UK bikes on trains travel guide

UK Bikes on TrainsTo find bike carriage restrictions on individual railways and routes see our Bikes on Trains page covering UK bike restrictions on trains, preserved rail, rail-link ferries & buses.

This travel guide gives some general guidance. Before you do anything else, make a note of the BR Rail Fares site. Never buy tickets from a train operator or via a journey planner because they cannot be trusted to show all the available tickets, and there are some bargains and rarities out there. Look up the fares and conditions here first, check the bike rules on our Bike Restrictions page then go and find the ticket.

Bikes on Trains – can you insist on carrying your bike on the train?

No. Bicycles are banned on some specific services, but according to the ‘National Conditions of Carriage’ by which all train operating companies are bound, the operator can also refuse an item of luggage if:

  • it may cause injury, inconvenience or a nuisance or it may cause damage to property;
  • there is not enough room for it;
  • the loading or unloading may cause delay to trains; or
  • it is not carried or packaged in a suitable manner. It might cause injury or inconvenience or damage to property.

In other words, the operating companies have a number of options to prevent you from taking a bicycle on a train. Rail-replacement buses can cause extra problems. Even if the train company actively welcomes bikes, and you have pre-booked a space on the train, the bus driver is not obliged to carry it, so in these circumstances it’s essential to be as conciliatory as you can. In practise, most drivers will help you to stow the bike in the luggage hold if there’s space, but you may need to remove various bits and pieces, and possibly cover the chain. If the bike is refused and it’s too far to cycle, you will be entitled to a ticket refund if the ticket agent had not specifically warned you that a rail-replacement bus would be involved on your journey.

Folding bikes

UK train passengers are permitted to carry up to three items of luggage free of charge, including two large items (such as a folding bike) measuring up to 90cm x 70cm x 30cm and one small item, such as a briefcase or handbag ‘capable of being carried in your lap if required’. As the weight limit for each package is a chunky 50kg, each passenger can carry a compact folding bike, and a substantial pile of luggage for free. But watch out if traveling with a larger folding bike. In the past, folding bicycles traveled by rail as hand luggage under archaic rules that permitted a package of up to one metre cubed with no dimension exceeding one metre, but this is no longer the case, so folding bikes that exceed the size limit above, may – at the discretion of the operator – be charged for at a fare not exceeding the half fare for the journey. So technically, a larger folding bike may be liable to a penalty when folded, even where it could travel free and without restriction if unfolded! It’s an odd anomaly, and unlikely to be enforced on quieter lines, but watch out at busy times. And watch that 30cm width restriction – if strictly interpreted, it could include such compacts as the Mezzo, and even the Brompton comes very close.
In 2014 National Rail added a restriction on bikes with wheels bigger than 20-inches in diameter, after backing down  from enforcing the same rule a couple of years before. This matters a great deal to the relatively small number of owners of Dahons, Bike Fridays and Airnimals with 24-inch wheels, but might also be a problem for bikes with 20-inch wheels if interpreted to mean the overall diameter, ie of the wheel and tyre. Interestingly, this is only mentioned in the ‘Bikes on Trains’ leaflet, and the National Conditions of Carriage have not (yet) been updated accordingly, so if your big-wheeled folder fits into that crucial 90cm x 70cm x 30cm envelope, you are technically carrying hand luggage, whatever the cycling leaflet says. If a guard’s van is available (very rare these days), the ‘one metre cubed’ rule is extended to 150cm x 150cm x 100cm, but again the luggage may technically be subject to a half fare.

Until the 1990s, folding bicycles were required to be carried in a ‘container or case’, but following the break up of the rail network and the arrival of new compact bikes, this regulation has generally lapsed. Even where it remains in force, the cyclist is now most unlikely to be challenged. The only regulation applying across the rail network is, reasonably enough, that folding bikes should be completely folded down. However, a bag or cover is still essential when carrying a folding bike on Underground trains (particularly in the central London area) and on buses. The rules for the carriage of folding bikes on buses (including rail-replacement buses) are slightly different to those for trains, because bus companies leave the bus driver or conductor a great deal of discretion. If a bicycle, or any other large item of luggage, looks likely to inconvenience other passengers, the bus driver will probably refuse to carry it, but drivers tend to be more generous when buses are used in place of trains during engineering works.

Folding bike rules obviously vary a great deal elsewhere in the world. From the feedback we receive at A to B Magazine, it seems you can safely transport a folding bike just about anywhere by train, but if conventional bikes are banned locally it’s best to be cautious. Once a railway official has made a decision not to allow you aboard, it’s usually an irreversible decision, so if in doubt, always fold and cover the bike before entering the station.

Conventional bikes

Not quite so easy. For a brief period in the 1980s, bicycles were welcomed free of charge on most train services, but in the lead-up to rail privatisation, bikes were virtually banned. Fortunately, most of the privatised train companies have shown a more enlightened attitude. All operators are bound by the UK Conditions of Carriage, but cycle policy is left to the individual company, so with more than 20 different companies, there are now more than 20 separate rule books covering different parts of the country and – in many cases – similar trains leaving from the same platform. Generally, the situation is improving, as the train companies try to attract new business, but the latest generation of trains offer very little space for bikes and as older vehicles are withdrawn, there will be increased pressure on bike spaces.

The good news is that the rules have been liberalised since changes to the Conditions of Carriage in the summer of 2006, and the only remaining blanket ban covers scooters, mopeds and motorcycles. This means tandems, trailers and tricycles may well be carried, but subject to local conditions. In practise, few train companies are prepared to advertise the fact that they carry tandems or tricycles, but most do, on quiet trains at least. Electrically-assisted bikes are a fascinating grey area. Our view is that they are very definitely allowed on the trains, because in the eyes of the law, they are bicycles, and they are not specifically banned on a national basis (they are not mentioned in the Conditions of Carriage at all). But train operators can instigate local bans, and a guard who has taken a dislike to your machine may rule that it counts as a motorcycle, moped or motor scooter, and ask you to leave the train. If in doubt, be discrete, and take the battery off, thus deactivating the machine.

Some companies require a compulsory bicycle reservation. This is usually free, but if you intend to buy your tickets in advance on the internet, use the East Coast site at www.eastcoast.co.uk as this is the only place where you can book a bicycle yourself. If you book elsewhere, it may be difficult to match a cycle reservation with a seat reservation at a later date. Worse still, after many ‘teething problems’, the computerised railway booking system can still be unreliable, and in any event, a booking and bike ticket do not guarantee you a space on a given train.

A Code of Practice

Cycle path construction charity Sustrans, the Cyclist’s Public Affairs Group and the Cyclists Touring Club have introduced a code of practice for UK rail operators. In brief, the code suggests that Train Operating Companies:

  • Provide customer information in advance of traveling
  • Improve bicycle access to stations
  • Provide parking for bicycles
  • Offer ‘sufficient’ storage space on trains for bicycles
  • Provide at-station information and facilities for cyclists

Operators meeting these objectives are awarded a Cycle Mark, which can be renewed on an annual basis – assuming the operator continues to meet the standards. All cyclists are invited to help provide feedback to the scheme. If you have any positive or negative comments about the cycle policy of UK rail operators, you can pick up a copy of the ‘Passenger Feedback Form’ from: Cycle Mark, 35 King Street, Bristol BS1 4DZ

National Rail Conditions of Carriage

Consult the National Rail Conditions of Carriage (PDF) for the minimum level of service you can expect relating to the carriage of bicycles and large luggage.