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“Blazing Saddles”

Railways at one time encouraged tourist bicycle traffic.

(With apologies to Mel Brooks and his 1974 film of the same name.)

The GWR’s 1904 Milnes Daimler 20 horsepower bus on the Slough to Beaconsfield run in 1904. Bikes could be carried for sixpence (2½p) so long as they didn’t inconvenience other passengers. Photo: National Railway Museum.
Bikes were once big business for railways. While the last decades of the 19th century were moving towards the 20th century, cycling was becoming an ever more affordable form of transport for commuting, sport and leisure. On 27th August 1900, which was Bank Holiday Monday, the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Paddington handled over 4,000 passengers’ bicycles in one day. Most of this traffic was for day-trippers putting their bikes in brake vans, some of which had bicycle racks. In the past year the GWR estimated that it had carried about half a million bicycles and announced with pride that only one in a thousand had received the slightest damage during transit! 81 million passengers, excluding season ticket holders, had been carried by the company that year. Perplexed parcels office staff who charged the various rates for carriage, accompanied or not, had to decide whether they were dealing with a bicycle, tricycle, sociable, tandem, velocipede, bicycle trailer or children’s small bicycle. When that was decided, the rate either at owner’s risk or Company’s risk was collected, and a label with the owner’s name and destination was tied to the machine. There was a storage area exclusively for cycles at Paddington station which was built in 1898. It measured 1,317 square yards. There were grooves in the floor for tyres to run in, and padded stands to keep bikes free from scratches. At the same time the GWR, realising the likely volumes of leisure cycle traffic, held a competition to find the best design of bicycle brake van to transport large numbers of bicycles safely and without damage.

A typical bicycle newspaper advertisement from 1901.

In summer the following year, 1901, the GWR started to issue 1st, 2nd and 3rd class bicycle tour tickets from Paddington to selected suburban stations in Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. The typical fare for rider and bicycle to and from Windsor was 3/6d (17½p), and higher fares were available to popular destinations such as Henley-on-Thames, High Wycombe and Marlow. Literature for three suggested tours for cyclists was developed, and riders were advised that “while the country is undulating, the hills are not of so severe a character as to make a great demand on the powers of the cyclist.” This was a brave statement given the rudimentary state and reliability of gears for those who could even afford them.

By 1904, the GWR road motor car service had started to run between Slough station and Beaconsfield via Salt Hill and Farnham Royal. The cars carried between 14 and 16 passengers with space for luggage, parcels and bicycles. Cyclists would find this option a blessing on a hilly route if they could afford the sixpence extra. An hour was allowed for the 8-mile journey, but it was hoped that the time would be reduced once the service was in full running order. There was a 1 in 6 hill on the undulating route, but the GWR was confident that the 20 hp four-cylinder petrol engines used in their vehicles would make it easy to surmount the hills. That’s early confidence in the internal combustion engine….

July 1913 saw the first run of a new GWR third-class only special corridor train from Paddington to stations in Devon and Cornwall. The train was called “The Devon and Cornwall Special” and it ran non-stop to Newton Abbot where coaches for Torquay and Paignton were detached before the train continued to Plymouth and the final stop at Falmouth which was reached in 6½ hours. The consist included ample luggage space, a restaurant car serving luncheon and tea, and a bicycle van in the centre of the eight-coach train to take the large number of passengers’ cycles expected. There was a corresponding up service which ran every Saturday until the middle of September. A registration fee of one shilling ensured a numbered seat on the train for its 336 passengers. The train was reinstated for the summer of 1914, but the Great War intervened and it appears not to have been reintroduced. After the Great War, bicycles continued to be carried in all passenger trains’ brake vans, but for some the move towards motorised transport was already happening.

A still from the 1955 film “Cyclists Special”. Bicycles are being hung by their front wheels from the hooks in a PMV van.

British Railways had a limited number of Bicycle Vans which could carry the steeds of groups of cyclists. The British Transport Films “Cyclists Special” shows a Cyclists’ Touring Club group travelling from Willesden and Watford Junction to Rugby. By this time, cycles were loaded into PMV vans (Parcels and Motor/Miscellaneous Van) which had numerous and spaced rubber-covered hooks in the roof to take the front wheels of bicycles to keep them apart from each other in transit.

Present day treatment of bicycles on trains is, if anything, more complex than it ever used to be. You start with whether it’s a static or folding bicycle with two wheels. With any more wheels than that it gets tricky. You then have to know your particular train operator’s policy and if there are any peak time restrictions: take your pick from 30 train operating organisations’ policies. You might need to reserve a space for your static bike to be carried on a particular service as space in modern rolling stock is so limited. Folding bikes can generally be carried without restriction depending on the diameter of the wheels, but bear in mind that some train operators have specific rules about carrying folding bikes. For some, you might need to put them in a protective case so that passengers and upholstery don’t get oiled. You can’t take a static bike on a rail replacement service but you can take a folding bike on one! Some “bike-friendly” carriages already run on a popular tourist route in Scotland which seems to be a sensible idea. But then, tandems are even more restricted. I don’t even know if the Goodies’ three-seater “trandem” ever went near a railway – I rather doubt it.

Mike Peart

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