Cycling on Virgin Trains
This is about Virgin Trains West Coast. I normally write about East Coast but this is the blog section and I can be off topic. My blog post about bikes on Virgin Trains East Coast actually talked about the booking engine (which has sadly been replaced) more than the actual experience of taking the bike on the train. As that was my first trip taking my bike on a train I had nothing else to compare it to.
The cycling was a day trip and I deliberately booked a route served by both a Pendolino and a Voyager so I travelled outward on the Pendolino and back on the Voyager. For those that don't know what either of those are the Pendolino (Class 390) is the 9 or 11 car electric tilting train and the Super Voyager (Class 221, the regular Voyager is Class 220 - I think the main difference is the Super Voyager can tilt) these are 5 car diesel trains that can be doubled up.
I've noticed the ticket checking staff at the platform entrance at Euston Station seem to have a bad reputation on Twitter but my experience was good this morning. I was politely greeted and told where to go with the bike, the bike storage is in coach A but it's accessed through a door that's not operated by the public. I was let through this door and shown where to store my bike using the straps provided. Just like in the mk 4 guards van on VTEC the bikes were stored upright so the process was straightforward. One advantage over VTEC is you can walk straight from the cycle storage area into the main coach without having to go outside first, another nice touch was the seats next to the cycle storage were reserved for cyclists meaning you don't have to go far when the train is pulling into the station.
Wanting a bacon roll to set me up for the day I headed to the shop which is in coach C so not too far away from coach A. This is the first time I've travelled in standard class on the west coast route in a morning so I've never tried their retail bacon rolls before and I will say they did seem to be more substantial than the ones you get from the Foodbar on Virgin Trains East Coast (which are big enough), they were also £3.60 rather than the £4 VTEC charge. It's just what I needed ahead of a few hours cycling.
It's simple when arriving too, just make sure that the on-board team know which station you're alighting at (they should ask when they let you in to store the bike), once you collect your bike they need to open the door for you.
Drawbacks: if you need to charge anything the Pendolino only has sockets at the table seats in standard class, the seats closest to the bike storage that are set aside are not table seats. If you need a socket it may be worth making a seat reservation for a table. Then towards the end of your trip you can move to the seats closer to the bike. Please note coach A is the quiet coach.
The Voyager trains are different to the Pendolino. They also have the cycle storage in coach A (and also coach G on trains that are doubled up) but the door to access it is a public door (the one closest the end of the train) and you have to hang your bike by the front wheel using a hook and there's a bracket and strap to secure the rear wheel. As there's no one needed to give you access to this area you just get on board and follow the instructions on the wall for hanging your bike. It states clearly on the signs that you need a reservation and must ask the train manager if you don't have one. I don't know what would happen if you had a reservation but some group without reservations took all the spaces and the train manager couldn't be found. Hopefully such instances will be rare.
At this point please note that this only applies to Virgin Trains Voyagers. The CrossCountry ones are configured differently and I believe cycle storage is in a different carriage.
None of the reservation displays were saying reserved for cyclists so it looks like this facility might not be offered on Voyagers, fortunately plenty of seats were available, including the ones closest to the cycle storage.
The best think of the Voyager over the Pendolino is you do have a socket for every seat pair so this was useful on the return leg for charging up devices.
The shop is a bit further to walk (coach D rather than coach C) but they had bacon rolls so I was happy. Decided against having any Tilting Ale (their own ale, both Virgin franchises have their own) due to having to cycle home when I got back to Euston (if I really wanted to I could have locked my bike at the station and picked it up the next day). I've not been on a Virgin branded Voyager since Virgin lost the CrossCountry franchise (when Arriva took over CrossCountry they removed the shops), I was surprised how small the shop counter is, the person serving had very little space. As Voyagers were built as 4 and 5 car trains (all Virgin ones are now 5 car) they didn't want to take up too much space. I must admit though, I can't remember them being that small, it makes the VTEC Foodbar look enormous.
I think on a Voyager it's even more important to sit close to your bike so you can keep an eye on it at stations as the area is publicly accessible, with the Pendolino you can't operate the doors yourself to take a bike off the train so it gives a better feeling of security.
I had to talk about East Coast at some point didn't I? The Class 800 Intercity Express Train (IET) is currently in operation with Great Western Railway and will be introduced with Virgin Trains East Coast under the Azuma brand by the end of the year. The cycle storage on the Azuma will be closer to the Voyager than the Pendolino but there will be some differences. On the Azuma there will be cabinets where there's space to hang two bikes, the 5 car train will have 2 cabinets (4 bikes) and the 9 car train will have 4 cabinets (8 bikes), these figures are 'up to' values as the space can be also used for luggage. The way GWR handles this is by configuring the trains before departure setting up the cabinets for either luggage or cycles based on the number of reservations. This could cause issues particularly at busy times when there's high demand for luggage space. Currently both east and west coast Virgin Trains will allow you to reserve a cycle space very close to departure, up to 10 minutes at the ticket office. Having a dynamic storage/cycle area could make short notice reservations difficult, let's see how VTEC handle this.
Next on my travel cycle list will be GWR as a ride with a bike on their IETs will give a good idea how things will be on the Azuma.
I had a great trip and was happy with the service on board in both directions but I think for cyclists the Pendolino offers the best experience of the two Virgin Trains for transporting a bike. It's a shame more trains are going towards hanging bikes which I understand for space saving purposes but it will be a pain for those with limited mobility, there's probably some able bodied people who will also struggle with this. Since Virgin Trains East Coast no longer offers online cycle booking they no longer have that advantage over Virgin Trains West Coast and on board the experience of the Pendolino slightly beats the VTEC mk 4 (first time I've ever said that!) for cyclists due to not having to exit the storage area and reenter the train and the dedicated seats close by. If you're travelling first class you'll probably find the VTEC mk 4 cycle storage more handy as it's located next to the first class section, on the other hand the HST has its cycle storage at the end of standard class.
As for online cycle reservations, Virgin Trains West Coast has never offered it through their own site, but if you'd like to reserve your bike reservation when booking your ticket you can do it on a number of other sites.