Let the train take the strain?

When I’m forced awake in the morning by either of my alarm clocks (for the record, I do prefer the one that shouts ‘Mummy! Up! Up!’) my mind immediately runs through the childcare/transport options that have been carefully agreed with the Husband and the local train station in previous days. If the toddler alarms wake me up and the Husband is still there it means something has gone wrong in this elaborate plan, or it’s the weekend.

Why this masterplan? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, where we are (Dunbar, on the east coast of Scotland) you can’t just put your bike on the train and go. No. That sort of spontaneous behaviour is forbidden. Unless you get a specific train, which allows spontaneous behaviour in only one person wanting to travel with a bike. The other two people have to book ahead or risk Train Conductor Wrath. Or hope that the spontaneous cyclist missed the train. All other trains require organised cyclists or ones that have the emotional energy to beg and enough time to lock their bike to something if the answer is ‘No’.

Confused? You should be. All train companies operate different bicycle carriage options and it’s up to you, the bicycle user, to find out what they are.

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My bike all happy with ScotRail

I’m a regular user of the train – with and without my bike and child – as my job involves travel throughout Scotland. Often, however, I’m just trying to travel the 30 miles to my office base in Edinburgh. Our local station, Dunbar, hosts three different train companies: East Coast, ScotRail and CrossCountry. If I want to travel with my bike and I haven’t booked I need to get the 7am train, which is run by CrossCountry, as it allows one spontaneous cyclist and two organised ones. Dunbar has quite a few cyclists, organised and otherwise. Some mornings we recklessly break all the rules and cram four or more (plus a Brompton) bikes into the bike racks and (empty) storage area. That’s when we get Train Conductor Wrath, which is the closest I’ve ever got to being told off by the Headmaster (I was Head Girl at my school, don’t you know). It’s quite thrilling as long as I’m not ‘the fourth cyclist’…

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See – full here and in the other one. At least I’m developing my arm muscles..

The 7.43 train is East Coast, who do not let unbooked bicycles onto their train, unless it is at the express permission of the guard. I usually lack the emotional energy to beg the East Coast train guard to let my unbooked bicycle into his special place so if I get this one I either walk for 35 mins each side of the train journey or take the ruinously expensive bus (I’ve already paid £11.80 for the train and am seething about this already). Live closer to work? Not if I want to work for a charity and have a garden that I can swing the toddler in… besides, sometimes I have to compromise with the Husband and he wanted to live closer to trees and away from other people.

Shall we bring in childcare now? My son’s nursery opens at 8am, so the 7.43 train isn’t an option if it’s one of my ‘drop off’ days. The next train is at 8.56. WHY? WHY? WHY? This makes no sense to me. Why not 8.15? I’m sure there are many splendid reasons why this can’t be done, but as this blog is all about me I’m fixated on how bizarre this is, given that most people wanting to get a train from Dunbar probably want to go to work in Edinburgh at around 9am. We are on the east coast main line, so the 8.56 is coming from Doncaster and obviously none of those people want to arrive in Edinburgh for a 9am meeting either.

Oh, and the 8.56 is East Coast too, so unless I’ve booked my bike on the day before I’m back to the walk/bus options that I don’t have the time or money for. This is when I see our little Honda Civic waving at me from the street, wanting me to become part of the congestion problem in Edinburgh..

On the way home I have a similar routine. The gloriously spontaneous 4.33 is ScotRail and not bookable. I’m fairly sure all their inspectors have been on some sort of ‘loving the cyclist’ course as even when the two bikes per carriage rule is broken they invariably don’t mention it. Unlike some other train users who have a selection of dirty looks for infringers. Unfortunately it’s a rare day that I can leave the office at this hour.

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The 4.33 from Edinburgh – all full

The 5.08 is my train of choice as it’s CrossCountry and therefore available to the disorganised cyclist who has to get back home to pick up a toddler from nursery before 6pm. The 5.31 is an East Coast, going to London so is invariably packed full of angry people shouting at bewildered people without reservations. If this is the option for the day I lock the bike up at the station and try to hide somewhere onboard or wait for the 18.05 and risk dinner being delayed (hungry, screaming toddler) or already eaten.

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Part of the cycle parking at Edinburgh Waverley – that’s full too usually…

Combining child, bike and train maximises the issues already mentioned and adds a new one: how to get the combined bike and child onto the train? I’m not a feeble or miniature woman, yet I find it quite a challenge to get my hybrid off the platform and through the narrow carriage door when it’s unhampered by a 12kg toddler (I had the baby seat attached to the bike this morning and one of my lovely Dunbar cycle gang had to help me get it hooked up). Add the toddler and it’s impossible to lift. Other people’s children may stand still when required but mine doesn’t do this yet and I’m not sure I want to test his reliability by the side of a train track. So far we have relied on kind strangers to help us alight, but I just don’t think it should be this hard.

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On a train in Glasgow – just couldn’t do it!
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A small step for man? I find it quite hard..

Did I mention that bike trailers aren’t allowed on CrossCountry? It’s just another frustration to add to the list. If someone can bring a 20kg suitcase and block the aisle I don’t see why I can’t bring our packable trailer. And 2 or 3 bikes per train – it hardly encourages sustainable, integrated transport does it? My family will use the entire allocation when my son has a bike. If he had a sibling, should we leave one of them at home? Isn’t travelling sustainably what we’re all supposed to be doing?

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CrossCountry reminding you they want really don’t want you.. or your trailer..

Last summer we visited the Husband’s relatives in Denmark and I got my long desired day of cycling in Copenhagen. Not only do they have superb cycle infrastructure on the roads, they have trains that work with bikes too.

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The bike loving trains of Copenhagen

Whilst taking some photos of the easy access doors and platforms the Husband had to explain to a ‘fascinated’ local that in Scotland it’s hard to get your bike on the train.

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Tiny little step that even I can overcome!
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Real space for cycling..

Every train we went on had a dedicated carriage for bikes. Yes, an actual entire carriage. At one point I counted 14 bikes and two pushchairs. I wanted to take photos but I thought the Husband was probably sick of explaining me..

10 thoughts on “Let the train take the strain?

  1. Brilliant post about the frustrations of travelling by train with a bike. I find it terribly stressful, I often use Northern Rail who don’t operate a first com, first served policy on there TWO bike spaces per train. I’ve bought a folding bike for general bike/train duties, but this is no use to me for touring.
    I haven’t tried travelling with my son by bike/train. I think this would cause a meltdown! Unless I’m travelling alone, I connect to the train by bus, frustrating as this tends to add around £10 to the cost of the journey.
    On another note, most trains don’t have enough spaces for a family with bikes to travel together. We recently went on holiday to by train and wanted to take bikes with us, but this would have meant our party of two adults, two children splitting up and travelling by two different trains, which meant we couldn’t use our Family Railcard. Jaunts out into the peak district (around 30 minutes by train) require a car for a family who wish to take bikes.

  2. I read that in the Netherlands commuter trains often don’t allow bikes because there’s no way they could accommodate the potential demand, even with a dedicated carriage. So most people who need a bike at both ends solve the problem by by having two bikes. Of course this requires decent secure bike parking at both ends (so the idea probably doesn’t help you), but I can imagine providing bike parking is cheaper than taking up valuable carraige space shipping bikes around.

  3. I chuckled at your descriptions of different train operators and their staff’s degree of ‘loving the cyclist’ (or not). In my experience:
    Northern Rail, TransPennine Express, Arriva Trains Wales, Scotrail (local services only) = more or less do what you like, so long as you’re not in the way.
    Scotrail (long distance), CrossCountry = quite strict.
    Virgin = strict.
    East Coast = strictest of the lot even, say, when there is train chaos, advance ticket restrictions have been lifted and the bike spaces are empty.

    Did you know that you can get an East Coast bike reservation at the ticket office right up until the time of departure? It doesn’t help if the train you intended to travel on happens to be fully booked, but it can be useful. Despite being one of the organised ones, I have done this more than once when there have been delays or re-routing and I have ended up at a station desperate to get on an East Coast train that leaves in 10 minutes but which I don’t have a reservation for yet.

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