In 2014 Push Bikes visited Assen in the Netherlands. Before leaving I asked David Hembrow if there was anything I needed to know about buying a train ticket, such as ordering it six weeks in advance, carefully choosing from 58 different options, and ensuring I had a twelve character cryptokey to recover a ticket from a machine that only spoke Dutch. He assured me that train travel in the Netherlands was simple and cheap. When we got there we went downstairs from the airport, and walked up to a ticket machine. We discovered that whilst it did speak Dutch, it also spoke perfect English, and we bought singles to Assen (there's no financial benefit in buying returns). The two hour journey cost just €25, fares being capped at that price. Buying a train ticket in the Netherlands is indeed both simple and affordable.
Whilst we waited on the platform, electric trains slid in and out almost noiselessly; I've been in noisier libraries. We noticed the carriages were liberally decorated with bike symbols. Had we arrived with our bikes, we would have had to buy tickets for them for a nominal sum, but nothing more complicated than that. Getting the bikes on to the train would have been as simple as picking them up and placing them in the carriage in the designated area, where bikes had priority according to the sign above. However, we didn't arrive with bikes, so we hired them at Assen station for €5 a day. The journey back was marginally more complicated, in that there was no machine. It was my turn to buy the tickets, so I walked up to the counter and asked, "Spreekt u Engels, alstublieft?". Back came the answer "Yes, of course, no problem!", which was a huge relief. So with another set of single tickets, we headed for home. Travelling by train in the Netherlands is easy, even if your Dutch is limited to "Spreekt u Engels, alstublieft?".
Travelling in the UK, by contrast, is a pig. Of course anyone who has travelled by train in the UK knows that unless you have more money than sense, you buy a ticket in advance for specific trains, and it had better be a return because two singles will be twice as much. Add a bike into the equation, and you might as well be trying to arrange to travel with an ankylosaur. I gave up trying to buy tickets with a bike for a journey down to Southampton, because East Coast Trains, the only ticket website that knows about bikes, told me there were no seats available on any train to Southampton at any time, ever. Yes I know you can sit in the toilet or on the luggage rack, or stand in the vestibule supported by sixteen other people (I've done the latter two), but Southampton is a bit far for that sort of shenanigans. I have managed to get a bike to the Manchester area and back, but CrossCountry make you buy the ticket, and then phone up for a bike reservation. This involves much time spent on hold, and a long conversation with someone who needs to look up what to do. This did yield a generous quantity of tickets from the ticket machine (after inserting my credit card as proof of identity and entering my cryptokey to prove my credit card hadn't been stolen by someone who wanted to go to Manchester and who just happened to know there were train tickets waiting for me at the station). Unfortunately they only gave my bike permission to make the entire journey; I was only allowed to do the second of three legs. This has happened more than once, but thankfully only one guard noticed anything was awry, and I had my CrossCountrty travel plan with me.
Recently I travelled to Edinburgh. I booked the return ticket online, but it still cost me two to three times what it would have cost in the Netherlands. I was careful to select Virgin Trains, because I thought that would ensure the train was a Pendolino rather than a Super Vibrator, but Push Bikes member Kim has previously warned on Birmingham Cyclist that getting a bike on and off a Pendolino can be a stressful experience. Sorry, I don't want stress when I'm travelling. If I wanted stress I would drive to Edinburgh. Hiring a bike in Edinburgh is very expensive (typically £25 for half a day), so I decided to hire a Brompton from the dock outside Moor Street Station and take it with me in the passenger compartment.
Signing up with Brompton Hire is very easy, apart from one tiny issue. If anything irreparable happens to the bike, the hirer becomes liable for £750. Yikes! That very nearly put me off, but after some thought I decided I would go ahead. However, concerned about the risk, I also spoke to Ajit from Swinton in Cotteridge, who was very helpful and went to a lot of trouble doing some research into insurance. Unfortunately Ajit discovered most insurance companies will not insure this potential loss, for the simple if illogical reason that the bike doesn't belong to the person buying the insurance. Ajit did give me a quote from one insurance company, Zurich, but it would have added significantly to my insurance premiums. Whilst I would be able to keep a close eye on the bike much of the time, there would be times when that isn't practical, such as when I'm on the train. For those times it will need a D-lock, though there will likely be nothing to which to lock the bike.
The day before my journey arrived, so I booked my bike online, and was told Buster would be waiting for me at Moor Street Station dock. Buster's big adventure was about to begin.