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Midnight Train to Maine: How I got to Vacationland via bike and rail


story by chris switky | illustration by melissa mcfeetersEvery August, I head up to Maine for vacation. My dad lives on Harpswell peninsula, just south of Brunswick, and my girlfriend’s family stays at an inn on the beach in Scarborough, 10 miles south of Portland. This year, I ditched the car and plane for the train and bicycle. The original plan was to send my bike via UPS to Portland; I would catch up to it there, assemble it, then bike on to dad’s. Easy, right? For the most part, yes, but here’s how things really worked:

Step 1
Purchase ticket two weeks ahead (much cheaper this way) for Amtrak’s one daily Northeast Corridor train that accepts checked baggage. It’s the overnight train and leaves Philly just past midnight, arriving in Boston about eight hours later.

Step 2
Obtain bike box from a neighborhood bike shop and attempt to mail bike via UPS to a shop in Portland. Discover bike box is 10 inches too long for UPS ground shipment. Only other option is UPS freight (tractor trailer, one week travel time, costs $500). Same deal at FedEx, and the post office won’t touch it. Return home with bike box still bungeed to the top of the Subaru.  

An aside: How to put your bike in a box? Remove the pedals. You’ll need a pedal wrench, and the left-hand pedal will likely have left-hand threads. Remove front wheel. Loosen the stem so that it can turn sideways, and loosen the stem’s grip on the handlebars so you can swing them back and up, making everything compact. This is usually done with Allen wrenches. Put all bike parts in the box, use strapping tape to wrap it up. Done deal.

Step 3
Arrive at 30th Street Station at 11 p.m., one hour before the train leaves. Search for 10 minutes for an Amtrak employee, who, once found, informs me that the baggage office closed at 10 p.m. and we’re too late to check the bike. Things aren’t looking good.
Human kindness and flexibility prevail! The bike makes it on the train. (Note to self: Contact Amtrak complaint office.)

Step 4
Arrive at Boston’s South Station just after 8 a.m. Assemble bike and pack tools and gear. Search out some breakfast, bike around the waterfront and take in a bit of the city.

Step 5
Bike to Boston’s North Station (about a mile north of South Station). This train, called the Downeaster, has a bicycle storage car, no box required. My U-lock comes in handy, helping to secure my bike to the bizarre bikestand-like contraption that I’m directed to use. Around 3 p.m., we pull into Portland. Bike and I are reunited, and it’s time for the long ride: 40 miles from the train station to my dad’s.

Step 6
Roll into dad’s driveway a half-hour before sunset, relieved I covered 40 miles in four hours. I realize I’m not 23 anymore. My legs are especially clear on this.

An aside: When I came up with this train-and-bike scheme a few months ago, I devised a conditioning plan. I would ride my clunky wide-tire mountain bike down and up fairly steep Kitchen’s Lane every evening, carrying two automobile brake drums (about 40 pounds of metal) in the front basket. I would “feel the burn” in my thighs, and when that got too easy, I’d sprint part of the way up the hill. I did this for 11 weeks.

When I asked where to leave the bike box at South Station, the Amtrak employee asked me if I’d need it for a return trip. Good deal; the folks at South Station would have saved my box for me if I’d needed them to.

If you decide to do this type of trip, check Amtrak’s checked baggage restrictions. The overnight train (either direction) handles checked baggage only at certain stations: Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Boston. Also, the Downeaster crew handles bikes only at three stations: Boston, Wells and Portland. Amtrak is planning to extend the Downeaster farther north to Brunswick, Maine, by the end of 2012.

Chris Switky lives in Mount Airy, where he runs his dog, on a leash, while biking, every day. He can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. Only Chris Switky, you bizarre genius. Ric expected to find you on a mountain-top in Afghanistan by his base.

    Still riding a rusty bike.

  2. Only Chris Switky, you bizarre genius. Ric expected to find you on a mountain-top in Afghanistan by his base.

    Still riding a rusty bike.

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