Bikes and trains

Update:

I have a newer post about bikes on trains, covering all railway operators in the UK, and I suggest you go read that.

This post is solely to offer a few tips for those who have never taken their bicycle on a train, and is meant to support my cycle routes page, which references a number of routes that combine cycling with train usage.

Why take the train?

That’s a valid question. A number of routes, such as the Devon Coast To Coast route, are linear, with the start and end in different places. Even if you were driving, or perhaps especially if you were driving, the logistics rapidly becomes a problem: where do you leave your car? Will it be safe if left there, for several days? How do you get from there to the start, or if it’s at the start, when completing the ride, how do you get back to your car?

Taking the train can easily solve these, and other issues, plus of course not everyone has a car.

Bikes and trains are an effective mix, even if most train operators are abysmally short-sighted (Great Western Railway, I’m especially looking at you here). When you consider that train stations tend to be quite central to most of the towns and cities they serve, it means if you’re living in such a town or city, cycling to the station is often a simple matter.

Once at the station, a vast array of destination options open up to you.

Can I just take my bike on the train?

Yes! That’s exactly the plan! There are a few things you need to be aware of, though, so read on. For starters, on high speed trains, you have to make a bicycle reservation. Unless you encounter a remarkably forgiving train manager, you won’t be allowed to take your bike on a high speed train, without a cycle reservation. Usually, cycle reservations also mean getting a seat reservation.

! Please note: some train companies, with Great Western Railway standing head and shoulders above the rest in this respect, have a clear desire to make things as difficult as possible for cyclists. In practical terms, this means that, even when you do have a bicycle reservation for a specific train, you might not be able to get your bike on the train. If the train is packed, and thoughtless, selfish people piled their luggage into the bicycle cupboard, the train manager may refuse to let you on, so it’s important to retain some flexibility in your schedule. Yes, this stinks, but that’s how it is.

Having said that, I’ve not personally encountered that issue, and in all the many times I have taken my normal, full-sized, non-folding bike on the train, I have been unable to get on a train exactly three time. In each case, I didn’t have a cycle reservation.

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With the slower, smaller regional trains, cycle reservations aren’t possible, and bikes are loaded on a first-come, first-on basis. High speed trains are usually limited to a maximum of three bicycles per train (yes, a pathetically low number) while regional trains – even the two-carriage trains, usually can take at least four bicycles, and often more.

On high-speed trains, bicycles hang by their front wheel, in a bicycle cupboard, with the cupboard on
board the new Great Western Railway carriages designed by someone who actively hates cyclists, and therefore made it as cramped as possible.
On regional trains, bikes are stored in an area with fold-down seats, as in the picture above.

You will find that getting your bike on, and off high speed trains normally require lifting the (potentially laden) bike, while with regional trains you can often simply wheel the bikes in. Apparently, it is beyond the capacity of train companies to understand the very real benefits to have platform-level access to trains, and if you find yourself struggling with your bicycle, consider the far worse challenges wheelchair users face.

While you’re here, why not go have a look at my unique T-shirts? The designs are also available on hoodies, bags, face masks, mugs, and even baby clothes.

With high-speed trains, bicycles are loaded into a specific carriage. Though train companies can tell you exactly where the train will be stopping, apparently they often remain remarkably unable to tell you which carriage bicycles will need to go in, before the train arrives, and it is common to see cyclists running along the platform, wheeling their bikes, while looking for the (frequently very small) bicycle symbol outside the door giving access to the bicycle cupboard.

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With this in mind, when waiting for a train, do not unload your bike, if carrying luggage, before boarding the train. Your priority is first and foremost to board the train with your bike, then to remove luggage from it.

On regional trains, you will remain within sight of your bike, often right next to it, but on high-speed trains, this isn’t possible when sat on a normal seat. Train companies state that you are not permitted to lock your bike to the train itself. I honour that rule, but I do lock my bike, quite visibly. Remember, once the train starts moving, and you see someone casually wheeling your bike along the platform, it’s too late to do anything about it! I’m not aware of anyone who had their bike stolen from a train, but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to take any chances.

On regional trains, when arriving at the station where I’ll be leaving the train, I find it easiest to wait for most passengers to get off first, before getting my bike off the train, but on high-speed trains, that situation is reversed.
Remember, high-speed trains don’t usually stop for very long at any given station, so go and unhook your bike from the bicycle cupboard well before the train pulls into the station where you wish to alight, otherwise you’ll be physically prevented from doing so by other passengers alighting, and then by new passengers boarding.

Remember, trains will be far busier around bank holiday weekends, and during events like Run To The Sun in Cornwall. This will impact on which trains you can get a bicycle reservation on, and such trains are often overloaded. A number of times, returning from Bristol to Plymouth, though I managed to get my bike on the train, I was forced to sit on the floor in the bicycle cupboard, as there simply was no space on the train.

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This post may sound quite negative about the entire experience of taking your bike on the train. Overall, I remain very much in favour of taking my bike on trains, and it’s something I’ll continue to do, but I wanted to be honest about the realities of the experience. If you’re prepared for it, it shouldn’t be overly stressful at all.

Bon voyage!

2 thoughts on “Bikes and trains”

  1. Hi Will. I was interested to read your views on trains and bikes as prior to the pandemic I took my bike by train many times each year. They offer more flexibility for cycle tourists. Have you travelled in GWR Castle trains to South Wales? They are modernised HST's and have 6 bike spaces with no need to make reservations. Seven Tunnel Junction and Newport are both good places to start a bike tour of Wales. I share your criticism of the IET's except I don't believe that it is GWR's fault. My understanding is that they were designed by our Government and GWR told to use them. With one exception I have always found GWR staff to be friendly and helpful and don't like IET bike spaces either.

    Reply
  2. Yes, I have. I call them "mini-HSTs" and they are normally 6-carriage trains, retaining the great 6-bike space. I'm always happy when I can get my bike onto one of those 🙂

    Reply

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