Or at least, The Definitive Guide to Cycles & The Train Operating Companies (TOCs) I Know About. Which is a bit less snappy.
This is drawn from my own knowledge and a fledgling trainspotter thread on CCE, and should guide you through the entire process from booking the tickets to arriving at your destination, bike clutched in hand. I’ve split the post into general stuff that applies across the UK overground network, then some specifics on ScotRail, East Coast, Virgin and CrossCountry. I’ll update with others in the future.
General Stuff – Single ‘normal’ bike
Booking the tickets is the first step…
- Load up East Coast’s website. We use this as it’s one of only two booking sites that allow you to reserve bike places online. It’s also free (unlike TheTrainLine), still offers tickets from all other TOCs and let’s you search via station’s three letter codes, if you happen to know them. Search for your desired journey as normal.
- Look at the tickets. What to pick is entirely up to you, but certainly look at the singles in case there’s anything cheap. Also consider the number of changes and the TOCs involved (highlighted red below). Particularly if you’re lugging a fully loaded tourer around, changing more than once becomes a bit of a faff. You can the implications of the various TOCs here, at the bottom of this post, or via their websites.
- Pick a ticket/journey time and click ‘Buy Now’. On the next page, scroll down to just underneath the ‘Preferred Coach’ bit and open up the ‘Reserve bicycle space’ menu. Select the number of spaces you’re after, noting that you can only reserve spaces up to the number of seats booked. If you’re travelling alone with a tandem, a) awww and b) you’re going to have to ring up, as you need two spaces.
- Having selected the rest of your options, click ‘Continue’. On the next page, you’ll see if they’ve managed to reserve your bike spaces. This is where it can get rather dull, as if spaces aren’t available you need to flick between steps 2 and 4 to find a workable option. Be aware that deciding to wing it without a bike space will leave you with a ticket that only gets you onto the train and not your steed…
- Assuming we’re all sorted, buy the tickets using the ‘collect from station’ option. It’s well worth having an account with East Coast, as you get reward points for buying tickets that you can use for various bits and bobs. Having booked your ticket you’ll get a code, which you’ll need to provide along with the payment card to extract the tickets at the station. I just copy the code into the google calendar entry I make for the trip, as this avoids any chance of getting the code wrong.
- You can then retrieve your tickets from any of the self-serve machines at any station which has them. Bear in mind that each reserved leg of the trip will throw out three tickets per bike, so if you’ve got a multi-leg, multi-bike extravaganza planned it’s generally worth collecting the tickets from a ticket office. And using their stapler.
So, tickets in hand we’re ready to board our train. There’s a whole host of different attempts to cater for bikes on trains, ranging from East Coast’s ‘sheffield stands in a van at the end’ approach through various vertical hangers down to ‘there’s a space here if you can get these grumpy people to move their luggage’. I’ve summarised the ones I know of at the end, but your best bet is to ask the platform staff for a rough idea of where to stand on the platform so you’re in the right place when the train pulls in.
Useful things to know:
- It can be a big step from the platform to the carriage (Durham southbound, I’m looking at you). Consider taking panniers off first.
- You’ll need to attach the cycle part of the ticket to the bike somewhere visible. Viable options include elastic bands over the saddle, in a saddlepack strap, tucked under cabling on the top tube, neatly tucked in a bell on the handlebar (thanks SRD), and many others.
- Bungee cords and/or a small fabric ratchet strap can be very useful, as can a hair bobble to lock your brake on.
- Security is unlikely to be great. Consider a flexible cable lock to make the most of what’s available (U locks tend not to work well here, and one hopes someone entering the carriage with bolt cutters would be spotted anyway), or sitting in the vestibule with the bike. Certainly take off GPSs or fancy lights. Having said that, I’ve never had an issue.
- Vertical hangers can be a right bugger with a heavy bike in a moving train. Either move sharpish, or find a helpful bystander.
Hopefully you’re now safely settled on the train. The final thing to remember is you need to get your bike off at the other end. If you’ve booked the standard class quiet coach with East Coast you’re probably going to be ten carriages away from the bike. Don’t leave it until the ‘now approaching’ announcement to make your way down the train unless you enjoy being part of a never ending rugby scrum.
For the specialist collector
- European-style recumbents are generally ok, but can struggle with the vertical hangers as the crankset is where the front wheel is meant to be. Consider using the ratchet strap to pull the bottom wheel in and bungee-ing the top to the hanger. For anything non-vertical lowracers with kickstands are all kinds of superb, as nothing knocks them over.
- Trailers are apparently OK with East Coast, subject to certain size restraints. Haven’t tried it myself, but Carry Freedoms with the pop off wheels should be fine.
- Tandems require two reservations as mentioned above, although there’s no obvious reason why this should be the case. Apparently the Circe Helios fits vertical hangers and horizontal sheffields intact, for others you might have to remove the front wheel to shorten and suspend from the rear. Many TOCs won’t take them.
- Trikes are unlikely to be popular with anyone, sadly.
There’s some bonus information below, which I’ll try and keep up to date and add to as I learn more. Feel free to add stuff in the comments and I’ll work into the main body.
- CrossCountry (XC) and Virgin (VT). Almost always hangers somewhere in the middle – coach D is a pretty good starting bet. Generally split either side of a corridor. Other options include hangers at the end, and sometimes space in a luggage van. Not the nicest of trains, in general… Unlikely to take bike without reservation.
- East Coast (GR). Bit of a holy grail for cycling use in my opinion. Almost always going to be a van at one end of the train with sheffield stands for five bikes. Trains are long, so ask platform staff which end you need. For electric trains you need the English end, and for diesels the Scottish end. Trains much more pleasant (First Class in particular is often cheaper than the value of free food that can be consumed), but almost certainly won’t take the bike without a reservation.
- Northern Trains (NT). From Freddie – my additions in italics. No reservations. Such a random hodgepodge of hand-me-down stock from around the country you never know what train’ll turn up. 2 spaces, but conductor might not let you use them if the train’s packed. Unless its a bigger or emptier train, in which case you’ll get more on… Depsite this appear on paper to be one of the more bike friendly TOCs with a bike forum, heavy investment in stations for bike storage and other good stuff. Just suffer somewhat from a lack of money for modern rolling stock.
- Scotrail (SR). Varies with the wide collection of rolling stock. Often no reservation required, and the bike just fits in any old space along with wheelchairs, buggies, etc. I do this twice a day and it works fine, but then I go against the commuter flow and travel early. Others (Glasgow-Edinburgh and most long distance routes included) have a kind of low horizontal hanger that suspends the bike via the top tube. Fine for road-style bikes, but might cause issues with step-through or mountain bike frames. The Fuego fits neatly underneath it. The final option I know of are verticle hangers at the end of the driving carriage (you might have to get the conductor to fold up the shelf that’s also in this area), but this tends to be the local stuff. Tandems not carried. Pretty flexible with reservations. Have an excellent android app for monitoring train times and booking tickets (no bike reservations, sadly), and slowly heading towards e-tickets, which will be great.
- South West Trains (SWT). From Simon. Generally don’t care if you have a reservation or if there is space. On trains Waterloo – Weymouth there are usually 3+ spaces – either specific locations (around the middle) or just in wide doorways if on a commuter train.
- Transpennine Express (TP). From Freddie – my additions in italics. (Class 185, Manchester airport/Liverpool to Newcastle/Edinburgh): Reservations not compulsory. Lots of services hilariously busy though, so strongly recommended unless travelling at odd times. Space for 2 uprights in a “foldy-down seat/comically large suitcase storage area” in coach C. There’s also a large (usually deserted) wheelchair area in coach A (beyond first class) where I’ve seen bikes stored before now (highly recommended as a generally quiet area if you’re travelling with bags as well). Equally, I’ve seen people get away with standing with their noble steeds in the vestibules, especially when it’s too busy for the conductor to get down the train (much to the annoyance of other passengers, I hasten to add). A lot of trains are run as two units coupled back-to-back, and everyone piles onto the front one, leaving the back completely deserted. TPE’s other trains (used for Manchester to Sheffield/Hull I think) claim to have space for 2 bikes in coach C, but no idea what they’re like. I think they’re the same as some of Scotrail’s trains. From their policy document: “Tandems, tricycles, ‘Rann’ type trailers, motorcycles, mopeds and motorised cycles cannot be carried on any of our services.” Rann type trailers are apparently trailers which fix to the top of a rear rack. I suspect turning up with another kind of trailer and demanding passage is likely to result in a grumpy conductor.
More (hopefully) to follow.