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  1. Analysis
November 17, 2014

Rail overcrowding: rescuing the London commuter

Overcrowding on London’s rail network is not a new problem, but the stakes are high and new capacity is urgently required to ease commuters’ woes. Passenger Focus rail passenger manager Guy Dangerfield discusses the mixture of innovative ideas and old-fashioned capital investment required to tackle a key component of the UK capital’s brewing transport crisis.

By Chris Lo

rail crowd

"London’s poor don’t live in Harrow Road, they live in Enfield and Tolworth and if you can’t get them to jobs they want, your city’s going to be in a bad way: it’s not going to progress and contribute to national economic growth. The stakes are pretty high. If you’re not able to increase transport capacity, and people find accessing work impossible, you risk social unrest. You can expect trouble."

Those were the words of London’s transport commissioner Sir Peter Hendy in an interview with The Guardian in September this year. It’s no surprise to hear that the continued explosive population growth in the Greater London area – pegged at around 80,000 new residents a year, with the UK capital expected to reach a population of ten million by 2030 – is putting a huge strain on the city’s commuter rail network. Still, hearing the man at the head of Transport for London to warn of riots if London’s transport crisis isn’t urgently addressed is a sober reminder that in the city’s transport story, to borrow Hendy’s words, the stakes are high.

Working to minimise the perennial issue of overcrowding on London’s transport network is a key component in making the city’s transport accessible and justifying the expense of rising ticket prices. Claustrophobic conditions on many of London’s rush hour commuter services are evidence enough that there’s a lot of work left to be done, and the impression presented by tightly packed trains is backed up by hard data, with the Department for Transport’s most recent overcrowding statistics showing that the vast majority of the UK’s most crowded services are on routes into and out of London.

"We recognise that some services remain crowded and understand people’s frustration when they cannot get a seat," said a spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representative of Network Rail and UK rail operators, which are promising to increase peak-hour seats in and around major cities by "almost a third" over the next five years. To get a closer look at the crowding situation on London’s rail network, as well as capacity building programmes like Crossrail and Thameslink, we spoke to Guy Dangerfield, rail passenger manager at transport watchdog Passenger Focus.

Chris Lo: Do you think overcrowding is the most important day-to-day issue for London commuters?

Guy Dangerfield: We’ve just finished some research into passengers’ priorities for improvement, and for London, passengers being able to get a seat on the train is the second highest priority for improvement. The top priority for improvement is value for money, of which crowding plays a part as well. But at face value it’s not at the top, but the second.

Value for money is about price, but it’s also about the core elements of what you’re getting for your money. So it’s about punctuality and reliability, it’s about whether you got a seat, it’s about whether you were treated as a paying customer during disruption – those kinds of things contribute to passengers’ perceptions of value for money.

CL: How would you rate rail operators’ efforts to keep up with passenger numbers in London?

GD: The way in which any train operating company can address capacity is all bound up with what has been specified in its franchise, and what government specified in the five-year funding period, so really it is down to what has been purchased by the state on the passengers’ behalf for any particular area. I think the general point to make about London train operators – although the trend is bucked by one or two – is commuters are pretty hard to please. Nobody likes paying thousands of pounds just for the privilege of going to work.

CL: What’s your assessment of the current commitment shown to tackling overcrowding in London?

GD: The fact is there is a huge amount of investment going into additional capacity in London and the South East. There’s Crossrail, there’s Thameslink, there’s additional coaches on all sorts of routes, and of course at the margins, in terms of London and South East commuting, the whole premise of HS2 is about increasing capacity on the network. So it would be foolish to deny there is a vast amount of capital going into the future.

The question can always be asked: could it be going further; could it be going faster? Who knows? There are lots of routes where there are plans. There are some, of course, where they have not yet got their slice of the investment pie, as it were, and those passengers understandably will want their turn in due course. But it would be wrong to think that there isn’t anything going on when everywhere you look there’s concrete mixers at the moment.

CL: Do you think upcoming large-scale projects like Crossrail and Thameslink will put capacity ahead of demand, or just bring it in line with ridership levels as they are?

GD: I think that’s impossible to say because the moment it’s there it will create journey opportunities that perhaps aren’t really practical, or competitive with other modes. It’s like all these things – they thought the M25 would be big enough when it was built, didn’t they? I guess you can only answer that question with hindsight.

CL: What level of investment do you expect is required to minimise small but disruptive problems?

GD: That’s a very important point, because for many passengers the worst crowding experiences they will have in are actually when the previous train is cancelled and you have two lots of passengers on one train, or indeed there is just general disruption going on where you might get two or more trains worth of passengers on one train. We would argue that there is a continuing need to focus on that day-to-day delivery of proper on-time punctuality and running all the trains with the right number of coaches, because at the end of the day that train plan has been developed with a certain number of coaches because that’s what’s required to move the people. So if it has gaps in it or certain trains aren’t running to their full lengths, then inevitably passengers will suffer.

CL: Has the goal of allowing every commuter a seat, even on peak services, become unrealistic at this point?

GD: I think the desire for people to get a seat for a journey of more than Tube length is still there, and will remain. As something to be achieved wherever reasonably practicable, it shouldn’t be lost. But if we want to maintain a walk-up railway where passengers can choose which trains they go on, there is to some degree an inevitability that more people will turn up for a particular train than there are seats on it. So it’s not going to be something that is easy to eradicate, and nor necessarily would all passengers be willing to pay the price of doing so, whether as passengers or taxpayers. But it shouldn’t be lost as an objective wherever reasonably practical.

CL: Should rail operators and public authorities be thinking more creatively or radically about dealing with overcrowding?

GD: I think there should remain a long-term focus on building capacity, whether that be through lengthening existing trains or building infrastructure that allows more trains to run in any given time period. So I don’t think we will ever get away from the fact that good old-fashioned capital expenditure is a key part of this, but it is well worth the industry looking at the practicality of incentivising people to travel outside the absolutely highest peak hours, for example.

I express it that way because what we are not content with is the idea that those who need to travel in high-peak should pay a premium for doing so. We argue that on a number of grounds, including that they may very well be those with the least choice as to what time their employer requires them at their desk, and may well be those on lesser salaries than those who can be a bit more flexible. However, the idea of offering people incentives to move out of the high peak would seem to be perfectly reasonable. So it’s carrot rather than stick, as it were.

Now, whether it will actually make a huge difference only time will tell, but it’s well worth looking at, and I think the experience of London 2012, where it was possible through information campaigns and general awareness to encourage people to avoid particular stations where interchange was going to be problematic, is worth exploring too. But [that must happen] alongside continuing commitment to increasing capacity through longer trains and higher frequencies.

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