Overcrowding far outstripping capacity under rail privatisation

New figures from the Department for Transport reveal that peak rail services are running well over capacity, as overcrowding reaches ever higher levels under rail privatisation. The figures present a ‘top 10′ list of overcrowded train services in the Spring and Autumn of last year – 2015, with Govia Thameslink’s 7am service from Brighton to Bedford (via London Blackfriars) topping the list on both occasions.

In Autumn last year, Transpennine Express’ 04:22 service from Glasgow Central to Manchester Airport (via Manchester) came next, followed by Transpennine’s 16:00 and 18:00 services from Manchester Airport to Edinburgh Waverley. These were followed by Govia’s 08:02 service from Beckenham Junction to Bedford (via London), and London Midland’s 17:46 service from London Euston to Crewe.

To illustrate more clearly, the most overcrowded service on both occasions – Govia’s 7am train from Brighton to Bedford, was recorded in Autumn last year as having 540 passengers in excess of its capacity, which is 129 per cent over the limit. At its most overcrowded point – at London Blackfriars at 08.20, the service had 960 passengers on a train that had seating/standing room for 420.

Overall, the DfT’s figures show that the ‘top 10’ overcrowded services in Spring 2015 were between 60 per cent and 122 per cent over their passenger capacity, and the ‘top 10’ overcrowded services in Autumn 2015 were between 61 per cent and 129 per cent over their capacity. The figures underline the frustration faced by many passengers as they face a daily commute to work on increasingly overcrowded services, paying rail fares that rise year-on-year.

The DfT’s figures also provide a picture of crowding and rail passenger numbers on weekdays in major cities in England and Wales in 2015. They show that on a typical weekday there were 581,400 passengers arriving into London during the morning peak, an increase of 3.2 per cent since 2014, while Birmingham, the city with the next largest number of arrivals, had 42,900.

These stats show that London Blackfriars had the highest morning peak crowding level of all major London stations, with 14.7 per cent of services holding passengers in excess of capacity, a rise of 4.1 per cent from 2014. It is not a surprise that Transport Focus’ latest National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) shows that only 52 per cent of commuters were satisfied with having sufficient room for all to sit/stand on the train, which is one of the biggest drivers of passenger dissatisfaction.

Of course, train companies may celebrate rising passenger numbers, though as we have argued previously – there is no evidence of a causal link between passenger growth and privatisation. Growth in rail passenger journeys is driven by three key factors that have nothing to do with train operating companies – long-term growth in GDP; changing commuting patterns as employment has concentrated in major urban areas, particularly in London and the South East; and increasing motoring costs. The increase in passenger growth on the UK railways has also been stimulated by the much larger increase in public subsidy since privatisation.

What may be particularly galling about overcrowding to passengers and taxpayers is both the lack of proper capacity on train services to cope with passenger levels, as well as the lack of value for money. The latter is represented in ever higher rail fares and significant taxpayer subsidies, but which result in services that are substandard at best, or completely unsatisfactory. Passengers travelling on GTR Southern’s services is one current example, where overcrowded services have been increasingly delayed, cancelled or reduced, while the company is proposing to close more ticket offices, remove guards from trains and extend driver only operations, making the situation much worse and raising serious safety implications.

Under privatisation  – there have been decades of under-investment in rolling stock. The average age of trains is now 20.2 years across the country, compared to 16 years at the time of privatisation. If you live outside of the South East, the situation is even worse, with the average age of trains being 22.6 years, or worse still 36.3 years for Merseyrail.

Research commissioned by Action for Rail last year showed that public ownership could save £1.5bn if the lines up for renewal this parliament were taken back into public ownership. The savings could be passed onto passengers and taxpayers – season tickets  and other regulated fares could be 10 per cent cheaper from 2017. A third of the savings (£520m) would come from recouping the money private train companies pay in dividends to their shareholders. Such a system would enable a proper, long-term and sustainable approach to addressing capacity in the railways, alongside fare levels and funding for investment.