Folding bikes fit on any train, and two or perhaps three lightweight road bikes can be squeezed into the tight bicycle-hanging spaces on the newest trains plying some of England’s major rail routes but turn up with a tandem or a touring bike laden with panniers or an electric bike, and you can whistle. Train companies, it seems, don’t want your money if you pedal anything other than a skinny-tire speed machine.
But for those heading to and from Scotland’s gloriously gorgeous west coast, there’s the Highland Explorer, a train so cyclist-friendly it can accommodate any size or shape or weight of cycle—just so long as you can heave it on board yourself (the staff isn’t allowed to help).
The car has been modified to carry twenty cycles.
And, uniquely, it even has a power socket to charge your electric bike as you gawp out of the windows at the rolling scenery beside Loch Long and Loch Lomond.
The bike car is the third part of a three-car service. The Highland Explorer stops at stations along the West Highland line between Glasgow and the port town of Oban. It isn’t a fast train—the 97-mile journey takes a little over three hours—but as this is one of the world’s most scenic train journeys, that’s hardly a problem, for tourists at least.
The service started running in July 2021 (it was planned before the pandemic) and has been a modest success, with 2,000 bike reservations and additional walk-ons in its first year of operation reported Scotrail’s tourism manager Alasdair Smart.
ScotRail has been a Scottish-government-owned entity since March, although the Highland Explorer makeover was commissioned when the rail franchise was operated by Abellio, the overseas trading arm of the Dutch national railway company, Nederlandse Spoorwegen.
At its launch, ScotRail said the Highland Explorer “supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to economic development through active tourism and improved transport connectivity, getting more people to make active travel choices and providing opportunities to do so.”
The first year of operation was “challenging,” agreed Smart, referencing emergency timetables and travel uncertainty due to COVID restrictions that affected all.
“We expect this summer to provide a more representative example of the carriage’s potential,” he asserted.
The Highland Explorer is a branded service and is more costly than one of the unbranded, same-line services that run between Glasgow and Oban but don’t have space for 20 cycles. The spruced-up carriage—three have been so modified—has room for 24 passengers who can spy the bikes at all times. Cyclists with bike reservations get first dibs on these seats, which, depending on staff availability, benefit from complimentary at-seat refreshments.
In effect, this is first-class service. Passengers without bikes have to pay a $15 supplement to sit in the snazzy seats, which can lead to murmurings because the carriage isn’t flagged as first-class.
Converted from a British Rail Class 153 Super Sprinter diesel train built in the early 1990s, the Highland Explorer’s refresh included a colorful exterior designed by Scottish artist Peter McDermott. This vinyl wrap features cyclists, Highland cattle, and landmarks such as the Glenfinnan viaduct and the Skye Cuillin mountain range.
The Highland Explorer also sports free wifi, at-seat power points, and USB sockets.
Might more parts of the ScotRail network get Highland-Explorer-style refits?
“We are looking to see if we can provide class 153s on more services,” said Smart, adding that the Highland Explorer was intended as a pilot to gauge reception.
“The lessons learned from the class 153 are expected to be incorporated into future rolling stock that operates on the West Highlands and other rural lines within Scotland,” Smart said.
However, there will be no more refits of dated, diesel-powered rolling stock. Instead, the cyclist-friendly designs will be incorporated in new, more eco-friendly train specifications currently being developed for ScotRail.
Earlier this year, the tourism body VisitScotland and the active travel organization Sustrans Scotland partnered with ScotRail on a $65,000 advertising campaign promoting the Highland Explorer. This digital and print media campaign featured, among others, the travel blogger Kathi Kamleitner on an electric bike and round-the-world cyclist Jenny Graham on a gravel bike.
The Highland Explorer runs twice daily to and from what is marketed as “Scotland’s Adventure Coast.”