Here are six things I learnt in a fortnight using London’s new dockless rent-a-bikes

Some Mobikes. mage: Getty.

About a month ago, my loyal bike finally retired in spectacular fashion as I struggled to get up a hill in Clerkenwell. With bloody knees and payday still a long way off, I thought I’d give London’s new dockless rent-a-bikes a go.

Of the various dockless operators that have launched their bikes onto the capital’s cycling scene over the past year, Mobike and Ofo appeared, to me, to be the biggest competitors. Curious and keen to play the field, I decided to test them both out, although by the end of my two-week trial I’d also become aware of similar companies Urbo and Obike – and wouldn’t really be surprised if another had launched before this article is even published.

I found they all provide essentially the same service in essentially the same way. All you need is the relevant app and a bank card, and you’re good to go – simply scanning a QPR code on the bike, which then unlocks it. When you’ve made your journey, you just relock the bike and are automatically charged. It’s brilliantly simple and far more convenient than Boris Bikes, but here are a few things to bear in mind:

Give it the once over before you ride it

The companies’ method of relying on users to report when a bike breaks is far from fool proof. In a rush, I went to ride off on one, only to realise the back wheel was basically mashed. Worst of all, they still charged me, meaning I paid 5p to let them know their bike was unusable. Thanks, Ofo!

Never aim for a bike near a body of water

If you’ve opened your app and seen a conveniently placed bike right next to a canal or a river, just forget about it. The proximity to water and the fact they’re not locked to anything renders the bikes too tempting a target for vandals.

Living right by a canal, this proved a particular sore spot for me – resulting in five minutes spent pacing up and down the same stretch, wondering if I’ve finally lost the plot, only to spot a sad-looking bike at the bottom of the canal.  Take my advice: stick to the landlocked ones.

 
Can you believe the bad luck of these four people who crashed into the Thames? What are the chances?
Image: author’s screenshot.

Always check for a bike, even if you’re out of ‘the zone’

Each company has defined the areas in which it operates, and users will have ‘points’ deducted for parking elsewhere.

Shockingly, people seem not especially fussed by this whole point malarkey, and as such there are bikes to be found all over the place.

I found a Mobike in Ponders End, five miles from the nearest operating area. So no matter where you are in the city, check. The rent-a-bike gods may be smiling down on you.

Make sure you get one with gears

Not all of them have gears. Fine if you just want to cycle alongside your gran as she walks to the shops, but should you actually want to travel anywhere at all, particularly if that place is uphill, then you’re going to need some.

In my weeks using the bikes I didn’t really discover a systematic way of checking for gears via the apps so you just have to find a bike and see for yourself. How quaint.


Bring your own helmet

In fact, bring your own lights as well. Despite vague promises from some of the companies of supplying helmets with the bikes, I am yet to see one attached.

The lights also often don’t work but, because they rely on a dynamo, you need to be actually riding the bike to find this out. Therefore you could end up taking on Euston Road after dark without lights or a helmet. Terrifying stuff.

Keep an eye on the pricing

There’s no denying the bikes are still being far cheaper than public transport alternatives and the Santander Bikes. The pricing system differs between companies and is, as the small print says, subject to change. Mobike recently hiked their prices in Manchester after a spate of vandalism and their website now conveniently omits the cost of renting a bike. When I started my trial, users were charged per 30 minutes of use, it’s now per 20 minutes. I’d recommend checking each time you use the bikes so you don’t get caught out.  

With the weather cheering up, it’s primetime for cycling. If, like me, you’re flirting with rickets after the long winter, getting outside is also a bit of a medical necessity. Dockless bikes’ meteoric rise suggests an Uber-esque clash with regulatory bodies at some point but for now, enjoy. Get your shorts on and take the chance to explore the city.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.