Can you take a bike? Do you need to book? Is there bike parking at the station?

Combining bike and rail travel seems like a no-brainer - until you actually try and do it, when you find a thicket of conflicting regulations and requirements. The latest version of the National Rail Enquiries app for iPhone and Android - part paid for by the UK bike industry's Bike Hub levy - aims to provide cyclists with a way through the thorns.

The new functions of the app aim to allow people to easily and quickly find out about cycling facilities at stations (such as cycle parking), and the rules for taking bikes on trains including the number of cycle spaces available and whether they need to reserve a space for their bike.

The Association of Train Operating Companies says: “Train operators have varying levels of demand and capacity for carrying bikes and so have different policies and restrictions. The new function will make it easier for people to check cycle carriage rules and plan their journey and will encourage more people to cycle to and from rail stations.”

We had a quick look at the iPhone version of the app. When you select a journey it gives you information on whether bikes are allowed on the train, how many spaces are available and whether you’ll need to book. You can also find out what cycling facilities are available at your departure and destination stations.

To book a ticket you’re taken through to the train operator’s website, at which point things gets a bit clunky, as you’re then peering through a tiny screen at a site designed for a desktop web browser.

Whether you’ll then be able to book a bike space then depends on the individual operator; some provide this facility through their websites, some don’t. We can’t help thinking that this sort of thing would be much easier if trains were all run by one body. Perhaps it could be called ‘British Rail’.

One issue that’s already cropped up with the app update, which went live yesterday, is that some users are finding it leaves iPhone Location Services running all the time. As that means accessing the phone’s GPS, it affects battery life. We can confirm that Location Services is on even when you’re not directly using the app, and that turning off the app’s permission to use it turns it off.

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.


vsmith1 [65 posts] 4 years ago

The whole bike on train journey is so variable, fraught, stupid and not encouraging at all. Recently returning from Northumberland used a Northern Rail Train from Newcastle to Carlisle. NR rules: no pre-book, but can only carry 2 bikes. From Carlisle to Oxenholme on Trans-Pennine Express (TPX): book essential but only can carry 2 bikes. But when booked only 1 slot free (I needed 2) - so I ask as the tickets were for only that train, what happens? Answer: "One can go and the station manager will let the ticket go on the next train." Were 60 mins apart.

The reality: there were about 8 bikes on the NR train. There were at least 3 on the TPX.

Thankfully some common sense prevailed.

It needs a complete shake-up and shake-down: just get it organised, get it more flexible, get it more appropriate and get more space. I would like to have a tandem or recumbent to try to get on.

Hmm...bring back the guards van.

localsurfer [202 posts] 4 years ago

Yeah right. I've been turned off trains a few times because I'm 'not allowed' to take a bike, despite being told when I booked that I was.

No good telling customers what the rules are if the staff don't know/care

shay cycles [403 posts] 4 years ago

Hmm! British Rail - why didn't anyone think of that before?

Actually I've believed that although it needed improvements they were never going to be achieved by braking it up and giving profits to shareholders (guess I could say that about lots of other businesses as well!)

A single organisation with one set of rules and ALL trains required to provide a standard minimum number of cycle spaces would be a start. The rail people will say the current rolling stock can't provide the storage facility - oh yes it could if they had to and just pulled out a few seats, not enough carriages then buy some out of the profits.

If only there was some sort of a socialist political party that might be interested in such ideas, there hasn't been one of those around here for too long!

sm [406 posts] 4 years ago

Just give me online booking. Desktop, mobile, I don't care so long as it easier than it currently is.

A V Lowe [619 posts] 4 years ago

The whole ticketing system for the National Rail network is actually rather fragile, witness the near melt down when an upgrading was attempted over Christmas about 7 years ago and we lost the advance tickets, bike and seat bookings until the May Bank holiday. So changes will be expensive and something that won't be done without great trepidation.

I could give a lengthy description of how privatisation has added a complexity of divvying up the ticket income to the many other details, which can see a fare by one train on the same route costing twice as much as another one. But let's stick with reservations. The system has a rule that you only get ONE seat reservation with your ticket on each train you use BUT to deliver bike reservations the system creates an imaginary carriage with 2-6 'seats' which can only be reserved for bikes. This does rather upset the system, as reserving a bike space means you break the rules and have 2 'seat' reservations with one ticket. Travel on the seated train from London to Fort William with a bike and you need 4 'seat' reservations for 1 travel ticket. This you can only do by booking by phone and only with the Scotrail call centres in Plymouth and Fort William. That's the first part!

Now to have a seat reservations system linked to the trains that are loaded on to the system 13 weeks ahead of the date they are due to run the train operators pay a bit more than just having tickets sold without any reservations. About half of the train operators run largely commuter services, or rural train routes, which don't have or need seat reservations. If the train has no seat reservations then it won't have bike reservations.

Lets move on to the train booking software - we have 2 main suppliers The Trainline still using the original merged QJump and Trainline system in its latest version, and Mixingdeck, the one first used by GNER and now by East Coast, and the first to offer online bike reservations with East Coast, and the ability to set up your personal account with preferences, for seat types and bike spaces. First has now moved to MixingDeck and Southern (GoVia) uses it too.

Finally we move to the totals often quoted that suggest only a very small % of passengers take bikes on trains - well we have no proper count for the trains with no reservations, and the train operators who make reservations advisable but not mandatory. This measure against the massive total of passengers carried, which includes the peak time commuter services when trains can be filled to 200% of seated capacity with no bikes on board. My own experience suggest that off peak on rail routes that cyclists want to use the figure of 10% of passengers travelling with bikes is closer to the mark, but that is the revenue from 10% of the passengers on a train that is often less than 50% full - check for yourselves count the bikes and passengers on a train you might be using and see how that equates - to the count you make and the type of train (for the total number of seats).

Front line rail staff are generally pragmatic and focus on making the railway run to timetable, working with them you can often deliver amazing results despite all the constraints that - DfT especially - hands out in inflexibly designed trains and operating regimes. My own witnessed record has been 37 bikes on a 3-coach commuter train heading for a cycle route opening event, but I now hear of even greater well managed use of trains, generating useful revenue and utilisation of the resources, often at times when the trains would otherwise be very poorly used - 70% of passengers on a Sunday morning train out from London for a bike ride as a report from one group.

I do urge you all to count the bikes and get the pictures and build the case for managing and delivering bike & rail in its wide variety of ways.

A V Lowe [619 posts] 4 years ago

TPE Class 185 (3 but sometimes run as 6 car sets) will be partly displaced by new Class 350 (4 car electric version) as lines to Manchester get wired up. Class 185 Coach C space for bikes can fit up to 5 bikes stacked herringbone-style but further 4 bikes may fit in Coach A space for wheelchair users of not required for wheelchairs. Often high % of passengers with bikes on late services on Hope Valley route (Peak Park).

Al__S [1279 posts] 4 years ago

Bring back guards vans*? Most busy trains these days, no matter where you are in the country, are platform length limited. The biggest constraint is often the terminus- especially London ones- where the need to feed five platforms into two tracks or twenty platforms into eight tracks in as short a space as possible means making platforms longer is not possible.

So, who wants to explain to commuters that you're taking away a carriage (or even half a carriage) load of seats to replace it with bike racks?

Even on intercity trains this is true. Other than the sleeper trains, the physically longest domsetic passenger trains are now (most of) the Virgin Pendolinos. These originally had 8 23m long carriages, now most of them have a total of three extra carriages added. These have added no extra bike space, rightly.

One to watch for is the London Norwich trains. There's proposals being worked on to replace the guards van driving trailer with a passenger carrying version. Because they need the seats.

The "IEP" Hitachi Super Express trains that will be introduced on the Great Western and East Coast mainlines won't have proper guards vans- instead the modern insecure bike racks.

Having said all this, the record I've seen on a train? Heading down to London-Cambridge bike ride this summer. Service had an extra stop at Ponders End especially for the event. By my estimate there were thirty or more bikes in the carriage I was in.

It was quite clear this was the same in every carriage. Of an 8 carriage train.

So 200-250 bikes on one train.

*East Coast electrics, Greater Anglia London - Norwich, Chiltern Mainline Silver and Arriva Trains Wales Premier service trains all use "Driving Van Trailers"- a guards van with a cab- at one end of the trains. HSTs, used by East Coast, First Great Western, East Midland Trains (Midland mainline), Cross Country and Grand Central have a Guards Van section of one coach, and additional space in the power cars.

chadders [93 posts] 4 years ago

Its ok having it all booked, then they cancel your train and put you on another from York and people put luggage in the cycle spaces on a packed train so you have to stand with your bike in the doorway of the carriage for 2hrs, then every time the train stops you have to get off onto the platform and the people getting on ignore you trying to get back on and wont move,
The whole system is a joke should take away all the seating on trains in favour of cycle spaces and wait to listen to the uproar.
I would be prepared to pay to put my bike on if I was guaranteed a space for it and a seat.

A V Lowe [619 posts] 4 years ago

Al_S you wouldn't by any remote chance have taken photos of that trip - or know anyone who did?

Those 2 trains were actually additional services 8-coach (because they cannot fit 12 coach on the platforms on that route) running limited stop from Cambridge. Last year I think there were no special trains and the 'ideal' service was unable to take any more passengers South of Bishops Stortford.

Speaking of the App (Tony/Simon wake up and read this) its worth noting that this project was funded by Bikehub and the Rail Standards & Safety Board (RSSB) as key partners, and involved around 40,000 individual 'rules' being sorted and loaded on to the database.

The App doesn't book the bikes but by using East Coast to make the booking on-line (as their software allows this) and you can strengthen the case for the company remaining as one directly operated by DfT, and paying money directly back to the Treasury rather than having a commercial operator having to pay shareholders.