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Let the train take the strain?

Planning to take your bike to the Étape, Marmotte or other European event by Eurostar? Take a good look at the new luggage regulations Eurostar recently introduced and plan accordingly.

The Eurostar train service was at the centre of a storm of consternation among cyclists last year when it changed its terms of service for bikes. Where you could previously take a bagged bike as hand luggage, you now had to check it in and you could no longer be certain that your bike would travel on the same train.

It didn’t help that the explanation of the new rules on Eurostar’s website was not very clear, so passengers felt very uncertain about what was actually supposed to happen if they turned up at St Pancras with a bike.

Integrated transport expert Dave Holladay has been representing cyclists on behalf of the CTC in discussions with Eurostar to improve and clarify the situation. Holladay was responsible for working with Eurostar to introduce a bike booking system for bikes in 2007, after which demand went up 10-fold over the next three years.

No more big carry-on bags

The new rules, and their new clarified explanation are now on the Eurostar website. If you’re taking your bike to Europe this summer, they’re essential reading.

The gist of the regulations is this:

  • Eurostar won’t take any carry-on luggage with a maximum dimension over 85cm, and that includes bike bags.
  • If your bike is in a bag smaller than 120cm, you can use the turn-up-and-go registered baggage service which costs £10 each way from London and 15€ from Paris or Brussels. In other words, your bike travels as if it were oversized luggage and you have to entrust it to the Eurostar baggage handlers. It’s possible your bike won’t be able to travel on the same train as you, though
  • Fully assembled bikes or larger bike bags must travel as registered baggage, which costs £25 if you turn up on the day or £30 if you book in advance. If you book in advance, your bike is guaranteed to travel on the same train as you.

The system in practice

This all sounds a bit worrying, especially the idea that you might end up in Paris waiting for your bike to arrive on the next train. Dave Holladay has visited the station to find out how it all works on the ground.

“Peter Mynors and I have checked out the real picture on the UK side by having friendly chats with the staff working for Eurodespatch [the company that has the baggage-handling concession for Eurostar],” he says. 

“Their advice (current regime) is to get the bagged bike to them an hour before train departure, fairly confident that bagged bikes should go on the right train.  For getting off at Lille you may need to work closely with the train crew as there is very little time to get bikes off and SNCF's baggage handling resources are limited - so before arrival get through to Coach 9 or 10 in the middle of the train near the baggage car. “There is no confidence boosting assurance that if the bikes do get delayed your onward journey will be rebooked (with no penalty) with Eurostar's assistance, but experience of those who have had bikes delayed, and late Eurostar arrivals missing connections, is one of staff trying their best to get you back on schedule with no added expense.”

Commentators such as the Guardian’s Max Leonard observe that the big advantage of the previous system was that you could slot your bagged bike into the luggage rack and keep an eye on it.

The combination of extra expense and uncertainty will be sure to drive cyclists to low-cost airlines instead, which is ironic given that Eurostar recently sponsored the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Travel, one of which went to cycling charity Sustrans.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

18 comments

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gbzpto [93 posts] 2 years ago
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We have had a few customers suffering when visiting us because their bikes have been put on different trains. Well worth making sure when you make the booking.

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The Rumpo Kid [589 posts] 2 years ago
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My bike needed a new paint job after I entrusted it to these people, and to get the money I had to threaten legal action. Following the contemptuous level of customer service I got from Eurostar, I'm not joking when I say I will swim the Channel before I use them again.

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OsPeregringo [45 posts] 2 years ago
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I really don't understand why train companies make it so difficult for cyclists. To me a train and bicycle make a perfect fit together, yet it never seems to be that easy.
It's not just Eurostar, who I admit have never used, but even coming back from Norwich or Oxford you can only take 6 bikes and that's if there is no pre booking.
Then on the slower trains its two per carriage so if busy you could be waiting for hours before you're able to get on.
Such a shame as the trains in Europe seem to work much better.

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ribena [174 posts] 2 years ago
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Its like "nudge politics" but the opposite way round.

Dissuasion through irritation?

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IHphoto [116 posts] 2 years ago
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Hear hear Os. Not tried Eurostar but the lack of a clear policy (and an on-line bike booking system) allowing for the mood on the day of any member of staff to get in the way cost myself and a friend recently on a train journey from Inverness to the top. 4 official spaces on a train which is easily over demanded is ludicrous. Do the companies not understand they are losing out on custom ie. money?

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ChrisW [7 posts] 2 years ago
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I carried my bike onto the Eurostar train with me a couple of months ago - an Airnimal Joey with drop bars in a lightweight shoulder bag. The 24" wheels make it probably the largest folding bike that will easily fit within the 85cm max dimension rule. I had to change stations in Paris, but that was no problem because in under 10 minutes I had the bike reassembled and was riding through the city. I have the Airnimal setup with the exact same riding position (bars, saddle, and pedal positions) as on my other bikes, and it's only a couple kg heavier, so I think it's a great option.

To be honest, the folded Airnimal was 90 cm in one dimension, but no-one said anything as I walked through with the bag on my shoulder, and if they had done then another 5 minutes would have broken it down enough to get all dimensions under the 85 cm limit.

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A V Lowe [571 posts] 2 years ago
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It is useful to hear how people have fared using the new arrangements, and I'd point out that the notes on how the arrangements are actually working with front line staff are very much what can be achieved by pragmatic and friendly informal communication.

There are several factors here which have created this tangle. First the registered baggage is handled by a separate operation to Eurostar - with the London concession operated by Eurodespatch, who have been the key agents for delivery of the original cyclist friendly 'guaranteed on your train' service. The Paris concession has recently changed to Geoparts, whose counter is a long hike from the check-in at Gare du Nord, The Brussels concession is actually run by SNCB and also delivers for Thalys (and possibly Fyra) high speed services. Because this is not a Eurostar service there will have to be a charge - but negotiation has delivered a reasonable £10/€15 fee.

Second, the absence of a registered baggage concession on he seasonal services to Avignon & Provence etc means that the 120 x 90 bagged bike size will be accepted on these trains, but equally assembled bikes cannot be carried. Most Railteam (high speed rail operators) services accept 120 x 90 although some like RENFE do this only as an exception for cycles, a pity this does not seem possible in this instance, but I am told that passengers with baggage are filling the available space to the extent that restrictions are having to be applied.

Third is the way that Eurostar sits in a sort of limbo, as it is not a UK domestic operator and their baggage sizes do not align with those set by National Rail for UK TOC's. Neither do they plug seamlessly in to the train services which head off beyond Paris and Brussels, so that many journeys need to be booked as separate chunks through separate systems, even for those who are not trying to take a bike with them. The Lille interchange for example is managed by SNCF and thus the detail here has to involve further parties working in another country, a further challenge in securing agreements.

I am keen to get a measure of the potential audience for travelling out to big events like Le Marmotte, and other branches of cycling like large triathalons, and d/h MTB holidays. When we had a hiatus with Easyjet and hydraulic brake systems on d/h MTB it was evident that there was a major holiday business worth several £m's where UK cyclists travelled out to ride the snow-less ski runs in the summer.

I believe that just as the UK domestic rail operators have not fully grasped the extent of cycle traffic already travelling outside peak times. Typically I can count 10% of the passengers on trains I'm using who are travelling with bikes, often 8-12 bikes on a train heading out of London where a group may be having a train assisted Sunday ride. Famously one group were 70% of the fare paying passengers on one Sunday service, and I've know of some trains where 100% of those travelling have been taking bikes with them.

But for this, folks I'm going to ask for your experiences of trans-europe travel by rail, and the times you would like to do this but had to fly or drive. I may need to work with a few folk who are better with sorting out a robust survey of market potential - users, events, honeypot destinations etc. Then we can look at what could be done.

I'm meeting a long distance coach operator next week to discuss how we can guarantee space in the luggage hold/trailer for a bike in a bag (they already accept them but only if there is space to fit the bike in when it turns up). It would be great if I can offer some predictions on potential use. There are regular overnight coaches - Eurostar does not offer an overnight train - to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, and so an alternative option to by-pass the current problem. Remember too that DB (German Railways) got a licence to run trains from London last month, but due to problems with their train order, they are not planning to start regular services before 2016 (or 2015 at the earliest), other operators have also hinted that they want slots to run direct trains to London.

Pass your notes back to me via roadcc or cycling [at] CTC.org.uk and we'll review the campaign memoirs of the cycling battallions

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davidncohen [6 posts] 2 years ago
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Useful article.

A friend and I travelled out from London on 18/06 to Paris. Two days prior to this, we put our two bikes in one bike bag, plus two wheels and booked it in with EuroDespatch - as the large x-ray machine wasn't in operation, they looked in the bag - and wanted to charge us for 2 bikes, but at the last minute they took pity on us and only charged us for one piece of luggage. Our onward journey was from Gard de Lyon to Grenoble, so we carried the bike bag and all our other luggage via the RER train (cheaper than a taxi, but you have to carry heavy stuff and negotiate ticket wide barriers. Some TGV's take complete bikes, some don't so this is why we bagged em. The onward TGV had plenty of luggage rack space on the top-deck for a bike bag - no problem (the lower deck luggage space isn't really suitable).

However, on the 18/6 when we travelled out, we did spot two people with carry on bags containing dissasembled full size bikes - the bags didn't look less then 85cm wide to me, but I can't be sure, and they said this is what they always do, and have not had a problem.

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davebinks [138 posts] 2 years ago
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This whole business just echoes the UK state of affairs;
Chaos.
Different operators have different attitudes.
Some will, some won't, some will but only at certain times, others will, but only on certain trains, restrictions on numbers but you can't pre-book etc, etc, etc.
The CTC has been trying for years, without much success, to get the train companies to change, but it's like talking to a brick wall in most cases.
Let's face it, if you ride a bike, it's only because you are "too poor to afford a car" (that's why you are on a train in the first place) and therefore being poor and thus low class, you aren't important.

No, of course that's not true, but they think it is.

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Al__S [960 posts] 2 years ago
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Whilst I often take a bike on the train, i feel some of the criticism is a bit misplaced. The trains in the UK people are complaining about have to be configured for maximum seating. If they ripped the seats out of half a carriage to put in bike and luggage space, there would uproar from the commuters who use the trains- those trains that go to Inverness are also used for commuting into London, often with people standing on them as it is. There's no space at the stations to take longer trains.

Eurostar too often has times when their massively long trains fill up. Putting in extra bike carriage space wouldn't see them get extra trade, it would take away seats they can sell.

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northstar [1108 posts] 2 years ago
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Train companies could easily add bike carriages like they used too but they probably wouldn't be allowed to get away with charging people, it's a racket it seems.

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alotronic [437 posts] 2 years ago
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Just booked a return trip to Swiss Alps on Eurostar and Lyria. Could book Lyria all at once via phone (not online of course) but Eurostar. I had to get a code from europerail phone guy, then confirm the bike booking on Eurostar number then call europerail back to confirm and pay. All a bit strange. Will probably be fine but it feels very unreliable.

Thanks for the article though it explains why it's not Eurostar directly who are doing it.

I am def. taking my second-best not carbon bike!

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thereandbackagain [163 posts] 2 years ago
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Maybe it's because I never used the old system, but I found the new one really straightforward when I used it earlier this year.

Book the bike in advance so it goes on the same train as you. Stick it in a bike box, drop it off, pick it up. I went Kings X to Brussels and back, the whole thing was pretty easy, to be honest.

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TeamCC [146 posts] 2 years ago
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What a hassle, were there that many bicycles going around to cause this much of a problem? I love taking trains because it is stress free travel (well, once you get to the station). The more they tinker and take away the benefits, the more I'm staying away. Capital Cycles

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John Stevenson [249 posts] 2 years ago
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TeamCC

As Eurostar tells it, the problem isn't bikes per se, it's people taking their entire wardrobes on holiday with them. Have you seen the size of some of the bags people are travelling with? I was astonished last time I flew ad actually checked a bag.

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A V Lowe [571 posts] 2 years ago
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Sorry Northstar but its a serious misunderstanding by most people of how railways (and other public transport systems need to operate, if the price you pay to travel (directly or through taxes) is kept realistically affordable.

A high speed rail vehicle costs the best part of £2 million, and there are a well refined formulae to determine how much each seat must earn per month, and how the trains are best filled (it costs money to drag empty space around. and to fiddle around assembling each train for each trip) Thus there cannot be spare carriages added here & there or dragged around to cater for sundry bikes skis and other ephemera, on train that make up the regular timetabled service. What can happen is to deliver a service that has some flexibility and a base line of space that can be used for bikes and outsized luggage.

Those who are dealing with the operators try to get the best deal with the trains on offer, and at the same time show the train operators that this has the potential to be big money. You can do some work to develop this - count the bikes, cyclists, and other passengers on a train you are using - lets build proof that(my estimate)around 10% of London rail commuters are using a bike at some stage of their journey (spot the cyclists on the train without a bike). There won't be space to carry a bike with every cyclist when the trains are filled to 200% of seated capacity, as several are, but we can build the case for secure parking and hire bike systems that work for rail users (ie NOT the Barclays Bikes)

For special events you can call the tune, but planning has to be started at least 12 months in advance to fit in with planning the main timetables, and the engineering work that fits around them. We could for example look at special trains to York, Leeds, even Wensleydale for the 2014 Tour. but that needs top have outline planning starting now*. There could be a rail assisted return from the BHF London-Brighton bike ride, at least as far as Three Bridges (and its pretty much downhill from there to the Thames)but only if the costs are underwritten - typically £20-£25K per train - more for steam trains! It would be great to do this but only with a big sponsor.

* There are trains which exist which could travel from France to Leeds or York (as originally configured) and 3 of these used to operate between London & York, so the option of a France-Yorkshire 'special train' in 2014 might be a possibility - but planning has to start NOW.

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bobinski [223 posts] 2 years ago
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So,just so i have this right. If i book my bike on a Eurostar in a bag no bigger than 120 by 90cm it should travel with me to Paris? I then need to change stations to get a tgv to Geneva. Do i need to book this on the train too? I didn't last year from Paris to Bourg st maurice.

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alotronic [437 posts] 2 years ago
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Eurostar report, Aug 2013

I did exactly what bobinski above questions:

Booked bike onto Eurostar
Booked bike onto Lyria (Paris -> Geneva)

But you really do have to book all in advance.

Worked like a charm! It all relies on the bike booking number so make a good note of it when you book the bike. You basically have to book by phone as you need to reserve a seat, then book a bike place, then go back and confirm your seat (3 calls).

Eurostar: unnerving but it worked fine. Picked my bike off the platform both times, the hard part was finding the drop off points (both 10 minutes walk from check in so leave plenty of time).

SNCF Lyria: You sit in the same carriage as the bike - it's a little 2nd class carriage on the back of the main engine. A bit tatty compared to the rest of the train, but I was not quibbling.