Skyride comment: Why not let Sky control the trains?
Mayor of London Skyride 2009, 20 September 2009
Sunday's Mayor of London Skyride was probably the greatest cycling event ever seen in London, and I use the word 'greatest' both in terms of the volume of people that took part, and in terms of the organisation and spirit with which the event was held.
With many programmes like Skyride, a commercial partner may put up some money and pay lip-service to getting itself involved, but it is to Sky's credit that it sees the success of Skyride as a very personal endeavour. Sky has put a tremendous amount of time, money and work into creating a series of rides that the nation can be proud of. From officials at British Cycling, to Mayor Boris himself, there is nothing but praise for the satellite broadcasting company.
I'll be honest, I am naturally prejudiced to Rupert Murdoch-owned businesses. I have never subscribed to Sky and I do not read the Sun or the Times - but even I have questioned my position in light of the good that seems to be coming from Sky's involvement with cycling in the UK.
There was, though, one blot on the Skyride experience copybook in London, but it wasn't something Sky or Mayor Boris or British Cycling could do anything about: the rail service.
The journey into the capital on Sunday morning was easy, perhaps too easy. There were no special 'services' or requirements for people with bikes, which came as a welcome surprise because in many people's experience, special 'services' for cyclists on British railways tend to mean 'restrictions'. The one recognition of the fact a huge number of bicycles would be using Southern Rail's trains came when we reached Victoria Station and a woman on the ticket barrier asked all those with bikes what time they expected to be returning home.
But the problems only really started when people began trying to leave London. I headed home half an hour before the official finale to Skyride, so I cannot say what happened as the full rush of cyclists tried to leave the city. But even at the relatively calm time of 3.30 there were already murmurs of disquiet.
Firstly, when we reached the train a Southern Rail employee stopped all those with bikes from boarding, saying that we had to pick up a special 'boarding pass' for our steeds before we could get on. When the lady in front of me dared to suggest it would have been nice to have been told this on our inward journey - perhaps at the same time as we had been asked what time we were planning on leaving - the same man rather officiously told her: "You were all told when you came in." Well this lady hadn't been told, and neither had I.
To enjoy the benefits of one of these fabled 'boarding passes' we had to join a queue at Victoria's information desk, where we were presented with a blank train ticket on which was scrawled some numbers. "It's the only hassle we've had all day," one Skyrider behind commented.
With 'boarding pass' finally in hand, riders were finally allowed to get on the train, but even there our singling out for 'special' treatment wasn't over. "Can cyclists please make sure that their bikes are away from the opposite doors when we arrive at Clapham Junction," the driver droned over the public address system. Then, immediately, there was another, slightly agitated voice. "And can people with bikes please make sure they are not blocking the aisles," the train's guard added.
With bikes not allowed to block the doors or the aisles it rather left the question where to put them: on the overhead shelves perhaps? "Ever feel like you're not wanted?" some wag in a luminous Skyride bib commented nearby.
After the smiles and friendliness we had felt all day riding around London's most famous roads, it was a bit of a shock to the system. Perhaps as cyclists we were taking it too personally, after all, the train company was 'just doing its job.' But I couldn't help thinking that its job would have been better done had it put its effort into laying on extra carriages with guards' vans for the huge amount of bikes, which it had known for months would be leaving London from three o'clock onwards on Sunday, September 20.
Perhaps next year, as well as close London to road traffic, Mayor Boris might also consider closing all train routes into the city, and then hand over control of the railways to Sky. That way cyclists will be sure of both arriving, and departing, among friendly faces.