By Fabian Küster, Director of Advocacy and EU Affairs at the European Cyclists’ Federation

Have you ever planned a cycling holiday in another country, but were struck by how difficult it was to get your bicycle there? Did you ever think that your commute to a neighbouring city could have been smoother if only your bicycle was allowed on the train for that last-mile journey between station and office?

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While many local and regional train operators in Europe offer decent services for cyclists, bringing the bicycle on longer train trips is a much more complicated affair. This is surprising given that bicycles and trains are two of the most sustainable modes of transport available today, and should be natural allies. If Europe is serious about becoming climate neutral in the next 30 years, combining them must become much easier.

At the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), the world’s largest and best-known cyclists’ advocacy organisation, we know that cyclists in Europe increasingly want to be able to take bicycles with them on trains. Our successful 2020 Cyclists Love Trains campaign, which influenced the EU rail passengers’ rights regulation to require a minimum of four dedicated bicycle spaces in all new and refurbished trains, had tremendous popular appeal across Europe. Although ECF pushed for even bolder requirements, the new legislation is a vital step towards a more sustainable European mobility system.

“Bikes and trains are a really perfect match for sustainable tourism, for a greener mobility of the future,” said Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, Member of the European Parliament, when she spoke at the launch of a new ECF report, Cyclists love trains: An analysis of the bicycle friendliness of European railway operators, highlighting the importance of combining the bicycle with other sustainable transport modes.

But while the new rules promise better bike and train travel for Europeans, there is still a great deal of work to be done to make Europe’s railways more bicycle friendly – and a modest four dedicated bicycle spaces per train will not be enough.

As part of the European Year of Rail, ECF’s ambitious Cyclists Love Trains report shines a light on the bicycle friendliness of 69 different European rail companies and services. This extensive piece of research is intended to be used by policymakers and industry leaders alike to benchmark their performance, study examples of shortcomings and best practices, and understand where there is clear potential for continued improvement among railway operators.

Of the 69 companies and services examined and ranked, 15 of them (22%) currently do not accept regular (non-foldable and un-dismantled) bicycles. 12 of these 15 are long-distance, cross-border and high-speed operators, so this reality shows that taking a bicycle across Europe on a long-distance journey is often neither convenient nor enjoyable, but rather an arduous experience punctuated by multiple connections on slow regional and local services.

The disjointed nature of Europe’s rail infrastructure is emblematic of the complex and often confusing rules and regulations regarding bicycle carriage. In 2021, against the backdrop of the European Green Deal, the ever-evolving climate crisis, and the COVID-19 economic recovery, this is not acceptable. Policymakers and rail operators all over Europe must make it easier for people to choose green alternatives to polluting cars or short to medium-distance flights.

There is some hope, however. Intercity Berlin (IC Berlin), the joint venture between Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) and Deutsche Bahn (DB) that connects Amsterdam and Berlin, topped the ranking of ECF’s new study. IC Berlin is the only undertaking to have scored in the “excellent” category of our ranking, an achievement helped by the impressive number of bicycles that can be carried on IC Berlin train sets and the possibility to connect to both NS’s and DB’s bicycle-hire schemes.

The report’s runners-up, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), the National Railway Company of Belgium (SNCB/NMBS), Deutsche Bahn (DB) and Hungarian State Railways (MÁV-START) also scored well across the board. Yet, apart from these relatively bright examples, there is much room for further improvement across Europe.

“Flexibility for the user” should be the guiding principle for railway operators that want to improve their services and better meet the needs of a growing number of people who want to take bicycles on trains. IC Berlin and other top-ranking providers are currently doing well exactly because their bicycle-carriage policies and physical infrastructure allow for better user flexibility than most of their peers.

However, these companies achieving success today are not predestined to do so in the future. Every company or service highlighted in the report should bear in mind the following key recommendations:

  • Accept non-foldable and un-dismantled bicycles on all train services
  • Provide dedicated bicycle spaces (and more than the required four) that are accessible and easy to use for all types of passengers
  • Invest in and promote bicycle-sharing schemes
  • Provide clear and concise information on bicycle services, notably on rail operators’ websites
  • Develop a pan-European journey planner and coordinate bicycle-carriage rules across Europe

As ECF President Henk Swarttouw stated at the report’s launch event, “Cyclists are deeply in love with trains, but most train companies don’t realise that they are being loved. This is so surprising because, with a view to our climate and emissions goals and the need to sustainability transform our transport systems, we are such natural allies.”

We strongly urge regional, national and European authorities and rail operators to heed the call and swiftly implement the report’s recommendations. As urged by Belgian Mobility Minister George Gilkinet, we must not lose sight of the work that still remains to be done. This is just the beginning.

To read the full report « Cyclists love trains: An analysis of the bicycle friendliness of European railway operators », click here.