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Expansion of Amtrak’s “Pets on Trains Pilot Program”: Or, Chloe’s going to Portland!

After his 20-year snooze in the Catskills, Rip van Winkle’s first spoken words, appropriately for this blog, refer to his beloved pet Wolf: “‘My very dog,’ sighed Rip, ‘has forgotten me!’” Chloe and I have been gone nearly as long, it seems, but we haven’t forgotten you, and you (bless you, Dog Jaunt Nation!) haven’t forgotten us. Thank you for all the comments and travel reports — this is the week that I will start posting them and responding.

As those of you who follow Dog Jaunt’s Facebook page know, the hottest news in pet travel is the recent announcement by Amtrak that it is expanding the Pets on Trains pilot program it started over a year ago in the Chicago area. Those suburban trains will still allow pets (cats and dogs only) on board, but now the list will also include a few trains/routes in the Northeast; weekend Acela trains (for a limited, trial period); and on “most” long-distance trains (though not the Auto Train, and only on trips of 7 hours or less).

Amtrak_-_Experience_-_Onboard_-_Pets_on_Trains

I lost no time making a reservation for me and Chloe on the train to Portland. It’s ostensibly only three hours away from Seattle, and I’m a woman who enjoys driving, but there must be some kind of time-space warp along I-5 that makes the trip both endless and spooky. Compare and contrast my past train trips to Portland, which have been pleasantly relaxed and included beer. Here’s what I learned.

First, you need to call Amtrak to make a reservation that includes traveling with a pet (the number is 1-800-872-7245), or you could walk into a staffed station to make a reservation in person. There is no online reservation option. Unlike airline travel, however, that’s not really a problem, since there’s no financial penalty for making a train reservation over the phone. Just keep telling the automated “Julie” who “answers” your call that you want “something else,” whenever she offers you her helpful options, and you’ll eventually hack your way through to a real live customer service rep.

You’ll want to read the new policy closely, and talk your proposed train choice through with a customer service rep. Because I live on the West Coast, far from suburban Chicago and the Northeast, my immediate interest is in the part of the expanded pet policy that refers to “long distance trains.” Not every train that goes a long way is a “long distance train.” The Seattle-to-Portland route is serviced by two different trains/routes: The Amtrak Cascades, which does not qualify as long-distance (even though it covers most of two big states and is anchored at one end in Canada), and the Coast Starlight, which does.

Amtrak’s policy requires that your pet must be a cat or a dog; s/he must be small (the “maximum size for pet carriers is 19″ long x 14″ wide x 10.5″ high” and the “Maximum weight of pet with carrier is 20 pounds”); and only one pet per carrier per passenger is allowed. Your pet must be “at least 8 weeks old,” fully vaccinated, “odorless and harmless,” and “not disruptive.” Easy enough to check all of those boxes — we’ll use Chloe’s beloved large SturdiBag, and she meets all the other requirements.

Right after “not disruptive” is a requirement is that your pet “require no attention during travel,” which covers two issues: First, your pet must remain entirely in her carrier during the trip, including inside station buildings, and, second, bathroom breaks are not guaranteed. The customer service rep I spoke to told me that a conductor may, in his or her discretion, announce a smoking break (usually of about 5 minutes’ duration), and, if so, you can attempt a pit stop, but you should not count on it.

A maximum of five pets can travel on a particular train, and although it is not mentioned in the information page, all of those pets will be traveling in the same assigned car. Please note that even though I, for example, am traveling coach to Portland (because other seat level options are not available to me with Chloe), I cannot hop into any coach car; she and I have an assigned seat in what will turn out to be the designated pet car. That’s fine with me — I’m delighted to have a guaranteed pet reservation, unlike too many airlines, and I’m also happy to provide train travelers with pet allergies the comfort of knowing that all the traveling pets will be in one, known car (though they’ll still need to keep an eye out for service animals, who can accompany their human charges anywhere on a train, and are not, unlike pets, contained in pet carriers).

The pet fee is $25 “for each travel segment.” Be sure to arrive “no later than 30 minutes before train departure time” to sign the form you’ll be given, and “to confirm pet eligibility.” Eligibility presumably includes a visual assessment of your pet’s size, carrier, and amiability. What about proof of vaccination? I called back to ask about the phrase “Passengers will be required to certify that the pet is up to date on all vaccinations,” and was told that neither a health certificate (a more formal document, signed by your vet) nor a shot record (the list your vet will print, on request, of your pet’s current vaccination status) is required. Instead, you’ll be given a Release and Indemnification Agreement to sign, which includes your representation that your pet is fully vaccinated.

Chloe and I are scheduled to travel by Amtrak in early May, and will report instantly with pictures. Many of you will already be veteran train travelers by then — please post your reports and thoughts in the comments below!

2 comments

  • Longtime reader Gery sent me an e-mail about this post, warning me to think twice about taking Chloe on a train to Portland during the winter, and kindly agreed that I could copy and paste chunks of it here as a helpful comment:

    “I have traveled Amtrak Cascade to Portland more times then I care to count. While I work from home, technically, I’m part of my employers’ Portland office. We have many clients in the Portland area, which I visit from time to time, and my ‘go-to’ option is almost always Amtrak Cascade.

    So why am I advising you not to go, well, simple… The service is relatively reliable, but not always… After all, Amtrak is running their passenger trains on freight lines…. I recall one evening, when the trip took eight hours… The train was crawling at about 20 MPH, and then sat on a siding for three hours… I do not know what happened – the Amtrak people said it was because of the ‘snow’ (yes, it snowed, about four inches – sorry – that’s laughable)…. Arrived in Portland very very late, but had a good chunk of work accomplished, and was still able to grab some sleep and be at the client’s first thing the following morning – not a big deal, and still beating the heck out of driving or flying…

    Had I had Alfie with me, I don’t know what I would have done… probably sneak him into the bathroom, let him ‘go’ on the floor, and try to clean up best I could…. Airlines have a ‘rule’ that does not allow passengers to be ‘stuck’ on the tarmac over a certain period of time. Amtrak has no such rules… Had they stopped the train at a station and allowed passengers to get off, it would have been a different story….

    Whatever you do, DO NOT take the train if there is any danger what-so-ever of mud-slides, flooding, ice, or snow….”

  • teddy

    Wow, so a 4 hour trip isn’t that bad but I can’t imagine leaving your dog in a carrier for longer than that.
    I have a 16 hour trip next month from NM to LA (train) because we’re moving. Looks like my dog will use the transport van again.

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