09 Apr 2013

All Packed Up; but how do I transport my bike?

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The packing's done, now how do I get it on the train?

The packing’s done, now how do I get it on the train?

If there is one topic that is bound to engage anyone who attempts to travel sustainably, it is the question of how to convey bicycles on public transport. What is more more interesting though, is how opinion on the best way to do this divides the cycling community itself.

This was brought home to me last week during a discussion with fellow Sustrans’ volunteers over Eurostar’s cycle carriage policy. I must admit I was genuinely surprised by the venom directed towards Eurostar’s ‘new’ policy of charging £30 to convey bikes in a dedicated space.

The reaction intrigued me because, having transported my bike this way last year, I certainly didn’t regard it as a ‘new’ policy. Yet the discussion was apparently stimulated by a request from a cyclists’ organisation to support its opposition and lobby Eurostar to reinstate the previous method of carriage where bikes could be conveyed, free of charge, in suitable bike bags.

It seems strange that since the policy changed as far back as 2008, it has only emerged as an issue now – perhaps Eurostar’s new user-friendly website has made its conditions of carriage clearer? However, there is no denying that transporting a bike is problematic and is further complicated by the plethora of conditions and methods of carriage among the different companies in our competing privatised rail system.

Ideally, I long for the days of the old guard’s van, where you could turn up  and wheel your bike on board, without any prior reservation or special ticket. Similarly, I also look back with affection to the same days when you could pitch up at the booking office and buy a reasonably priced ticket without having to book it months in advance online. But, unfortunately, those days are gone and, however reluctantly, we have to make the best of the current system and continue to lobby all operating companies for more bike spaces on trains.

Having transported a bike regularly on trains throughout the UK over recent years, I admit I always fear the worst case scenario where, despite having a bike reservation, there are no spaces left, or on smaller trains, the designated space is already occupied by wheelchairs and buggies. Generally, in my experience, all such situations have been resolved by flexibility and the good sense of the train manager.

Interestingly, the most hostile scenario I have faced – with the prospect of having to leave a long distance train, despite having the correct reservations – was caused by a fellow cyclist who refused to remove his bike from the reserved space because he didn’t see why he should have to make a reservation. In this case it was the insistence of the train manager, plus the threat of removal by transport police, that granted me my reservation.

But ultimately, the moral of the story is that, however much you may dislike the regulations, failure to obey them, deliberate or otherwise, penalises only your fellow cyclists, not the train operating companies or Network Rail.

Returning to my initial point, I found Eurostar’s ‘new’ policy seamless and well worth the price to avoid the stress and hassle of trying to board a crowded train with an awkward bike bag and two heavy panniers. I would also gladly pay £30 if it means not having to assemble and disassemble handlebars and pedals every time I transport the bike. But I recognise  opinion is split on this issue and those of a more mechanical bent, who own a bike bag and travel light, may not agree, even though £30 compares very favourably with air travel where you usually pay more and have to use a bike bag.

The figures from neutral rail observers, as well as Eurostar, show a huge increase in cycles now being transported across the Channel since the system changed. Surely, we should at least be positive about this and try to work with operating companies to further improve bike carriage, rather than negatively oppose every new initiative, however successful?

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