Bikes and public transport

And the first proper post is a very practical one.  I spend a lot of time cycling, and when I go longer distances by train, I like to take my bike with me.  This can on occasion be a screaming nuisance.  Broadly speaking, local trains don’t require booking (and will usually have some variety of bike-space, of greater or less usability), but long-distance/Intercity trains do require booking.  Booking these days is free, but most of the online ticket sites don’t have a bike-booking option, which means either booking in person, booking by phone, or phoning up after you’ve bought the actual tickets (which can be… complicated, depending on who you speak to).

But!  There is good news amidst the confusion.  National Express East Coast have an online ticket-booking service which does allow you to book your bike on when you book your ticket.  They sell tickets for all trains, not just the ones they run, and the system, whilst Javascripty, is actually very usable.*  Highly recommended when you and your bike want to get somewhere.

Whilst on the subject of bikes and public transport, two questions:
1. Is there a good reason why the old-fashioned guard’s van (with lots of room for bikes and other bulky objects) can’t be brought back on modern trains?
2. Whilst in San Francisco a few months ago, I noticed that MUNI buses have bike-racks on the front (explanatory video also available).  This is a genuinely awesome thing.  I find myself wondering: are these things fittable post-hoc?  Could London’s buses (and other UK buses) be fitted with them? 

* I can’t comment on disability-usability issues – would be interested to know if anyone else can. 

2 thoughts on “Bikes and public transport”

  1. The guard's van thing is, I think, an example of the classic Catch 22 around public transport. To get the sort of change you and I want to see, two things need to happen: there needs to be a dramatic shift in the way people think about transportation, and in particular about non-routine, non-commute journeys; and there needs to be a significant improvement in the services provided, especially for these journeys. But you can't expect people to change their behaviour while the services are poor, and the industry won't add or improve services where there isn't a demand. And rail is one of the worst examples of this, because new lines or even track upgrades take a decade of investment before they can be used, and even large rolling stock orders take years to be filled. Privatization, I reckon, made this worse, because bosses are thinking of annual reports; but even with a nationalized industry, it is a political hard-sell to spend public money on things which will start paying off two or three elections later.

    They got rid of guard's vans because someone looked at how they were being used, did some sums, and figured out that the cost (actual cost, or opportunity cost from the space which you're not filling with passengers) made them uneconomical. (It was 80s Britain, there was no such thing as society, and your car was the badge of your self-reliance… Plus ça change, eh?) Axing them further depressed the demand, as nowadays we've all gotten used to not having them (or we're too young to even remember them), and few people would even think of transporting large or numerous objects by train.

    In the spirit of trying to find practical ways forward, rather than lamenting the difficulty of it all, I can see one possibility — though I don't really know enough about the industry to know whether the idea would work. The problem with the Catch-22 is the lack of incremental change which would bring an incremental benefit, meaning that you're left with a choice between (almost literally) revolution or status quo. So what options for incremental change are there?

    Well, in my experience, long distance routes tend to run full length trains off peak, even though they're often (I reckon) 10–20% full. I can only guess at the reasons for this, but two possibilities are that the obvious wastage is outweighed by the practical difficulty of rearranging the rolling stock or the logistical difficulty of making sure you have the right rolling stock in the right place when you're not always running the same configuration. Those seem like the sort of thing it should be possible to get around with a bit of ingenuity and only reasonable cost. (Could you, for example, have a passenger carriage which could be quickly converted into a guard's van?) Which would mean you could try running guard's vans on a limited number of off-peak services, at least.

    Of course, I'm speculating wildly about whether this would work, and I don't know whether introducing them on a few off-peak long-distance services would actually trigger the increased demand.

    I'm sure lots of people have thought about this far more than I have…

    (P.S. Apologies for the length. Like Blaise Pascal, I lack the time to make it short.)

  2. The lack of guard's vans is perhaps something to do with the lack of guards!

    Flippant thought aside… the real reason that trains run long is that they build them to be efficient at that length. And the way to make them most efficient at the full length is not to waste materials designing them to be fully configurable. So a train that will run as eight carriages may not be aerodynamically stable (or indeed safe) at seven carriages. My commuter trains (FWIW) are cconfigurable into chunks – 4, 8 or 12. Which does mean off peak they can run shorter.

    Back to flippant but irate mode today. Eurostar have released their new winter timetable today. Quite rightly this removes some trains because winter demand is lower (and the continuing credit crunch has exacerbated this). I don't actually mind moving my travel 30 mins either way. But I do object to them saying that they have removed one train "so that" I can choose from two others. Poor grammar. Grrrrrr. But a good policy.

    I like Pete's idea of a configurable carriage. But you have to factor in that the added bits of metal to make seats safely put-in-and-outable add weight to a full train.

    A thought – has anyone looked at the carbon impact of schemes like – for all those small amazon boxes (and the like) that people could walk and pick up from their pub, rather than having driven round by the Royal Mail/HDN/whoever?

Leave a Reply