Taking your bike on the train is fairly easy and hassle free these days, but it wasn’t always this way.
“Sorry lads you can’t bring your bikes on the train. You don’t have any paperwork.” A railway employee stood between us and our train. It was due to leave in about five minutes.
“I booked our bikes on the train when I bought the tickets,” I explained.
“Well, where’s your paperwork?”
“We weren’t given any paperwork. They said it was fine.”
“Where did you buy the tickets?”
“At Glasgow about three months ago.”
“Well why didn’t you ask for paperwork? I mean when you buy something you don’t buy it without paperwork. You wouldn’t buy a new car or a fridge without paperwork.”
My first ever multiday cycling trip was to Orkney, a group of islands on Scotland’s north coast. I was with my cycling buddy Paul. To get to the ferry port we first took the train from Glasgow to Inverness. Our tickets were checked and no concern raised about our bikes being on the train. I didn’t expect there to be a problem because I had specifically booked two bicycle spaces.
However, when we changed trains at Inverness we found this man barring our way. He was refusing to let us travel with the bikes even though I had reserved the spaces. It was frustrating because I knew that I had booked the bikes when I bought the tickets, but he would not believe me unless I could provide something in writing.
I tried to explain again. “They didn’t give us any paperwork, so I don’t have anything. They didn’t say we needed anything.”
“Well, without paperwork to prove you have bike reservations you can’t take your bikes on the train. You should have asked for paperwork. It is your responsibility to ask.”
Paul lost his patience and said, “It’s your system. You should know that they don’t issue paperwork. How can we have paperwork if weren’t given any? You don’t know your own system and you are blaming us.”
“Yeah, but you bought the tickets in Glasgow. You should have asked them for paperwork,” he was sticking to his argument and continued to block our way to the platform. “Look, you can leave the bikes behind if you want and get on the train, but you can’t come on with the bikes.” That was such a stupid thing to say. Why on earth would we do that?
“But this is your system. It is not our fault that we were not given paperwork. You are at fault here, not us,” Paul insisted.
“Can’t you check it on the computer?” I tried.
He mumbled about this, “There is no record kept. The only record is the paperwork that you should have. You have no proof that you reserved bikes.” He was tall with spiky hair that was loaded with gel. He appeared to relish the fact that he was using his power and aggressiveness to stop us getting on the train. I think he was enjoying this.
“This is a rubbish system and it doesn’t work. We need to get on the train and we have a legitimate booking,” Paul was having none of this and he was much better in this situation than I was. I didn’t like the confrontation and started to believe that we would have to give up.
The train was due to leave in about two minutes. If we did not get this train we would not be able to catch our ferry to Orkney.
Our nemesis shook his head, “Okay,” he sighed and moved aside reluctantly so that we could pass. “You should really have paperwork.”
We had made it on the train, but had to suffer this shocking behaviour. There was clearly a weakness in the system to book bicycle spaces. Bike reservations were being done without a proof of reservation being issued, but this guy refused to believe this or acknowledge that the system could be at fault. I also could not understand why there was no central computer system that could be checked to verify our reservation. It was an unpleasant beginning to our first cycling trip.
This had been stressful as it could have meant an end to our holiday. We were worried that the same thing could happen on our return rail journey in one week. It was agreed that we had to sort this out as soon as possible so that this worry would not be on our minds.
I talked to the guard on the train and told him about what happened in the station. “Is there any way to check that there is a record of our bike reservations on the return train?”
He was a tired looking older man with a handlebar moustache and a Devon accent. “I don’t have any means to check, but you could try calling Inverness station.”
We were disappointed that the best he could do was provide the phone number for the station rather than make the call himself and speak to his colleagues. However, we were not surprised. Not much was expected in the way of customer service on the railways compared to nowadays where there are systems and training dedicated to providing high standards of customer care.
The telephone call to Inverness station was successful and we were told categorically that everything would be fine with our bike reservations on the return journey. The man on the end of the phone asked me to describe the guy on the ticket barrier at Inverness who refused to let us pass. “Oh yes, I know who you mean. It doesn’t surprise me it was him.”
I couldn’t believe how disjointed this system was! An employee was clearly aware of a colleague who was giving bad service and sharing this with me on the telephone. It was unbelievable, but the main thing was that we could get our bikes on the train.
This was the bad old days and it is only fair to point out that this was when a different company operated the Scotrail franchise. First Scotrail, who currently run the trains, have proved to be much better with bicycle reservations. It is a smoother process where you receive an actual ticket for your bike reservation, so that you now have this precious “paperwork”. I have never had a problem with the current system and when online bicycle reservations became a reality it has been much simpler to arrange cycling trips using the train. My only gripe is that trains do not have enough space onboard for all the people wishing to use the service, particularly in the summer months, and I can find bike spaces often fully booked.
In a previous blog post I provided the top ten tips for taking your bike on the train.
I came across this video of cyclists using British Rail in the 1950s where the process seems much calmer, customers focused and hassle-free than the experience I had on my Orkney trip. When I watch this video I always smile and think back to that time at Inverness station. Sixty years of progress doesn’t seem to have improved the way that bikes are carried on trains.