Select Committee on Transport Seventh Report


24. Overcrowding on the railway is the manifestation of many underlying problems; lack of track capacity, a flawed franchising structure, a substandard and unreliable network, a lack of vehicles, or the choice of inappropriate train formations. In many ways, the heavy rail system is the area where overcrowding is most acute, and the problem is not being treated with anything like sufficient urgency. A recent Parliamentary Answer shows that overcrowding levels in London in the peak periods fell in 2002; however even with this fall, overcrowding remained higher than in 1998 and 1999.[33]

Measuring overcrowding

25. One of the first problems is that there is no simple way to measure overcrowding on trains. Buses, boats and planes all have maximum loading; seats are booked in advance. In contrast, trains are designed to run at full capacity; that is, when it becomes physically impossible to squeeze in another customer. This level of crowding may or may not be safe (we deal with safety later) but it is clearly unacceptable to subject passengers to loading levels described in evidence to us as "sardines" or "crush loading".[34] But it is equally clear that while the proper capacity of an intercity train may simply be the number of seats, commuter trains can and do accommodate standing passengers without necessarily being overcrowded.

26. The method for calculating the capacity of a train was explained by the Rail Passenger Council as follows:

    "For journeys of more than 20 minutes, capacity equals the number of Standard Class seats.

    For journeys of less than 20 minutes, capacity is the number of seats available on the train plus 10% standing in slam door trains.

    Currently, for sliding-door trains, the capacity threshold is one passenger per 0.45m2 of the floor area of the carriage, whether occupied by a seat or not. To calculate capacity, the number of seats are counted (each taken to occupy 0.45m2) and the total seat area is subtracted from the total floor area to give the area available for standing passengers - e.g. for a sliding-door carriage of 45m2 with 50 seats, allowance is made for 50 standing passengers."[35]

27. The SRA described the method of estimating capacity for journeys under 20 minutes slightly differently, but it was clear that for modern rolling stock floor area was the usual determinant of capacity. The SRA's measures are:

    "for slam door stock 110% of the number of standard class seats; and

    for most sliding door stock the number of standard class seats plus the number of people who can stand at a density of 0.55 m2 per passenger.

    If an operator proposes to use rolling stock whose internal layout is radically different from that of existing vehicles, the figure of 0.55 m2 may not be appropriate. In such cases, we will consider what alternative criterion to apply." [36]

28. On commuter routes, it may be more important to ensure that vehicles are designed to allow passengers to stand in safety and comfort rather than to provide as many seats as possible. We were told that some companies are designing carriages specifically to cope with standing passengers, and the Chair of the London Transport Users Committee supported this.[37] Even doing something as simple as ensuring official capacity levels reflected the vehicle's design would act as a further incentive for Train Operating Companies to ensure their vehicles were properly designed to cope with standing passengers.

29. It is absurd that the normal way of calculating capacity does not take into account the detail of carriage design. It is reasonable to expect some standing in commuter trains, but capacity should not be set by a purely arbitrary measure of the amount of floor space per passenger. It should be set carriage type by carriage type, taking account of the seats provided, and the provision made for passengers to stand in comfort with adequate hand holds.


30. Train operators in the South East, in Edinburgh and in PTE areas have their performance monitored according to Passengers in Excess of Capacity (PIXC). Broadly speaking they are penalised for running services above the PIXC limit; in south east commuter services that is 4.5% above capacity for either morning or evening peak alone or 3% for both peaks combined. The SRA described the way in which PIXC was measured as follows:

Train 1 capacity 800 actual load 750passengers in excess 0 (not 50)
Train 2 capacity 800actual load 850 passengers in excess 50
both trains capacity 1,600 actual load 1,600 passengers in excess 50 (not 0)

    25. The measure is always used in connection with groups of trains (eg. routes, TOCs, etc) and is normally taken at defined count points. It is then expressed as a percentage (the total number of passengers in excess of capacity on the trains being considered, divided by the total number of passengers on the trains). Thus in the example above, PIXC is 50 divided by 1,600 or 3.1%. Because the morning peak is more concentrated than the evening peak, and because of peaking within the peak, PIXC is not uniform.

However, as the RPC pointed out, the PIXC measure has many disadvantages:

  • Capacity measures are themselves unsatisfactory;
  • Manual counts may be inaccurate;
  • PIXC only applies to London and Scottish commuter routes at peak times, not across the system;
  • PIXC is calculated across the whole of a Train Operating Company's area, rather than on particular routes;
  • Cancelled or short formation trains are counted as part of the capacity provided;
  • Overcrowding is only monitored once a year.[39]

31. The SRA's evidence indicates that PIXC is not quite so crudely calculated, but it is clear that it is an aggregated measure. This is not unreasonable; as the SRA says

    "In practice it is not always possible to keep loadings within … capacities:
  • because loadings vary considerably from day to day and TOCs currently operate a walk-on service with no boarding restrictions; and
  • because demand within the peak periods peaks strongly at certain times." [40]

32. We agree with the Rail Passengers Council that the current monitoring regime is fundamentally flawed. It is absurd to count only yearly: regular monitoring is required. The measure should be of real overcrowding on real routes. The practice of calculating overcrowding in relation to the programmed service rather than the frequently inadequate service actually provided should stop.

33. The fact that rail companies combine different routes when overcrowding is measured significantly reduces the scale of the problem reported. For example, in 2002, Connex South Eastern had an aggregated PIXC level of 2.3%, well within the SRA's threshold. This hides the fact that the Kent Coast (Outer) Route had a PIXC level of 5.2%, and was severely overcrowded, even on the SRA's own inadequate measure. Similar disparities between the different routes controlled by a single Train Operating Company occurred in the Great Eastern, Silverlink and (in the morning peak) Thameslink areas.[41] Overcrowding should be measured on particular routes, not at the level of the franchise as a whole. The current system both significantly understates the true level of crowding, and fails to ensure that management attention is concentrated on the particular routes where problems are worst.

34. We understand that commuter rail offers a walk-on service. Train operators may be unable to prevent gross overcrowding on particular services. But PIXC is calculated on all services across the relevant network. It should even out disparities between trains. A train's capacity is already calculated to include both standing and seated passengers. It is intolerable that the performance regime currently in place does not begin to bite until this capacity is significantly exceeded, not at the level of the individual train, but across a franchise as a whole.

35. For all their inadequacies, even the current systems of calculating overcrowding reveal unacceptable levels of service. When we took evidence, we were told that the total level of passengers above capacity in London and the South East at the morning peak was 5%.[42] This has since got better, as more spaces have been introduced, but three operators are still above the SRA's threshold. In Yorkshire PIXC was 9.0% in the morning peak, and 5.3% in the evening peak.[43] These figures of course relate to the service which ought to run, rather the one actually provided. Real crowding is worse. Capacity counts conducted by the Rail Passengers Committee for the Northwest also showed gross overcrowding across many routes.

36. The Parliamentary Answer of 26th June considered that "overcrowding is primarily a problem in London in the peak periods". This does not accord with the evidence we were given, which suggested overcrowding was a problem in many of our urban areas. The SRA defended its decision not to require capacity counts across the system on the grounds that counting imposed costs on operators, and was best used only when necessary.[44] We would have more sympathy with this view if it had not clearly led to a perception in government that overcrowding on the rail network is a South Eastern problem.

37. We are pleased that the SRA is encouraging more use of automatic passenger counting systems, which will provide accurate and continuous monitoring once they have been installed, but it is clear that it will be some time before this is universal.[45]

38. The SRA's past reluctance to demand capacity counts may be connected with the difficulties it would face in dealing with any crowding they revealed. Specifying a higher quality of service would almost inevitably have involved a higher level of subsidy.[46] Some witnesses were concerned that the penalty structure in current franchises might make it cheaper for an operating company to cancel a train than to run a short formation.[47] We recognise that existing franchise agreements cannot be unilaterally rewritten. Although new franchises are being let, some franchises still have many years to run, and it will take time to reform the system completely. However, there are encouraging signs that the new franchise agreements will contain measures to reduce overcrowding. The draft agreements contain provisions which contain a requirement on the franchisee to implement an automatic system for counting passengers, which in itself will give far more information about the true levels of crowding. Companies will also be required to provide the SRA with a train plan, which takes account of current and projected demand, and the SRA will be able to assess the adequacy of that plan before timetables are finalised. There are provisions to deal with failure to provide the service specified. The franchise provisions have not yet been fully negotiated; it is important that these provisions are not diluted. We expect the new franchises to have real penalties for both cancellations and short formations, and to ensure that those penalties are set appropriately.

Rolling Stock

39. It is far from clear that the levels of service currently specified can be delivered. In our inquiry into Railways in the North of England, it became clear that there were simply no carriages available to allow Arriva Trains Northern the numbers it required.[48] This is the outward manifestation of several more complex underlying problems. The first is the under specification of the original franchises already discussed. Not only was the West Yorkshire stock cap reached on the first year the franchise operated, but the West Midlands rolling stock cap has also been reached.[49] There is no-one with responsibility for ensuring that adequate stock is provided in these circumstances; instead, the Passenger Transport Executives have to try and scrape together funding from sources such as the Rail Passenger Partnership.

40. The result of this underspecification and underfunding is that too much of the rolling stock on our railways is unsuitable and elderly. Moreover, there is no suitable back-up available when a carriage breaks down, so problems quickly escalate. Overcrowding cannot be tackled unless there is enough rolling stock readily available to replace defective vehicles promptly.

41. The fact that new vehicles are being delivered on some franchises should, in principle, release older stock to others. However, there are considerable problems in this. New stock will only solve the problems of peak hour crowding if it can be used flexibly. Recent orders of fixed car sets which cannot be combined with other manufacturers' existing or new trains suggest that the need for flexibility to cope with fluctuations in demand has not been given sufficient attention. In addition, it is unclear who should manage the cascade of vehicles through a network which contains profit-making franchises, subsidized franchises and franchises run on a tight management contract. Secondly, there are too many types of train in the system. Some operators are already operating a considerable mix of vehicles; more vehicles of the "wrong" kind will not help them. We were told that it is not always easy to redeploy trains round the network.[50] In addition, the costs of obtaining the extra vehicles needed to deal with peak demand are far greater than the revenue those trains will generate.[51]


42. In general, Train Operating Companies lease the carriages they require from one of the Rolling Stock Operating Companies (ROSCOs) which emerged from the privatisation of the railways. The three ROSCOs are Angel Trains, owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland; Porterbrook Leasing, owned by Abbey National Treasury Services; and HSBC trains, owned by the HSBC group. It is notable that there has been no real new entrant to the market since our predecessor Committee last took evidence from the ROSCOs in 1997; the only non-ROSCO order has been placed for the Heathrow Express.

43. At the outset, companies wished to identify themselves through distinctive, customized trains. Although the ROSCOs have made some speculative train orders, the bulk of their investment has been to fulfil the requirements of particular companies. It is notable that where ROSCOs have made speculative purchases, they have readily found companies to lease the rolling stock.[52] It appears likely that shorter franchise periods will lead to greater standardisation of rolling stock in the future. Mr Francis of Porterbrook told us "I do not actually want 20-year leases to require me to invest in trains, unless it is something of a very specialist nature; and it comes back to the point about investing in products that are evolved and are fairly versatile".[53]

44. The SRA supported these developments, but was reluctant to interfere too much in the market since "we are in the business of specifying outputs, not the inputs required to deliver them".[54] The Train Operating Companies "are the organisations which have the facing against the customer, the passengers, they know what the market requirement is, in terms of the kind of rolling stock and the facilities on those trains, it is absolutely appropriate that they are the ones that manage the process, carry out the procurement, arrange the contracts, and that is what is happening." [55]

45. This might have been tenable when the policy was to award long franchises, and, within broad parameters, leave TOCs to manage services as they saw fit. But in November last year, the SRA issued a new franchising policy statement. Franchises would be far shorter, and performance standards would be extremely tightly specified and monitored. In those circumstances, TOCs are unlikely to take much risk on rolling stock, particularly as it was confirmed that leasing costs for short franchises are proportionately higher than for long ones.[56]

46. Mr Haydn Abbott, Managing Director of Angel Trains, was entirely clear both that the SRA was, in reality, the guarantor of contracts with TOCs, and that it was closely involved in the leasing process. He told the Committee:

    "the Strategic Rail Authority is actively involved in each and every contract that we sign with each and every TOC, because (a) we have a Direct Agreement which is in parallel with the lease agreement, we have a Direct Agreement with the Strategic Rail Authority, and the Strategic Rail Authority sees and agrees, and indeed very often changes, every single lease that we sign with a Train Operating Company".[57]

47. It is entirely right that the SRA should take a close interest in the arrangements its franchisees make to lease trains. We believe it should go much further, and ensure that franchisees order train types which can be widely used across the network. This is already happening to some extent, as the SRA has played a leading role in specifying the replacement for the High Speed Train, even though it has left design details to the final customers. As the Chairman said "it does not make sense to buy three or four lots of replacement trains, it does make sense to have a strategic review, and I do not think anybody doubts that."[58]

48. In the longer term, there must be a question as to whether the SRA could or should take a greater role in train procurement. The SRA explained that it devolved operational decisions to the franchise holders because they were responsible for providing the service and best placed to decide what they required.[59] However, the new franchises are to be shorter and far more tightly defined than the old ones. Our witnesses were positive that it was possible to obtain leased rolling stock even on short franchises[60]. They were guarded about the effect of short franchises on the cost of leasing rolling stock, but the SRA eventually told us that "generally lease rentals have fallen with increased lease length." [61] We take this to mean that short leases are likely to be proportionately more expensive than longer ones. It may be easier to take a view after some operational experience of the new franchises, but the SRA should examine the extent to which it would be possible to drive down costs by taking a more active role in train procurement.

49. The current fragmented procurement structure leaves Train Operating Companies to take their own decisions, but there has been no certainty that those decisions will produce working trains. South West Trains and South Central each ordered new rolling stock to replace their Mark 1 rolling stock. Modern trains with air conditioning, heavier engines and more "redundancy" require more power than the Mark 1s which they replace.[62] It is now apparent that the full complement of trains will not be able to run until the power supply is upgraded. The problem is being temporarily contained by delaying the delivery of trains,[63] but in the long term, it is entirely possible that the rolling stock companies will be obliged to accept trains which cannot run because the electricity supply has not been upgraded. At that point, someone will have to pay.[64] The failure to identify the need for improvements involved all parties; private companies failed to specify their needs correctly, or to ensure that new trains could run on the track available; it would be wholly unacceptable if the taxpayer had to pick up the bill.

50. The ROSCOs told us that although it was not their responsibility to ensure the rolling stock they provided could run on the network, they had discussed the need to strengthen the network with the Train Operating Companies.[65] But, as Mr Francis, Managing Director of Porterbrook Leasing Company, made clear, these discussions were taking place at the time when Railtrack was still 'scoping' the size of the problem.[66] Mr Aldridge, Mr Francis and Mr Abbott eventually agreed that Railtrack was ultimately responsible - "it was their duty to provide the infrastructure on which these trains would run, knowing full well that the older trains, which consume less power, would have to come out of service by December 31, 2004."[67] Mr Abbott made the point that this inability to see that new trains would require infrastructure changes was not unprecedented.[68] However, the Train Operating Companies were also responsible for the procurement; they cannot escape responsibility.

51. The SRA ultimately intervened over the power supply for the Mark 1 rolling stock. Mr Bowker told us:

    "when I did arrive I was appalled at the state of this particular programme. We have set up a project team, there is now cross-industry buy into it, there is a single plan, which is managed very aggressively, and we are getting on with it, to the point where I can tell the Committee that some 230 new vehicles are in service, I think the first power sub­station has already been built and will be installed shortly".[69]

It is notable that the SRA had to step in to resolve this problem, rather than Network Rail itself.

52. The SRA has a duty to draw up a Rolling Stock Strategy: it should do so as a matter of urgency. The United Kingdom needs a modern railway fleet, which contains vehicles which can be cascaded when necessary, and is large enough to provide the service required. It is clear that the rail "market" as currently structured cannot provide it without intervention. The SRA must intervene to ensure the necessary stock is provided where it is needed.

Network Capacity


53. We were also told that the lack of network capacity was making overcrowding worse, since it led to delays and service disruption. Faced with a choice of an overcrowded train which is standing on the platform and another train which cannot be guaranteed to appear, passengers choose the overcrowded train, which will at least get them home, if not in comfort.

54. As we have described in our report on Railways in the North of England, the wish of some franchisees to increase the services they offer has increased the load on capacity.[70] Virgin Cross Country's decision to introduce a new timetable which offered an increased number of trains, shorter than those which previously operated on the route is the most notable example. Not only did the new trains lack the capacity needed for peak travel, they attracted new customers who could not be accommodated. The increased frequencies also meant a greater risk of service disruption. The Chairman of the SRA explained that "adding in services in the inter-peak period … was providing quite a lot of disruption to the start of the evening peak. So by not having these off-peak services we can ensure that the evening peak, where overcrowding would be an issue, is served as well as we possibly can."[71] The SRA's attempts to increase the system's capacity are welcome. However, our support for rationalizing the timetable in ways which ensure that journeys can be made more reliably, at the cost of some service frequency, should not be confused with support for major cuts in service.

55. The SRA failed by allowing timetable enhancements which could not be delivered in practice. It is reasonable for it to consider judicious pruning on congested lines to ensure services can run reliably. When it does this it should ensure that if new service frequencies are introduced the trains provided are long enough to accommodate the passengers from discontinued services.

Platform Length

56. We were told that physical infrastructure could also impact on overcrowding. Even if rolling stock is available, train length may be constrained by the length of the platforms on the particular route; some might be as little as two carriages long. Mr Cameron of Arriva Trains claimed that while there could be "grandfather rights" to run slam door trains longer than the platforms at particular stations, the HSE was reluctant to give permission for modern trains to use short platforms "if you had a train which was longer than the platform and that was the timetable you had many years ago, then you are allowed to continue with that one. If you are trying to resolve a problem and you produce a plan that would allow a longer train and a shorter platform, that is not acceptable."[72] We were surprised at these difficulties, since it is possible to lock the doors of individual carriages, and to tell passengers for particular destinations to use the appropriate carriages.

57. In fact, it appeared that the HSE's entirely proper concerns to ensure that trains longer than the platform at which they have halted were operated safely was being used as an excuse for inaction. The HSE made it clear that their position was more complex; they did not absolutely prohibit the operation of trains longer than platforms; they simply wished to be sure that trains were run safely.[73]

58. Arriva's unwillingness to explore ways of running longer formations and eagerness to blame this on the HSE displays shocking indifference to customers' experience. Mr Keith Ludeman of The Go Ahead Group made it clear his company was experimenting with GPS-based systems which would automatically lock doors which were not opposite a platform.[74] Franchise holders should not use the Health and Safety Executive's requirements that trains be operated safely as an excuse for not making service improvements.

59. The most reliable way to increase capacity, particularly in the South East, is to authorise new rail schemes, such as Thameslink and Crossrail. We welcome the recent signs of progress on Crossrail, and the East London Line. Our witnesses were convinced that these would, if implemented, produce real improvements.[75] However, it is also clear that new capacity does not offer a quick solution. While new rail infrastructure would reduce overcrowding in the long term, much could be done by running the timetabled services reliably and by lengthening peak hour services where possible.

33   Official Report , 26 Jun 2003, c 929 W; detailed figures deposited in the library . Back

34   Q 184 Back

35   OPT 19 Back

36   OPT 17 Back

37   Q 103 Back

38   OPT 17 Back

39   OPT 19 Back

40   OPT 17 Back

41   Offical Report 26 June 2003, c929W; accompanying table Back

42   OPT 11 Back

43   OPT 14 Back

44   OPT 17A Back

45   OPT 17; OPT 17A Back

46   OPT 19 Back

47   OPT 19 Back

48   Transport Committee, _Fourth Report Of Session 2002-03, Railways in the North of England, HC 782-I, para 59; see also OPT 14, para 22. Back

49   OPT 14 para 17 Back

50   Q 467 Back

51   OPT 14 Back

52   Qq 430-439 Back

53   Q 441 Back

54   Q517 Back

55   Q 531 Back

56   OPT 17A Back

57   Q 453 Back

58   Q584 Back

59   Q 531 Back

60   Q 441 Back

61   OPT 17A Back

62   Q 480 Back

63   Q 494, Q 262 Back

64   Q 493 Back

65   Q 470 Back

66   Q 482 Back

67   Q 488 Back

68   Q 488 Back

69   Q 589 Back

70   HC(2002-03)782-I, paras 69-74 Back

71   Q560  Back

72   Q152 Back

73   Q 349 Back

74   Q 296 Back

75   OPT 10, OPT 20, Q 97 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 15 October 2003