Amtrak is days away from cracking down on a small but troublesome portion of its passengers: people who attempt to bring aboard more than 150 pounds worth of luggage. On Thursday, the railway service will begin enforcing long-standing baggage rules that limit travelers to four items—two small personal ones and two standard carry-ons—with fees. Those who exceed the quantity and size allowances will be asked to pay a surcharge of $20 per bag, with a maximum of two excess carry-ons.
Amtrak says it’s introducing these fees to help conductors and crews solve a problem that’s proved tricky in the past: What to do when someone shows up with too many bags. While the railway’s baggage restrictions have been in place for at least 10 years, there’s previously been no well-defined protocol for dealing with people who break them. “The crews were in a difficult position because they couldn’t give anyone an option,” says Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. “They had to decide, well, do we allow people to continue to ride?”
The concern on Amtrak’s end is twofold. First, that passengers who show up with too many or too heavy bags are inconveniencing other riders by taking up more than their fair share of space. Second, that those heavy bags can be burdensome for crew members. “It’s important that we preserve the space aboard the trains, because the trains are pretty busy,” Magliari says. “And it’s a safety issue for our crews having to lift more than 50 pounds” (the maximum weight allowed for a single carry-on).
Amtrak is adamant that, despite these new fees, its baggage policies remain among the most generous in the travel industry—and it’s right. With more and more airlines nickel-and-diming customers for everything from their carry-ons to their seat selection, Amtrak’s four-item, 150-pound luggage allowance looks pretty great in comparison. Even longtime holdout JetBlue fell in line with other air carriers and began charging for checked bags this summer. And considering how generous Amtrak’s allowances already are, that it’s actually going to start enforcing them is probably a net positive. There are far more travelers who only bring one or two items aboard their trains and would be irritated by having no space to put them than passengers who lug aboard five or more heavy things.
If there’s anything funny about Amtrak’s shift to charging baggage fees, it’s frankly that the railroad service waited so long to do it. Magliari chalks this up to the problem being fairly small. “It’s not a very large number,” he tells me of the extra-bag-bringers, declining to provide more specific figures. “I’ve seen tubs and I’ve seen garbage bags, and I’ve seen people struggling with too many bags wherever I travel.” In big college markets, he adds, “some people try to move their whole dorm rooms on the train.” (As someone once guilty of attempting this, I can attest to it being true.) Still, the vast majority of people don’t even come close to meeting Amtrak’s limits. “The fact that we’re enforcing the allowance shouldn’t be a change for most passengers,” Magliari says.
As for how Amtrak plans to enforce the enforcement? “Our people will be watching for this. Our conductors are watching for it,” Magliari says. “If someone at the station notices this and thinks that [a bag is] overweight or oversized … they will intercept them.” At smaller stations, perhaps that will work. In the madhouse that is New York’s Penn Station when a train boarding is called? Good luck.