European bike tours can be extended or shortened by catching a train with your bike. But how do you actually do it? I have travelled with my bicycle on trains all over eastern and western Europe and this is what I have learnt over the years.
The first step is to discover whether the train company will carry bikes on the line and the particular service you are interested in and, if so, whether a charge is made and reservations are necessary. Generally, if the train stops at every haystack then it will take bikes, and if it speeds between cities exuding stainless steel efficiency, it will not. There may be a bicycle symbol printed on the timetable, but otherwise you will need to ask at the ticket office, pointing at your bike if your language skills aren't up to it. Sometimes bicycles are carried for free (although an advance reservation may still be required), sometimes a ticket must be bought for each journey, and in some countries you buy a daily or weekly bike ticket that will cover all journeys made in that period.
Having purchased your tickets, you will often have to validate them in a machine at the entrance to the platforms. The next stage is to find out what platform the train should be leaving from. Normally this will require you to take your bike and any luggage down a tunnel, up some stairs or up in a lift and along a corridor in the sky. In some countries walking across the tracks is an accepted (tacitly or otherwise) means of accessing the platforms, but with my natural sense of caution and tendency towards being law abiding, that is something I generally avoid unless there is no alternative.
If you have to use a lift you will probably find it is scarcely big enough for one bike and a person. You may need to hold the bike balanced on its rear wheel, and good manners require that you let your fellow passengers have precedence over your bike unless time is really pressing. If you have panniers on the bike, you may well need to remove them to get it to fit in the lift, and that presents a problem if you are on your own. You will somehow have to wheel the bike in on its rear wheel with one hand while carrying your panniers with the other, without running over or squashing any mad fool who opts to share the lift with you.
In the absence of lifts (or if you don't feel up to the task of getting yourself and your bike in and out of one without mishap) you may be lucky enough to find a staircase with a bike rolling slot along its edge. Resist the temptation to try to ride down either the slot or the steps, particularly with panniers mounted. If there is no rolling slot then you are going to have to wheel the bike up and down the steps, or else carry it. Either way, this will be easier if you remove the panniers first, but you will need to keep your eye on them if you don't want them to disappear or worse, start a security scare.
Once you have found the right platform, you still can't relax as last minute platform changes are not uncommon in some parts of Europe. You will need to be on your toes to avoid being left behind. If you don't understand the language well enough to listen out for the announcements, then you will have to follow the locals and hope for the best. When the train is due any minute so you can be reasonably sure there won't be a platform change, disconnect your panniers from the bike and remount them, unclipped, back on the rack. Like this, you can move everything easily along the platform but rapidly remove the panniers when you need to board.
Life is much easier if you are catching a train that starts from the station you are at, since then you should have plenty of time to get aboard. But if not, I suggest that you wait at the end of the platform from which the train will come. That way, as the train passes you can look out for bike symbols, a guard's van or some other indication of where you need to be. When you spot a likely-looking part of the train passing, move swiftly after it -- do this at the rear of the platform, or you will bowl over other passengers moving towards the platform edge. The aim should be to reach the right spot before the train comes to a halt, because in most places the guard or station manager will not wait for a passenger to get his act together, particularly a passenger with an awkward, 2-wheeled item of luggage. If, by the time the train has all passed where you are standing you are none the wiser as to which part of it is suitable quartering for your bike, you will need to jog over to the guard (pushing your bike) who probably has his head stuck out of a window and is pretending not to have noticed you. He or she should direct you to the guard's van or another part of the train that will act as a bike-van for your journey.
If you are lucky, the access to the train will either be at platform height or just above so you can wheel the bike in, but it is all too common to find a narrow, steep set of steps leading up to a wagon about four feet above you. In that case, and there are two of you, then tackle boarding the train like this:
- remove all panniers while waiting for other, bike-free passengers to get on and off;
- first person (female if in a couple) gets into wagon, taking one pannier, or two if she can comfortably manage them;
- second person pushes up the first bike (requires some strength if the floor of the train is high, which is why I suggest it should be the male partner) and first person helps to pull it onboard and quickly leans it somewhere or lays it on the floor if there's space;
- second person pushes up the second bike and first person deals with it in the same way;
- finally the second person slings in the remaining panniers and climbs aboard.
Any safety elements, such as doors or drop-down bars, should be put in place and, if appropriate, a wave given to the guard or platform staff meaning, "We are safely on." The bikes then need to be housed for the journey. The guard may tell you what to do with them or it may be one of:
- Hang the bikes by their front wheels from hooks in the ceiling (sometimes the rear wheel fits in a slot beneath, which may be on the underside of a seat that has to be tilted up to reveal it).
- Fit the bikes against a carriage wall or a row of upturned seats with straps to hold them in place.
- Lean the bikes in a space at the end of the carriage. Often the guard will direct you to position them across the entrance to the driver's cab right at the front of the train. To do this, it helps if the headset bearing is kept a little loose so you can turn the handlebars sideways, and stacking two bicycles "nose to tail" will mean they take up less room.
In all situations try not to block the train's exits or corridors, or access to the toilets. Also try not to have oily parts of the bike, like the chain, facing outwards so that those squeezing past risk getting oil on their clothes. You may find a rubber bungee is useful to hold rattling bikes in place. Unless the bikes are travelling in a guard's van that is inaccessible to passengers, it is possible that bits will disappear from them if you leave them alone for any time. To avoid this, it is wise to remove cycle computers, lights, pumps, etc or else sit where you have a view.
When you are nearly at your destination, rejoin your bicycles -- you may need to allow extra time to locate the guard if they are in a locked van -- and unhook them or remove straps and bungees. Bear in mind that other passengers may want to get off from your nearest exit, so leave space for them to do so first. Then when your path is clear, swiftly alight, reversing the procedure you used to get aboard. The stronger person should get onto the platform first and take the bikes in turn from the other person, who will only need to wheel them out of the door. As each bike is passed down, it should be laid on the platform a little way away from the train so that it isn't in the way of other passengers. Before getting down with the final panniers, the second person should have a quick look around to make sure nothing has been left.
When travelling on your own, with luggage, it can be a challenge to get on and off trains quickly enough to avoid delaying the train and incurring the wrath of the railway staff. Give yourself the best possible chance by choosing as your starting station the train's point of origin. Failing that, choose a station in a larger place rather than one in the middle of nowhere that may not have raised platforms. However, crossing the line at such a place will be easy, if it is simply a matter of wheeling your bike across the tracks. Check street plans to see if there is a rear access route to a station rather than having to use a footbridge. Study the timetables and observe passing traffic at the station to identify which are the most bike-friendly trains. Before the train arrives, approach any staff on the platform to ask where you should stand. You never know, they may even give you a hand when the train arrives, but I wouldn't count on it. Railway employees, like the general public, seem to think that all cyclists are superfit athletes, not ordinary people who might find lifting 25kg of bike and luggage through a small gap at chest height in the space of a few seconds a little difficult.