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.’
For ‘encourages’, read ‘tolerates’. You can combine cycling and train travel but to avoid frustration you need to know the system or buy another bike.
Reservations on bike-rail
First the good news: bikes are allowed free of charge on most British trains at most times of day. There’s usually a limit of two to six bikes per train, and you may need to reserve a bike space.
It’s hard to be specific as there are more than 20 train operating companies and they 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.
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 expensive and inconvenient if you have an advance purchase ticket.
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.
Otherwise, all you can do is throw yourself on the mercy of the guard. 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’ll need to be similarly charming if your train is replaced by a bus service: bikes aren’t ordinarily carried on them.
Not knowing whether you’ll get your bike on the train, for whatever reason, can make rail travel with a conventional bike stressful. Station staff are often helpful. Be nice to them – especially the guard. It’s ultimately the guard’s call as to whether you and your bike get on board.
Tickets and travel
There are three options for booking tickets for you and your bike: in person at your nearest staffed railway station; over the phone when you use a train company’s booking line; or – easiest of all – on the internet.
The East Coast website is best: www.eastcoast.co.uk. 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 that lists things like preferred seating and catering vouchers. Also listed is ‘bicycle space’. Click it, choose the number of bike spaces to reserve, and the website does everything else.
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. 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. 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. More 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. 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 the 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; most don’t.
Bigger folders might be classed as a full-size bike 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. The prevailing attitude seems to be: if the folder’s not a problem, it’s not a problem.
A bike at each end
The other bike-rail option is to park your bike at your home station, board the train the 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.
If you’re travelling to London, there is the option of a Barclays Hire Bike. For casual usage, hire costs just £1 for 24 hours – easily enough for your trip to the office and back. See http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/14808.aspx.
Look for your next ride
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