The Last Word

31.08.16

Rail is at risk of becoming a victim of its own success

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 16

Andy Allen, policy analyst at the Campaign for Better Transport, considers the recently published overcrowding figures and the need for action to tackle the issue, as the railways are bursting at the seams and risk becoming a victim of their own success.

In July, the DfT published its annual statistics on rail overcrowding. They make grim reading for commuters across the country. With the Southern Rail saga still rumbling on, can the railways get enough train and track infrastructure in place to cope with demand? 

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 trains. 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 one 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% of train services at these times cannot offer a seat to all those who have paid for one. In peak periods at Blackfriars, 35% of passengers on trains have to stand, 32% do the same at Moorgate, and 31% 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% more passengers than the government has deemed it acceptable for them to carry – that’s 5% more people crammed on even when all of the standing room has been officially taken. 

No sign of the crush easing 

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 levelling out. 

Big investment continues to go into the railways with grand projects like Crossrail and London Bridge, and the promise of capacity increases courtesy of the digital railway. More trains are coming on stream, too. As has been reported, in the 10 years either side of 1994, British Rail and the newly-privatised railway each ordered 5,000 passenger vehicles. Today, nearly that number is due to arrive in just five years and the cost of leasing them is falling because borrowing rates are currently so low.

Right to demand change 

Much of this investment will not bear fruit for some years, but the record demand is here already. The kind of mess that creates is neatly encapsulated at GTR, which on top of everything else operates some of the most overcrowded trains on the whole network. Last year, by the time the 7am Brighton to London service reached Blackfriars it was carrying well over 200% its official capacity. Its sardine-like passengers are paying handsomely for their discomfort, too. Next January’s increase in regulated fares will take a Brighton to London season ticket to over £4,500 – an increase of over £200 since GTR took over the franchise in 2014, and nearly £750 more than in 2010. 

Southern offers a distinctly sobering image of the future where passenger numbers and fares continue to rise while satisfaction and reliability head in the opposite direction. Outraged passengers have every right to demand change. 

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. It is encouraging that the new Anglia franchise will do just this from 2017. 

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, the network needs a clear and well-resourced plan for the future. Will the government find the money to deliver it?

'Southern offers a distinctly sobering image of the future where passenger numbers and fares continue to rise while satisfaction and reliability head in the opposite direction.'

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

Comments

Peter Jarvis   01/10/2016 at 19:28

Even the tiny Ffestiniog Railway in Wales is building two new carriages a year into the indefinite future. At peak periods they are having to use compartment stock of the 1870s: mind you, with gold leaf and buttoned leather, these are rather out of the class of some other overcrowded lines.

Stewart Bridge   22/11/2016 at 14:50

What happened to working at home using Skype etc.?

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