Taking your bike on a train

I have to admit I find the whole rigmarole of taking a bike on a train pretty stressful. But if you want to explore new horizons you may need to get there using other forms of transport. Of course if time is not an issue, you just cycle from home and keep going (one day…).

Taking a bike on a plane has to be the most stressful endeavour, what with the dirty looks you get when you check in with your semi-dismantled bike in a designated bike bag (despite following all the airline’s instructions) and the faff of having to undo things and put them back on when you arrive. Not to mention seeing the baggage handlers hurling your bike around.

It makes taking a bike on a train look like a walk in the park. But, thanks to the popularity of cycling, there are more people than ever that want to bring bikes on trains and spaces can be limited. So it pays to plan ahead.

1. Know your trains

It’s free to take your bike on UK trains. But the different train companies have their own systems for booking bikes on board. Not only that, but different types of train have different facilities for bikes.

Big intercity trains usually have a guard’s van where bikes are kept; some trains have hooks inside train corridors where bikes can hang; trains with sliding doors usually have space in the corridor or alongside the seats in one compartment.

The rule seems to be if you can book a seat on a train, then you can book a bike. So if you can’t book a place, you’ll have to endure a nervous wait on the platform and a tense stand-off if more cyclists arrive hoping to get on the same train. That said, cyclists are generally lovely and help each other in these situations. And guards are often pleasingly relaxed about the rules … well most of them anyway.

2. Book in person

I have tried booking bike spaces online, on the phone and in person and after all that research, I can report that it is far better to go to your local train station and speak to someone face-to-face.

Train websites and call centres don’t seem to be geared up for booking bikes. I have been sent around the houses on many occasions and once was told there were no bike spaces left on the train I wanted to get; when I went to the station, I discovered there were plenty.

If you go down to your local train station as soon as the cheap tickets are released – about three months before the day of travel – you could get a real bargain at the same time.

When you buy your tickets, you’ll be given two copies of your bike reservation – one to attach to your bike and one to keep with you. I always forget to bring tape but usually manage to wedge the ticket somewhere on the handlebars.

3. Get there early

Getting to the platform with a loaded bike is not always easy. Use the station lifts – it’s much easier than carrying a loaded bike up and down stairs, especially when there are lots of other people around.

Once you’re on your platform, you’ll want to work out where to stand – most of the time, the train’s bike compartment is at one end or the other. It will be marked on the outside of the train but don’t wait until the train is pulling in and then frantically peg it to the other end of the platform. Often there are signs on the platform telling cyclists where to wait; if not, ask the guard.

4. Make friends with the guard

If you let a guard know that you’re there, they’ll keep an eye on you and make sure you’re in the right place and safely on board. I’ve also had guards tell the driver which station I am getting off at so they know it may take me a few minutes to retrieve my bike.

Guards love it when you’ve booked your bike in advance and have the relevant tickets. But if you happen to have missed your train coming home (as I have) they will help you get on the next available train. And the fact that you booked in the first place goes a long way.

5. Stay calm

The most difficult moment is loading and unloading the bike. This is where it helps to have made friends with the guard – they know you’re there and they’ll wait for you to board the train. If, on your arrival, you need to drop your panniers and then run down the platform to get your bike out of the guard’s van, make sure you’ve got your helmet on and the guard will spot you and give you time.

So that’s it. Train travel, with bike, made easy! Stay calm, smile at the guards and enjoy the journey.