Wednesday 4 May 2016

Tips on using bikes with V/Line regional trains in Victoria

Summary: V/Line provides regional public transport in Victoria by train and bus. Taking bikes on trains to and from regional destinations is becoming more desirable for both commuters to Melbourne and for cyclists pursuing recreation in regional areas - especially given Victoria's fantastic rail trails.

Unfortunately, V/Line currently provides very limited and low priority services for those seeking to take bicycles on regional trains. Present regional train services accommodate only a handful of bikes at the best of times and the decision on whether to allow bikes at each station is solely up to the conductor. Official advice is to avoid taking bikes in the peak hour direction during weekdays from 7-9:30am and 4-7pm and any other busy times.

Nevertheless, there are various tips to maximise your chances of being able to take bikes on V/Line trains. I've collated them in this post. Experienced V/Line bike travellers have figured out how to make it work most of the time because there are few people committed enough to persist.


1. Official policies and guidance on taking bikes on V/Line trains and coaches

Key Points (from V/Line - Bicycles on trains):

Space is generally available on reserved, locomotive-hauled services to and from Albury, Bairnsdale, Shepparton, Swan Hill or Warrnambool.
(This is because they have a separate storage carriage but you still may need to get in early before it fills up. Reservations seem to be needed outside the Myki zone but it seems are not always needed within it - unless the train happens to be very full already when trying to board. You can never reserve a spot for a bike regardless)

Space is limited on Sprinter and VLocity trains to and from Ararat, Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Geelong, Maryborough, Seymour and Traralgon.

V/Line conductors will determine whether there is enough space for bicycles to be carried safely  on each service.

Customers with bicycles are strongly advised to travel at off-peak times and avoid weekday services arriving in Melbourne between 7am and 9:30am or departing Melbourne between 4pm and 7pm.

Large groups wishing to travel to and from regional Victoria with their bicycles will need to make alternative arrangements to transport their bikes.
(Small groups can try and prioritise locomotive services if available - that have a storage carriage - and turn up very early and advise the conductor they are travelling together. There are no guarantees though and the group may have to split onto multiple train services.)

Folding bicycles can be carried free on V/Line trains and coaches as long as they:
- do not exceed the dimensions of 82cm long x 69cm high x 39cm wide
- have wheel rims no more than 20 inches (51 cm) in diameter
- can be folded up and stored inside a bag or cover before boarding.

Bicycles can be carried for free on the following V/Line scheduled coach services, if there is space available:
Beechworth - Wangaratta
Bright - Wangaratta
Corowa/Rutherglen - Wangaratta
Mulwala/Yarrawonga - Benalla
Wangaratta - Bendigo

Bicycles can be carried on coaches replacing trains subject to space in the luggage area and will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

The V/Line network map indicates the destinations one can get to by train and which line they are on:

V/Line Network Map

2. No reservations, first-come, first-served rules. Turn up early before the train arrives and talk to the conductor or platform attendant

- You can't reserve a spot for your bike on any train or service. It's first-come, first-served but there is no queue system so you need to approach the conductor or platform attendant ASAP if you think space may run out.

- The conductor on each train has the sole say on whether your bike will be permitted and where so talk to them early and politely.

- If boarding mid-route and concerned about capacity turn up early and ask staff at the station and aim to be first outside one of the carriages allowing bikes.

- Avoid all peak times where possible (including things like sporting events) and factor in that other recreational or commuter cyclists may be travelling on the same day.

- There are no services or peak times when bikes are totally banned so if catching a regular service and you can be there early it may be always possible for you (not everyone with a bike) to get on. Make sure you talk to the conductor.

3. Trains powered by locomotives have a shared storage carriage and the most potential space but it's often inefficiently used so get there early. Non-locomotive trains (Vlocity, Sprinter) typically have 1 storage area (fitting 2-3 bikes) for every 2 carriages

As noted in the official guidance: "Space is generally available on reserved, locomotive-hauled services to and from Albury, Bairnsdale, Shepparton, Swan Hill or Warrnambool."

This is because they have a separate storage carriage that could potentially fit at least a dozen bikes. However, this carriage is also used to store luggage and it is often stored on the floor in very space-inefficient ways (not using the fold down racks), so you often need to get to the departure station before the train arrives and luggage is packed.

"Space is limited on Sprinter and V-Locity trains to and from Ararat, Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Geelong, Maryborough, Seymour and Traralgon." These trains typically have 1 storage area (fitting 2-3 bikes max) for every 2 carriages. But this space is shared with prams, other mobility devices and large luggage.

Shared storage for bikes, prams, mobility aids and large luggage on V-Locity or Sprinter trains

4. Regular users on services where bike space often is exhausted should consider using a folding bike. If not using a folding bike, coordinate efficient space usage with other regular users

Folding bicycles can be carried free on V/Line trains and coaches as long as they:
- do not exceed the dimensions of 82cm long x 69cm high x 39cm wide
- have wheel rims no more than 20 inches (51 cm) in diameter
- can be folded up and stored inside a bag or cover before boarding.

Folding bicycles cannot be stored in overhead luggage racks.
V/Line - Bicycles on trains

I would use a folding bike in these circumstances as one could ensure always getting in on board rather than having to miss trains that have no space.

If using a non-folding bike in the limited storage space on a regular service, coordinate efficient usage of the limited bike space with other regular users.

By removing panniers (or similar attachments) and arranging the bikes very close together, many more bikes can be fitted in the same space. This is often best done by cyclists who know each other rather than conductors unfamiliar with bicycles and cautious about damage.

5. It's possible to be stranded by V/Line in a country town with no way of getting home with your bike so even if you are denied access to the first train be nice to staff, explain the situation and exceptions could be made. Most bus services do not allow bikes due to policy but often have space

It's quite possible that your bike could be denied access in a country town (e.g. if boarding mid-route) and subsequent trains also have no capacity or the train service ended:
Trace Balla was left stranded in Sunbury on one occasion after the train service was terminated due to problems with the line and she couldn't get her luggage and bike onto a bus. 
"I was travelling to Sunshine to visit my dying mother in hospital and was left stranded. None of the bus drivers would take me. I had to call my partner to come and collect me. It was very upsetting. I just can't trust them anymore. I just don't take my bike," she said.
Pedal power - Cyclists urge V/Line to improve service
I can only suggest being extra nice to V/Line staff as exceptions could be made (trains often have unused wheelchair space, buses often have unused storage space underneath).

6. If making major decisions (e.g. moving to a country town assuming you will bike + train commute) do your research on which towns, lines and days/times are best

V/Line info, media articles and social media posts make evident that there are particular train lines, stations and times which are most difficult to reliably take bikes on due to capacity issues.

First there is the official advice (which may change at any time): "Space is limited on Sprinter and VLocity trains to and from Ararat, Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Geelong, Maryborough, Seymour and Traralgon."

Secondly, as just one example, the Bendigo and Echuca line (including stops like Castlemaine) often features in media reports as lacking capacity with cyclists turned away. E.g. Pedal power - Cyclists urge V/Line to improve service

Cycling forums are also useful sources of guidance as to which lines/stations are best or worst. Forums
Touring Australia

7. V/Line and the state government can do much more to increase the capacity and convenience of bike + train travel so when denied service, take pictures, use social media (e.g. tweet to your MP) and submit your feedback/complaint

When you do get denied service on V/Line trains based on there not being space for your bike it's important to take photos, use social media and complain to V/Line and politicians.

Based on my complaint experience, V/Line's will simple copy and paste a useless, canned response saying space is limited and customer safety can't be compromised (that's what Matthew Quattrocchi, Customer Feedback Manager, emailed me). But it's useful to add to the stats anyway.

Even better is to post your feedback (preferably with a photo showing wasted/empty space) to the V/Line Facebook page and tweet to your local politicians. There is plenty that V/Line and the state government can do to actually improve capacity and convenience.

Feedback to V/Line post on its Facebook page

Similar suggestions have been made before:
The group is calling on V/Line to consider investing in some of the innovative bicycle storage techniques being used in European countries, given what appears to be an increasing demand for bikes to be carried by the service. 
The riders also urge V/Line to consider adding bicycle information to its existing electronic station information infrastructure to inform commuters an estimated number of spaces for bicycles. 
"This would enable riders to gauge if there will be space for them and if needed make other arrangements before their preferred service arrives," Mr Waddell said.
Pedal power - Cyclists urge V/Line to improve service
Efficient vertical bike storage in French trains ( forums)

Feedback to V/Line on its Facebook page

Sending your feedback to the regional towns and businesses that are affected by V/Line's lack of service for bikes is also useful. This can lead these regional stakeholders to pressure V/Line to provide improved services:
The Mansfield Shire Council and Tourism North-East are pushing for V/Line to be more accommodating when it comes to the transport of bikes on its trains. 
The shire would like V/Line to schedule services that guarantee bicycles would be carried on both its trains and coaches when travelling to the region. 
The shire's tourism and economic officer, Judy Dixon, said the Victorian fares and ticketing manual was unclear on taking bikes on regional train services, with the decision left to the discretion of the conductor. 
She said bike riders using tracks like the Great Victorian Rail Trail, bring great economic benefit to the shire. 
"We'd like to see that there would be V/Line scheduled services that guarantee that you can take your bike, so that you can have some certainty as a visitor or a tourist with your bike and we would certainly like a new approach," she said. 
"Currently the bikes aren't allowed on the coaches and we'd certainly like for them to explore options to accommodate the demands of their own customers.
ABC News: 'Guarantee' sought to allow bikes on V/Line trains
In my case, I won't be planning future trips on V/Line's Bendigo, Swan Hill or Echuca lines given my experience trying to get to and from Castlemaine with my bike. So I looked up the regional tourism website for the relevant region and emailed them with my feedback:

The website advises: "V/Line's modern and comfortable trains are a perfect way to sit back, relax and enjoy the journey." In reality, V/Line's train service is an unreliable, time-wasting and frustrating gamble for anyone trying to take a bike. So I emailed them to let them know and ask them to take this up with V/Line if they wanted visitors who travel with bikes:

8. Recommended Victorian regional cycling trails and destinations. And how to assess the feasibility of accessing them with V/Line or even Melbourne Metro trains

Below are links that list recommended Victorian regional cycling trails and destinations. In order to check whether V/Line is a feasible means of getting to them (or near enough) simply look up the regional towns and compare with those that are part of the V/Line bike-accessible network (trains plus coaches from or to Wangaratta and Benalla).

The Melbourne Metropolitan train network also allows you to reach some scenic areas to cycle. E.g. Ferntree Gully station on the Belgrave line. Or Lilydale station which connects with the Lilydale to Warburton rail trail.

> Visit Victoria - Cycling Trails
> Pieces of Victoria - Car free

For example, the Murray to Mountains rail trail includes the towns: Wangaratta, Beechworth, Myrtleford, Porepunkah, Bright, Milawa, Rutherglen and Wahgunyah.

Only Wangaratta is reachable by train but the following V/Line coaches run from nearby towns:
Beechworth - Wangaratta
Bright - Wangaratta
Corowa/Rutherglen - Wangaratta
Mulwala/Yarrawonga - Benalla

Google Maps now contains many of these rail trails so you can search for cycling directions from Beechworth to Wangaratta and find out if it is hilly and, if so, whether mostly in one direction.

Google Maps Cycling Directions - Wangaratta to Beechworth

As you can see, there is one long climb going from Wangaratta toward Beechworth. Thus, if only interested in doing this trip in one direction (possibly as a day trip) it would be easiest to catch the train to Wangaratta and then a coach to Beechworth and then cycle back.

As you can't book a spot for your bike on a coach even when buying a V/Line ticket well in advance online, space for bikes in the underside luggage area is on a first come, first served basis. It is advisable to get there early, let the V/Line staff know of your bike, and plan enough time/flexibility in case you have to wait for the next service.

Further Info:

> Bicycles on trains

> V/Line tickets (for stations within Myki zone)
> V/Line reservations
Bikes and public transport

Bicycle Network
> Policy & Campaigns - Bikes on trains

Rail Trails Australia
> Victoria

The Age / SMH
> Cyclists are climate-change heroes but we are often treated as villains
Country cyclists win reprieve from railways bike ban

Midland Express
Pedal power - Cyclists urge V/Line to improve service Forums
> Bike-rail
V-line, with four loaded tourers
> Touring Australia

> V/Line

TrailMate (Mountain Bike Trails in Australia)
> MTB Trails: Victoria