By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Concerns about rail reliability are giving way to a growing bugbear among hard-pressed commuters - overcrowding. And it can only get worse if passenger numbers continue to grow. So what is the answer?
Standing room only... an everyday experience for many commuters
Once again, snow has blighted many a rail journey this week. But one headache for rail passengers that won't go away when temperatures rise in a few weeks is the question of whether there will be a free seat.
Or on the most overcrowded routes, whether there will be space to even get on.
Bristol commuters this week staged a protest about services, partly due to severe overcrowding. And in London, the Evening Standard newspaper has been championing the case of commuters squashed into trains coming in and out of the capital.
How things have changed. After the Hatfield train crash in 2000 and the restrictions that followed, punctuality and cancellations were the key complaints but massive investment has gone some way to address that.
A report due on Monday by Passenger Focus, the national rail consumer watchdog, is expected to highlight overcrowding and price as the key complaints. The group estimates 70,000 people stand every morning on trains coming into London.
Its chief executive Anthony Smith says improvements to punctuality and new rolling stock are partly to blame because they have made the trains a more attractive alternative to congested roads.
An average day on the Tube
He says there's a "double-whammy" of new passengers staying because they are enjoying more trains running on time, plus old passengers using the network more than they did before.
"And in the last decade we haven't had any major boost to the ability of the network to carry more passengers, so it's getting more crowded."
The commercial boom in some UK cities has also generated more commuters, he says. And while fare rises have made the headlines, season tickets - favoured by most of those who travel at peak times - are protected by the government so there is less flexibility.
Nowhere is this national picture illustrated as neatly as in Leeds. The economic renaissance has seen passenger numbers increase by as much as 18% on some lines, while roads in and out of the city have got more congested.
Tim Calow, 46, regularly gets the 5.20pm from Leeds City station to Skipton, which is a 40-minute journey.
"We have about 200 people in a four-carriage train, so there's 50 or so in each carriage. It's extremely full and uncomfortable. You'd be struggling to read a newspaper. But at the moment we all fit and we're not leaving people behind.
"Overcrowding is the key issue on my line. The service is reliable and we have modern trains but there's not any sign of investment to increase capacity."
Travelled between Dartford and London between 1949 and 1971
Designed by Oliver Bulleid
They were too stuffy upstairs and many people stood on the lower deck
The long time it took to get people on and off added to their unpopularity
He fears if numbers continue to grow, people will be left behind on the platform - a scene painfully familiar to people who work in London and Manchester.
Capacity is not a new issue, says rail expert Christian Wolmar, because passenger numbers nationally have been growing for a long time and improved performance in recent years - paid for by tax-payers - is only one reason, along with a rise in affluence and more congested roads.
The answer, he says, is more rolling stock, double-decker trains, longer trains and extended platforms.
"They all have to be paid for by tax-payers," he says. "You can't expect the money raised from fares to pay for them because the investment doesn't get a rate of return from the fare-box and that's been true of railway economics since they started."
Double-decker trains would require costly engineering work to make tracks suitable, he says, so longer trains and more rolling stock are a cheaper short-term option.
Whether the Treasury will put its hand in its pocket will become clear in the summer, when a government white paper on rail funding for the next five years is unveiled.
And with a strong economic and environmental case to make for an effective railway network, it is expected some money for investing in extra capacity will be available.
"The government may be willing to write a cheque for new trains but it will also be keen to put the burden on fare-payers rather than the tax-payers," says Mr Smith. "So pressure on prices will become immense."
It would be at least another two years before new carriages were in use and probably longer for the altered platforms, he adds.
The Association of Train Operating Companies says passenger numbers could increase by as much as 30-40% in the next 10 years, but it says there have already been engineering projects bearing fruit.
Chiltern Railways got together with Network Rail to improve capacity by doubling the track, improving signalling and building two new platforms at Marylebone station in London.
Sophisticated new rolling stock uses infrared technology to count passengers and alert the operator to where new carriages may be required. The improvements mean that although passenger numbers have doubled in the past 10 years, so has the size of the fleet.
South West Trains has redesigned its carriages on suburban routes into London so there are fewer seats - controversially - but more space for passengers and bikes.
It's not as bad as in Bangladesh
Engineering is not the only tool to solve the problem. Simply encouraging passengers to travel outside peak hours can help and some commentators have called for a restructuring of the rail industry in favour of less centralised decision-making.
So will crowding remain a fact of life? Rail civil servant Mike Mitchell was condemned for saying it was unrealistic for people travelling into London in peak hours to be guaranteed a seat, but Mr Wolmar says he had a point.
"I don't think the idea that everyone can have a seat is feasible. You would have to invest so much to meet a demand that happens twice a day.
"There has to be a societal balance about that. Mr Mitchell got slagged off for saying that but technically he's right."
Tim Calow is lucky - his line has nice new comfortable electric trains. He needs to try the 5.08 p.m. from Leeds to Manchester Victoria. It usually has 3 carriages and when it leaves Leeds it is full with many people standing, which only gets worse when we get to Bradford Interchange. The morning train which arrives in Leeds at 07.57 is even worse - like a crowded tube train in London. On 5/12/06 we were promised more seats on these lines but I have not seen any evidence of this.
I use trains to commute into Leeds and Manchester on a regular basis and the overcrowding is severe on peak time services. I have some sympathy for train operators who say that they can't invest in new rolling stock for two short periods of demand each day, but surely longer trains are essential to cope with the demand. A groan can be clearly heard at my local station when a two-carriage train arrives rather than a four-carriage train.
To help even out the peak in passenger numbers, employers should be positively encouraged - or legally obliged - to offer flexible working patterns to all employees unless there is some compelling reason why that's not feasible. I'd be very happy to travel to work different patterns, such as 10am to 6.30pm. Employers should also be supported in offering home working were appropriate. I could easily do much of my job from home and by avoiding the difficult commute, I'd be more productive through the day.
Paul M, Sheffield
I used to commute to London daily. Passengers at the stations before mine on the line ALWAYS had a seat, and people only ended up standing from my station onwards. The problem is the unfairness - we all pay the same whether we have a comfortable seat or risk falling over during a 30 mile journey at high speed.
Want a radical solution? "Standing only" carriages with safety straps to hold onto, for which tickets are charged at half price. Or is that just too much of an acknowledgement that we've returned to the Victorian days of 3rd class rail travel?
Robert Gerrard, Minster, Kent, UK
Overcrowding? Not to mention the environmental impact. Surely it's time for a sea-change in the notion of commuting? There's not much need for many of us to physically travel to work these days when telecommunications can easily save the time and cost (and overcrowding) involved. If only homeworking were more acceptable amongst major employers!
Jon Brain, Brighton (commuting to London), UK
I commute to London on the train, and every morning there is a fight for seats.
Recently I worked in Toronto for about a year, and commuted a similar journey everyday in and out of the city, but on double decker trains during rush hour. I know these are not feasable on all UK lines, but should definately be considered where possible. It works. Rarely did anyone stand.
I visited Japan last September, world renowned for the quality of its railways. Having to stand for journeys of an hour seemed to be normal even outside the rush hour. But their trains are better designed than ours for coping with that!
Mike, Cambridge, UK
Tubes, trains... London's transport is full to capacity every rush hour so when something goes wrong on one line, the extra people using the others makes it hellish.
Often it's impossible to get on my tube in the morning because it's completely full. My record (set last week) is a total of 7 tubes stopping at the station before one turned up with enough space for one more sardine!
There was a better rail service in the 19th Century! My husband travels from Reading to Paddington every day (previously from Hastings to Charing Cross). He like a lot of others, pays nearly £4,000 a year for the privilege of crushing onto a train and standing the whole way, waiting outside stations and crawling into London. The Commuters are a patient lot and try to see the funny side but it is no laughing matter when they leave early in the morning and get home late at night due to the wrong sort of snow, it has been raining, leaves on the line etc etc! Perhaps the shareholders of the train companies and our government should try travelling with the commuters - bet they would soon change their tune!
I pay over £2,500 per year for my season ticket into London. I don't hand over that money to stand on the 40 minute journey. If children under 5 go free unless they take up a seat logically it follows that the ticket price is for a seat not just the journey!
Barry Reynolds, Wickford UK
Train overcrowding will not be solved, because the more seats that are provided the more people will want to use the trains, they are a victim of their own success.
Ive travelled from Reading to London once a week for about 10 years. I always travel from Reading between 7.15 and 8.30 and I have NEVER had a seat. Not once. The cost is now in excess of £30 return
Paul Tollet, Reading
I have just started (since Christmas) commuting into London on South West Trains from Guildford. I have only once so far NOT got a seat. I had feared the worst but so far, to my pleasant surprise, the service has been excellent.
Simon, Guildford, UK
complaints about standing from people who choose to live a long distance from their work. Presumably the decision to live that distance away was made for lifestyle reasons, rather than practical ones; now commuters must understand there are always compromises to make - this is theirs.
Eliot, Dubai (late of UK)
Why doesn't the government scrap the plans for road pricing, put up the price of petrol and then use the funds to actually invest in a rail network that is more comfortable to travel on and better for the environment.
I used to commute from Reading to London Paddington (2003) on a daily basis and provided you travelled before 7.30am or after 8.30am you had more than a 50% chance of getting a seat. My partner still commutes to London and now, especially with First Great Western's timetable change and shortening of some key trains, my partner has to travel before 7am just to be able to physically get on a train!! Most trains are now full and standing before they reach Reading. At a cost of nearly £4000 a year, this is outrageous.
I am lucky to get ON the train, let alone a seat.
Often I have to scream 'Can you move down, please.' several times to no avail. This results in me watching 2 or 3 trains going passed completely full with no room for the people at my station or any others.
I pay alot of money for a ticket yet I cant even get on the train.
I've heard the argument that the packed trains (I've seen full sardine tins with more room) are safer but tell that to the pregnant lady who was so crushed she feared for her unborn child's life (and tried to get off to no avail). What about the other people I've seen fainting from the crowd's pressure (there wasn't enough room for them to fall on the floor)?
These are just some of the issues I see and I'm sure there's many more that prove that the safety aspect is obviously relative.
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