On Your Bike

Stephen Sykes | 52 years ago

If you are serious about environmental protection one of the organisations you really ought to join is the UK Environmental Law Association. Founded in 1986, UKELA has several hundred members, some of whom are lawyers (solicitors, barristers, academics, law students and even judges) and many of whom are just interested to learn about the international, European and local laws which are meant to protect our precious environment.

The showcase in UKELA’s calendar is the Annual Conference. Over the years this has been held in most of our major cities. As in recent times UKELA has been counting the carbon used by the 150 to 200 delegates in getting to the Conference, I gave this matter some serious thought and decided to travel to the 2011 Norwich annual conference under my own steam.
Word soon went out that I was going to cycle the 130 miles to Norwich from the edge of London. The motivation to bike to Conference was powerful – fundraising for UKELA, improved fitness, low carbon transportation. The idea caught the imagination of some like-minded members of UKELA.  Before long, from a powerful camaraderie, friendship and common endeavour a new club, The Recyclists, was born.
And so it was that in July 2012, 14 Recyclists including QCs and students, campaigners, consultants, solicitors and barristers travelled some or all of the 120 miles from Oxford to Southampton.  We raised £3,000 for UKELA’s fund to maintain ‘Law and your Environment’ – the website which provides free information on environmental law in an accessible and transparent way.
The challenge of getting to Oxford in time for a 10.30am start was the thing which exercised me the most and here are the travel experiences I encountered on the toughest leg of the journey!
1) No non-folding bikes are allowed on trains running to London between 7am and 10am.
This was a serious obstacle. My £70 bike bought from a guy in the local village who recycles old bikes (how appropriate, I thought) was not of the folding variety. The setback was not fatal to my plans because there is an alternative train journey which avoids travelling through London – a link between Gatwick Airport’s Railway Station and Reading Station run by Great Western Railway (GWR), and connecting to a Cross Country (CC) train which goes up to the starting point for the journey, Oxford.
2) Misinformation from Train Operators.
To take a bike on a train you really need to check the ‘cycle policy’ with the train operator(s) and even to register / pre-book your bike on to the required train. If you are travelling a long way and need to use several trains run by different train companies, you will need to ensure availability on each train – lots of phone-calls. There is no single, co-ordinating organisation you can ring to make the arrangements:
a. I started by phoning GWR’s help line. I was advised it wasn’t possible to pre-book from Gatwick to Reading. I was told GWR operate on a ‘first come first served’ basis.
b. I phoned Cross Country about the Reading to Oxford stretch. They said they could also register me for the Gatwick to Reading, but then added that having checked availability the 4 places allocated for this train were all taken! Confusing….and at this point a long car journey was looking the most likely outcome…..
c. But I refused to give in. I phoned GWR to double-check the position. They were adamant it wasn’t possible to pre-book. I figured they should know the position as I wanted to travel on their train. I decided to get to Gatwick train station, albeit with some trepidation.
3) Not Nice – Navigating the Environs of Gatwick Airport
I have to confess that my journey to UKELA’s 2012 Conference was not entirely car-free. To get to Gatwick for an early start I needed to drive from home. As I didn’t want to pay a hefty parking fee at Gatwick I parked up in the outskirts of nearby Crawley and then cycled up to the station.
This is a seriously hostile place for cyclists. No cycle lanes in a concrete jungle laced with fast roads, Gatwick makes Spaghetti Junction look like a place of beauty. There were precious few signposts for the train station at Gatwick for anyone travelling by bike.  It was a good job I allowed an extra half hour to get to my train – I needed it!
After cycling into what seemed like a dead-end with a scruffy lift in a corner building, I spotted a tiny (8 cm x 8cm) logo of a cycle on a doorway. Time was ticking away and I was in danger of missing that precious GWR train.  I explored further. I took the lift and thankfully it brought me up to the main concourse at Gatwick. I reckoned I might have been the first cyclist in history to take this route; not a cause for bragging, rather one for dismay!  I had however arrived – well, at Gatwick Airport anyway.
4) Conductor politesse
Always the optimist and on something of a roll, if not a mission, when the Gatwick to Reading train pulled up I felt that it was all coming together at last. I asked the conductor which carriage takes the bikes. He gave me a surly ‘how-the-hell-should-I-know’ shrug. It felt like there was a mounting conspiracy. I was just trying to do the right thing by getting to the start of a charity bike ride without having to use the darned car and it was proving highly frustrating.
5) Need to Move Fast!
I am not quite done. The Oxford train arrived at Reading Station. The bike had to be put in the guards van at the front of the train, 80 metres away. I moved sharpish. I got the bike on board, only to find that I couldn’t get out of the guards van – it wasn’t connected to the other carriages – without having to return to the platform and leg it to the nearest passenger carriage.  There was a real risk that the train would depart with my bike on it, with yours truly stranded on the platform, but I did made it to the carriage just in time. What a palaver!
The meaning of it all…
There is a lot to be serious-minded about right now about the environmental state we are in and, ordinarily, I would not rabbit on at this length about what might seem to be minutiae. But this piece is absolutely not intended to be about minutiae. No, not at all. It is a simple, graphic and damning story about how far the UK has to go to achieve an integrated transport system. Better signage, more collaboration between train operators, accurate information, civility and a change of mindset are all required.
Environmental aspirations count for nothing at all if they aren’t followed up by behavioural change and actions. My earnest endeavour to get to an environmental conference without emitting too many PM25s (or hazardous fine particles) from my ‘eco’ but diesel polluting car was ultimately successful. I did it. I had a great time and encourage anyone with a bike to ride with the Recyclists from London to the UKELA Cambridge Conference in July 2013.  It just shouldn’t be so hard to do something as simple as putting a bike on a train.

If you are serious about environmental protection one of the organisations you really ought to join is the UK Environmental Law Association. Founded in 1986, UKELA has several hundred members, some of whom are lawyers (solicitors, barristers, academics, law students and even judges) and many of whom are just interested to learn about the international, European and local laws which are meant to protect our precious environment.

The showcase in UKELA’s calendar is the Annual Conference. Over the years this has been held in most of our major cities. As in recent times UKELA has been counting the carbon used by the 150 to 200 delegates in getting to the Conference, I gave this matter some serious thought and decided to travel to the 2011 Norwich annual conference under my own steam.

Word soon went out that I was going to cycle the 130 miles to Norwich from the edge of London. The motivation to bike to Conference was powerful – fundraising for UKELA, improved fitness, low carbon transportation. The idea caught the imagination of some like-minded members of UKELA.  Before long, from a powerful camaraderie, friendship and common endeavour a new club, The Recyclists, was born.

And so it was that in July 2012, 14 Recyclists including QCs and students, campaigners, consultants, solicitors and barristers travelled some or all of the 120 miles from Oxford to Southampton.  We raised £3,000 for UKELA’s fund to maintain ‘Law and your Environment’ – the website which provides free information on environmental law in an accessible and transparent way.

The challenge of getting to Oxford in time for a 10.30am start was the thing which exercised me the most and here are the travel experiences I encountered on the toughest leg of the journey!

1) No non-folding bikes are allowed on trains running to London between 7am and 10am.

This was a serious obstacle. My £70 bike bought from a guy in the local village who recycles old bikes (how appropriate, I thought) was not of the folding variety. The setback was not fatal to my plans because there is an alternative train journey which avoids travelling through London – a link between Gatwick Airport’s Railway Station and Reading Station run by Great Western Railway (GWR), and connecting to a Cross Country (CC) train which goes up to the starting point for the journey, Oxford.

2) Misinformation from Train Operators. 

To take a bike on a train you really need to check the ‘cycle policy’ with the train operator(s) and even to register / pre-book your bike on to the required train. If you are travelling a long way and need to use several trains run by different train companies, you will need to ensure availability on each train – lots of phone-calls. There is no single, co-ordinating organisation you can ring to make the arrangements:

a. I started by phoning GWR’s help line. I was advised it wasn’t possible to pre-book from Gatwick to Reading. I was told GWR operate on a ‘first come first served’ basis.

b. I phoned Cross Country about the Reading to Oxford stretch. They said they could also register me for the Gatwick to Reading, but then added that having checked availability the 4 places allocated for this train were all taken! Confusing….and at this point a long car journey was looking the most likely outcome…..

c. But I refused to give in. I phoned GWR to double-check the position. They were adamant it wasn’t possible to pre-book. I figured they should know the position as I wanted to travel on their train. I decided to get to Gatwick train station, albeit with some trepidation.

3) Not Nice – Navigating the Environs of Gatwick Airport 

I have to confess that my journey to UKELA’s 2012 Conference was not entirely car-free. To get to Gatwick for an early start I needed to drive from home. As I didn’t want to pay a hefty parking fee at Gatwick I parked up in the outskirts of nearby Crawley and then cycled up to the station.

This is a seriously hostile place for cyclists. No cycle lanes in a concrete jungle laced with fast roads, Gatwick makes Spaghetti Junction look like a place of beauty. There were precious few signposts for the train station at Gatwick for anyone travelling by bike.  It was a good job I allowed an extra half hour to get to my train – I needed it!

After cycling into what seemed like a dead-end with a scruffy lift in a corner building, I spotted a tiny (8 cm x 8cm) logo of a cycle on a doorway. Time was ticking away and I was in danger of missing that precious GWR train.  I explored further. I took the lift and thankfully it brought me up to the main concourse at Gatwick. I reckoned I might have been the first cyclist in history to take this route; not a cause for bragging, rather one for dismay!  I had however arrived – well, at Gatwick Airport anyway.

4) Conductor politesse 

Always the optimist and on something of a roll, if not a mission, when the Gatwick to Reading train pulled up I felt that it was all coming together at last. I asked the conductor which carriage takes the bikes. He gave me a surly ‘how-the-hell-should-I-know’ shrug. It felt like there was a mounting conspiracy. I was just trying to do the right thing by getting to the start of a charity bike ride without having to use the darned car and it was proving highly frustrating.

5) Need to Move Fast! 

I am not quite done. The Oxford train arrived at Reading Station. The bike had to be put in the guards van at the front of the train, 80 metres away. I moved sharpish. I got the bike on board, only to find that I couldn’t get out of the guards van – it wasn’t connected to the other carriages – without having to return to the platform and leg it to the nearest passenger carriage.  There was a real risk that the train would depart with my bike on it, with yours truly stranded on the platform, but I did made it to the carriage just in time. What a palaver!

The meaning of it all…

There is a lot to be serious-minded about right now about the environmental state we are in and, ordinarily, I would not rabbit on at this length about what might seem to be minutiae. But this piece is absolutely not intended to be about minutiae. No, not at all. It is a simple, graphic and damning story about how far the UK has to go to achieve an integrated transport system. Better signage, more collaboration between train operators, accurate information, civility and a change of mindset are all required.

Environmental aspirations count for nothing at all if they aren’t followed up by behavioural change and actions. My earnest endeavour to get to an environmental conference without emitting too many PM25s (or hazardous fine particles) from my ‘eco’ but diesel polluting car was ultimately successful. I did it. I had a great time and encourage anyone with a bike to ride with the Recyclists from London to the UKELA Cambridge Conference in July 2013.

It just shouldn’t be so hard to do something as simple as putting a bike on a train.

About the author

Stephen Sykes

Stephen is an entrepreneur. He has built businesses in the following sectors: data, insurance, remediation and consulting.  With a background in environmental law, Stephen is the Chair of the UK Environmental Law Association, director of the Castle Debates and a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck's Centre for Innovation Management Research.