John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Integrated transport

LARP season continues, and I get to each event by bike/train. Arguably this is absurd, but it has advantages over driving (I avoid traffic jams on motorways) or getting a lift to/from the station (more independence). I wrote about the logistics last year but I've made some changes this year for the June/July events.


The June event is at Bispham Hall, near Wigan. The nearest station (Orrell) isn't any use: there's only one train on a Sunday (early morning), and it costs about £300 for a return ticket from London! So, last year I took the bus from London (Victoria) to Oxford, then hitched a ride with people who were driving between there and the campsite.

This year, I took the train from London (Euston) to Wigan North Western, which cost about £80. It's a Virgin train, but I booked through the EastCoast website so that I could make a cycle reservation at the same time. Apparently they have 2 different types of train on that route: Pendolino and Super Voyager, and each type has different cycle storage, but they don't specify in advance which train it will be. In my case, it was a Pendolino in each direction.

On my outbound journey, I was a bit optimistic about how early I'd get up in the morning, and I missed the train where I'd reserved a bike space. However, I queued up at Euston and I was able to get a new reservation on a later train, so that was ok. When I went to the platform, the bike storage was at the very front of the train, just behind the driver's cabin. I was able to leave all my panniers attached, and I had room to put my bike trailer in too (standing upright).

I used 4 stations for my outbound journey, all of which have step-free access to the platforms: East Croydon, St Pancras International, Euston, and Wigan North Western. East Croydon and Euston have slopes leading down to the platforms, while St Pancras International and Wigan North Western have lifts. At St Pancras, there's a lift from the northbound platform (-2) to the overbridge (-1), then another lift which goes between the southbound platform (-2), the overbridge (-1), and the main entrance/concourse (G). I was able to fit into those lifts, but I had to detach the trailer and turn the bike through 90° so that it was against the back wall. At Wigan North Western, the lift was big enough that I could roll the bike in with the trailer attached, which is useful. There's a single lift from the platform to the underpass (ground level), then that underpass leads directly to the exit.

I did have to lift my bike on and off the trains, which included a couple of steps on the Virgin train; I may have been able to request a ramp, but it wasn't worth the extra hassle.

As a side note, I met another LARPer at Wigan North Western: I didn't recognise her, but she guessed that I was going to the CP event based on the weapons strapped to my bike (top tube) and the hat on my trailer. The sword/spear were inside bubblewrap, and then inside bin liners, but you can identify them if you know what you're looking for. Other people have seen the bundle and asked whether I'm going fishing.

The journey from the station to the campsite was pretty easy: it's about 8km and only took me about 25 minutes, with no challenging hills. There was less traffic than in London, and the drivers generally seemed more tolerant; if my daily commute was like that, I'd never have bought a helmet camera. There's also a convenience store about 600m from the campsite (at the junction of Upholland Road and Crank Road), so that's a good place to do a quick supply run after I've unloaded everything. Admittedly, this year I imposed on some friends to buy some booze for me, but in principle I could do it myself.

At the end of the event, I did the journey in reverse. I reached Wigan North Western in plenty of time, but because it's not a terminus the train wasn't there yet. I went to both ends of the platform, but there weren't any signs up to show the bike loading point, so I guessed at the front of the train. When the train arrived, the door behind the driver's compartment didn't open. I tapped on his window, and he told me that I had to get to the other end of the train; he also said that I should hurry, since the train was already running a couple of minutes behind schedule! I'd unhooked my trailer by this point, so I had to dash the length of the platform with the handle resting on my rear panniers, hoping that it wouldn't fall off. Anyway, I made it on, and got back to London ok.


The July event is at Sherratts Wood, in Staffordshire. Last year I took the train to Stone: there was a direct train to/from Euston, but on my outbound journey I had to carry my bike over the footbridge to get out of the station. That's inconvenient when it's fully loaded: I'll either struggle with the weight or I'll have to unhook all the panniers and make several trips up and down each staircase to transfer everything.

Also, there aren't any dedicated cycle facilities on that train, so last year I had my bike in the door area. The train ahead of ours broke down, so those passengers all joined our train about halfway there, and I wouldn't have been able to squeeze my bike in at that point. This was before I started using the trailer, so it would be even more of a challenge now.

The return journey from Stone to London was easier (a ramp from the road to the southbound platform), but the direct trains are quite slow (2h50m) and they leave relatively early (18:07 and 19:07). In theory, everyone should be offsite by 18:00, but it can take a bit longer, particularly if I help with the shared faction stuff.

With that in mind, I looked for a different station this year. The nearest 5 stations to the campsite are:

  • Stone (9 km)

  • Blythe Bridge (10 km)

  • Uttoxeter (14 km)

  • Stafford (16 km)

  • Stoke-on-Trent (23 km)

There are direct trains from Euston to Stone, Stafford, and Stoke-on-Trent, whereas you have to change at Stafford or Stoke-on-Trent for Blythe Bridge or Uttoxeter.

Stone has level access to platform 2 but a footbridge to platform 1.
Uttoxeter is the opposite: platform 1 accessible, platform 2 over foot crossing but not step free.
Blythe Bridge, Stafford, and Stoke-on-Trent have full step free access. (Blythe Bridge has ramps to both platforms from the level crossing. Stafford has lifts.)
The National Rail timetable shows which trains (should) stop at each platform.

As for bikes, you can reserve a space on the Virgin train from Euston to Stafford or Stoke-on-Trent, but you can't reserve a space on the London Midland train to Stone. In theory you can reserve a space on East Midland services, but not on the trains that go to Blythe Bridge.

So, I eliminated Stone and Uttoxeter because of the footbridges, and I eliminated Blythe Bridge because I couldn't reserve a space. That left Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent: they both had direct services, with cycle reservations available, and step-free access at the stations. The obvious difference is that Stafford is closer, so I opted for that.

Digressing slightly, LARP events are quite tiring: time out is at 02:00, then time in is at 10:00. So, even if I rushed to my tent as soon as I heard that call, I still wouldn't get 8 hours of sleep a night, and there's quite a bit of physical activity during the day. In practical terms, I tend to stay up for another couple of hours chatting to people. With that in mind, it would be prudent to get a good night's sleep before the event.

However, since I'm an idiot, I left my packing to the last minute, and I didn't get to bed until 04:45 the night before I left. I then got up late the following day (at 09:45), so I knew that I was going to miss the train with my bike reservation again. This time I phoned Virgin, partly so that I could confirm the new train time before I left home and partly because I wanted to cancel my reservation so that someone else could use it. As it turns out, they don't have an option to cancel reservations, but they said that the staff would reallocate it automatically when I didn't turn up. They gave me a reference number for my new reservation, and I collected the new tickets at the machine; that was easier than weaving my bike/trailer along the roped off section to their counters.

When I originally booked the journey, I got 8 pieces of card from the machine (not counting my receipt), 4 for each direction. That included the actual ticket, a seat reservation, and 2 copies of my cycle reservation: 1 to keep with me and 1 to attach to the bike. After I made the phone call, I took out all the reservations so that I wouldn't be cluttering up my wallet. When I got to the machine, I was surprised that I only got 2 new cards: the passenger copy and bike copy of my outbound cycle reservations. It then dawned on me that my original reservation for the return journey was still valid, so they wouldn't reissue the cards for it. However, those cards were now at home, and I didn't have time to go back for them. Did I mention that I'm an idiot?

As a side note, the online booking process only allows a cycle reservation if you reserve a seat at the same time. However, when I've done a new cycle reservation with Virgin (in person or by phone), they haven't mentioned seat reservations at all. So, that may just be an East Coast policy.

When we approached Stafford, I noticed a sign next to the bike area which said: "Please contact the train manager in coach C as soon as you board the train so that they can unlock the door for you at your station." (Paraphrasing from memory.) I didn't notice that when I got on at Euston, but the bike area was completely open. I don't know whether there's a sliding door which could be closed/locked. Anyway, the train pulled into the station, and I then realised that the outer door (to the platform) doesn't have a normal handle; you need a special key to unlock it. At this point, the sign made a bit more sense! I dashed through the next carriage, got out there, and thankfully I found a member of staff who could come back and open the other door. I was worried that I'd end up in Liverpool if I couldn't find anyone before the train moved off...

The station had similar lifts to Wigan North Western, i.e. they were big enough for me to wheel in the bike and trailer together. I needed to use 2 lifts: from the middle platform to the overbridge, and from the overbridge to platform 1.

While I was at the station, I went into the ticket office and asked whether they could print out a duplicate of my cycle reservation for the return trip. They couldn't do that, but they saw that there was another space available on the same train and printed cards for that. Each train can only handle 4 bikes, and I felt a bit guilty about taking up 2 slots, but at least I'd have space for all my stuff.

I then set off for the campsite, and I was impressed by the local infrastructure. As soon as I left the station, there was a toucan crossing (i.e. pedestrians and cyclists can cross the road together). On the other side, there's a shared use path for pedestrians and cyclists. I followed that for about 200m, then joined NCN 5 to ride along the canal path. That's a decent route: it's almost entirely traffic free, and mostly flat with a few gentle slopes. The only snag is that there are a couple of points where the signs are a bit confusing; I've noticed similar problems on other NCN routes.

For instance, consider this signpost:
Cyclists dismount

They're saying that it's part of NCN 5 (the number on a red background), and that it's a shared use path for cyclists and pedestrians, but then they're also telling cyclists to dismount. What's going on there? Well, it turns out that the "Cyclists Dismount" sign is advisory, i.e. it's just a suggestion and anyone can ignore it without getting into trouble.

It's defined in The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (about 3/4 of the way down that page). Note that underneath the picture it says:
"Regulations: None
Directions: None"

Should you heed the suggestion anyway? It depends why it's there. For instance, I've sometimes seen these signs on roads when there are roadworks blocking the cycle lane. In that situation, I'll just ride in the main part of the lane, which is the same thing I'd do if there wasn't a cycle lane at all. (YACF has an example of this.) In this case, I considered the empty pavement and the dropped kerb and concluded that there was no need for me to dismount.

If you're interested, a bit of further reading on this topic:

Just around the corner, I saw this sign:

According to that, I should turn left to stay on NCN 5. Does that mean that I should join the main road? Getting a bit closer:

There's a segregated cycle lane on the far side of the road; you can just about see a sign for it in the far left corner of this photo. So, I continued along there, until I glanced at my satnav and saw that I was going in the opposite direction to my planned route. I couldn't see any obvious way to follow NCN 5 in the correct direction, so I just joined the road at that point.

I only discovered the correct route on my return trip. Basically, you need to make a sharp left as soon as you see that sign, before you get as far as the junction:

The offset barriers are presumably there so that only bicycles can get through (rather than motorbikes). That was fine for my bike, even with panniers attached, but it caused problems for my trailer. I had to dismount and lift the trailer around the bend, but I think that anyone on a tandem or a tricycle would be stuck. So, I'm inclined to say that those barriers do more harm than good.

Anyway, things went pretty well until I left NCN 5. That's when I hit the hills. Looking at the Ordnance Survey maps, none of the roads had chevrons, so the gradient must have been lower than 14%. Similarly, I was able to get up each hill in a straight line (rather than a zig-zag) and I never thought that I'd have to get off and push. However, I had to drop down to my lowest gear a few times, so I'm glad that I asked for the "winch" option when I specced out this bike. (When I'm in my lowest gear the gear ratio is 26:32, so 1 turn of the pedals is less than 1 turn of the rear wheel.)

According to my heart rate monitor, I was above 90% of my maximum heart rate while I was going up those hills, and it rated the journey as a whole "Very demanding". I reached the campsite at about 17:30 on Friday, and the monitor predicted that my recovery time was 21:00 on Saturday. So, good thing I wasn't planning to do anything energetic for the next day or so!

In hindsight, I think I may have overdone it a bit. On Saturday afternoon, I was feeling a bit iffy; not exactly nauseous, but my abdomen hurt and I thought that there was a definite risk of expelling stuff (from one end or the other). I sat down to eat something from the burger van, hoping that this would resolve the situation one way or the other, and I felt better after that. However, one of my friends commented that I still looked a bit frayed around the edges afterwards, so she advised me to take on more water. Next year, I might be better off going back to Stone; I'd rather deal with the footbridge than those hills.

On the plus side, the return trip was a lot smoother. There was only 1 hill that was a struggle, and a 2nd that was significant. I don't know the gradient, but when I reached the top of the 2nd (lesser) hill I coasted down the other side without pedalling and hit 48 km/hour (30 mph).

When I got back to Stafford, I just wheeled my bike straight onto platform 1; there weren't any lifts or ticket barriers to negotiate. Based on past experience, I aimed towards the back of the train (the furthest end from London). I found a sign on the platform, indicating the bike loading point. Unfortunately that didn't line up with the correct part of the train, but at least it was vaguely in the right direction.

There was another cyclist already on the platform, and when we got on board there were another 2 bikes in the storage area. That was surprising, especially since (as far as I knew) I had 2 bike reservations! We were able to squeeze our bikes in: I took my panniers off, then stacked them up in any spaces I could find. There wasn't room for my trailer, so I took that into the next carriage with me and put it in the luggage area; when it's vertical, it's equivalent to a trolley suitcase.

I glanced at the bikes which were already on board, and 1 of them had a reservation ticket dated for the previous day (Saturday rather than Sunday). I saw the owners at Euston, and they were travelling together, so maybe they both made a mistake with their booking.

When the member of staff at Stafford opened the door for us, I asked whether the bikes that were already there had reservations. He just said "They're already on board", which seemed to be missing the point a bit: I'd expect people who have reservations to get priority over people who don't. So, be aware that a reservation may not guarantee a space, but I'm glad that we were able to work around that.

That member of staff called the train manager over the intercom and told him that there were now 4 bikes on board. So, when we reached Euston (the terminus), I assumed that someone would unlock the door for us. Unfortunately, no; in the end, another cyclist went off to find someone on the platform so that we could get out.

All in all, I'd say that the system works: I was able to get where I wanted to go. However, I still need to do a bit of tweaking to optimise my journeys.
Tags: accessibility, cycling, larp, ncn, train

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