Fed-up of unreliable train services, one group of commuters is taking an alternative route to work. Karl Webster tagged along for the ride.
There are few furies so fulsome, few hatreds so heartfelt, as those that befall a cold commuter on a packed platform when the train they've been waiting for - -the train that is already almost half an hour late — finally arrives, and doesn't stop.
They call it 'station skipping' and train companies do it for the same reason they do absolutely everything. Money. The fines they get for being late are worse than the hundreds, maybe thousands of days they ruin.
Yesterday morning a group of people determined to challenge the supremacy of Thameslink and their ilk met at Nunhead train station on their bicycles. A short 10 minutes later they met another group of cyclists at Peckham Rye and together they rode in convoy to Blackfriars. This was London's first Bike Train, a new weekly event set up to encourage commuters to turn their backs on the rail companies and get on their bikes.
Set up by London Cycling Campaign (LCC) group Southwark Cyclists, the reason the route goes from Nunhead to Blackfriars is that passengers feel the Thameslink train that services that route is one of the worst offenders when it comes to skipping stations.
In the run-up to the inaugural Bike Train, Southwark Cyclist Sally Eva had passed many a frozen hour flyering outside Peckham Rye train station, in an attempt to convince disgruntled commuters that there are alternatives.
"We're trying to reach people who don't already cycle," she told Londonist, "and encourage them to commute in a way that's better for them, better for other people and better for the environment."
Sally is passionate about the multiple benefits of pedal power. "Cycling makes you healthy," she says, "it's an awful lot cheaper and it's actually far more reliable than driving or catching the train. I've got friends who say, 'The reason I started cycling to work is that when you cycle, at least you definitely get there!'"
It is also led by experienced cyclists, all trained by the LCC to escort groups and to recognise and avoid danger on the roads. Andy Cawdell, former chair of the LCC board of trustees and three years a confirmed Southwark Cyclist, has been leading rides for years. He was also on hand again yesterday, whistle at the ready just in case (but happily not required). Bike Train is not simply about 'getting there', of course. Recognising that concerns over dangers of cycling are what put a lot of people off, the Bike Train route is designed for safety. As well as new segregated cycle lanes, the route also takes in two parks, a traffic-calmed backstreet and a bikes-only bypass around Elephant and Castle.
The first ride went beautifully well. Although still cold enough to freeze the fingers of the foolishly ungloved, it was a stunningly bright and crisp spring morning and Sally was right — the route is a peach.
With great stretches of lung-friendly, traffic-free riding, Bike Train feels a million miles from the experience of being sardined onto buses and trains, or gridlocked at lights. Plus you're actually doing something that's enjoyable and good for you. It doesn't feel like dead time trapped in a tin box with inconsiderate swine with breath issues and music that's way too loud.
The only thing that slightly let down the first Bike Train was the amount of participants — only eight cyclists — but those that took part refused to be discouraged.
"Maybe it was all the storms we've been having or the fact that it's the Easter holidays," said Sally, "but we'll keep going. We'll be back next week."
Sally and Andy are happy to take it one step at a time, but the ultimate aim is that more and more people will join, and Bike Train turns from a weekly into a daily thing. "At that point, you not only get the health benefits, but you're also saving a substantial amount of money," says Sally.
Bike Train starts at Nunhead station at 8am on Wednesdays, or at 8.10am behind McDonald's in Peckham Rye (50m left out of the station). If this particular Bike Train is not convenient, get in touch with the London Cycling Campaign — and set up a different one.