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Hedge-blog: Northern Rail's bike policy

9th August 2015

Steam train

Northern Rail's bike policy makes it impossible to plan to take your bike on the train.

I recently considered taking my bike on the train from Harrogate to York, to ride the York to Selby cycle route. However, if you turn up at the station with your bike, it's impossible to know in advance whether they'll let you take it on the train. That's probably going to put most people off.

This is what Northern Rail say on their 'bikes on trains' page. 'Northern is strongly committed to promoting cycling as a sustainable and healthy means of transport that complements our train service. Our vision is 'to connect people to opportunities by the most sustainable means' and cycling has an important role to play. We want to do more to make this an attractive option so we are working with local authorities and the cycling community to see where can make our stations more cycle-friendly.'

Those are warm - glowing? - words about cycling, and it's great that they have a 'vision', although the cynic in me says that it was a PR consultancy firm that told them they had to have one. But what are the practical policies? First the good news: 'Bikes are carried free of charge at any time and you don't need to make reservations.'

Then - as night follows day, with the same ineluctable certainty that Foyle's War will be on ITV3's evening schedule, with the identical sense of unavoidable destiny you get when you see that Dave and George have dressed up in yellow gilets and white helmets in order to stand in front of a forklift truck and pretend to pore over important-looking plans with someone who seems like he might be the factory foreman for their evening news photo-op - comes the bad news.

'We can only carry a maximum of two bikes per train but conductors have responsibility for the safety of their train and have the right to refuse entry if the train is busy.'

So a maximum of two bikes per train, except when the maximum is one or none. Looking at it from the train operator's point of view, you can see why this policy is helpful to them. Some of their trains don't have that many carriages; designated cycle space is limited; and a person with a bike takes up more space than a person without a bike, which is inconvenient on a busy train.

When you look at it from the passenger's point of view, though, the policy is unhelpful in the extreme. If I decide to go to York with my bike, and I pick a train and turn up at the station, I have no idea whether there will already be two people on the train with bikes, or whether the conductor will decide that the train is too busy. I may be refused entry to the train. 

Then I suppose I would have to wait for the next train (and there's no guarantee I'll get on that one either), or I could lock up and leave my bike somewhere (by which time, presumably, the train will have left the station anyway).

Train companies are in a customer service business, and where possible they ought to organise themselves on the basis of what is convenient for the customer, not what causes the least trouble to themselves. As a customer, I find their policy most unsatisfactory.

But let's try to be fair, and look for arguments which cast Northern Rail in a better light. 

First, perhaps Northern Rail has an unhelpful published policy, but in practice they go out of their way to accommodate cycling customers.

Second, they're probably no better nor worse than any other train company. I picked (on a whim) East Midlands Trains. Their policy is, 'You can bring your bike on board one of our trains free of charge, however it is worth noting that on board our trains we have the capacity to carry two bikes at any one time.' 

It's the same as Northern Rails's policy - brilliant, this competition thing, isn't it? - but expressed in a more casual manner. Northern Rail's policy sounds as though it was written by someone wearing a suit, or a railway uniform; I imagine the person who made up the East Midlands policy was wearing shorts and informal summer footwear...'yeah, free of charge buddy, but it is worth noting...'

Further down their cycles policy, East Midlands get a bit more businesslike. 'Due to high demand cycle reservations are required on services to and from London, and on our Liverpool-Norwich route. It is free to reserve a cycle space...' This is extra admin for the passenger, but it is more satisfactory, as it provides certainty.

Now the third point in defence of Northern Rail. As I understand it, it is part-owned by Albellio, a subsidiary of Dutch train operator NS, and they have set up Bike & Go in many stations. Bike & Go is based on the Dutch model of discouraging people from taking their own bikes on trains, but providing inexpensive bike hire at stations. (There is, though, no Bike & Go at York).

That was the case for the defence. Have I convinced myself? Not really. I still think Northern Rail's bike policy amounts to poor passenger service.

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