October 25th, 2013
by Hattie Parke
Living in Bristol, you might think that the transport system has never been friendlier to cyclists. Arriving at Temple Meads railway station you are welcomed by row upon row of cycle racks. Admittedly they are a little rusty, but they’re under cover and right outside the British Transport Police Office, so it feels like a safe place to leave your bike when you jump on the train. There’s also a shiny new Brompton dock, so you can hire a folding bike to get about the city when you arrive at the station.
This is just one of 68 schemes benefiting from a nationwide Department for Transport (DfT) fund announced in February 2013. Bristol’s share of the £15m will also bring us CCTV, secure cycle parking and even a public bike pump. DfT has also put money into Bike & Go, a cycle hire scheme co-funded by rail franchise holders, which was launched at Liverpool Central Station in August. Ultimately this will be rolled out to 50 stations across England.
So far as it goes, this is good news. Making it easier to pick up a bike at the station works for commuters and sight-seers heading into cities, and we may well see more people making ‘multi-modal sustainable journeys’ as the transport types call them. But these ‘station cycle’ facilities don’t work for everyone.
Half biked ideas
Transport policy seems not to recognise that there are different types of journey that cyclists might want to take. Leaving my bike at the station might work if I’m going to a city with a bike hire scheme, or if I don’t want to use my bike at the other end. But what if I’m going to a small town or the countryside? My bike is my primary means of transport. I often have kit in my panniers, and I’m often planning to cycle a long way when I reach the end of my train journey, so it is practical to keep my bike with me.
So what happens when I want to take my bike on the train? It starts with a lot of planning. National Rail may say they “encourage the integrated use of cycle and trains – two convenient and environmentally friendly forms of transport.” They even have a newly updated smartphone app, which shows the cycle carriage policy or restrictions for each journey. It all sounds great!
But for the majority of train operating companies (TOC) the app doesn’t currently let you make a cycle reservation online – you have to call them directly. If you’re making a longer journey using two or more companies’ trains, you have to book with each of them separately, and each has a different bike policy. If you’re travelling in a group of more than two (a family for example) then you have no chance: a lot of trains only allow two reservations.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to make your ‘reservations’, that doesn’t guarantee you a cycle space. It just gives you priority over others with no ‘reservation’. Every time I’ve made a cycle reservation, the call ends: ‘Just ask the conductor on the train if you can take your bike on board’. After all that hassle, the conductor can just say “No”. And if you’ve bought a ticket for that specific train, that’s you and your bike stranded.
The train guards are stuck with a booking system that doesn’t work. I asked a guard what the best thing was when I wanted to travel with my bike, and was told:
“I’ve got nothing against cyclists, I’m a cyclist myself, but the best thing you can do is not bring your bike on the train.”
The current system may give the appearance of working, but is actually set up to make it incredibly difficult to take your bike on the train.
Prepare to repel boarders!
That’s my experience of negotiating the barriers: sometimes I succeed, often I don’t. So how does the mess I’ve described impact on how the nation travels to the station?
Figures from the latest National Passenger Survey indicate that just 2.6% of passengers arrived at the station by bike. However, the number of people carrying their bikes onto the train has risen from almost 25,000 trips per day in 2006, to 66,000 in 2013. This demonstrates an increasing demand for cycle spaces on trains, but on board capacity is struggling to keep up.
If it is hard to get your bike on the train at the moment, the problem seems set to get worse. Increasingly, on station facilities seem to be viewed as a replacement for on-board facilities. I was alarmed to read in Greater Anglia’s Draft Cycle Strategy for consultation last month that their ‘objective for the medium to long term is to reduce the carriage of cycles on trains by stimulating behavioural change.’
Last year the Department for Transport launched the cycle-rail toolkit and announced that they are trying to remove the barriers to ‘multi-modal’ journeys. The toolkit however, is disappointingly focused on station facilities, and fails to recognise the benefits of increasing on board cycle facilities. The then Transport Minister Norman Baker MP pointed out the benefits of integration: “By getting rail passengers to leave their cars at home and take the bike instead, traffic congestion can be cut and carbon emissions slashed – it’s a win-win.”
There is certainly plenty of scope to have an impact. In 2009, domestic transport accounted for 24% of UK domestic GHG emissions, with 58% of this coming from cars. The Government’s Carbon Plan notes that by 2050 “the transport system will need to emit significantly less carbon than today, while continuing to play its vital role in enabling economic growth.”
Integrated cycle-rail journeys dramatically increase the catchment area of a station, compared with walk-rail, increasing the accessibility of railways to those without, or choosing not to use, a car. Expanding on train provision means that passengers can continue their journeys by sustainable means when they reach their destination. Integration also opens up new markets and economic opportunities: the European Cycling Federation points out the financial benefits for both the TOCs and the wider community in attracting new customers including the growing number of ‘cycle tourists’.
TOC, stock and travel
Yet there are currently no requirements for TOC to include on-board cycle spaces on new rolling stock. The Government rhetoric on increasing multi-modal sustainable transport is therefore out of step with what it requires of TOCs. This reticence seems to reflect short-term thinking, driven by financial considerations and the overriding concern to demonstrate that new rolling stock provides more seats. Little thought is being given to the longer term and the changes that are needed in our travel habits – yet rolling stock may be with us for 20 or 30 years. The franchise model does little to incentivise thinking far ahead.
With an increasing population and increasing demands on our transport network, we need a radical change if we’re to plan our way towards more sustainable travel. Whilst I welcome the improvements being made to station cycle facilities, this needs to happen in tandem with an increase in on-board cycle capacity. The proportion of journeys to station that take place via bike is dismally low, and increasing it will take more than a few hire schemes. Thinking about how people travel when they arrive at their destination remains rudimentary, and politicians peddling buzzwords like ‘multi-modal’ and ‘sustainable’ need to back their rhetoric with investment in rolling stock if cycling and rail are to become properly integrated.