Illustration of a brain inside a head

18 Oct 2017

Why do bicycles on trains cause so much pain?

Have you ever taken, or seen someone try to take a bicycle on a train? Then you probably know what a challenge it can be - for everyone involved. We've recently started a journey with London Midland Labs to tackle this problem head on. We're running a hack event on the 30th October 2017 to help them complete that journey. Here's what we've learned so far.

We’re excited about our collaboration with London Midland Labs. Afterall, it’s not everyday you get to rethink how it can work better for people when they travel by train with a bicycle. And we’re not just thinking about their journey, but how it impacts on those not traveling with bicycles and staff too.

If you’ve tried to travel with a bicycle on Britain’s train network, you’ll know it’s anything but simple. Cyclists have to do a lot of forward planning, checking train providers’ bicycle policies and booking cycle reservations. On the day, they have to negotiate their way through busy stations, hauling their two wheels up and down long flights of stairs, all whilst trying to not annoy fellow passengers.

The experience is equally uncomfortable for other train passengers who are just trying to get home or get to work. It’s inconvenient if someone tries to board a busy train with a bicycle.  They are awkward objects, especially in the confined space of a train. It’s not always clear what the rules are and whether the cyclist has a right to be there.

From a staff perspective, passenger safety and prompt train dispatches are the priority. Both are affected when someone wants to board a train with a bicycle.  Rail companies get fined when trains are delayed and these delays create extra paperwork for platform staff.  Bicycles introduce new risks that rail staff have to look out for and ensure that people don’t get hurt.

How do bicycles on trains affect the platform staff?
Harriet and Ness researching on site

From ‘official unofficial’ bicycle spaces to ticket mountains

Over the past two weeks, we’ve spent time travelling up and down the London Midland rail network, speaking to customers and staff about their experiences. We have also been testing out the service ourselves. This highlighted eight key challenges which will be tackled at a hack with CycleHack and London Midland Labs next week. Whilst issues raised by bicycles on trains may be seen as small problems, they are experienced daily across the rail network. This means that even small improvements, have the potential for big impact.

1. A lack of signage creates confusion

In the hurry of navigating onto a train people need simple visual cues to find their way. When people with bicycles don’t know the right route, other passengers and staff get frustrated if they use the wrong one. Poor signage also means means cyclists are often in the wrong place when the train pulls in. There is no official bicycle carriage, but cyclists are told the wheelchair area is unofficially for bicycles too. We saw many cyclists sprinting down the platform towards the wheelchair icon which can be dangerous for other passengers and for cyclists themselves.

2. The bicycle storage area is also the wheelchair space

The wheelchair space is shared between multiple users, including those with bicycles, buggies, big bags, and, at peak times, other passengers. The lack of information about who has priority in this area creates a stressful experience. Who has priority has to be constantly renegotiated as passengers get on and off. People currently organise themselves based on ‘manners’ and ‘common sense’, although this does not always work as different people have different understandings of both. Adding to the stress, it’s hard to move large objects around each other on trains.

The stress of sharing the wheelchair space on a busy commuter train

3. Getting on and off busy trains with a bicycle is tough

At rush hour, trains and platforms are at their most crowded. People push to get on and off the train. Cyclists need space to move their bicycles through the crowd without hitting anyone or getting tangled with people and bags. Other passengers often see the space around a cyclist as an opportunity to push on and get a seat.

4. Travelling with a bicycle across multiple train providers is stressful and time consuming

Long-distance journeys often involve travelling with more than one train provider. Rail companies have different types of trains and serve a variety of customer needs, this means they have different rules about how and when bicycles can travel. Cyclists have to plan their trip around these rules, contacting each provider one by one. Bicycle reservations are booked in addition to a normal ticket and this may have to be done for each provider, resulting in an absurd number of tickets. As seen across other industries, it is often in the connection between parts of a service where the customer experience falls down.


Bike racks are often out of the way, not ideal for preventing bike theft
A daily bicycle commuter with a month’s worth of cycle reservations

5. Bicycle policies are hard to find when you need them

Like many train providers, the London Midland bicycle policy is stored on their website and ‘in a folder in the office’. Customers have to actively seek it out rather than the policy being provided as and when it’s needed.

6. People worry about leaving their bicycle at the station

Whilst some stations do have decent bicycle facilities, many do not. People worry that their bicycles will get stolen as bicycle racks are often either hidden, not recorded under CCTV, or in quiet areas. Many had heard stories of other people having their bicycles stolen, which was enough to deter people from leaving their bicycles at the station.

7. Folding bicycles are not the solution

Folding bicycles offer solutions to many of the challenges we’ve identified, but not all. Everyone we spoke to loved their experience, however, several barriers exist that prevent more people becoming folding bicycle adopters. Folding bicycles are perceived as expensive, people are unsure about how easy they are to assemble, and there’s a perception that ‘with such small wheels’ they might not be ‘as good as’ normal bicycles.

8. We don’t know, what we don’t know (without data)

London Midland do not currently collect data on customers travelling with bicycles due to the fact that bicycles do not need reservation tickets to travel. We discovered that train providers are required by the government to count passengers but not bicycles. Insights from data gathered about cyclists will help us create the real picture of how people travel with bicycles on trains and identify where it could be improved.

Why it is as it is.

At Snook, we talk about designing services ‘front to back’. Great services need the customer experience and the ‘backstage’ business processes to be aligned. We spent time talking to senior London Midland stakeholders about the systems and services used to deliver their cycling experience to ensure our work is grounded in reality. We learnt a lot that help to explain why the current experience is as it is and identify where there are opportunities to change it.

  • Capacity is the biggest challenge facing the rail industry. Passenger numbers have more than doubled over the past 20 years. Bringing a bicycle on board means less space for other passengers.
  • Running trains safely and on time is a priority. Trains often have a 60 – 120 second window to unload and ‘reload’ passengers to stick to their timetabled slot.
  • The government measures train companies against the number of passengers they carry. There is no performance measurement tied to the number of cyclists carried.
  • The National Rail Passenger Survey, with its 30 measures of customer satisfaction, does not include any indicators relating to bicycles.
  • The UK’s Victorian infrastructure and bridges means we’re unlikely to see double-decker trains in the UK, nor be able to attach things to the tops and sides of trains.
  • There are many concerns amongst frontline staff about the automation of jobs. When roles shift towards more customer-centred activities it is often seen as a step towards automation and therefore resisted.
  • Cyclists are a minority of train passengers, although a lack of data mean we don’t really know. Complaints about or by cyclist passengers are not in London Midland’s top 20 complaints.
  • Innovation in the rail industry is slower than in others.
  • New trains take a minimum of two years to build.
  • Train operators often rent old trains rather than buy new ones, which makes it hard to substantially alter the interior design.
  • Train carriages are not always arranged in the same order, it depends where the train has turned around and how many carriages it has been formed of on a given day.

What's next on our journey?

The way forward

With the UK’s current rolling stock and infrastructure capacity challenges, dedicating more space to bicycles on trains is problematic. Parking bicycles at train stations seems, to many, to be the way forward. We’ll either have to adopt ‘pub bicycles’ that we don’t mind getting nicked at stations, or leave a commuter bicycle at either end as is common in other countries.

We think it’s important to think big. Whilst there are lots of practical limitations to why we can’t physically get more bicycles on trains, that’s not going to change unless we push for it and someone leads the way. The shift to more sustainable transport systems requires big changes to the way we travel and the infrastructure we travel on.

CycleHack is all about making cycling easier by identifying challenges faced, rapidly developing solutions and then sharing that knowledge with the world.  Over the next few weeks we’ll be working with London Midland staff and passengers to build and test concepts in response to the challenges we’ve discovered.

Our aim is to make the experience of taking bicycles on trains less painful for everyone involved and make sustainable transport more appealing. We look forward to sharing our ideas with you.

Written by Ness and Mathew.

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