Inside Transport: ScotRail falter in going Dutch on cycling, says Alastair Dalton

Former world cycling champion Graeme Obree promoting the Bike & Go scheme at Haymarket Station in Edinburgh last year. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Former world cycling champion Graeme Obree promoting the Bike & Go scheme at Haymarket Station in Edinburgh last year. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

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The railways were once said to have been afflicted by the wrong type of snow. It seems ScotRail’s latest problem is it has the wrong kind of bikes.

One of the most tangible changes since Dutch firm Abellio took over the train operator last year has been its attitude to cycling - but not as you might have expected.

Much criticism has been levelled at the company on the basis of its nationality which has been xenophobic, if not racist. After all, Scottish firms FirstGroup and Stagecoach also run transport in Europe and North America.

However, on cycling, Abellio appears to be trying to foist the Dutch way of doing things onto a very different Scottish bike culture.

Scots have grown used to taking their cycles on trains and completing their journey at either end on two wheels.

But in the Netherlands, commuters often having more than one bike, which they leave at stations for onward travel, and I hear there’s far fewer bikes carried on trains there.

Abellio’s version of this at ScotRail was to launch a cycle hire scheme at stations, along with more cycle stands - while also making no secret of its aversion to carrying bikes on trains.

This week, it announced the opening of the latest “Bike & Go” base at Falkirk High, with a total of 76 bikes now available across 11 stations.

That sounds like great news for tourists both home and foreign, and ScotRail has plans to further expand the scheme to up to 25 stations - although that’s still fewer than one in ten across the country.

But I’m hearing it’s been slow to catch on, with an average of just one bike a day being hired among the 15 available at the biggest base, at Edinburgh Haymarket.

What Abellio doesn’t seem to have factored in is that many rail passengers who cycle want to use their own bike rather than pay to hire another.

I’m told Scots also spend more on their bikes than those in Holland, which is likely to harden their resolve.

Then there’s the Bike & Go cycles themselves. I haven’t tried them myself, but a colleague who road tested one last year was struck by their “surprising weight”.

This has been corroborated by someone in the know, who said they compared unfavourably with Glasgow City Council’s lighter and apparently far more user-friendly nextbike cycles, which seem to have been far more successful.

Although there are now Bike & Go bikes available at nearly a dozen stations, none are yet on the Borders Railway, which has been sold so much on its tourist potential.

Reaching the end of the line at Tweedbank, there’s little more than a large car park, so it’s an obvious place to have bikes with which visitors can explore further.

In fact, none of ScotRail’s “scenic” routes have Bike & Go stations either, with most of the bases in the central belt and the seven cities.

However, they may not be suitable for all rural cycle tourism, because it often involves long-distance routes.

It’s worth repeating ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster’s comment to MSPs in March that “in the end, our trains are not really aimed at moving bicycles” and he was “much more interested in developing cycling facilities at stations”.

Dozens of extra trains due over the next two years could reduce the squeeze on those wanting to take their own bikes, but it seems ScotRail will also need to take a look as to where it’s going with those unused cycles on the platform.

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