Trains and bicycles are an ideal transport mix, combining high-speed inter-urban travel with unbeatable short distance efficiency. National Rail recognises this and its website states: “National Rail encourages the integrated use of cycles and trains - two convenient and environmentally friendly forms of transport.”
However, as encouraging as this might sound, there are some stipulations. You can combine cycling and train travel but to avoid frustration you need to know the system, or buy a second bike (which you can get at a discounted rate through our cycle to work scheme).
Can You Take Bikes on Trains?
First the good news: bikes are allowed free of charge on most British trains at most times of day. However there’s usually a limit of two to six bikes per train, and you may need to reserve a space.
It’s hard to be specific as there are more than 20 train operating companies and they each have their own rules and restrictions regarding cycle carriage. Some companies ban bikes on particular services at certain times, such as commuter trains into London. A common workaround for this is to invest in a folding bike.
For services that don’t require a bike reservation, you can just turn up and lift your bike aboard – with one proviso: that there’s space.
If the train’s bike spaces are taken, the guard can refuse you. This is inconvenient if you have an open ticket and if you have an advance purchase ticket, expensive, too.
If your journey does require a bike reservation, this will be for a specific train. Don’t miss it! If you do and it’s the rail service’s fault – perhaps the connecting train was late or your train was cancelled – your reservation will generally be honoured on the next available train. Speak to the station staff and/or the guard.
If you only have yourself to blame for your missed train, you have a problem.
Train companies generally require a cycle reservation to be booked 24 hours in advance, which is impossible if you want to board the next train. You also might have a problem if your train is replaced by a bus service, since bikes aren’t ordinarily carried on them. If you can remove the wheels before bringing the bike on, this normally helps your case.
What If You’re Unsure Whether You Can Take Your Bike On Your Train?
Not knowing whether you’ll get your bike on your train, for whatever reason, can make rail travel with a conventional bike stressful. Station staff should be willing to help, but it won’t hurt to be extra nice – especially to the guard.
It’s ultimately their call as to whether you and your bike get on board. Most guards recognise that having only two spaces for bikes, especially on commuter trains, is inadequate. Others will happily make you wait for the next train, (even though there’s no guarantee you’ll get on that either).
If you’re a commuter, ensuring you have a space reserved for your bike every day is essential.
Are There Any Other Ways to Take Bikes on Trains?
Other workarounds can be boarding in first class and standing with your bike in the vestibule. The guard may or may not approve of this, but the first class section of a train is normally sparsely populated, meaning you’re less likely to be in people’s way.
We also only recommend this if you are doing a short train journey. The worst that can happen is you’re asked to move further back or to wait for the next train. However, if you explain the situation and are polite throughout, the guards will often empathise with your situation (that’s if they even ask).
It’s also worth checking out the Cycle-Rail awards to see which train companies are doing their bit for cyclists. Southeastern came out on top in 2017 - they have room for bikes at every single door. As a result, you can fit about ten times as many bikes on a two-carriage Southeastern service than, for example, a ten-carriage East Midlands service, as they only allow for two bikes, no matter the size of the train.
How to Book a Bike on a Train
There are three options for booking a bicycle on a train:
- In person at your nearest staffed railway station
- Over the phone when you use a train company’s booking line
- On the internet
The East Coast website is best. You can use this site for journeys on other networks as well, not just East Coast’s. Select your journey and click ‘buy’ and you’ll go to the Journey Details page. This will list things like preferred seating and catering vouchers. Also listed is ‘bicycle space’. Click it, choose the number of bike spaces you want to reserve, and the website does the rest.
When you get to the platform, ask station staff where to stand so you don’t have to run from one end to the other. There will sometimes be announcements on the platform stating where the bicycle spaces are, but don’t count on it.
On smaller trains, you lift your bike aboard yourself. Look for a cycle symbol on the side of the train and use the restraints inside to secure your bike. Here’s a pro tip: bring your bicycle onto the train backwards. This makes it much easier to disembark. On intercity trains, you need the guard to open the guard’s van or cycle locker for you.
You also need the guard to unlock this, which can understandably be a cause of anxiety. Will the train depart with your bike still on it? Tell the guard your destination when you board and when he checks your tickets, and get yourself to the guard’s van promptly when you alight.
Bikes as Baggage
It’s possible for even a full-size bike to be considered luggage, if it’s dismantled and inside a bag. This is impractical for commuting, however, and it’s tough to meet size requirements.
The National Conditions of Carriage state that you're allowed to take two pieces of luggage onto a train for free: one measuring 90x70x30cm, another measuring 50x40x20cm. If your bagged bike is bigger than that but no more than 100cm in any dimension, the guard can charge you half the adult fare for it. If it’s bigger than 100cm in any dimension, the guard can refuse it.
If you want to be able to travel on any train at any time without a reservation, you need a folding bike. Compact folders are the best option as they’re carried without restriction, even on replacement buses. They meet – or come close to – the 90x70x30cm luggage size requirement. Some companies require the folding bike to be bagged, but most don’t.
Bigger folding bikes might be classed as full-size bikes or oversized luggage by a rules-minded guard, even though the Association of Train Operating Companies seems to have dropped its requirement that a folding bike’s wheels be ‘20in or smaller’.
If your bigger folding bike fits an end of carriage luggage rack and doesn’t inconvenience other passengers, you should be fine.
A Bike at Each End
The other bike-rail option is to park your bike at your home station, board the train without it, and ride another bike from your destination to your place of work. You’ll need two bikes for this, leaving a cheap hack bike locked up at the destination station. Don’t use anything that would cause too much heartache or expense if it were stolen or vandalised, and make it as low-maintenance as possible; you won’t have much opportunity to fix this bike, on account of having a train to catch.
If you’re travelling to London, you can hire bikes using Santander Cycles (formerly Barclays Hire Bike). For casual use, hiring a bike costs just £2 for 24 hours.
Alternatively, you can get two bikes through Cyclescheme, which enables you to ride from your home to the train station and another to ride from the station to work.
A couple of years ago, Cyclescheme reached out to National Rail Enquiries to try and get to grips with what has changed and why a surge in cycle-rail journeys was being reported.
We were told that to meet passenger demand, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), Network Rail and train operators are working harder to improve cycle facilities and information, along with the government and local authorities. There's also a compelling digital resource that's helping people understand how cycling can complement rail travel (and vice versa). This top tech is called PlusBike.
PlusBike has made cycle-rail travel easier than ever for cycle commuters and bike lovers. PlusBike is a one-stop shop for information to help people plan and make combined cycle and rail journeys easier. It offers information about cycle facilities at stations, cycle carriage rules, reservation details, and local cycle-hire availability through the National Rail mobile app and website.
We chatted to a spokesperson at PlusBike who told us that they are “working hard to improve services to meet the growing demand for cycle-rail journeys, and we listen to what passengers and groups tell us about their experiences of travelling by train with a bicycle. One of these is the need for better information. That’s why we’ve worked with train operators to develop PlusBike, which launched in January 2015.”
“PlusBike allows us to provide helpful and easy to understand and accessible information, with a view to improving customer experience and door-to-door journeys.” says Sarbjeet. “Satisfaction among PlusBike users is extremely high at 89%, and we want more people to be aware of the service so that even more people can discover how easy it is to travel by rail with a cycle.”
Cycle-rail users are predominantly daily commuters, but PlusBike is also ideal for leisure users and those making new and unfamiliar journeys.
How to Use PlusBike
To use PlusBike head over to the National Rail Enquires website, and enter your journey details. We've chosen Bath Spa -> London.
Once you know the journey that suits you, click on the 'Details' link.
Once you are in the 'Details' view, you'll see some icons displayed to the right of the train information. If you hover over the icons, you get more info.
To see the PlusBike info, hover over the icon with the P (and a small vertical bicycle). This will show you:
- Whether bicycles are allowed
- The types of bicycle allowed (full size, compact, fully folding, fully folding with cover)
- Whether a reservation is required
- The number of cycle spaces available
- A description of the operator’s cycle policy and a link to the full policy
The Bike-Rail Commuter
So you want to split up your commute between bike and train, but what do you need? Here’s some suggestions of all the kit you need for a painless commute.
With a compact folding bike, you can get on any train. Note the word compact. National Rail means bikes that are 'fully folding' and have 'wheels up to 20 inches in diameter'. If the folder has bigger wheels, carriage is at the guard's discretion. A compact folding bike is your best bet to avoid any cycle restrictions on trains (as well as being a really handy piece of kit).
Extra kit to Make Bike-Rail Commuting Easier
Cateye Nima front/rear lights
You can buy Bromptons ready equipped with dynamo or battery lighting. If your night-time journeys will be lit by streetlights, you can get away with 'be seen' lights. Cateye's tiny Nima lights are little more than an inch across, each weighing just 20g including two CR2032 batteries.
The translucent casing means that the lights are visible through 180 degrees. There are four lighting modes: constant, flashing, rapid, and pulse. Each Nima will last for up to 80 hours before you need to change the batteries. As they're so small, they'll scarcely interfere with the Brompton's fold, so you can leave them on the bike permanently.
Ortlieb Sling It
If you need to carry anything more than a minimalist load, you'd be better off using one of Brompton's excellent front-mounted frame bags. But this shoulder bag is small (12 litres), so you can't weigh yourself down too much; for shorter journeys, it will be fine.
At 28cm wide, it's big enough for a tablet or small notebook computer plus other office essentials. Better yet, as the Sling It is completely waterproof, you don't have to worry about them getting damp. A stabilising strap runs across your chest, to stop the bag swinging around while you're cycling, but can be unclipped for use on foot. Because the bag is so compact, you don't look like a bicycle messenger when you do get off the bike.
Also available in black, white, silver and grey, and in larger sizes if you have a bigger laptop.
This lightweight windproof jacket is genuinely showerproof. It won't keep you dry in sustained rain, which will get in through the seams and eventually through the fabric itself, but it doesn't immediately leak like some windproof clothing.
When you've got a folding bike that jacket is often enough weather protection (you're probably not cycling very far to begin with, and you can jump on public transport or into a taxi if it's tipping down).
You won't overheat easily either as it breathes well - the lightweight nylon fabric is supplemented with mesh underarm vents, the cut is slim, and the cuffs, hem, and neck are lightly elasticated. It's a great just-in-case jacket to stash in your bag, as it weighs little over 150g and packs down to the size of your fist. Sizes: S-XXL (men's), XS-XL (women's); both in a wide range of colours.
Folding bike commuters have another thing to consider if they choose to wear a helmet: the helmet needs looking after in transit, not just at home and work.
It'll rattle around in overhead luggage racks. Skate-style helmets are less vulnerable to accidental knocks than conventional ribbed helmets, as the expanded polystyrene (EPS) is completely covered by the polycarbonate outer shell. The Section is lightweight and well ventilated for a skate-style helmet, due to its 'in-mould construction', which means that the EPS and outer shell are made in one mould and fused together, rather than being made in separate moulds and stuck together after.
It's available in three sizes: S (51-55cm circumference), M (55-59cm), and L (59-63cm), and there are pads to fine tune the fit.
Ultimately, taking a bike on a train shouldn’t be difficult, provided you plan in advance. With these tips, you’ll easily be able to manoeuvre your bike onto a train without getting in anyone’s way. To start saving money on a new bike and accessories, take a look at our cycle scheme.
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