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We need a plan to tackle overcrowding

Former campaigner's picture

New statistics on rail overcrowding make grim reading for commuters across the country. The Government must commit to new long term funding to increase capacity and help the railways continue to grow.

Commiserations to passengers who regularly catch Govia Thameslink's 7am Brighton to London service. Last year, this train was officially the most overcrowded service in the country. By the time it reached Blackfriars the train, which has space for 420 people was actually carrying 933 people - well over 200 per cent its official capacity. 

In the last 20 years, the railways have seen year on year growth in passenger numbers as more and more people come to rely on the train. Our railways famously carry as many people now as in Victorian times, and on a network a third smaller. But the stark reality is that the network is beginning to creak at the seams. 

Over 1 million people arrive in central London by rail each weekday, the majority of them during the morning or evening rush. One in five of those who arrive at these times will have to stand and nearly 60 per cent of train services at these times cannot offer a seat to all those who have paid for one. In peak periods at Blackfriars, 35 per cent of passengers on trains have to stand, 32 per cent do the same at Moorgate, and 31 per cent at Waterloo.

Although the capital is worst affected, this is far from just being a London problem. Across the country, last year the average morning peak commuter train accommodated 5 per cent more passengers than the Government has deemed it acceptable for them to carry - that's 5 per cent more people crammed on even when all of the standing room has been officially taken. 

There is no sign of the crush easing. Nearly all major cities across England and Wales saw an increase in inbound passenger numbers last year. With factors like property prices and job locations continuing to pull people toward rail commuting, passenger numbers are not leveling out. 

Rail users pay handsomely for their discomfort, too. The record-setting Brighton to London commuters pay over £4000 for an annual season ticket (a lot more if they rely on monthly or weekly tickets) - an eye-watering sum which has risen around £700 since 2010. For an industry long painted as subsidy-hungry, revenue from ticket sales is expected to exceed the running costs of the railways in the near future. 

Paying through the nose to be crammed on like sardines, outraged passengers have every right to demand improvements. So, what are the Government and the train operators doing to give them better services? Big investment is going into rail. New rolling-stock, station overhauls, electrification projects and new infrastructure like Crossrail are beginning to come on stream. The trouble is, a mixture of Network Rail's historic project management failures, budget hungry schemes like HS2 and Crossrail 2 and a tough public spending environment threaten to starve the network of investment just when it needs it most. 

The Government is currently considering its spending plans for rail from 2019. We will be campaigning for current levels of investment to be maintained and for passengers to get a much bigger say about how the money is spent - including through reform of franchising. In the immediate term, there are also some simple things that can be done to reduce the pressure on rush hour services - starting with honouring the promise of season ticket discounts for part time workers, which could help tackle overcrowding and make rail travel more affordable, too.

Our railways are bursting at the seams and risk becoming a victim of their own success. As the countless thousands of commuters who rely on them will testify, our rail network needs a clear and well-resourced plan for the future. 


Image by RPM via Flikr.


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