Staggering rise in UK's cycle-rail journeys - now at 39million - was a result of hard graft and co-operation, but how long can the rise continue?

How cycle-rail journeys hit an all-time high

The rise of the cycle commuter is a phenomenon many of us are familiar with, particularly across the South East and London, but even so the statistics from the UK’s rail networks are staggering.

Cycle parking spaces have more than doubled since 2009 to over 53,000 and the number of cycle-rail journeys (including riding to the station) rocketed from 14 million in 2009 to an all-time high of 39 million a year.

Those figures from the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) are something to celebrate and are a significant indicator of the public’s willingness to incorporate cycling into their daily lives.

But this triumph didn’t fall in our laps. It was the result of not only the public getting in the saddle, but also some cooperation, hard work and conscious pro-cycle decisions.

Conrad Haigh, head of integrated transport for the Association of Train Operating Companies, explains to BikeBiz: “The network was never anti-cycling, but what changed was how we deal with cycling.

“In 2007 there a Railways White Paper on cycle rail integration and that came into effect at the end of 2007. The Cycle Rail Working Group grew out of it and that was significant.”

From there, initially modest programmes using grants from the government began to develop cycle parking.

“We started to see engagement between campaigner and rail bodies as well as the delivery of infrastructure,” Haigh continues. “It was relatively small scale, but it set the scene.”

Over the years a cycle rail tool kit – setting out best practice for making it easier for people to combine cycling with rail travel – has been developed for rail operators. That White Paper in 2008 also sparked the creation of Station Travel Plans, strategies for managing travel around the stations aiming to reduce environmental impact, including support for walking, cycling and car sharing.

Haigh has praise for the outgoing Transport Minister: “A big factor has been funding from the government thanks to Norman Baker which saw match funded money providing for creating cycle parking at stations – it has been a substantial move.”

Looking at the proverbial bigger picture, the rise of cycle-rail journeys is part of a larger story. Rail travel has grown massively, with the network carrying more people now than since the 1920s, when the motor world was in its infancy (World War II is a the exception, with mass movement of troops by rail). Cycling has been part of that growth.

The upward trend of cycle-rail journeys looks set to rise and rise, but there is a limit.

“The growth is fantastic. Network Rail and the Cycle Rail Working Group and the train industry in general think the rise is great and we’ve very keen to keeping growing it. It’s environmentally friendly, it’s congestion-free…but how long can it continue to grow? We’re trying to get our heads around this still. The physical restrictions are a real issue, in some places we’re almost at capacity. As soon as we put cycle parking in, it fills up. In the UK we often look to Holland, but would we be able to find space for a 25,000 capacity cycle path as they do in some Dutch cities?”

While the rail network gets to grips with that headache, it was, initially, a surprise at just how fast cycle facilities reached capacity when they were ramped up over the past five years. 

“Originally we were surprised, but now we are used to the idea. We know installing more bike parking spaces will see them filled up, but we also now know that cycle racks have to be in the right place.

“Places like St Albans might not be known that well for cycling, unlike say Oxford or Cambridge where you’d expect lots of cycling to the station, but the statistics show cycle commuting in St Albans is much higher than you’d probably expect. It’s the same for other places not necessarily well known for their cycle culture.”

It is the South East and London that has seen “astronomical” rises, however.

“We are committed to providing choices for our customers and cycling is part of that. It feeds the economy and there’s a cultural change going on. We’re happy to be part of that.”

“It’s not just parking being offered – there’s a plethora of things we’re providing for cyclists – bike hire is another area we’re growing. At Paddington Station, for instance, we’ve got maintenance areas for cyclists, with pumps, etc, available. There’s the cycle hub concept, which was first brought to Leeds, while Brighton is getting 500 parking spaces in a very cool eco-space, Cambridge will be getting 3,000 bike parking spaces and some hubs will even have changing rooms and showers.”

And then there’s the recently revamped National Rail app that has been updated to include information to help customers to understand the cycle facilities stations have.

Haigh concludes: “We’d like to say a thank you to the Bicycle Association, to Phillip Darnton and to the bike industry for the funding from the Bike Hub levy. It was enough to show partnership and the likes of the CTC, LCC and Sustrans have really got behind it too.”

Provision of cycle parking spaces in the rail network (with 2015 prediction). Thanks to ATOC for all the statistics.

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