By combining bikes and trains, gentle cyclists can explore parts of the UK that are beyond their cycling range. But be ready, you may have only a few minutes to figure out where to load your bike, get it loaded, and get yourself on board.
English trains run on schedules that are nothing at all like Amtrak’s. The rail operators are actually fined for every minute they’re late, the timetables are tight, and train personnel are willing to encourage you, usually nicely, to hurry.
Easier Than Expected
At Morton-in-Marsh, the first train we boarded was a small local that originated at the station. The stationmaster told us to wait in the middle of the platform for the train manager. When the train came in the train manager told us to load our bikes right onto the passenger car.
We rolled our bikes onto the empty train where there was just enough space to squeeze them in. It was easy. “This is going to be a breeze,” I thought. That is until we changed trains.
Or Maybe Not
At Didcot Parkway we learned you sometimes have to get to that platform on the other side of the tracks. Which involves lugging loaded bikes up a flight of stairs, across a footbridge, and back down the other side.
Oh, and don’t wait here, intercity trains are different from locals. “See that tiny bike sign at the far end?” No, not really, the far end of the platform is just an out of focus haze. Nevertheless, that’s where you have to wait with your bikes. And you’d better hurry, that’s your train coming in now.
Scurry down to the end. “Oh, you have to take the panniers off. ” Yikes, didn’t know that.
Meanwhile the train driver is urging us to hurry.
Dang, the duffle bag handle is caught in the chain. Sort that out. At the same time, we both try to load our bikes into the bike compartment. There isn’t enough room for two people in the bike compartment.
“You need to hurry,” admonishes the train driver. “We’re working on it aren’t we,” responds the platform manager.
Susan, you get off and hand the bikes up to me. I’ll hang them and strap them in. Finally we get the bikes loaded, apologizing constantly. Start to run back to get ourselves on board.
“Don’t forget your things,” calls the platform manager. Damn. Back for the pannier I left. Jump on the train. It starts to roll. It’s been three minutes, total. And we made the train late.
It’s just as urgent unloading at the other end.
After that, we figured we needed a better plan. A Be Ready Plan.
Our “Better Be Ready” Plan
- Ask the platform manager to tell you where the cycle carriage is -- before your train arrives.
- Pull your panniers off the bikes -- ahead of time.
- When loading bikes into a special compartment, decide who will pass the bikes onto the train and who will be on the train to secure them.
- Don’t lock your bike to the train. It’s forbidden. You won’t have enough time anyway.
- Tell the train manager your destination.
- Remind the train manager when your stop is coming up – you'll need him to open the cycle storage area.
Oh, And Reserving Bike Space Might be a Good Idea
We didn’t reserve bike space on either of the two trips we took and didn’t have trouble getting space. Susan did receive a scolding from one stationmaster, though. Apparently, you should book at least 24 hours in advance so train guards and conductors are ready for you each time you change trains.
Bike spaces are limited on long-distance trains and often fill quickly. Booking space for your bike is free with your passenger ticket.