Q. When is mandatory not mandatory? A. When travelling with a bike on GWR

GWR's mandatory booking policy for cycles is not as clear as it might be Flickr CC: James F Clay

Q. When is mandatory not mandatory? A. When travelling with a bike on GWR

In spring this year Great Western Railways (GWR) announced that all bikes on their high speed trains would require mandatory booking from May. Understandably there was public outcry and confusion. In October, Cycling UK and Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter and keen cyclist, met with Great Western Railways (GWR) to discuss current and future cycle rail policy.

As part of the preparation for the introduction of new high-speed trains in 2017, GWR announced in March plans to introduce mandatory booking for cycles on its current fleet of high-speed trains in May. Cycling UK was concerned as this policy penalised commuters, whose hours can be less regular making booking places more difficult and would therefore require a booking service that could work up to the last minute. Furthermore, we were concerned that no cycle body had been consulted about these changes. 

Unfortunately, GWR  were not able to provide a flexible booking service when they introduced their new policy, and were only able to offer booking up to two hours prior to departure and encouraging cycle-rail travellers to ideally book the day before travel. 

Having been made aware of this change by our members, Cycling UK wrote to GWR seeking a meeting and explanation for a policy shift which was making cycle-rail more difficult and more confusing. The response we received at that time was not favourable. 

Regular cyclist and regular traveller with GWR, Ben Bradshaw MP, also noted both personally and through his constituents that the new changes would make cycle-rail more awkward, and sought clarification from GWR’s Managing Director, Mark Hopwood.

The response Bradshaw received via letter explained the contradiction between the messaging being circulated by GWR at stations and actual staff instruction. The letter explained that while booking was mandatory, train staff were instructed to use their discretion and to allow cycles on where no bookings were anticipated. Bradshaw has kindly shared this letter with Cycling UK for the purpose of other cyclists to use should they travel with GWR and not be able to book. The letter can be printed via the pdf at the bottom of this article. 

Following an Adjournment debate in the House of Commons secured by Bradshaw in July, Cycling UK again reached out to GWR seeking a meeting with Bradshaw, which due to the parliamentary timetable was delayed until after the summer recess. 

The meeting was a positive experience, which reinforced the message Bradshaw received in his earlier letter, namely that while the GWR website and tannoy announcements broadcast the message that booking is mandatory, the reality is that the train managers have the final say.

GWR explained that they appreciate this is confusing for rail travellers, but with plans to roll out a new booking system which will allow up to the minute booking, GWR believe this will help facilitate the cross over. Initially live booking will be available over the phone (6am to 10pm) and at station ticket offices. For unmanned stations, passengers should be able to use the info service on the platform to book their cycle. Live booking online is expected to be rolled out later in 2017.

Cycling UK will willingly work with GWR to find a solution that works for both the railway and the passenger."

Sam Jones, Cycling UK Campaigns Coordinator

Cycling UK was told the new system is anticipated to be rolled out in December with the timetable changes, at which point mandatory booking will actually mean mandatory booking. This roll out however is subject to testing by cycle bodies, including Cycling UK, later in November. If any issues are identified with the proposed booking process during this session, then GWR assured Cycling UK that they would work with us until these had been ironed out of the system.

GWR’s proposals for their new booking system, if they prove easy to use to all cyclists, could well prove a working solution that will give more people the reassurance to travel with their cycle by rail. This in part as it will mean that cyclists have a guaranteed spot for their cycle that can be booked flexibly. 

The usability is a big “if” though, and Cycling UK wants to ensure that it is not just the tech savvy cyclist that can book, but every type of cyclist. GWR has reached out for assistance with an open hand, and just as we are currently doing with Eurostar, Cycling UK will willingly work with them to find a solution that works for both the railway and the passenger. 

Bradshaw shares Cycling UK’s beliefs in the benefits of encouraging greater cycle-rail integration, as he told us, “It’s vital in order to encourage more sustainable transport for rail companies to make taking a bike on trains as easy as possible.” He continued, “I am pleased GWR is now engaging positively with Cycling UK about how to deliver this as they move to introduce their new rolling stock”.

Cycling UK will continue monitoring cycle-rail policies, but if you hear of any changes in your local service please contact Cycling UK’s Policy and Research team

In the meantime, here's a reminder of how easy cycle-rail once could be:

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Cycling UK continues to support the UK to cycle
This remains true during this difficult period with the ongoing threat of coronavirus Covid-19