A word on the rail/cycle interface

Travelling by train and bicycle can be a delight – it’s often the quickest way to get from A to B and it frees you up from driving to relax, take in the scenery, or catch up with life admin or a good book. However it’s definitely NOT as straightforward as hopping in the car, and can feel like a logistical nightmare to orchestrate on some journeys at some times of the week. With this in mind, I’ve compiled some top tips for taking your bike to meet the train in the hope that it stops you falling foul of some of the challenges I’ve encountered while I’ve been mastering this method of travel.

N.B. this article applies to UK railway services only and does not extend to subway, tram or Tube systems.

The rules of engagement. Every train service provider in the UK has slightly different rules on if, when and where you can stow your bicycle when travelling by rail. It is important that you look at these stipulations either on the provider’s website, or else ask the platform guard in good time. Some service providers stipulate that you must have a cycle reservation – which in my experience have always been free-of-charge, but sometimes have to be picked up in person from a staffed travel office at the train station in advance of your journey – for some or all of their services.

Electronic ticket barriers. There’s usually only one that’s wide enough to push your bicycle through and it’s usually the one with the slowest queue of buggy, luggage and other bike traffic. Manoeuvring your bike through the crowds with one hand while frantically hunting for where you’ve put your ticket with the other is an art in itself…

Multi-leg journeys. If you’re an able-bodied millennial like me, then you probably take for granted that your journey planning app’s internal algorithm will leave you enough time to make connections between trains. Not necessarily so if you throw a bicycle into the mix. Possible sources of delay to getting to your next train include:

  1. Having to retrieve your bike, re-pack it, unload it from the train, and then unpack and stow it on your next service. This can take a long time if the train you’re catching has a lot of carriages, and the one for storing your bike on is right at the end. I had to make a quick change at Edinburgh Waverley once and the train I was catching had bike storage in carriage P – no joke, P! – and I had to leg it down the platform from A onwards to get my bike on board, then back to carriage B where my seat reservation was, before the train departed. Never before have I so strongly wanted to flout the ‘no cycling on the platform’ rule. (One advantage of having a cycle reservation is that it alerts the train guard that a bicycle is boarding, and which station it’s getting off at. Usually the train guard will be ready to assist you in getting your bike off the train at your destination station and the train won’t run away with your bike on board.)
  2. Navigating train stations. You can’t zip in and out of those slow pokes on the platform as easily with a bicycle in tow. Additionally you might struggle carrying your bike up and down staircases and escalators, so you’ll likely need extra time to find the lift, queue for the lift, wait for the lift, then wait for the next lift because there’s not much room in those little lifts to squeeze a bicycle around everyone else.
  3. Other bicycles. Depending on the design of the bicycle storage on board your train, each cyclist may need to retrieve their bicycle and leave the train one at a time, which can take a while. This delay might cause disgruntlement to non-cycling passengers, so you need to have a bit of a thick skin sometimes…
  4. Delays or last-minute platform changes.

With all the above in mind, I’ve come up with some tips that I would give to anyone thinking of travelling by rail and bicycle for the first time.

Start with a simple, one leg journey in order to get the hang of it. Multi-leg journeys with narrow transfer windows are definitely not a novice sport and are likely to cause a high level of stress.

Folly à deux. Travelling as a couple for the first few journeys will speed up your transfer time while you get the hang of the different ways of stowing a bike on board.

Failing to prepare = preparing to fail. (Didn’t you used to hate it when your teacher said that?) Always check with the train service provider in advance what provisions they have for bikes. Don’t blag this and expect to turn up and wangle your way onto the train if they’ve told you that a cycle reservation is mandatory – many services only have limited space for bicycles and will turn you away if they’re full, even if you’ve already purchased a train ticket for yourself. Also consider what the rules are for your particular route – you can jump on most ScotRail services, for example, without booking your bike on in advance; three exceptions to this are services between Glasgow and Oban, Glasgow and Inverness, and Edinburgh and Inverness.

Be nice to the train staff. In my experience they have always been enthuiastic to help cyclists complete their journey by rail. They don’t get to decide how many bike spaces are allocated on a service and they have an obligation to refuse to overload a train with bicycles if it would be deemed a safety hazard.

Give yourself plenty of time. Get to the platform early, locate the platform guard and ask them where the bicycle storage carriage is likely to stop on the platform. Most likely they’ll help stow your bike on board, adding legitimacy to your choice of travel modality when other passengers consider it a nuisance. [A nuisance, you say? Who could possibly find us cyclists a nuisance? Well my dear friends, let me point you in the direction of Banterludes 1, 3 & 5].

Dress for success. Think tactically about the outfit you’ll wear for travelling. In a bid to appear the effortless voyager you might consider having a convenient pocket to keep your tickets or travel card in rather than having them in the bottom of a bag. A pair of gloves is useful as you’re likely to get your hands dirty loading and unloading your bike from the train.

It is a fool’s move to get a coffee from the station to take on board with you. Unless you can get through an electronic ticket barrier with an unruly bicycle in one hand, your ticket in the other and your coffee balanced on your head in which case, I salute you.

Beat the traffic. Try and get to back to your bike before the train’s PA announces that it is approaching your destination station. If other passengers have already started retrieving their luggage and standing in the aisle ready to disembark it makes it near impossible to move up the train to get to your bike, which may be stowed a few (or many) carriages from your seat.

Door blocking. If there’s no specific bicycle storage on your train and you are asked to lean it in the doorway, be prepared to sit or stand near to it and move it around to help people get off the train. On some services the platform may appear on the left or the right, so your bike won’t necessarily always be out of the way. — Once I was on a train when a cyclist propped their bike in the doorway and hadn’t noticed it was in the way of passengers trying to alight at the platform. Rather than trying to get the cyclist’s attention, the first passenger just opened the door and let the bicycle fall out onto the platform. A brainless thing to do for sure, but perhaps symptomatic of the selfish decisions we all make in the context of the stress that many feel around missing their stop on public transport.

No-go zones. Consider that if your journey involves a Rail Replacement Bus or a leg on the Tube, tram or subway, it is unlikely you’ll be able to board, unless you’ve a snazzy fold-up bike.

War zones. A final word on choosing to travel by rail with your bike: even with a bike and seat reservation, some rail services are just too busy to make getting your bike on and off the train tolerable. Think popular tourist routes during school holidays, and train lines connecting airports to major cities. Very few experiences curb my enthusiasm for choosing bike over car, but this would be one effort too far.

22 September, 2019

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