U-turn on British train ban for folding bikes

By Richard Peace | Saturday, October 16, 2010 7.00am

Train companies have done a U-turn after issuing a leaflet that appeared to ban most folding bikes from the UK's railway network.

The Cycling by Train pamphlet issued earlier this year says that only bikes with wheels smaller than 20in in diameter are classed as folders – a classification which gives their riders more or less unrestricted access to trains.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) have since said this was an error, and what they actually meant was that only machines with 20in or smaller wheels would be regarded as folders, with anything over 20in regarded as a full-size bicycle.

However, when we contacted them for clarification they did a complete U-turn, with their senior media relations officer telling us: "After listening to passenger feedback, I'm pleased to say that there are no restrictions on the wheel size of fold-up bicycles." ATOC say the wording in the brochure is being revised and will clarify that "folding bikes can be carried for free at any time on the rail network".   

The rule change detailed in the leaflet meant that some some bikes which formerly attracted folding status, such as Dahon's 26in-wheel folders and Airnimal's bikes, would have been – in theory at least – subject to the same peak time restrictions, reservation requirements and uncertainty of a space (where there's no reservation system) as full-size bikes.

The situation came to light in late August when a man wanting to board a Southeastern train from Swanley in Kent to London Victoria with his 26in-wheeled Dahon Jack was told that, because his bike didn't classify as a folder due to its large wheels, he couldn’t travel before 10am.

The passenger had bought the Dahon specifically to commute by bike and train, and had researched potential restrictions before buying – the new restriction appears in this year’s version of the Cycling by Train leaflet but not elsewhere. 

He wrote to sustainable transport magazine A to B, and they made representations. Within a week, ATOC said the wording in the leaflet would be changed as soon as practicable and folders with 20in wheels would not be banned. Brompton Bicycle Ltd, who sponsor the Cycling by Train leaflet, had been horrified on hearing of the problem and also sprang into action to get things put right.

Size matters

While the wheel size issue has now been cleared up, users of folders face a further newly-imposed obstacle when taking their bikes on trains. In the past, folding bikes travelled free as hand luggage on Britain's railways, as long as they met a size limit of one metre cubed, with no dimension to exceed one metre. The limit has now been reduced to 90cm x 70cm x 30cm, and anything larger than this (but still within the metre cubed rule) may need a ticket costing up to a half fare.

A number of bikes do not fold to 30cm or below – not a problem if you’re using a service where you can just unfold the bike and have it travel for free but a potential difficulty for those on peak hour services or trains needing a reservation. This will also catch out the majority of bagged or boxed full-size bikes, some of which may have been able to just squeeze into the previous metre rule.

David Henshaw, of A to B, said: “This has all arisen because the railway industry has taken too long to respond to the boom in folding bikes. For many years, folding bikes have been allowed on any train service in the UK, provided they were fully folded and fitted into a fairly generous envelope of a cubic metre. This had to be tightened sooner or later, but – pushed by some of its members operating busy commuter services – ATOC went too far.

"Even with the 20in wheel ban rescinded, the rules are now extremely tight on folding bikes and other luggage. The maximum luggage size is now 30cm x 70cm x 90cm – the width restriction in particular being a big problem for folding bikes. The good news is that it's raised the bar for manufacturers to keep folded packages really small.”

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