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Station operator says West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco means it can't commit to project...

A blogger from Coventry has attacked Virgin Trains for returning a £300,000 grant awarded to it by the Department for Transport to improve facilities for cyclists at the West Midlands city’s railway station, which is managed by the train operator. The money was to have been used to provide a cycle hub, including 300 secure cycle parking places – but Virgin Trains says it cannot commit to the works while the future of its West Coast Main Line franchise remains uncertain.

James Avery, who runs the Coventry-focused cycling blog Manifietso, says that with just 80 cycle parking spaces currently at the station, bike riders who wish to use the train are suffering because of the company’s stance.

After noticing those existing spaces were fully occupied as he arrived at the station to catch a train, he asked the company when the new facility would be installed, but was told that nothing would happen until the controversy over the franchise had been settled.

“The situation is totally unacceptable,” he wrote in a press release also published on his blog.

“Why should Virgin Trains be able to hold Coventry cycling passengers to ransom by not spending money that has already been given to them by the Department for Transport?

“Cycle parking provision at Coventry Station has been inadequate for many years, yet all they needed to have done would be to have allocated a small portion of the available space on the site for Sheffield type cycling stands.

“Meanwhile, Virgin Trains have invested millions of pounds up and down the country on multi-storey car parks. I have no objection to the park and ride concept, as long as parking is available for both types of user.

“The commercial case for providing more cycle parking is very clear – make it easier to get to the station and park your bike, and people use your trains more.

Pointing out the difference between railway cycle parking in the UK and the Netherlands, he highlighted that Utrecht station has space for 22,500 bikes.

“Obviously, Coventry doesn't need that many spaces at this time, but it would certainly not be unreasonable to talk about planning for around 1,000 cycle parking spaces over the next few years, as the city invests in the Cycle Coventry initiative,” he went on.

“It shouldn't be necessary to have to kick up such a fuss to install such a basic piece of infrastructure, especially when you can park around 14 bikes in the same space as one car.

“Virgin Trains might earn plenty of revenue from car parking, but we all know that they also make good margins on the train services they provide, so anything that increases customer numbers should be a no-brainer.

“It's no coincidence that rail also has a 40% larger portion of the market in the Netherlands when compared to the UK.”

Virgin Trains’ franchise for the West Coast Main Line expires on 31 December 2012 and FirstGroup was due to take over after winning the bid for the new franchise. Last month, however, the Department for Transport admitted that there had been serious flaws in the bid process, plunging the franchise into chaos.

Virgin is currently negotiating with the government for a short-term extension to allow the tender process to be run again.

Referring to the £300,000 that Virgin Trains had been awarded for the Coventry bike hub, company spokesman Jim Rowe told the Coventry Telegraph: “Because of the uncertainty, we’ve had to return the money. We are not ruling it out but much depends on the signing of the franchise extension.

“All train operators are sympathetic to cyclists,” he claimed. “It fits in with our green policies.”

When it was pointed out to him that Leamington Spa station a few miles to the South though not itself on the West Coast Main Line, had space for 300 bicycles to be parked, he said: “Chiltern Railways [which operates that station] have the advantage because they have a long-term franchise so they’ve been able to carry out planning on a more certain basis.

“If we were to get a 15-year franchise, we could do a lot of things in 15 years – including putting up cycle storage.”

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.