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No room for bikers on the “green” Finnish railways

Finnish State Railways have something called Eco Class these days. They like to promote themselves as being green. But cyclists under the impression that the trains are in some way “bike friendly” are in for a disappointment.

Firstly, let’s clear up what Eco Class actually means. It’s another name for Second Class (Business Class is now called Extra Class, although it’s not clear if this means it is in some way less ecological than Eco Class). Of course, the clever marketing chaps who get paid millions to come up with these re-branding gimmicks have considered the double meaning of that Eco (or Eko in Finnish). Economy AND Ecology. Smart.

Now let’s try to take our bikes on the train. There are four of us, looking forward to a spring cycling trip to the Hailuoto island in northern Finland. To get there we need to take one of the longest routes in the country, Helsinki to Oulu for example, a journey takes a minimum of 6 hours and 3 minutes and a maximum of 9 hours 46 minutes. Obviously, we want to spend as little time on the train as possible and get going on the bikes. So we’ll go for the fast option taking just over six hours.

No we won’t. It’s a Pendolino, a fast track service, and guess what? They don’t have ANY space for bikes on Pendolinos. None. Zero. It doesn’t matter if you try to bribe the inspector, there’s nowhere to put them.

OK, so there’s an InterCity service that takes just over 7 hours. And yes, there is a little bike icon on the booking site. So we book our tickets and seat places online, no problem. But wait. How do we book a bike place? In proudly high-tech Finland, we can’t book it online. We have to either call the phone booking service and make bike reservations separately or drop in to our nearest station. In which case there was no advantage in making the train booking online. For now, we will overlook the fact that the price of the return train fare (minus the nine euro charge per bike each way) was approximately twice that of the cheapest air fare for the same dates.

Dutifully we troop to the main ticket hall at Helsinki’s main railway station and prepare to make our bike place reservations for the relevant InterCity trains. Ah. Oh. Only three bike places per train, and there are four of us. And two of the bike places are already taken. (Those bike racks are insufferably awkward to use, too, by the way.)

I think you are getting the picture. Three bike places on a long-distance train simply isn’t enough. NO bike places on a fast service is simply prejudiced. It has been known for us to bluff our way using the Ignorant Foreigner card and squeeze our extra bikes into the small space provided, but this is subject to the good will and mood on the day of the inspector. A little thought and consideration in planning the trains is surely not out of the question, and if bikes cannot be taken on Pendolinos because of the design of the train, then there is something wrong with that design.

Like my fellow cyclists, I dream of the day when cycling in Helsinki in particular enjoys the status of one of the great bike cities, such as its Nordic cousin Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, Oxford and Cambridge. True, there are many cycling routes in and around the city, but the car still rules. The same attitude is manifested in VR’s apparent lack of interest in facilitating its cyclist customers.