Campaigners are calling for the government to make good on its promises for better cycle provisions on trains, as the latest Integrated Rail announcement failed to outline how cycle-rail targets will be met. Meanwhile, parts of the rail industry are looking to provide for growing signs of a resurgence in the leisure rail market.
The Shapps-Williams review, launched in May, set out a vision for the future of rail in Britain, including a new Great British Railways body to reverse the trend of declining on-board cycle space, “increasing space on existing trains wherever practically possible, including on popular leisure routes.” It added: “All future train fleets will need to include more bike spaces relevant to the markets served.” However, there are scant details on how this will be achieved.
Rail ridership remains at 41.6% of pre-pandemic levels, while the industry is anticipating a long-term increase in leisure travel demand as people are encouraged to leave cars at home. Cycle-rail journeys are already part of a long-term trend, with journeys where a bicycle is parked at the station increasing by 75% in the decade pre-pandemic.
In Europe all new and refurbished trains will have to provide dedicated space for bikes, thanks to new EU regulation. Ed Lancaster, European Cyclists Federation’s Senior Policy Officer, said with “record numbers of people taking cycling holidays and staycations” last year, the move “has the potential to create thousands of new jobs in the tourism industry.”
With the August 2021 Bank Holiday seeing levels of rail travel surpassing the 2019 weekend by 17%, campaigners argue there’s a strong environmental and economic case for doing the same here. In September Campaign for Better Transport CEO, Paul Tuohy, was quoted by Rail magazine as saying “leisure travellers could outnumber rail commuters”, adding “as the Government looks to promote greener travel to help tackle climate change, it needs to create a modern railway that takes advantage of this new market.”
While government drags its feet, some rail operators are already adapting to a changing market. The new Dartmoor Line from Okehampton to Exeter opened in November, with operators explicitly hoping to attract walkers and cyclists. LNER, meanwhile, says “by mid-year 2022, we hope to have all of our Azuma cycle facilities upgraded to be more accessible and easier to use”.
Transport for Wales is looking to a number of cycle-friendly measures, including converting a whole carriage for bike spaces on the Heart of Wales line, from Swansea to Shrewsbury, for next summer – from just two spaces per train.
Matthew Gilbert, TfW’s Active Travel Lead, said: “While the commuter market is still down, the leisure market has been very strong this year and that’s something we are hoping to take advantage of.”
Details are being firmed up but, said Gilbert, “in broad terms we’re definitely looking to improve storage” on other services.
On newly refurbished Mark 4 trains on lines including Cardiff to Holyhead, there has already been a “significant increase in cycle carriage capacity” by refitting the guard vans, says Gilbert.
As a metric of demand, cycle bookings on TfW trains grew by as much as 25% over summer months in 2021, compared with 2019 levels, before returning to pre-pandemic levels by the Autumn, according to data seen by CIN.
However, he notes, “economic models depend on maximising capacity, bums on seats”, and so the economic case needs to be made.
Cycle tourism on the National Cycle Network contributes £650m a year to the economy, while the total tourism spend from cyclists and mountain bikers in the UK is £520m a year, generating 35,788 jobs in the UK. Pre-pandemic, cycle tourism Europe-wide was already €44bn, 16% more than the cruise sector. Touring cyclists on longer linear routes would commonly travel by train to a destination, and cycle on from there, before potentially returning by train – but day trippers, on road or gravel rides, or attending cycling events, also make use of cycle space on trains.
In Scotland alone, cycling and mountain bike tourism is worth between £241 to £362m per year. However, with limited space on many Scottish services, rail capacity could be a limiting factor for growth.
Scotrail’s Highland Explorer carriages, introduced in July 2021, can accommodate up to 20 cycles and bulky sports equipment.
Alasdair Smart, ScotRail Tourism Manager, said ScotRail “noted an increasing demand for using rail to participate in outdoor sports and activities – particularly biking”, and “worked with Transport Scotland, cycling groups and outdoor specialists to develop the service”.
He said the service, a first for the UK, on the “world-famous West Highland Line” provided “easy access for cyclists and walkers to Argyll and the Isles, an area well known for its stunning natural beauty and vibrant outdoor adventure economy”.
He added: “As well as the health and wellbeing benefits for users, rural communities and businesses will benefit from additional demand for accommodation, food and drink, and encouraging further travel throughout Scotland.”
Inspired by this service, in Wales Gilbert envisions passengers could “catch a train and use the valleys routes and cycle down the Taff Trail [from Brecon] back into Cardiff” if capacity were there. However, he notes, cycle-rail improvements, including cycle parking and high-quality cycle routes, are also an opportunity to shift everyday car journeys to walking and cycling.
In spring Go-Ahead Group, Britain’s largest rail operator, released early blueprints for adjustable carriages that could switch from ‘commuter mode’ to ‘leisure mode’, including using folding seats and storage space for folding bikes. This, Go-Ahead said, was part of a series of concepts to provide for changing working and travel patterns.
Katy Taylor, Go-Ahead’s Chief Strategy and Customer Officer, said: “The morning rush hour is likely to be less acute, with more demand for off-peak services during the day, as people space their journeys out. Commuting patterns will be more flexible than the traditional nine-to-five for many of our passengers, and we want our trains to reflect that flexibility”.
“We’re anticipating a long-term increase in demand for leisure travel by rail as people are encouraged to leave their cars at home. Additionally, we believe that many more of our customers will arrive at stations by bicycle, with an expectation that their bikes can be accommodated comfortably on-board trains.”
Cycling UK says although it was disappointed about an absence of cycle-rail in the latest government announcement, the benefit of having Great British Railways will be the potential to unify cycle-rail.
Image: Emile Holba Photography – Shot taken in HaugastØl, Norway on the Bergensbanen.