How to catch a train?

I found an interesting question on one of the Linkedin groups I belong to and felt compelled to write an answer. As it turned out to be a pretty complete response, I deemed it worthy of its own blog entry, so here it is.

How can we get more rail passengers to arrive at the station by bike, bus or on foot?

This is a great question which I have pondered somewhat in the past, so it’s great to try and put these thoughts in writing. The methods with the most potential in my opinion are buses and bikes. As to how to encourage walking to a station? Presumably only by deterring driving by car!

In situations where walking or cycling is not suitable, be it due to weather, distance or convenience, buses seem like the obvious answer, provided that they have an advantage over taking the car. In simple monetary terms, a return journey to the station by bus must be cheaper than a day’s parking ticket at the station. More importantly though, the bus timetable must be suitably synchronised with the train one to ensure convenient connections. This should be relatively simple to arrange in a sleepy commuter village.

As to cycling, the answer is relatively straight-forward – ensuring that the bike which is left at the station remains safe. Although cycle boxes may be an attractive idea, they take up far too much space to be an effective solution anywhere with more than 50 bikes. There are in my opinion two key criteria to meet for someone to leave their bike at the station: ensuring it is protected from thiefs and the elements. The latter is ensured by bike shelters closed in on as many sides as possible. The former, by installing CCTV cameras and optionally having ‘guards’ patrol the racks, as well as by encouraging cyclist to register their bikes. The solution feels simple enough to me.

My experience spans reaching train stations semi-regularly in three very different cities. In Oxford, I lived too far from the station to walk so, as a poor student, cycling (there and everywhere else) was the only option. However, the bike racks were perhaps the most crammed I have seen anywhere. In the commuter town of Harpenden (Herts), there was a vast car park alongside the track which caused endless traffic jams on the main Station Road leading into the centre. Walking or cycling past the long queue of frustrated drivers was therefore very satisfying. Finally, in Edinburgh, I commute out of town at 8am – the 20min bus journey drops me off outside the station with a slightly excessive 15 mins to buy my ticket and board a train for a 20min train journey, which is followed by another 20min walk (or a 5 min cycle ride on the rare occasion the weather is clement – at least going ‘against the flow’ means there’s always space for my bike).

To summarise, what will encourage walking, cycling or using public transport to catch the train? A smoother and friendlier journey than getting there by car – something well within reach if it is planned properly.