Holiday trip to Hereford from St Albans
For many people a cycling break in the country is just the tonic they need from working life. But if you don't own a car, that weekend of relaxation can soon become a nightmare.
I decided to spend a pleasant few days in the town of Hereford near the Welsh borders. Knowing that buses in Switzerland carry bikes, I was intrigued to find out if I could get a similar service from my home town of St Albans. Unfortunately the National Express web site didn't have the answers, so I turned to the telephone helpline.
Nine frustrating calls later I eventually got through and was politely told 'we only carry folding bikes'.
The national rail helpline, however, was more forthcoming. Yes, I could take my bike on the train, said a helpful person, and furthermore there was no extra charge and no need to book ahead.
The only snag was that I would have to go into London and back out again, as there is no cross-country route. I would also have to travel during the 'off peak' period after 9.30am to give the commuters enough space to breathe.
The next day I cycled to St Albans station to get the 9.34am Thameslink train to King's Cross. Although this was the first 'off peak' service of the day, it didn't seem to be 'off peak' at all. The platform was thronging with people and I had to struggle to get onto the four-carriage train. The two previous services had been cancelled due to a 'technical fault,' I learned.
According to the New Deal for Transport White Paper: 'Rail operators should provide, as far as is reasonably practicable, on-board storage of bicycles which is sufficient, safe and secure and does not unduly inconvenience other users.' Oh dear, some way for train operator Thameslink to go.
As I stood by the sliding doors, the only place available for bike storage, my fellow passengers felt more than a little 'unduly inconvenienced', judging by their glares and grumbles.
I arrived at King's Cross station flustered and 17 minutes late but ready for the next challenge. Bicycles are not allowed on the London Underground, so I would have to cycle through the traffic across the capital to make my next connection at Paddington.
The direct route is along busy Euston Road, but this disappears into a fast-moving underpass. So I struck out into the side streets in search of an official cycle route.
I did find some token white lines painted on the road, but had to negotiate my way around parked vans. At one point I also saw a sign pointing the way for cyclists to Paddington, although this disappeared at the next junction.
I rolled into Paddington with three minutes to spare, feeling lucky to be alive. Thanks to Railtrack's excellent new information screens I was able to locate my train straight away, and got on without any trouble.
To my surprise the train was air conditioned, comfortable and had a special storage place for two bikes. The security straps were missing, but that's a minor detail. This was good!
The senior guard for Thames Trains agreed with me: 'These bike racks are one of the best things we've done but there should really be one on every carriage. Sometimes we get six or seven bikes on this train.'