRACK. You probably know that after many vacations one says it is nice to be home; well, when we hit Portland,we could have started that trip all over again and done it exactly the same way. That’s how much fun we had circling the Country on Amtrack.

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