How do we tackle overcrowding?

Britain’s railways are booming. Passengers numbers have gone up by 40 per cent in the past ten year, and there is no sign of let up in the growth. The trouble is that there has been only a 15 per cent increase in the number of trains during that time which means that the railways are becoming increasingly overcrowded. There are daily tales of people having to travel in toilets and corridors or standing for lengthy journeys. Indeed, there are so many people trying to cram on to trains that some operators have lengthened their schedules to accommodate them.

The main reason for the increase is that Britain’s successful economy. People always flock onto the trains when incomes are rising and growing congestion on the roads has also meant more people turning to the railways. New investment on the railways needs time to bear fruit, whether the money is spent on new trains, longer platforms or extra tracks. The railways, therefore, face a dilemma about how to accommodate more people onto the trains.

What can be done about Britain’s overcrowded railways?

Sardine Man, who has been travelling on Britain’s most overcrowded trains on behalf of pressure group Transport 2000

If we’re to make ‘sardine tin’ train conditions a thing of the past, we need longer trains and platform, more frequent services, and upgraded tracks, stations and signalling – and we need them now! It’s not rocket science, but it does need commitment from Government. Despite massive growth in train passenger numbers in recent years, the Government has been operating a ‘no growth’ programme for the railways. And with the average franchise length at seven years, the rail operators have little incentive to invest in infrastructure improvements. This urgently needs to change. If you’re as ‘fished off’ as I am about the cod-awful overcrowding on our trains, head to where you can send an email to your MP.

Roger Ford, technical editor Modern Railways

There’s no getting round it – they have to lay down more tracks and pour more concrete. It may seem expensive, but it is the only way. If four tracks are not enough, then they have to build a couple more. It may mean compulsory purchase or widening tunnels, but it is the only way to do it. At pinchpoints like Reading, they need flying junctions, railway flyovers like you have at busy roundabouts. Flat junctions mean lots of delays which are simply not acceptable. And, of course, you need longer trains and longer platforms. There is no technical fix with signalling, either. Even if you have in-cab signalling, such as the ERTMS system, it will not increase capacity on a mixed use railway.

Professor David Begg, former chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport

Britain needs a high speed line. It’s the most efficient way to add sufficient capacity. If you start trying to expand existing lines, it proves to be very expensive, as we discovered on the West Coast Main Line. A new line should run up to Birmingham and then have spurs to both Manchester and Leeds. And the best way of regenerating the North would be to run a high speed line between those two conurbations.

Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of Passenger Focus, Which Represents Rail Passengers

Obviously in the long term, you need more trains and longer trains. But in the short term, you can use pricing sensibly, by trying to attract people away from the peaks. That does mean whacking up peak fares but, instead, trying to tempt people away by offering cheaper fares at off peak times. In other words, tempt them off, don’t force them off. The nuclear option is to put fares up so much that people will stop using the trains, but obviously we do not support that!

Business Development Director of Virgin Trains Tim Shoveller

More people are travelling by rail and that’s a success story. But success turns to failure if trains become overcrowded. Cheap off-peak fares encourage people to occupy seats that would otherwise be empty, instead of joining trains that are already full. But investment is also needed to provide more capacity. For example, Virgin is working with Network Rail to run trains more frequently from January 2009 on the West Coast Main Line, offering an extra 13 million seats a year. We also hope to add coaches to the Pendolino trains to provide another 14 million seats annually.

However, pricing to move people between trains and investment to add capacity may not be the only ways to avoid overcrowding. For example, the introduction of Wi-Fi may encourage people to travel off-peak because they can start work on the train instead of waiting until they are in their office!

George Muir, Director General of the Association of Train Operating Companies

The government’s recently announced commitment to obtain 1,000 additional train carriages from 2009 is welcome news as this additional capacity will enable train operators to provide more seats and more and longer trains on the busiest parts of the network. We badly need these additional trains and we need to get them quickly. We now need to see the government’s plans for more investment in the track and infrastructure later this year. More capacity will also help rail fulfil its environmental objectives. Rail has reduced its average emissions per passenger kilometre by an estimated 22 per cent.

Christian Wolmar’s history of the railways, Fire and Steam, will be published in September

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