Have you tried taking a bike on the train lately? I ask because my last three attempts have been unmitigated disasters, and as our man Matt Lamy found out this weekend, taking a bike on the train has become a minefield where nobody seems too clear of the rules. Has it has always been this difficult, or are train operators going out of their way to make life miserable for cyclists?

Not so long ago I could pole up at the station, buy my ticket and sling the bike in the guard’s van, safe in the knowledge that both me and my steed would arrive safely at our destination.

Now guard’s vans have been consigned to history, provision for cycles ranges from scarce to non-existant, and some train companies seem determined to keep us off their rolling stock altogether.

Virgin Trains cycle policy dictates that you call and book a place for your bike before travelling. Fair enough. So armed with a reference number alongside my tickets, I load up at Euston, and everything is hunky-dory.

Coming back, however, the man at the ticket barrier at Manchester station takes one look at the reference number, denies the series of numbers relate to anything – especially taking my bike on the train – and points me towards the snake of humanity queueing at the ticket office. An anxious ten minutes of waiting in line ensues, all the while glancing over my shoulder to ensure nobody runs off with my pride and joy, before I emerge with the reservation and, feeling like the winner of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, run for the train with seconds to spare.

That was too close for comfort. The next trip to Manchester needed to be better organised. I called Virgin Trains well in advance to clarify the bike-carrying provision on my train. The man on the end of the phone sounded utterly perplexed. If there was booking system in operation for bicycles, this chap was not aware of it.

“Just one minute, sir. I’m going to put you on hold.” Cue several minutes of muzak of the pan-pipe variety, before our befuddled friend comes back on the line.

“I am afraid I am unable to reserve a position for your bicycle at this time.” Does that mean the train is full and no bike places remain? “Not necessarily, sir. It has proved impossible for me to reserve a place at this time. If you call back tomorrow, it may be possible.”

Now, either this man doesn’t know what he is doing or couldn’t be bothered. Or maybe – just maybe – there really was some kind of computer malfunction that made my request impossible to process. I gave up at that point, left the bike at home and took public transport. Well done, Virgin trains. You beat me.

But it’s not all bad news. This week’s excursion to Petersfield went swimmingly, South West trains providing a storage area for cycles where you can sit and gaze lovingly at your machine (if that’s your bag). No ticket required, just turn up and pop it on the train. Perfect.

Fifty miles of South Downs later and an exhausted and dishevelled rider attempts to board the 5.15 from Brighton to London Victoria. “No, I’m sorry, you can’t take a bike on Southern Trains until 7pm,” says the nice man at the barrier.

What? So this three-quarters empty train is going to leave without me because there is no room for my bike? Crying seems a distinct possibility for a tired and emotional cyclist standing the wrong side of the barrier. I rack my brains. How about I ride over to Lewes and get the train there (a ploy that has worked on previous occasions)?

“No, sir, That is also Southern trains. The same rules apply.” Any bright ideas for me, apart from spending two hours in the pub and getting ‘tired and emotional’?

“Just a minute, sir.” Our man consults his information sheet. “You can get on this Thameslink train to Bedford. That goes through central London.”

Did I hear correctly? The train to Victoria is out of bounds but the one that goes several miles closer to my house is OK? “It’s a First Capital Connect train. That particular train operator allows bicycles,” says our man. I am not any mood to argue the toss, so jump aboard and am London-bound.

Needless to say, there is no place to properly place my bike on the train, so when it topples over from its position, jammed across the doorway, and bends the rear mech, I am not altogether surprised.

But enough moaning from me. Perhaps I was unlucky, or just plain disorganised. Perhaps the train companies really are part of an integrated transport policy that has somehow escaped my attention, and they really do welcome us two-wheelers with open arms. Or perhaps not.

Maybe six bikes is not enough, and I need to overcome my prejudices and add a Brompton to my stable.

Feel free to add your bike and train experiences, both good and bad. There has to be a better way than this.     

  • dpc

    do you happen to have the phone number for booking a bike? The website says the spaces are full but its the only direct one all day… Thanks!

  • Guest

    What does the reference to take a bike on a train look like?

  • ithinkthat

    Hope they were suitably pissed off!

  • ithinkthat

    I feel your pain. I too have been cursed by bike discrimination, or perhaps just boring old jobsworths complying with their boring old jobs. Crosscountry are abysmal at faciliating bike travel; their trains around peak times are frequently rammed, and with a mere 3 slots for bikes to go on.

  • Tony Yates

    It certainly hasn’t gotten any better, Virgin trains still appear to do everything they can to stop you taking your bike on a train. Even with the 4 available slots you have to book every single journey individually, wait till I rock up tomorrow with 30 dates I want, I am sure to annoy the sales office!

  • anger management

    Stood at Southampton station after yet again being refused on a cross country train. Apparently limit of 3 bikes is for safety reason, but I’ve been on these trains (as a passsenger) when it has been so full of people it was impossible to move. Don’t travel cross county trains.

  • Andrew

    I’ve just spent 30 soul-destroying minutes trying to book a ticket with cycle reservation on Virgin Trains from Euston to The Lakes. After paying £3 in call charges, I realised I was getting no where and gave up. I will be making the 600 mile round trip by car instead. Never again.

  • SarfLondonCyclist

    I’m in the unenviable position of having booked a Virgin Trains ticket but neither knowing whether there is space on the train for bikes (I’m in the bike-space coach so I’ll get to see) NOR being able to book a bike reservation without physically going to Euston station an extra 20 minutes in advance (and it had better not take longer than that!) First thing in the morning. Oh I COULD ring the 0871 number, but actually, I can’t – my mobile provider doesn’t support that, and there was a saynoto0870 real geographic number but it’s been churlishly cut-off by thetrainline (who I believe provide Virgin’s call centre service, probably via India).
    Everyone involved should be ashamed. Instead, they probably feel proud to contribute to Britain’s evident anti-cyclist culture. I hope they like looking at fat rear ends and chubby thighs instead of good-looking ones, for that’s the standard they’re helping create… idiots.

  • Shallcross

    I travelled on the Virgin Pendolino from Birmingham International this morning. The helpful platform staff used a key to open the door to the Cycle Storage Carriage at the very end of the train to allow me on. They radioed Coventry station to make sure I was met and let out. Unfortunately no-one arrived on the platform to let me off. I was eventually released at Rugby, after I walked the entire 11 coach train to see the train manager. I had stopped off at coach C earlier and asked the friendly shop staff to contact the manager for me as the little office was empty. He spent a few minutes in there until turning to me & limply holding the telephone handset, advised me that it didn’t work. I believe that Virgin Trains make it as difficult as possible for cycles to be carried on their services. I feel that the platform staff at Coventry, are not helping either. For example; on my way back to Birmingham International later this afternoon, I informed the platform staff that I have a reservation for the 16.42 Virgin Pendolino back to Birmingham International, he cheerily advised me to make my way to the end of the platform where the little blue cycle sign is & he promised to meet me there later to let me on. He never showed up. I decided to wait until all the other passengers had loaded themselves, then I got on & propped my bike against the door in the vestibule area, making sure I was out of the way of the aisle as I could. At least I was confident in being able to open the door myself & let myself off than wait for a disgruntled platform staff that baulk at having extra work to do courtesy of Virgin Trains Cycle Policy.
    Don’t mention the 30 minute wait in the Customer Reception office the other day, to pick up my cycle reservations in the first place. I feel my life slipping away in waiting, waiting, waiting for a poor service to cyclists even though network rail “positively encourage the use of cycles on the railway”. Ha Ha Ha…………

  • Amir

    Had my second puncture 2nd week in a row! last week i was permitted to take my bike on the bus without a problem, when i was on the way home, through the busiest section of my route, Hammersmith and Chiswick, London!

    However, this morning, on way to work, my road/race bike again had a puncture about 3/4 of mile from Imperial College, London. I was in a hurry of getting to college so made my way to the bus stop, approx 3-4 stops from dest, explained to the driver of the almost empty double decker bus of my situation, but very rudely only exclaimed to me-‘sorry sir, not allowed, cos of health+safety’, which I certainly agree with, as its a peak time in central, but this particular section of the route has always been near empty on daily basis for as far as i can remember,

    The driver could have considered I’m only travelling few bus stops, had a puncture, and needed to get to college, and the bus was near empty, and was very very unlikely to pick up more than 1-2 pax in next few couple of stops due to the route the bus travels by! I travel approx 16miles from/to work daily on bike, and some consideration should be given in certain circumstances.

    I certainly accept that the driver was right in sense of following protocols, but common sense should be given some consideration, its only logical!! (I am typing this in a hurry, so hope I haven’t missed some info!)

  • Mike Stead

    I was just refused to board a train from Clapham heading West. Now I accept that I didn’t have a reservation (never needed one/been asked for one before, yet use bike in London weekly for years). And I accept that it was 5 minutes to 7, when the ‘no bikes’ watershed is up.

    But the train was ***empty***. There were no bikes in the vestibule, no cyclists queuing to get on clutching reservations. The security guard didn’t give a damn, and was incredibly smug abou the fact that he was in the right and a customer paying thousands of pounds a year would have to bow to his might and power.

    Had there been cyclists waiting with reservations I would have acquiesced to them, certainly. I missed my earlier train, so no problem. But this guy was deliberately spiteful. And the station manager backed him 100%. As she said, it’s policy. When I questioned whether, in cases where common sense clearly showed policy was not of any benefit to anyone, it should be down to individual judgement, she said no. It’s policy.

    Southwest trains also have a policy that you must buy a ticket before getting on their trains. Why do their guards sell tickets to customers on the train then? Every day tens of thousands of commuters buy tickets from guards on trains when ‘policy’ states they must be given a penalty fare.


  • Dave Jackson

    Cambridge to Ashchurch for Tewkesbury. With two bikes. Phoned up to check spaces available on trains we had selected. Told space available. Booked tickets. Phoned again. Only one space available. Told I may be able to book a second space by going to local station. (didn’t believe it). Off to station to pick up tickets and try and book second bicycle. No second space available and no trace of reference number to pick up reservation slip for the one bike booked. Complaint to Cross Country Trains via link on website. Reply quotes same reference number to pick up reservation slip for 1 bike and says, “I hope this resolves your problem.” I am now looking for a bag to put one bike in to take it as luggage. I have also emailed back asking how, assuming the reference number works this time, one of us being able to take our bike on the holiday resolves the problem.

  • Stuart

    10 minutes on the Virgin premium number got me a bike reservation. The flannel I received back when putting in a complaint about this has to be read:

    Thank you for your email which we received on 06 March 2012.

    I am sorry to learn that it took such a long time to deal with your bike reservation enquiry when you called us. We do try to ensure that all enquiries are dealt with thoroughly and any issues resolved, however I can fully appreciate your frustration at the difficulties you experienced in this instance.

    We provide our call centre agents with regular training to ensure that they are confident in their abilities to resolve any queries that they may receive. We constantly monitor the service provided by our call centres to ensure that they are meeting the service levels we would expect, and I will ensure that your feedback is passed on to the managers responsible.
    Thank you for your time, and my apologies for any inconvenience caused as a result of the delay to our reply.
    Yours sincerely
    Jason Hood
    Customer Relations

  • Emily H

    Okay here is a good one. I booked tickets for a Virgin train journey via the London Midland website because I have an account set up there. After booking I decided I wanted to take my bicycle with me and I remembered that Virgin require you to reserve a place. So I rang Virgin, on a premium 10p/min number listed on their website for this very purpose, to book a place and they told me I had to do it through London Midland. I ring London Midland and they tell me they have no access to bike bookings and I need to call Virgin.

    What this boils down to, is the fact that you can’t book a bicycle on a Virgin train unless you book your ticket with Virgin. It would be really helpful if it said that somewhere on their website, perhaps on the page linked to above. Looks like I’ve got to slog it across London on a Boris Bike or risk catching a cold on TFL buses.

  • Mark T

    Forgive me, there is a restriction on trains leaving Brighton, until 7pm. Which is a ridiculous policy.

  • Mark T

    The Skyride was advertised at my local Southern station. Helpfully Southern laid on some engineering works that day, with a replacement bus service that – yes, you guessed it – didn’t take bikes. I’m sure Southern didn’t see the irony of advertising an event they made it impossible to get to by train.

    But with regard to the article, the chap who stopped you getting on the Southern train at Brighton was wrong. There is NO restriction on trains going into London in the evening – only on trains leaving London.

    Perhaps he just wanted to make your life difficult.

  • Alastair

    Andy: I have used Midland Mainline between Chesterfield and London loads of times. You do have to book your ticket for train and bike separately, but as soon ax you have your train ticket, you can get a bike reservation for your train. You have to go to the station and get it, but then you get a reserved place. You get a ticket to attach to your bike and one for you. Never had any problems, even on the new trains. Just make sure you communicate with the ticket fella, or they may lock the door in front of your bike, this would be a problem if getting off at a mid way station..

  • Kevin Wilson

    This is exactly and the only reason for my family and I not joining in the London SkyRide the other weekend.
    I looked at the draconian rules of the franchises (perhaps that is part of the problem) and decided I could not risk not getting my family home at the end of the day.
    60,000 cyclists all trying to get out of London. At 6 per train that is one hell of a que!

    Unfortunately, as Matt pointed out, Goods Vans have made way for cramming more sardines in.

  • Chris

    I’ve got used to the idea of not being able to use the train –even when I snapped a deraileur and was carrying it. What concerns me more is the effect on kids. My youngest son and a few mates travelled by train to use a skate park. One poor kid decided to take his BMX rather than a scooter or skateboard and was refused entry to the train by the driver. Stood alone on the platform while the others drove off.

  • Brian Turpin

    Souhern Trains was pretty good when we did the SDWay recently although the web site says you should reserve a bike space when buying your ticket – in fact you can’t do this and have to take pot luck. But the staff are helpful, trains reliable, and even when we had 5 bikes on one train passengers remained pretty good humoured with us blocking the corridor

    Getting back from the C2C Sunderland to Workington on 3 different train companies with a tandem required quite a bit of tenacous negotiation, throwing ourselves on the mercy of the generally well intentioned staff – but we did it!

    We once got the tandem in the hold of a bus replacement service in Kent.

  • Matt Rodgers

    I live in Sheffield and sometimes if the weather gets nasty, I get the train home from Doncaster where I work. I never have a problem putting my bike on the train, some even have special places to store them.

  • Andy

    Midland mainlane…..only 2 spaces available and you can’t book so for example a single to London about £70 but that could be wasted if I can’t get my bike on!
    If our government wants to get people travelling by bike then it needs to put pressure on rail companies to provide adequate provisions.
    In the mean time I’ll have to stick to my gas guzzling car!

  • Gavin

    Come to Scotland, I take my road bike on the Edinburgh – Glasgow train every day at peak commuting times and have never had a problem. The train has space for 8 bikes, but the train guards are relaxed and you can generally get 12+ in the spaces provided.

  • Vicki Stott

    I try very hard to commute on a bike/train combo. Like you, I found I had to book on Virgin Trains (one every hour), but London Midlands allows me to take a bike on any train without booking (provided it isn’t going to arrive in London during the rush hour, I think, but that’s not an issue for me so I may have misremembered). However, there isn’t anywhere to *put* my bike, so I usually end up standing in the doorway, propping it up, and getting thoroughly in the way of anyone who wants to move between carriages. Usually only the conductor, though, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

  • J MItchell

    This summer we went to Austria. We were able to buy a ticket for 35 Euros that allowed all 4 of us with bikes to travel as far as we liked on the Austrian train network during the course of the day. The only limitation was that we had to us local trains.

    Even the buses have bike racks on the back!

    We just have to face it – the UK is a very bike unfriendly country whatever the government’s aspirations about green forms of travel.

  • James Wilson

    I always travel on the First Great Western trains I find it really annoying that there’s not more spaces available on their trains for bikes. There’s only 6 spaces available and it’s important to reserve a space otherwise you’ll end up catching a later trains.

    I use an old MTB bike because often other passengers pack in their bikes between yours and someone else’s which causes damage to everyone’s bikes!

    It would be great if there were more spaces available and a better system for preventing damage to bikes which would allow passengers to commute in confidence knowing that their bikes are safe.

  • Adrian Ellis

    Yep, your article is spot on. I’ve used Southern Trains, South West Trains and Thames Link (now called First Capital Connect). South West trains have a great cycle service IF you choose the slower trains. They’ve got special slots, velcro ties, a seat nearby so you can keep your bike company. I wouldn’t be surprised if they soon include a small cleaning kit so you can spend the time between Leatherhead and Dorking cleaning the frame.
    First Capital Connect, by comparison is more like using a public lavatory. No one stops you putting your bike on, but it’s probably because no one seems to pays any attention to anything you do on a FCC train. There’s no bike rack, but I’m usually just happy the train keep running and the doors work.
    The BIGGEST problem I’ve found with South West Trains was when I had just got going with regular weekend rides in the Surrey Hills, around March. They promptly decided to close the station every weekend for about six weeks for engineering works! Of course they didn’t want to leave us stranded. They put on a bus service. Has anyone ever tried taking a full sized bike on a bus?