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

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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Tips for Travelling to Italy by Train

It is incredibly easy to take the train to Italy – or indeed, anywhere else in western Europe – and, when travelling overnight and going direct between city centres is taken into consideration, it can be just as quick and significantly less disruptive than air travel. For example, you can leave St Pancras late afternoon and be in Milan in time for breakfast – this includes time for an evening meal and a comfortable night’s sleep – and this compares very favourably with getting up in the middle of the night, spending a couple of hours in a soulless airport terminal and arriving early morning in another indistinguishable terminal, miles from your destination.

It can also be considerably cheaper (see Fares) especially if you travel as a group with lots of equipment and when the cost of overnight accommodation is taken into account.

But essentially, long distance rail travel is about adopting a totally different perspective about travel by making the journey an integral part of your trip. Sit back, relax, enjoy the changes in culture and landscapes as you travel and your journey will be one of the highlights of your holiday.

Seat 61 : is your bible when travelling by train. Much of the information and references that follow comes from Seat 61, apart from a few points that I have picked up on my travels. Find out the options of how to travel to Italy

Fares: the same principle of booking as early as possible, now obligatory in the UK, increasingly applies in Europe also. By booking about two months in advance, I secured Eurostar tickets to Paris for £36 each way and paid €32 each way between Paris and Turin, travelling by day. If you are travelling as a group, fares can be as low as £38 for a couchette – remember, this effectively includes your accommodation for the night.

I found Italia Rail the best method of buying tickets. You will be billed in US dollars, but any currency charges are more than offset by the savings made. If you don’t want to pay any currency charges, get yourself a pre-paid currency card, like Caxton

Eurostar : now gets to Paris and Brussels in about two hours. Book in advance and be prepared to travel out with peak hours and you can find good reductions (see above).

You will leave from the stunning St Pancras station, so if you leave during the day you can spend some of the money you’ve saved at the Champagne Bar.

Paris metro tickets are available, but only in books of 10. If you don’t need that many, make sure you have some spare Euro coins available (see below).

Changing stations in Paris: you will arrive at the Gare du Nord and,  will need to take the RER Line D to the Gare de Lyon. Pick up a metro map at St Pancras and work out your route. It’s easy enough, it’s the green line D, just make sure you are going in the right direction by checking the last stop – Melun, Malesherbes on your way there, Orry la Ville Coye Creil on your way back to the Gare du Nord – as you go through the barriers and on the information boards.

A few trains to Italy leave from the Gare de Bercy which is one stop on Line 14 to Bercy from the Gare de Lyon.

Buy a metro ticket from the machines (instructions are available in English). Currently, a single costs €1.70.

Catering outlets are generally better at Gare de Lyon than at Gare du Nord (best to go outside to one of the side streets for a coffee).

Luggage and bicycles: most continental trains have large luggage racks at the end of each carriage – use them and put your smaller stuff in the racks above your seat. Remember, if you are going on an activity holiday, you are likely to have a lot of luggage and you will not be charged extra, as you are on planes.

Seat 61 gives information about travelling with bicycles. Folding bikes and those in bike bags can usually be taken on board with you.

Travelling by day vs travelling overnight: it’s your call, depending on your preferences and available time. If there are only one or two of you, it’s usually cheaper by day and the Alpine scenery is stunning. By going overnight, you use sleeping time to travel and it can be very cheap if there are a few of you.

Getting to Kokopelli: choose your option to Milan, then follow the instructions to Pescara from where you can either hire a car, or travel on to Chieti by bus or train. Use Rail Europe’s search engine  for trains or look at the timetable for the buses.










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Sulovske Skaly: Slovakia’s best kept secret

Climb, hike and cycle among the rock towers, gorges and ravines of this beautiful but unknown part of Slovakia – but hurry before everyone else discovers Sulovske Skaly too.

The Sulov Area

It was hot and dusty and, as we jumped from the train, I half-expected some Henry Fondaesque assassin to ambush us at the isolated junction. But we were in Slovakia not the Wild West and Branko, our in-house translator, assured us, correctly, that the next train would arrive in five minutes.

Slovakian trains may be crowded and functional, but they are regular, cheap and punctual and 30 minutes later we gasped in collective amazement at the spectacular rock formations straight in front of us as we finally arrived in Sulovske Skaly  a “rock city” made up of contorted slabs of limestone around two hours north west of Bratislava.

Even for those able to differentiate their Slovakias from their Slovenias, this region remains undiscovered. Lower in altitude than the better-known Tatras to the north-east, its rock towers, needles, windows and gates, separated by deep waterless gorges and ravines, form a national nature reserve, deservedly popular with Slovakian walkers and climbers. Its forested and round-topped limestone ridges are also much more typical of Slovakia’s mountains than the Tatras, but you’ll find little tourist infrastructure and few English speakers.

Penzion Sulov

Our base, Penzion Sulov, was an attractive self-catered, wooden chalet, equipped with hot showers, comfortable double bedrooms and even a tennis court, and represented amazing value at a week’s cost of only 70 euros each, particularly as it also boasted satellite TV and more than enough space to store and dry the plethora of equipment needed for a hiking/climbing holiday. Situated only five minutes’ walk from the starting point of the climbs and hiking routes, this accessibility put it in a class of its own: no driving hassle or petrol costs, simply get your kit and walk out the door.

The hiking trails offered something for everyone, with expertly-marked paths, colour-coded for difficulty levels ranging from gentle rambles to strenuous hikes. Although elevations peaked at around 800m, some ascents were steep and, with handrails and ladders in strategic points, hikes often resembled via ferratas.

Maniska Tiesnava Gorge

But, with spectacular views from the highest ridges, plus outstanding rock features, castle ruins and a relatively unspoilt ecosystem, this region offered many of the best elements of hiking, concentrated in a compact area easily reached by foot or cycle.

Make sure you visit the 13 metre high Goticka brana (Gothic Gate) rock formation, admire the views from the ruins of Sulovsky hrad (castle) and see the Sulovsky vodopad (waterfall).

During the last 20 years, the Sulov area has developed into something of a paradise for climbers and, today, it is regarded as one of the most interesting areas in Central Europe. For our rock fiends the climbing proved to be a revelation, surprising even the veterans with the quality of the bolting and testing grades on the often bizarre-shaped rocks. And, uniquely, we were the only Brits, as apart from a lone American, our fellow climbers were exclusively Slovakian.

The Súľov rocks are famous for a remarkable collection of plant species, including some very rare orchids. In general the region, although rural, is relatively uncultivated, resulting in delightful meadows of pastel-coloured wildflowers. We didn’t manage to meet the resident lynx, but the forests echoed to the clatter of noisy, brightly coloured birds, while surreal looking butterflies and cleverly camouflaged leaf frogs remained unperturbed by our presence.

Butterfly in meadow

Around a mile away was the hamlet of Sulov, with its brightly painted houses and attractive old church. Its small general store supplied us with enough provisions for the first couple of days and the family from the small bar in the village centre went out of their way to cook us a hearty Slovakian dinner of gulas (goulash) and bryndzove halusky (potato gnocchi) on our first night. But this is an area not yet geared up for tourism. Bars and cafés, although welcoming, were thin on the ground and did not routinely offer meals without prior notice. Coffee was, however, universally excellent.

We self-catered and, from outside the chalet, there was a fairly regular bus service to the nearest town, Bytca. Slovakian buses , like their rail counterparts, are clean and punctual, if rather basic. Towns in this area tend to be an odd mixture of some ornate traditional buildings, interspersed with bleak blocks of Stalinesque flats, along with some pioneer outposts of McDonald’s and Tesco.

Bytca offered little for foodies, but Branko did lead us to one gem: Expresso-Jadran (Micurova, 369/8, 01401 Bytca), a small, unprepossessing café near the bus station. Owned by Branko’s fellow Bosnian, Kurtovic Hasan, a refugee from the civil war of the 1990s, it offered a bewildering range of delicious home-made ice cream and some seriously scrumptious pastries, particularly a mouth-watering sour cherry strudel, to accompany its strong, heady espressos.

If you want a cheap, peaceful, safe holiday with a range of outdoor activities for all ages right outside your door, in a beautiful, undiscovered, part of Europe, then visit Sulovske Skaly before everyone else does. Don’t go if you need wall-to-wall tourist infrastructure, upmarket restaurants, clubs and bars, fast food and western consumerism.

How to get there

Sulovske Skaly may be unsung, but it’s easily reached.Take the train (use Seat 61  for info on rail travel throughout Europe). Slovakia, nestling cosily between Vienna and Budapest, by rail is a breeze, more civilised and, with group bookings and unrestricted luggage, can be better value.

Map of area

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Re “Parking Troubles”

This is my reply to a letter published in the March issue of TGO magazine, in which the correspondent complained about a £10 parking charge levied in the Snowdonia National Park. I hope it might stimulate a debate on what measures we can use to reduce car usage in National Parks and how we can campaign for the preservation and improvement of public transport in rural areas. Any suggestions?

How can we reduce traffic and improve access to our beautiful National Parks?


John Morris’s complaint about high parking charges in Snowdonia raises some interesting wider questions about the entitlement of motorists to drive and park cheaply within our national parks.

If a high parking charge discourages one motorist from driving around a beautiful, but fragile, environment like Snowdonia, then I would support it, however spurious the reasoning behind the charge.

Has Mr Morris considered joining the National Trust (NT)? Membership would enable him to enjoy free parking in NT car parks.  Another answer could be to share his journey to North Wales with other walkers, especially if he usually travels on his own: four people in one fairly economic car not only reduces emissions, but lowers individual petrol costs and parking charges.

An even better solution would be for Mr Morris to “dump his car” at home and try to access most of our beautiful places by foot, bike or public transport. Then he might just appreciate the difficulties faced by those of us who don’t/can’t /won’t drive. Perhaps his experiences might also encourage him to join this neglected group in lobbying for the preservation and improvement of public transport in rural areas.

Mr Morris protests that high parking charges equate to “taxing our outdoor pursuits”. An alternative view would question how much entitlement motorists should have to pollute and obstruct our national parks without appropriate penalty.

Hopefully, the question of parking charges might lead to a general debate on how we can reduce traffic throughout all our national parks and other beautiful areas: yes, we may have been there before, and no, trying to reduce the number of cars in these areas does not represent a war on motorists. We need workable solutions before we ruin even more of our countryside.

Jill Phillip

For anyone seeking information about how to access walks in national parks (and other areas throughout the country) without a car, check out: while www.bootandbike showcases walking and cycling routes in UK and Europe, as well as giving advice on how to plan trips on foot, or by bike and how to get there without flying, or using a car. campaigns for sustainable transport options and lobbies for the rights of pedestrians in urban and rural areas.

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HS2: Good or Bad?

Rail: the future for sustainable travel?

HS2 has been a difficult issue for advocates of green, sustainable, travel. And, in the week when the government has finally given the signal to begin the project, the strange alliances on both sides of the argument are a good illustration of how divisive this issue has become.

Usually, it would be assumed that environmental groups would support the idea of encouraging more people to travel by train, but concerns about damage to the countryside and wildlife along the route, combined with arguments about just how high its emissions will be, have convinced many environmentalists to campaign against the line.

So, we now have some of the most bizarre and unlikely bedfellows lined up together on both sides. For the pros we have most of the government and opposition, the devolved government in Scotland, the majority of business leaders, particularly in the north, some environmental and green groups and most railway lovers. At the other end of the platform, we have many Tory backbench MPs, local councils and protest groups, the Countryside Alliance, some environmentalists, powerful conservation groups like The Woodland Trust, a few railway buffs, notably Christian Wolmar, Inner London action groups, and of course, Lord Astor.

The arguments are many and complicated, but the most powerful one, as far as the government is concerned, is the need to improve infrastructure and, thereby, stimulate business. This, to those of us on the green side, would usually be considered to be a weary and predictable response that should, but does not, take any account of the environment that is about to be damaged.

Equally, it is too easy to dismiss the concerns of wealthy home and landowners in the Chilterns as nimbyism. Everyone, whether they live in a mansion in Buckinghamshire, or a council flat in Camden, would be devastated should their home be threatened by demolition. And, while it is true that if the proposed line had been drawn through some less attractive and prosperous areas of the country the wails of protest would be less influential and less vocal, it cannot be denied that the route will have huge human and environmental impact.

Despite this, the case for HS2 still outweighs the arguments against it.  We in Britain, are already a laughing stock as far as fast, efficient railways are concerned, in comparison with the rest of Western Europe and, although this investment in infrastructure should have been made years ago, it’s still better late than never.

The most effective argument for HS2 is to look at how ineffectual the alternatives are:

  • upgrading the West Coast Main Line (WCML), the most quoted alternative, would be totally ineffectual, indeed futile. Over the last 10 years or so, this line has been in almost perpetual reconstruction: new bridges, longer platforms and four lanes of track now run through much of the Midlands. In addition to Virgin, there is now a slower and cheaper service from Crewe to Euston, operated by London Midland. But, the early-morning crowded platforms at every station from Crewe southwards tell their own story. Equally, it is well-nigh impossible to find a seat out of Euston from late afternoon onwards. Travelling north to to Glasgow, credit is due to Virgin as the line is now immeasurably better (possibly also to do with the demise of RailTrack), although horrendously expensive. Time wise – three hours from Crewe and four from Birmingham – it compares well with alternative methods of travel, but trains are invariably crowded and packed with both passengers and luggage.
  • abandoning HS2 would not lead to more people walking, cycling and using other trains, but to yet more motorways – and more single-occupancy vehicles – and air travel; both of which are considerably less green than HS2
  • support for HS2 does not mean opposing the improvement of existing railways, or the reduction in fares, or the re-opening of old/new stations and lines, or the extension of bus routes and making cities and the countryside more walking/cycling friendly

Living near the route, I will be affected by its construction, but this part of the Midlands is already defaced by overcrowded motorways, under-used toll roads and noisy, polluting airports.  Unfortunately, there will be an environmental cost for HS2, but the alternatives would be far worse.

Now that HS2 has been approved, all of us who care about the environment should work together to try to minimise its damaging impact.  But, we should also celebrate a decision that shows rail is the mode of land travel for the future and continue to lobby for improved and user-friendly public transport (including trains equipped to carry bikes and more luggage) and re-claim our roads, lanes and streets for safer cycling and walking.

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Charity Challenge: harder test, lower impact

Ribblehead Viaduct

After becoming involved, against my better instincts, in an on-line forum on the subject earlier in the week, my thoughts returned to the pros and cons of charity challenges during a congenial weekend in North Yorkshire.

A captivating autumn day, engaging company, added to the  treat of starting and ending our ascent of  Whernside by the spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct; what wasn’t to like?

But while we took full advantage of our day, marvelling at the engineering skills of Victorian railway builders, taking our time on route to the summit – admittedly,  because of my catalogue of recent injuries – while admiring the autumnal panorama, the majority of our fellow hikers  appeared oblivious to the views and the location in their desperation to ascend and descend the hill within some set guideline for an organised charity event. And even on a November afternoon, there were still plenty of competitors about to ascend as late as 3pm.

But,so what?  Surely we should be celebrating that so many people are out enjoying the great outdoors; particularly if they are raising money for worthwhile charities at the same time? Well, yes, but it is certainly debatable if everyone was enjoying themselves: the majority of the expressions suggested it was more of an ordeal.

Ingleborough in the Clouds

And, of course, with so many people involved – competitors climbing, then descending, three or four abreast, outside the assigned path, the litter, the vehicle support – we also move into the thorny issue of environmental damage and whether the money raised justifies the harm to the habitat and rise in emissions.

I have mixed feelings about charity challenges. While, in principle, I support any activities that get people out in the fresh air, get them fit and enable them to raise valuable funds at the same time, I also believe that any associated environmental damage must not be simply disregarded as an unfortunate, but less important, side effect.

In addition, I see little point of holding these challenges in beautiful places if the majority of the competitors are unable to appreciate the unique setting of the event.  It the overriding objective is to complete a certain number of physical challenges within a specified time and, as a result, participants are too exhausted or too preoccupied to enjoy the locality, what’s the point of hosting it there? A physical challenge of this sort could just as easily be completed using cardio equipment in a gym.

Autumn in the Dales

Particularly culpable in this case is the Three Peaks Challenge where the three highest mountains on the British mainland have to be scaled within a strict time period, often 24 hours.  As a result, the challenge is as much about the logistics of getting to the mountains in time, as it is about climbing them and, consequently, convoys of vehicles tear along motorways with teams of drivers and support staff, often disrupting local communities by arriving and departing in the middle of the night.

But I do not advocate the abolition of the Three Peaks.  Instead, I suggest we make it a proper test where competitors would also be aware of, and able to enjoy, the beauty and challenges of the environment, with a much reduced carbon footprint.

Firstly, and most importantly, the 24 hour time limit would be abolished.
Secondly, participants would have to arrive at their first peak and travel between the subsequent ones on foot, by bike, or by using public transport (including ferry if the challenge is extended to include Ireland).
Thirdly, the time limits now imposed would be flexible and reflect the mode of travel and length of journey to the first mountain; days if travelling by public transport and an appropriate number of weeks if on foot, or by bike.

So, what do you think? Should charity challenges should be banned? Does the money raised for good causes outweigh any adverse effects? Any other suggestions?
Over to you…….

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