Travelling easily by train with a bike shouldn’t be a fantasy
Post by James Adamson, THSG Board Member
Since starting work in 2002 I have cycled to work with distances ranging from one to 12 miles. Every day, rain or shine. It’s a habit that I enjoy, and I never consider it a difficulty because I am just used to it. I realised how much I missed my daily fix of fresh air and exercise during COVID. I enjoy cycling. It’s quick and easy and lets me choose when I leave and where I go. And it has kept me in good health, so much so that I have only been off sick once in the last 12 years. I also enjoy cheaper commuting costs and consistent travel times and not being caught in traffic jams.
We know active travel is good for us and good for the planet so why aren’t more people cycling for journeys where walking might be too far? We know the answers people give to this question too: roads are too busy, nowhere to lock my bike, nowhere to have a shower, nowhere to store my cycling gear, have to drop my kids off, I have to be home early…we could go on. Those areas need attention for sure, but some of these are about perspective and simple travel planning.
There are also “quieter” routes we can use, and flexible working is also helping. People often cite “getting sweaty” as a barrier to cycling to work. Regularity will improve fitness in any physical activity but going at a gentle pace and wearing appropriate clothing also means we will be far less likely to sweat. I don’t sweat when I go to the shops because I walk, not run. You also don’t have to travel by foot, bike or public transport every day to help make a difference to your own health, climate change, congestion, air quality and safer streets – every journey counts.
Is it all a bed of roses? Well, no. There are lots of improvements needed in prioritisation and infrastructure and what I have noticed in the past decade is the barriers being placed to travelling by train with your bike. Pre and post Covid-19, I have to attend office locations in various places and some of these distances are over 40 miles away. The obvious choice is integrating bike trips with a train trip. Even if I did want to drive, parking at the sites is limited and congestion is enough to put me off. Some train journeys work out more expensive than taking a car, others cheaper, but I can do emails on the train and read for pleasure. Priceless as a busy parent.
Most service operators make you book your bike on the train in advance. That’s fine but it is a definite barrier since we don’t always know when we might have to attend the office or a meeting far in advance. Even if you book online, you have to collect paper tickets – so 20th century! For a recent journey involving one change and total travel time of 38 minutes, I received 16 paper tickets, two for me, 14 for my bike. That’s surely not sustainable or cost effective. Why can’t this be done as an e-ticket? If it was, this would give train operators a live update of bike spaces booked. Currently if you cancel your journey with a paper ticket, they still think there will be a bike on board and others can’t take that space.
For those who have tried taking a bike on a train and booked a place, I’m sure the experience of finding a train already full of bikes will resonate, as will not being able to book a place because it was fully booked only to find not a single bike board or alight for the whole journey. In instances where you have booked and the train is full, some guards let you on, some don’t. I understand the health and safety reasons for denying entry but why are there only two bike spaces, maybe four, at peak commuting hours? I have had experiences of cancelled services where I had a booking then being denied on board the next train because it was full of bikes; it’s simply not good enough.
Overall, I have found the guards to be polite and helpful and they are generally as bemused as cyclists are about the state of the provision for bikes on trains. The fact is that booking a bike should be as simple as booking a ticket and this is an essential step to making train travel more attractive for people who have more than a short walk at either end.
Then there’s the actual bike storage provision itself. Some of the spaces for “hanging” a bike up have clearly been designed by people who have little understanding of using a bike – getting two bikes hanging next to one another takes a Crystal maze effort and untangling them at your station can be stressful as people try to alight and board. Frustratingly you frequently find prams and luggage. People have children and luggage. That’s normal. It’s one of the remaining convenience benefits of train travel over air travel – take what you like and no need to book it in. But this often ends up being in the bike storage areas and locating passengers to move it can be difficult. Do you loiter with your bike in the vestibule, move the luggage, or call for help?
And if it’s not luggage it’s the big bin bag of single use coffee cups – apparently train designers failed to think about bin space. Imagine if you put a bin bag on a first-class seat? GWR have even gone as far as putting fold-down luggage racks IN the bike storage bays on their new Hitachi models – who has priority here? Who knows! This is especially frustrating when some of their trains have exemplary storage facilities.
I have seen archive footage of bike compartments on British trains, with guards helping load and unload bikes at stations. In other countries, platform and train staff help you board and are happy to have your custom. In the UK it sometimes feels like you are carrying a lethal object on board with all the hoops you have to jump through. Recently, in Paris, I saw two cyclists taking bikes on the RER (light rail) at rush hour with no issues and not a bother from passengers or staff. It brought back memories of living in Newcastle and the absolute “impossibility” of having bikes on the Metro system there. It’s a mindset. It can be done. We need to plan for it and make it happen. No excuses. The reality is we all need to be doing all we can to help improve our health, the health of others and the health of the planet. Active travel offers huge potential to help reach net zero and improve population health long-term. I cycle to work and use the train as an intermediate step, but I can understand why people just give up. The solutions are simple and there is plenty of expertise available to advise train operators if they want it. I won’t stop my commute – it’s an ethical and health choice. I just wish more people could join me because it was easy, not because they fancy a challenge as hard as the Tour de France.