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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.