South West Trains has imposed a ban on bicycles during peak times just when bike use is increasing in London following the introduction of the congestion charge.

SWT which is owned by Stagecoach, claims it is taking action because of lack of space during busy commuter times. Its ban comes into force on 11 October 2004.

The ban applies to trains arriving at London Waterloo on weekdays between 07.15 and 10.00 and leaving between 16.45 and 19.00.

One cyclist, Ben Wood, told BBC News Online: " The cyclists I have spoken to that use the trains will be forced to drive to work when the ban takes effect.

"So not only will SWT be losing these passengers' train fare revenues but they will be directly responsible for putting more cars on an already heavily congested road network."

Dave Holiday, a transport expert working with the national cyclists organisation, the CTC, said that instead of banning cyclists from peak times operators should charge them for bringing their bikes on the trains at busy times.

He argues that the combination of crowded trains and this congestion charge would regulate the number of bikes on the trains and eliminate the need for an outright ban.

But Rufus Boyd, SWT commercial director, said: "Our priority has to be paying passengers over cycles stored on trains."

SWT says the decision to impose a ban came after consultation with politicians and cycle groups although cyclists claim the consultation was a sham.

A month before Thameslink also extended its cycle ban on its Bedford-London service.

Despite the attitude of SWT and Thameslink, cycle use is growing and - if Stagecoach and the other private rail companies cannot adapt - the Government will have to take more action to promote bikes and trains as a good, often better, alternative to the private car.

In London, the number of cyclists has soared to its highest level since Transport for London was created.

Despite the poor weather this summer, the bicycle boom continued its upward trend, with a year on year increase of 23% between May/June of 2003 and 2004 on TfL-managed roads.

The increase is also reflected on the roads managed by boroughs throughout London, which show a comparable 19% increase for the same period.

Rose Ades, the Head of the Cycling Centre of Excellence, commented "These results show the benefits of TfL's new focus on cycling, and the programme of measures that has been introduced by the London boroughs and many other organisations. I am delighted that more and more Londoners are discovering the joys, and advantages, of city cycling.

"The reduction in traffic thanks to the congestion charge makes central London a more amenable and safer place to cycle. Cycling as an alternative mode of transport helps improve the health of London and Londoners."