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Railwatch 070 - December 1996

Bike it by rail

Report by David Henshaw

(author of The Great Railway Conspiracy)

Recent events have caused me to think long and hard about the options for helping the railway cause.

A few years ago, lines and stations were reopening the length and breadth of the country and it really looked as though the worst excesses of the Beeching era were to be reversed.

Today, with the Government's half-baked privatisation schemes falling into place, the picture is very different. Reopenings have dried up and parts of the current network are, once again, under threat.

The authorities appear to have successfully extricated themselves from responsibility for the railways, leaving the way open for the system to fall gently apart. Closure proposals are, apparently, in the pipeline once again.

Discuss transport with Mr or Mrs Average and they'll probably tell you how frightful road congestion is and how they would dearly love to use public transport if only it were faster, cleaner and, well, better generally.

But, as we all know, short of a real political commitment, nothing will change until people leave their cars at home. And there seems to be little point in waiting for a change of government.

What we need now is a magic ingredient to make public transport reliable, cheaper, faster and more practical overnight. I suppose £10 billion would do the trick, but don't hold your breath.

A welcome alternative that's already available and costs the State and rail operators nothing, is the folding bicycle.

Now, I know bicycles do not suit everyone. Some people never quite get the hang of two wheels, some (and who can blame them) are nervous of motor traffic, while others have probably never taken the idea seriously.

But think what a folding bicycle can do. Well, first of all, it can be carried on all train services (including Eurostar), ferries, planes and most buses, without booking or charge.

That means you can take it with you wherever you go, and in practice that's how it works - the folding bike becomes a natural part of your travel kit.

At journey's end, forget that awkward wait for the inconvenient bus, expensive taxi, or unpleasant tube. It is nearly always quicker to cycle.

Only longish taxi or bus journeys in rural areas are quicker, and in central London, nothing beats the bike. Rain? Just bundle the machine into a taxi, of course.

As a rule, a folding bike/train combination is competitive with road transport for door-to-door journeys with a cycling component of up to 30 minutes or six miles at each end. And you can carry plenty of luggage. My frail-looking Brompton machine easily accommodates a 30lb bag - something that a conventional bike cannot do.

It's surprising how few places are more than six miles from a railway station. With a folding bike you can reach towns and villages with a poor or non-existent railway service, or cycle to cheaper or more convenient stations when it suits you to do so.

It's that remarkable flexibility that really broadens the scope of public transport.

As I waited at the decidedly run-down Bearley station in the West Midlands recently, the 10.07 to Great Malvern sailed past without stopping (apparently the drivers ignore this request stop on a regular basis).

With two hours to the next departure, it might have been a catastrophe, but 30 minutes later I was on a train departing from Henley-in-Arden, five miles away.

Just try travelling between other public transport black spots on foot.

With the application of some crafty bicycle technology, Uckfield is no longer isolated from Lewes; Wisbech, Dunstable and Maldon are back on the network, and Glasgow Central and Queen Street are connected.

Crossing between London termini - still necessary for the foreseeable future without CrossRail or the Oxford to Cambridge link - could hardly be easier. All the primary stations are within 15 to 20 minutes of each other.

Further reopenings and light rail links are essential, but in an imperfect world it is possible to travel remarkably freely by public transport and folding bike right now.

With folding bicycles taking up little space, causing no annoying delays and getting bums on seats, the railway industry is starting to listen.

South Wales & West have done a great deal to encourage bikes and we are now working with ScotRail and others.

For operators the attraction is self evident - as many as 10 compact folding bikes can be fitted into a single bike space. Obviously improved luggage space in the odious Sprinters would be welcome for all travellers,.

I believe we have to accept that conventional bikes are never going to be transported by train in serious numbers.

Since abandoning our car, my wife and I have become accustomed to travelling to London much faster, without the boredom and stress of the motorway.

We know that we can arrive at any central London address two and a half hours after leaving home in Somerset 115 miles away. But short journeys are practical too. We regularly take the train 12 miles to Yeovil for shopping trips. It used to take 30 minutes by car plus parking - the train takes 12 minutes, with five minutes cycling either end. When we arrive, we ride our bikes right into the town centre, fold them up and wheel them around the supermarket or library.

We don't say I'd love to use public transport, but.... we just do it.

Arriving at a big station, we find that many people stop to admire the bikes and discuss their own travel options. This means we are finding new customers for rail all the time. Who can argue with a travel mode that's often cheaper and faster than the car, undeniably healthier and environmentally unbeatable?

With the whole fabric of public transport now seriously under threat, we do not have the luxury of waiting for change. We need to make it happen and it is for RDS members to point the way forward.

David Henshaw edits The Folder magazine, devoted to news and views on folding bikes. The Folder is published every two months - an annual subscription costs £6. Details from The Folding Society, 19 West Park, Castle Cary, Somerset BA7 7DB.

If Railwatch readers would like to try the various folding machines, the Folding Society meets at 11am on the first Saturday of each month at the Mud Dock Cafe, The Grove, Bristol. (15 minutes walk from Bristol Temple Meads, or 5 minutes by bike!)

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.


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