Alastair Dalton: Taking on cyclists always a ScotRail risk

There looks set to be less space for cyclists on ScotRail trains. Picture: John Devlin
There looks set to be less space for cyclists on ScotRail trains. Picture: John Devlin
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Transport firms take on passengers with wheels at their peril, as Lothian Buses found out from the buggy brigade during a major row over pushchair space four years ago.

ScotRail is now incurring the wrath of cyclists with its decision to swap train fleets around that could mean fewer spaces for bikes.

It looks like the different trains which will run on the Glasgow-Oban/Mallaig routes popular with tourists will be able to carry fewer cycles.

There are also fears of less space on a new electric fleet being built for the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line.

But what few realise is that ScotRail would rather not carry bikes at all. Its Dutch operator Abellio wants passengers to leave their bikes at stations and hire another at the other end.

The company’s focus is on creating cycle facilities at stations, doubling the number of secure cycle parking spaces within two years and opening cycle hire points at 25 stations.

ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster was pretty frank when he told MSPs last month: “We are much more interested in developing cycling facilities at stations and in developing cycling as a way to get to our stations. In the end, our trains are not really aimed at moving bicycles.

“We are much keener on supporting cycling as an active mode of travel that people use to come to our stations than we are to have bicycles on our trains.”

The problem is that even with ScotRail ordering two new train fleets, the pressure on space will continue because of the strong growth in rail travel.

I remember debates between passengers and past ScotRail chiefs going back 15 years or more over the vexed question of how much space to allocate for seats as opposed to luggage as opposed to wheelchairs and bikes.

The company this week repeated to me its mantra of having to “strike a balance”, and said it had gone further than any other operator in providing cycle storage at stations. An official told me: “It can be summed up as bike and go, rather than bike and stow.” Mr Verster has also said the majority of passengers wanted more seats rather than additional bike spaces.

However, I’m also hearing that it may not all be bad news for those who, rather inconveniently for ScotRail, want to take their bike on the train. For a start, cycles are carried free, don’t need to be booked on many routes, and can be parked informally in vestibule areas on some trains.

These include the ones which operate on the Edinburgh-North Berwick line, and Glasgow-Ayrshire routes. The same type of train will run on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line initially once it is electrified in December.

I understand that a solution to accommodating more bikes is being considered for the brand new trains which will take over the route next year.

ScotRail has also pledged to make better cycle storage a priority when designing the interiors of its other new fleet, for long-distance inter-city routes, which is due in service from 2018.

With the cycling lobby – like the buggy brigade – so vocal, it’s all about communication.

And despite Abellio’s cycling strategy being a central part of its plans for ScotRail, which it took over a year ago today, the message doesn’t seem to have been effectively conveyed.

They may be a minority, but it would be useful to have cyclists on your side – or at least better understanding what you’re trying to do.