An epic, carfree, Portland to Seattle, multimodal adventure

The alarm clock on my phone buzzed and made chirping sounds as I rubbed my eyes. It was 5:00 am and we had an Amtrak train to catch at Portland’s Union Station. My panniers and backpack were loaded the night before with all of our gear for the four day trip. I just needed to get our six-year-old up and on her bike to ride to the Trimet bus stop. 

This was going to be our first carfree trip to visit my parents in Seattle and the first visit since the start of Covid. 

The 43 bus to Portland is the closest bus route for us but unfortunately it only offers three buses in the morning with hourly service. Only the 6:17 AM bus (with about an hour ride and one transfer) would get us to the train station in time for our 8:20 AM departure. Taking the 43 would be convenient but also a gamble. Trimet bus racks only hold 2 bikes and we had 2 bikes to get to Portland. If one other person was using the bike rack we would not be able to board. The next bus wouldn’t be for an hour, too late for us to make our Amtrak train. Not wanting to take that gamble we decided to ride two miles to Pacific Highway and catch the #12 bus which has frequent service, every 15 minutes for most of the day. This was our safest route in case of canceled buses (which has been happening often due to a Trimet driver shortage) or full bike racks. 

You may know from previous articles that I primarily ride an e-Bullitt cargo bike hauling our kid in the front box and towing her bike behind when she isn’t riding on her own. As much as I’d like to take our box bike up north, it’s too long and too heavy to put on the bus rack. It’s also over Amtrak’s 50 pound weight limit, so I contacted Barb at Splendid Cycles to ask about borrowing a loaner bike for the trip. I was so happy to hear back that they did have an e-bike that was under 50 pounds that I could take on an extended test ride! 

The Tern Vektron Q9 is a folding e-bike with a Bosch mid-drive motor. My panniers would clip on the rear rack just fine and there was more room for an additional bag on top of the rack. I picked up the Tern the day before our journey and it was ready to help haul our luggage to the train station. (Thanks Splendid Cycles crew!)

Back to the morning of our departure…

Bus to Union Station in Portland

At the baggage car the workers told us to remove the e-bike battery from the bike and carry it on, which I missed in the instructions online.

As we rode to the bus stop on Pacific Highway we were excited to start this journey. I hadn’t been on a passenger train since I was a kid and this would be our daughter’s first heavy rail experience. We arrived at the bus stop at 6:30 am and prepped our bikes for the bus, pulling the panniers off and staging the bikes near the bus stop pole. I opened the Trimet Hop Fastpass app on my phone to triple check that we had money loaded on the card.  With the morning sun to our backs we looked West on ODOT’s Highway 99 scanning past the hundreds of single occupancy vehicles looking for the #12 bus. We spotted it a few blocks away and breathed a sigh of relief. 

The bus wasn’t canceled! But wait, what was this? I squinted my eyes and stood still. Was there a bike on the front of the bus? “OH NO!” I exclaimed. “What? What? WHAT!” our daughter yelled over the sounds of car exhaust and tire noise. As the bus driver pulled in just 500 feet away at the bus stop just before ours, I could see that the bus bike rack was folded down and there was a bike loaded. Then I noticed a person that hailed the bus also had a bike! Did I make the wrong choice in taking the 12 over the 43? We waved the driver off and pulled the bikes away from the curb as the bus rolled past us with a full bike rack. I frantically checked the trip planner on the Trimet app for the next bus. 15 minutes and it was not showing canceled. But what if the next bus also has a bike on the rack? What if the bus gets canceled at the last minute? 

My mind raced. Should we start riding our bikes to the train station? We could make it in time if we had our box bike but with the kid rolling on her own two wheels the trip would definitely take over an hour. We would just have to wait for the next #12 and hope for the best. If we missed the next bus we would probably miss our passenger train. I clenched my teeth as we waited. I checked the arrival time on my phone repeatedly. 12 minutes. 8 minutes. 2 minutes. Due. My stress level was elevated by the stench of car exhaust as my tunnel vision focused on the highway. There it was! The next bus! Squinting again I could see that the bus bike rack was folded up and empty! “HOORAY!” I yelled as we moved the bikes closer to the curb. What a huge relief! WHEW! 

After the bus stopped we signaled to the driver that we would be loading bikes and folded the rack down by squeezing the handle in the center. The Vektron easily loaded onto the rack as did the kid’s 20” Cleary Owl. We stepped on board, holding my phone to the scanner to pay the fare and off we went on our way downtown. 

West Burnside and SW 6th was our stop. It was a short, seven-block bike ride to Union Station. We dismounted and rolled our bikes through the doors of the historic structure that originally opened February 14th, 1896. Checking in was much easier than at the airport. We walked to the baggage department, I showed my ticket on the Amtrak app and we received paper tags for our bikes. That was it! My panniers and backpack were carry-on and there was no security checkpoint. When departure was announced we stood in a short line, exited the building and rolled our bikes to the baggage car at the rear of the train. 

At the baggage car the workers told us to remove the e-bike battery from the bike and carry it on, which I missed in the instructions online. It was not a big deal on the Tern as the battery was easily removed (don’t forget your key!) but if you have a child seat or other accessories mounted to your bike this may be a difficult task, especially with the stress and haste of needing to board a sold-out train. Be prepared and maybe remove your battery much earlier. The next task is to lift your bike about 4 feet up to the level of the baggage car floor. The Vektron was about 45 pounds so not an easy task but doable for me. I’m surprised that Amtrak doesn’t have a ramp to make this easier, perhaps in the future. We scooped up our bags and boarded the full train. 

On Amtrak to Seattle

Car parking in Seattle.

It was an uneventful departure as we rolled through the Pearl District on our way to cross the Columbia River to our first stop in Vancouver, WA. Picking up passengers at the 6 stops along the way only took a few minutes at each location, it’s a very fast process. I enjoy staring through the windows watching the world go by. We brought plenty of reading materials and coloring/activity books to keep the kid occupied. 

There is a 120 vac outlet at each window seat so be sure to bring your charger and cable for your devices. Now that I think about it you could charge your e-bike battery if needed! It was nice to have a dining car with a decent selection of food and drink available. Being able to stand up and walk the length of the train was helpful for the 3-4 hour ride. Speaking of time, I learned that Amtrak passenger trains must yield to heavier and much longer freight trains. We had a 30 minute delay near Centralia, Washington as we waited for a miles-long freight train to clear the track and turn off into a rail yard. 

As we passed through JB Lewis McChord and Tacoma, WA I was blown away by all of the car infrastructure we could see through the windows: car storage, car repair shops, car fuel stations, car lube bays, car dealerships and car washes. (Did I mention car storage?) I thought back to how many times we have made this same trip in a giant pickup truck burning many gallons of diesel fuel and getting road rage in the gridlock on I-5. It was so nice to be able to read a book and relax as the miles rolled by. 

We arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station at 12:15 pm, walked to the baggage car, presented our paper baggage tickets and claimed our bikes. Snapping the panniers onto the rear rack of the bike took five seconds as we walked our bikes through the train station and out the front doors. Our final destination was Everett, WA. (30 miles North of Seattle) After a short 2 block ride to the International District / Chinatown light rail station we purchased our Sound Transit Link tickets from the vending machine. 

On the Link

I tried to figure out the apps for the Puget Sound regional transit agencies before our trip. I downloaded “Transit Go Ticket” from King County Metro and the ORCA app. I looked at the Everett Transit website. It was overwhelming and I couldn’t figure out the transfers between agencies. A paper ticket from the machine seemed to be the easiest at the time. The first elevators that we saw were broken and blocked by barricades. (I guess it’s not just a Portland thing!) Riding to the other side of the block revealed another elevator that was functioning. 

The first Link train arrived very quickly! Looking through the windows I could see that the train was packed! It looked like standing room only, no way we were going to fit two bikes in there. Especially with that being our first time on the Link. I was unfamiliar with where the bikes go, how they hang on the hooks and also a newbie with taking the Tern on light rail. I decided to relax for 15 minutes and wait for the next train to gather my thoughts and make a game plan on how to board. This gave us a few minutes to explore the station and enjoy the wonderful origami art sculptures by Artist Sonya Ishii. The next train arrived in the station and the doors opened revealing completely empty cars! Woo Hoo! We rolled our bikes on and I hung the 20” bike on the bike hook. I started to pull the panniers from the Tern so that I could hang it as well but then noticed a sign informing us that one bike could remain in the space on it’s wheels with the rider standing with it. 

The doors closed and we were on our way. Now, I’ve been on the MAX (Portland’s light rail) plenty of times. That Link train train acceleration is way faster! The bike almost fell over taking me with it but I saved it. Then the deceleration is hard as well! I quickly figured out that not only did I need to hold on tight but I also needed to squeeze the front brake of the bike while standing on the foot of the kickstand! I wanted to take pictures of the amazing art in the other stations but I couldn’t relax my stability stance for one second! Rotating my head like an owl I was able to keep an eye on our kid sitting behind me. 

The train filled quickly. Most of the route is underground but transitions to elevated track near the end at Northgate Station. Two more working elevators later we were on the street looking for our next bus. 

Bus to Everett

Sound transit uses a bay system which was very helpful. I knew that we needed the 512 bus to Everett but instead of looking for the tiny bus number on the bus stop sign from a distance, the app told me to look for a larger bay number. The larger bay number signs are easier to see from a distance especially at a transit mall or park-and-ride. Multiple bus routes stop at each bay, or section of curb. I scanned the signs and found our bay number and our bus was already there! “That’s our bus!” I exclaimed and we jogged with our bikes. People were boarding as I signaled the driver and lowered the bike rack. These buses are not only double decker, they have triple bike racks! Once again I pulled the panniers and loaded the bikes. I gave our paper light rail tickets to our kid then realized that these tickets may not transfer to the bus. I asked the driver as I frantically checked my wallet for cash. “Are these light rail tickets good for this bus?”  The driver looked at the tickets in the hands of our six-year-old. “I’m not sure. Just have a seat.” they instructed.

The kid really wanted to sit in the upper level of the bus but I had two panniers and a backpack with a bike helmet flopping around. I didn’t want to navigate the narrow stairs with our luggage. I also wanted to be able to keep an eye on our bikes. The express buses are also fast. Traveling between the park-and-rides, the buses use left lane exits on I-5 to avoid car traffic. Between Northgate station and the future Lynnwood City Center Station you can see more elevated light rail tracks under construction. It looks amazing and will reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles on I-5. 

Arriving at the South Everett park-and-ride we reloaded our gear on the bike and planned the last leg of our trip. Maps wanted to take us and our bikes on a busy street but panning around the map I spotted an Interurban Trail right next to the park-and-ride. (Why wouldn’t Google maps recommend this route over a busy street?) A six mile bike ride and we arrived at our destination at 2:30 pm.  

Our multi-modal route beat the two train route by 4 hours.

We Finally Made It!

Grand Avenue Bike/Ped Bridge in Everett that we missed!

Recap: Bike, bus, bike, Amtrak, light rail, express bus and bike. Tigard, Oregon to Everett, Washington. 175 miles in 8.5 hours. There is an Amtrak route that goes all the way from Portland to Everett but this is a 2 train trip with a 5 hour layover in Seattle. Our multi-modal route beat the two train route by 4 hours.

Unfortunately over the next two days we experienced more map disappointments. Wanting to ride bikes to Everett’s Jetty Island Ferry, Google Maps recommended a terrible route on Washington State Highway 529. I spotted an old pedestrian bridge at 25th Street and a sidewalk that looked much safer so we took the bus and walked instead. 

On our two mile walk we discovered that there is a big beautiful new ped/bike bridge with working elevators (the Grand Avenue Park Bridge) that connects to a multi-use path leading to the ferry. That would have been an amazing bike ride but we missed it because we didn’t know it was there. The next day we wanted to ride bikes to the Mukilteo Ferry. Maps recommended a trail to keep us off of a busy street and I double checked it with Ride with GPS. There were so many stairs! Then the trail reduced to an overgrown singletrack where I was actually bushwacking the pokey plants with a stick! Ha! Ha! That made for quite the adventure but greatly increased our travel time. 

How can we improve these maps? Can we get wayfinding signs to direct people to these new walk/roll/bike infrastructure projects?  

The Reverse Trip

After hanging with family for a few days it was time to go home. We kissed our goodbyes and off we went in reverse order. We discovered that our earlier rush to get on the 512 express bus was unwarranted. This route has Ultra Frequent Service! (Every 10 minutes!) As we rode our bikes to the South Everett park-and-ride, the bus was pulling up. No biggie as we knew the next one was coming in 10 min. This gave us time to unload our baggage and get our new ORCA card ready! We found out that you need a physical card along with the app. The past two days we paid all of our Everett Transit fares in quarters because we couldn’t figure out the ORCA card thing. Problem solved! 

We were first aboard the southbound Link train so boarding was a breeze. Ridership was high once again as the train was standing room only on the way to Seattle. Someone made a comment to me during our stay that “Nobody rides the light rail” but I think they meant that they don’t ride the light rail

We had a couple of hours before our Amtrak departure so we grabbed lunch at Tat’s Deli across from the sinking ship parking garage on Yesler Way. Occidental Square had games set up near the playground with giant Connect 4, Ping Pong, giant chess, bean bag toss and other games which was cool to see in the downtown core. Then we rode up the green cycle track on 4th Ave to the Seattle Public Library. There are some amazing buildings to look at and some big hills! While the kid is a climbing machine on her bike I was glad to have the e-assist on the Vektron especially with all of our luggage and an additional bag of gifts from Grandma and Grandpa on the rear rack. We had a blast riding around downtown Seattle  but it was time to catch a train back to Portland.

Once again checking our bikes at baggage was super easy. We walked our bikes through the train station and to the baggage car. I remembered to remove the battery earlier, saving a minute or two. We had no problem finding two seats together on the sold-out train. 

After two stops in Tukwila and Tacoma, we were cruising southbound with the sun shining on us through the window when suddenly, CLICK! The lights went out, the AC turned off and everything got very quiet. We were still rolling but we were slowing down. Slower. Slower. We coasted for a few minutes. An overhead sign above the bathroom illuminated in red the words “TOILETS CLOSED” but people were still going in and out. I wondered what they experienced there in the dark. A single white emergency light was on near the front of the train car. 

It seemed like we started moving under power again but very slowly. Luckily we made it to the Olympia/Lacey station where the announcement was made that we could get off of the train and take a break while the crew tried to fix the train. I was thankful that the crew was able to get us to a station where there were snacks, bathrooms and grass with trees. If we had been stuck in the woods and not able to get off of the train that would have been worse for sure. 

After 30 minutes or so the announcement was made that our train’s engine was broken and we would need another. At this point most people deboarded and some even hailed a ride-share car and left. City transit buses were coming through regularly but I didn’t see anyone get on. I believe that I heard Amtrak was going to send a bus to come get us but an engine was on the way to connect to our train and continue the journey by rail. As the rescue engine approached we were all asked to get back on the train so the workers could do the disconnecting and reconnecting. (Even though I really wanted to watch!) 

The freight engine that powered us back to Union Station.

As we waited on board a long freight train slowly passed us on the right then stopped. After some back and forth motion I assumed that this was our rescue freight train dropping off one engine. A slight bump confirmed that something had definitely arrived. A few minutes later the freight train on our right appeared to start moving again but it was actually our train moving! Everyone erupted in cheer! After a two-hour stop we were on our way. The new arrival times were calculated and announced as we learned that a freight train engine cannot travel as fast as a passenger train engine. (Or at least the way this train was now configured we couldn’t travel as fast.) Our new arrival time was now 9:00 pm instead of 5:30 pm.. This sent everyone scrambling and scrolling to figure out their next steps. I heard people canceling dinner reservations, arranging rides and instructing people to pick up food. Some even made plans to stay in Portland rather than continue southbound on the late train. 

As for us, it was a race to see if we would make the 44 bus or the 12. Of course we would rather take the 43, but once again it’s only hourly during rush hour with no weekend service.  44 being more desirable than 12 as it would get us closer to home but infrequent service would push us to take the 12 to Barbur Transit Center and ride bikes the last 1.5 miles. 

The sun had just set as we boarded the bus but we made it home with a sliver of blue sky showing. The kid was a champ and did an amazing job on this very long multi-modal day.

The next day I folded the Vektron and loaded it into our bucket bike to return it to Splendid Cycles. Thank you so much to Barb and the Splendid crew! Would we do it again? YES! Next time we’ll explore the new (to us) Sounder Train N line from Everett to Seattle and have our ORCA card ready! 

Thanks for reading along on our adventure!

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