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“Vertical bike storage is discriminatory and should be outright banned”: Rail engineer Gareth Dennis explains why taking your bike on the train is such a faff on the road.cc Podcast

The rail infrastructure expert joins us to discuss one of our pet peeves, bike storage on trains, why vertical storage leaves him “sweating with rage”, and why a radical step-change is needed to make trains more accessible

A few weeks ago, we asked our readers to tell us about their experiences of what should, on the face of it, be a relatively straightforward task: taking a bike on a train in the UK. After we were bombarded with responses – which ranged from unbridled positivity to Stephen King-esque horror stories – Jack and Ryan sat down with rail expert Gareth Dennis to get to the bottom of why the issue of bikes on trains continues to be such an emotive topic, and what needs to be done to make the rail network more accessible for everyone.

 

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A railway design engineer, writer, podcaster, and lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, Gareth is also a cyclist, so knows all too well the difficulties people with bikes can face on the UK’s trains (while also helpfully occupying the centre of the train and cycling nerd Venn diagram).

On the latest episode of the road.cc Podcast (which you can listen to above), Gareth discusses the issues impacting how cyclists use trains in Great Britain, including limited and inadequate space for storage, as well as a lack of accessibility and clarity for train users with bikes, wheelchairs, and buggies.

He also chats about the challenges currently hindering the creation of more bike spaces on trains, such as the pressures on designers to maximise the number of seats on popular and congested routes, and Great Britain’s present system of rolling stock leasing companies, whose desire to build ‘all-in-one’ style trains limits the possibilities for operators to alter trains to create more bike storage.

GWR bike storage (picture courtesy Sam Jones, Cycling UK)

> LNER to rethink "dangerous" bike storage on new trains

However, there is one attempt to create space for bikes that leaves Gareth (and road.cc editor Jack) “sweating with rage”: vertical bike storage.

“Vertical storage should be outright banned,” he argues unequivocally. “For the middle-aged men in Lycra with their very expensive road bikes – which is basically all vertical storage is designed for – the vertical storage wrecks their bike.

“For everyone else, and we shouldn’t be designing for that narrow case anyway, how does it work for most people who can’t lift their bikes up? What about people who rely on their bikes as a mobility aid? What about less confident cyclists who want a bigger, sturdier bike? What about people with non-standard cycles, trikes, those with attachment to wheelchairs, longer bikes, tandems?

“How are any of those people able to use vertical storage? They can’t. It’s excluding people from using the railway. They are being denied the freedom of movement by the structure of our railways and, ultimately, the Secretary of State for Transport.”

> Trying to take a very expensive bike on a GWR train is hard work

A scathing critic of the government’s approach to accessibility on trains, Gareth also noted that this lack of accessibility extends onto the platform, where he argues that there is legal precedent, based on cases brought against stations without ramps, to challenge the lack of accessibility for people with non-standard cycles on Britain’s railways.

“Vertical storage is discriminatory, and I can’t believe it was allowed to be brought in,” he says. “It was one of those situations where designers and engineers went, ‘Right, we’ve got the spec, the DfT have said that we need to fit two bicycles onto this train. But we have to do so in the minimum possible floor space. We’ll do it vertically – genius!’

“The fact that anyone designed that, stepped back and thought ‘that looks good’… I can understand the pressures behind how it ended up happening, but it shouldn’t have. And I’m afraid we’ll probably see vertical storage popping up in brand new trains for a little while yet.

“If someone is out there who is usefully litigious, you have an easy case to make if you take it to the appropriate authorities. Those vertical bike hangars are discriminatory, and they breach a variety of legislation. Sue them!”

Train bike storage (@endhunting/Twitter)

> Doctor thrown off train because he hadn't reserved space for bike - even though there were four available

Beyond legal cases, Gareth also believes that a radical step change in capacity is needed to ensure adequate provision for people cycling and wheeling on the rail network.

“We need to be upgrading for the long term, due to climate change. We need to build more capacity on the railways, that goes beyond maximising the number of seats. Because the reality is those seats are full anyway,” he said.

“So we need a step change in capacity, which funnily enough is, until the recent government changes, what High Speed 2 would deliver. Okay, you might want to put your bike on High Speed 2, but that’s less what it’s about. High Speed 2 takes all the people who might have luggage, but aren’t really travelling for active leisure.

“That then allows you to start thinking differently about the services that are still running on the East Coast Main Line, because they’re the ones going through the local stops you want to get off and on at anyway.

“So, all of a sudden you stop saying the solution is maximise the number of seats. You can start going, right, we’ll still run the same number of trains, we’ll still have a ten-car train to maximise length, but maybe we can dedicate half a coach to bike storage.

“You can start being flexible about how you use that space. You can start thinking about how to provide better facilities for disabled users, for families. Suddenly what you get by increasing the capacity of the overall system is that you can start thinking creatively about the existing trains.

“The thing to get angry about is that the government is dithering and cancelling parts of HS2 as quickly as it can. Because HS2 is a good example of a step change in capacity that will allow a massive leap – it means you can do things a lot more radically on the existing railway network.”

The road.cc Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music, and if you have an Alexa you can just tell it to play the road.cc Podcast. It’s also embedded further up the page, so you can just press play.

To celebrate the road.cc Podcast’s landmark 50th episode last time out, we gave away some schwag to three listeners. So, congratulations to Rob, John, and Darren, who will be receiving some road.cc goodies in the post.

At the time of broadcast, our listeners can also get a free Hammerhead Heart Rate Monitor with the purchase of a Hammerhead Karoo 2. Visit hammerhead.io right now and use promo code ROADCC at checkout to get yours.

Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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45 comments

Avatar
chrisonabike | 1 year ago
0 likes

Hmm... definitely 2 ends to the storage spectrum here. A more "recreational" use case and general "bikes for transport" eg. commuting using trains. With the former the assumption is "very few cycles" and extra effort / adaptability on the part of the cyclist eg. booking in advance,
being able to manipulate the bike eg. onto a hanger. For more general bike transport on trains (eg. commuting) systems need much more capacity, flexibility and generality. I've seen:
a) no bikes allowed (at some times, in NL) because there just wouldn't be capacity. However there is an excellent integrated national bike- hire system, great cycle parking and regular commuters often keep a bike at the destination station also. Plus you can take bikes for recreational purposes other times on trains.
b) in Belgium on some trains one of the carriages had folding seats along the walls throughout the carriage and seat belts so you could quickly secure lots of bikes (most shapes) - or accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility vehicles etc.
c) commuting "luggage" solution eg people use folders (not much bigger than a Brompton).

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 1 year ago
1 like

Vertical storage I've used isn't terribly convenient - however if you can get it stowed in the first place you can at least get to your bike at any point. The system Scotrail have with a hanger holding bikes horizontally means you may need to wrestle another bike off first to get to yours.

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hawkinspeter replied to chrisonabike | 1 year ago
1 like
chrisonatrike wrote:

Vertical storage I've used isn't terribly convenient - however if you can get it stowed in the first place you can at least get to your bike at any point. The system Scotrail have with a hanger holding bikes horizontally means you may need to wrestle another bike off first to get to yours.

It's easier to organise if you're getting on at the start of the train line as then you can ask the other cyclists where they're getting off and thus arrange all your bikes in a suitable order.

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Doctor Darabuka | 1 year ago
6 likes

Tomorrow my wife will be getting on a train to Wales with her bike – I know there will be lots of space on the service, I use it regularly.  It would inappropriate of me to mention my wife’s age, but she has been regularly cycling for about 45 years. 

Despite the available space in the carriage, the only bicycle storage will be a vertical cubical.  She is definitely not going to be lifting up her steel bike & two panniers onto the hook on a moving train.  Even without  panniers the experience is similar to putting a jacket, with lead filled pockets, onto a coat hook during an earthquake. 

What’s going to happen is that she’ll stand outside the cubicle for the duration of the journey holding onto her bike blocking the corridor, and probably access to the loo opposite, as a consequence of poor, inflexible carriage design.

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Chris RideFar | 1 year ago
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I prefer vertical bike storage to no bike storage. Horizontal storage takes up more space, so is a reason to not include any bike space on certain trains. Making the space needed as small and compact as possible means that it can be incorporated into as many trains as possible. In an ideal world, we'd have perfect bike storage solutions on every train, but we live in the real world.

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Sriracha replied to Chris RideFar | 1 year ago
3 likes

Devil take the hindmost then? Once you uncouple the weaker from the stronger, inevitably the weaker get left behind.

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Dnnnnnn replied to Sriracha | 1 year ago
2 likes
Sriracha wrote:

Devil take the hindmost then? Once you uncouple the weaker from the stronger, inevitably the weaker get left behind.

I agree. I understand there are trade-offs but there should be decent basic standards - including making them accessible to as many people as want to use them (not just relatively strong people whose bikes have relatively skinny tyres/shallow wheels).

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stonojnr | 1 year ago
2 likes

Some rail expert, if he thinks HS2 will make a difference to local services on the EAST Coast main line.

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Dnnnnnn replied to stonojnr | 1 year ago
7 likes

It will. By taking away the higher-speed services to Scotland, etc. it frees up space for slower trains, such as local ones which are about stopping at places along the way, not just passing them en route further afield.

Cutting HS2 short might tip the balance as to which expresses follow which route (will it still be quicker to Leeds via the truncated HS2 route - I dunno) but it should still free up capacity.

Trying to fit trains with different speeds and stopping patterns on the same line eats up capacity (i.e. train 'paths' per hour). We already have four-track sections of some busy routes to allow faster trains to pass but there's little scope to do more of that. Think of HS2 as adding 'fast(er) lines' or a bypass to the East (and West) coast route(s) - just not alongside the existing tracks.

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stonojnr replied to Dnnnnnn | 1 year ago
1 like

HS2 is about capacity on the West Coast Mainline, which is the busiest mixed use line in Europe and is at full capacity, its completely disingenuous and misleading to say HS2 is about providing more stopping local services on the ECML as a result

It would be like a highways expert saying an extra lane on the M6 will really help everyone driving to towns or cities along the M1.

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Dnnnnnn replied to stonojnr | 1 year ago
0 likes

It's certainly more about the West than the East (and the loss of the Leeds leg doesn't help) - but it's not entirely one or the other. If you took away many of the  40ish cross-border trains each day from Kings Cross, that creates a lot of capacity for different types of east coast services.
I think I'll go with Gareth's view for now.

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David9694 | 1 year ago
6 likes

because we decided to monetise and exploit the railways and their passengers, rather than support them as most countries do. 

I too am just about old enough to remember the guard's van of old where there was a tonne of room to put your bike.

Sometimes a popular beat combo would sing a song in there - good times.  

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wycombewheeler replied to David9694 | 1 year ago
3 likes
David9694 wrote:

because we decided to monetise and exploit the railways and their passengers, rather than support them as most countries do. 

I too am just about old enough to remember the guard's van of old where there was a tonne of room to put your bike.

Sometimes a popular beat combo would sing a song in there - good times.  

I remember that too. I remember being unable to alight at my destination station because the platform was on the opposite side to my depature station and one of the doors was locked. But 99.99% of the time it worked flawlessly.

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Oldfatgit | 1 year ago
5 likes

"Middle-aged men in lycra" ... really?
Is that *really* an acceptable term to use on a cycling website, especially given its derogatory connotations and use elsewhere?

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Rendel Harris replied to Oldfatgit | 1 year ago
9 likes
Oldfatgit wrote:

"Middle-aged men in lycra" ... really? Is that *really* an acceptable term to use on a cycling website, especially given its derogatory connotations and use elsewhere?

It's just weird apart from anything else, "middle-aged men in lycra with their expensive road bikes" - no young men or women or middle-aged women own expensive road bikes? I know quite a few.

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wycombewheeler replied to Oldfatgit | 1 year ago
3 likes
Oldfatgit wrote:

"Middle-aged men in lycra" ... really? Is that *really* an acceptable term to use on a cycling website, especially given its derogatory connotations and use elsewhere?

I don't know, but when you are directly quoting someone it seems weird to change their words. I don't think the quoted person was using it as a derogatory term, because he is a cyclist. (not like the drivers who claim to also be a cyclist, in this case I believe him)

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Woldsman | 1 year ago
4 likes

Vertical bike storage, you say?  It'll never catch on.

While I'm old enough to remember when you could roll your bike on to the guard's van I can't say I ever experienced the 'cyclists special' days.  If you've never seen this video, set aside 15 minutes of your life, sit back, and weep.

Meanwhile, I'm off to practise my swing-a-leg-over-the-handlebars dismount...

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QPkT0paGEnQ

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Dnnnnnn replied to Woldsman | 1 year ago
2 likes
Woldsman wrote:

Vertical bike storage, you say?  It'll never catch on.

Literally true when your tyres are more than skinny, or your rims less than shallow.

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Woldsman replied to Dnnnnnn | 1 year ago
4 likes
Dnnnnnn wrote:
Woldsman wrote:

Vertical bike storage, you say?  It'll never catch on.

Literally true when your tyres are more than skinny, or your rims less than shallow.

Or if you're only three-and-a-half foot tall  7

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brooksby replied to Woldsman | 1 year ago
1 like

I've watched that on the BFI website too.  Wonderful.

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marmotte27 | 1 year ago
1 like

I've read an article about bike transport on Swiss railways in a mountain bike magazine. Even stored upright one bike takes the space of two seats. Even at the prices the Swiss are asking, around 20CHF last time I used it, a bike never pays for itself if you compare to a seat sold.... Add the fact that, be it for leisure or for commuting, most cyclists will want to take their bikes at peak times, bike transport is a hard nut to crack.
The bottom line of the article was that the Swiss were going to continue to provide space for bikes and even expand it on certain popular routes as a service, not because it's so great for them.

Unfortunately, if masses of people start to take their bikes on trains it's going to wreak havoc immediately. And that's even before you talk about any special bikes...

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CyclingInGawler replied to marmotte27 | 1 year ago
2 likes

Just to prove not all change is "progress" (and maybe a case of "tell kids that nowadays and they won't believe you") after I moved to sunny Lancashire from Kent in  1980, I quite frequently managed to leave work, cycle to Preston station, jump on train to London, cycle across London to Waterloo, jump on a train to Ashford, and then cycle to home on Romney Marsh. Never had an issue with getting the bike on even crowded trains, because it went in the Guard's van. So provision can be made, but somewhere over the last four decades decisions have been made that make it much more difficult.

On a similar topic, for many years I commuted on the train (with the bike) from East Lancs to Preston, and then cycled to Warton. Apart from the odd sideways glance from a fellow passenger, with a bit of give-and-take all round that was never a problem either. Ancient history I know, but nonetheless....

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marmotte27 replied to CyclingInGawler | 1 year ago
0 likes

One of the changes is how trains are designed now, no waggons anymore that you could add on or take off as needed, but complete units. If you want to double cycle capacity at any time you've got ro add a whole second train now. Repercussions on all the rest of the infrastructure like platform length and whatnot....

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grOg replied to CyclingInGawler | 1 year ago
0 likes

Imagine if everybody wanted to put bicycles in the Guards van.. a bit like bicycle parking provisions at workplaces; I arranged with my manager to park my bike under a stairwell; someone that started work before me saw my bike parked there and decided to park their bike there; imagine my reaction when I arrived to find the spot I'd been given taken up by another bike..

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Sriracha replied to grOg | 1 year ago
3 likes
grOg wrote:

Imagine if everybody wanted to put bicycles in the Guards van...

... what a wonderful world it would be!

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wycombewheeler replied to marmotte27 | 1 year ago
2 likes
marmotte27 wrote:

I've read an article about bike transport on Swiss railways in a mountain bike magazine. Even stored upright one bike takes the space of two seats. Even at the prices the Swiss are asking, around 20CHF last time I used it, a bike never pays for itself if you compare to a seat sold.... Add the fact that, be it for leisure or for commuting, most cyclists will want to take their bikes at peak times, bike transport is a hard nut to crack. .

very few trains are running with the maxium number of carriages, slapping an old style guards van in the middle of the train would make almost no difference.

We could argue about the cost of such a carriage, but limitations of space are really down to a decision made by the train companies to run shorter trains.

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Bmblbzzz replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago
1 like
wycombewheeler wrote:
marmotte27 wrote:

I've read an article about bike transport on Swiss railways in a mountain bike magazine. Even stored upright one bike takes the space of two seats. Even at the prices the Swiss are asking, around 20CHF last time I used it, a bike never pays for itself if you compare to a seat sold.... Add the fact that, be it for leisure or for commuting, most cyclists will want to take their bikes at peak times, bike transport is a hard nut to crack. .

very few trains are running with the maxium number of carriages, slapping an old style guards van in the middle of the train would make almost no difference.

We could argue about the cost of such a carriage, but limitations of space are really down to a decision made by the train companies to run shorter trains.

You can't just slap a guard's van, or anything, in the middle of an IET, Voyager, Pendelino, etc. Nor can you just take a carriage out when you anticipate lighter loading. They're made to run as sets of fixed numbers of carriages. It's not just loco at one end pulling carriages behind it, power is distributed through the carriages.

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brooksby replied to Bmblbzzz | 1 year ago
0 likes
Bmblbzzz wrote:

You can't just slap a guard's van, or anything, in the middle of an IET, Voyager, Pendelino, etc. Nor can you just take a carriage out when you anticipate lighter loading. They're made to run as sets of fixed numbers of carriages. It's not just loco at one end pulling carriages behind it, power is distributed through the carriages.

Which seems rather a retrograde and very inflexible design decision.  Basically, make a bus which goes on train lines...

Avatar
Bmblbzzz replied to brooksby | 1 year ago
2 likes
brooksby wrote:
Bmblbzzz wrote:

You can't just slap a guard's van, or anything, in the middle of an IET, Voyager, Pendelino, etc. Nor can you just take a carriage out when you anticipate lighter loading. They're made to run as sets of fixed numbers of carriages. It's not just loco at one end pulling carriages behind it, power is distributed through the carriages.

Which seems rather a retrograde and very inflexible design decision.  Basically, make a bus which goes on train lines...

It makes the train itself more efficient, improves acceleration (because grip is spread throughout the length), etc. But that just means you can't shuffle carriages around (or not without a lot of work). It doesn't mean you can't design a carriage to be a guard's van. 

Avatar
brooksby replied to Bmblbzzz | 1 year ago
1 like
Bmblbzzz wrote:
brooksby wrote:
Bmblbzzz wrote:

You can't just slap a guard's van, or anything, in the middle of an IET, Voyager, Pendelino, etc. Nor can you just take a carriage out when you anticipate lighter loading. They're made to run as sets of fixed numbers of carriages. It's not just loco at one end pulling carriages behind it, power is distributed through the carriages.

Which seems rather a retrograde and very inflexible design decision.  Basically, make a bus which goes on train lines...

It makes the train itself more efficient, improves acceleration (because grip is spread throughout the length), etc. But that just means you can't shuffle carriages around (or not without a lot of work). It doesn't mean you can't design a carriage to be a guard's van. 

Which was the point I was making, sorry.

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