Memorandum by Dr Roger Sexton (OPT 01)
OVERCROWDING ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT
1. ABOUT MYSELF
I am 54 years old, and have never held a driving
licence. I have travelled extensively on all forms of public transport,
both in Britain and in many continental European countries. I
have on occasions, experienced conditions of extreme overcrowding.
2. GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
One thing I notice as a frequent traveller is
that, contrary to the belief of both politicians and the media,
many passengers are happy to travel 10-20 minutes stood up. (On
rail routes into London I would say "30 minutes".) The
fact is that, for a variety of reasons, people insist on standing
for short periods even when seats are availableeven when
seats are visibly available. This happens on both buses and trains,
both in and outside London. It happens much more frequently in
Britain than on the continent. Some reasons for this apparently
strange phenomenon are as follows.
(a) sheer idlenesscannot be bothered
to walk to the vacant seats;
(b) want to be near friends/family;
(c ) want to guard luggage (especially shopping),
or a baby in a buggy;
(d) want to be able to get off quickly;
(e) frightened that the way to the door may
be blocked by other standing passengers;
(f) on double-deck buses, unable or unwilling
to climb the stairs;
(g) on multiple unit trains, inability to
walk from one unit to another;
(h) standing passenger does not like the
look of the passengers sitting close to the vacant seats;
(i) the obviously vacant seats are covered
with luggage, and the standing passenger does not have the courage
to ask for the luggage to be moved. (Sometimes (h) and (i) go
It therefore often happens in Britain (and occasionally
on the continent) that an apparently overcrowded bus or train
or tram has room, sometimes plenty of room. There is a particularly
acute problem with double-deck buses. Outside Central London,
there are huge numbers of (even able-bodied) passengers who just
will not travel upstairs.
3. THE LONDON
This is probably the most overcrowded transport
system in Western Europe. The fundamental reason for this is that,
compared with other major cities (especially Paris and Berlin),
the number of lines crossing the central area of the city are
too few. Most of the cross-London underground lines were complete
by 1910, and only two (the Victoria and the Jubilee) have been
added in the last 90 years.
We also have only one line (the inadequate Thameslink)
which allows suburban trains to cross the city. Paris has five
"RER" lines taking suburban trains across the city centre.
Berlin (a city less than half the size of London or Paris) has
had the East-West "Stadtbahn" for main line and suburban
trains since the days of the Kaisers. A similar north-south line
is now under construction, and the two lines will cross at a huge
new "Hauptbahnhof" within walking distance of the Reichstag
and the Federal Chancellery.
As a matter of extreme urgency work must start
on all of the following projects:
(b) The east-west Crossrail.
(c) The Hackney to Chelsea tube.
(d) The Camden Town/Kings Cross to Waterloo
Planning for a second cross-rail route linking
Paddington/Marylebone/ Baker Street with Victoria/Charing Cross
should begin as soon as possible.
None of these new lines will appear overnight.
In the mean time, there must be a massive campaign of public education
to use the Underground in a more intelligent way.
(i) Londoners need to learn to walk distances
up to two miles. I sometimes walk the two miles from St. Pancras
to Leicester Square;
(ii) On most tube lines the centre of the
trains are extremely crowded, while the end carriages often have
seats. Both Londoners and tourists need to be educated to use
the end carriages. (The Victoria line is an exception. Because
of the position of station exits the south end of all trains are
overcrowded while there is almost always lots of room at the north
(iii) Where there is a gap in the service
of more than about four minutes, the first train to arrive is
always grossly overcrowded. Waiting passengers still try to cram
on, even though the "real time" indicators at the station
indicates that there are other trains queuing up behind. In this
situation, we need oral announcements begging people to wait for
the following trains.
4. LONDON BUSES
35% of all British bus journeys are within London,
even though London has only one-seventh of the population. London
buses are therefore very crowded, both in the centre and in the
suburbs. Most London bus journeys are relatively short (ten to
twenty minutes), and for reasons I outline in para two above,
passengers are happy to stand for up to about twenty minutes.
In that respect, British passengers are nowadays no different
from their continental counterparts.
In the suburbs, a lot of the passengers are
Seniors travelling on their free concessionary passes. Most of
these passengers resolutely refuse to go upstairs.
In the light of these considerations, it makes
sense to make much more extensive use in the suburbs of "Bendibuses"
with about 50 seats and room for as many standing, and with at
least two doors. Some London routes may be suited to 15 metre
Routemasters. I am a bus enthusiast, but I have
to say that these vehicles have been obsolete for at least twenty
years. They have a low capacity (72) and are now extremely expensive
to maintain and run. They should be replaced with large modern
double-decks and /or bendibuses; both these types have a capacity
of around a hundred. With most London tickets being bought off
bus, conductors are an unnecessary luxury.
5. COMMUTER RAIL
This is perhaps where the biggest overcrowding
problem lies. Over an hour standing on a suburban train is very
different from 10 minutes standing on the Underground or bus.
Moreover, there is one major threat to commuter
services into London. Inter-City train operators want more "paths"these
can only be created at the expense of local services. Eg, the
futuristic West Coast service proposals seem to leave little room
for semi-fast trains to Hemel Hempstead, Northampton and the like.
This sacrificing local services to long distance "needs"
must not be allowed to happen. (This comment applies to the whole
of Britain, not just London.)
The London commuter problem cannot be solved
by double-deck trains, as these are too big for the very restricted
British loading gauge. The only possibility is longer trainsthis
means a lot of capital expenditure on lengthening platforms.
Inner suburban line within Greater London, particularly
lines south of the river, are similar to the Underground, and
to RER services in Paris. The trains on these lines should have
more standing space, and the "passengers in excess of capacity"
rules should be amended accordingly.
Crowding on these routes tends to be sporadicit
will usually happen only at holiday times or if there is a special
event in London. The answer to crowding on such trains is not
more trains (again there is the "paths" problem) but
longer trains. I am glad to see that GNER is already adding a
carriage to some of its trains.
British inter-city trains are typically eight
to nine carriagescontrast the continent, where inter-city
trains are usually 10-12 carriages. Moreover continental carriages
are longer than British ones.
Again, double-decks are impossible.
One minor point. On Inter-City trains leaving
London at busy times, passengers for stations such as Luton, Bedford
and Stevenage should be banned.
Here, a mistake was made by British Rail which
has been perpetuated, indeed compounded, by the private operators.
Circa 1985, BR started introducing frequent cross-country services,
like Liverpool-Nottingham-Norwich, using two car trains. This
process of frequent but short trains has gradually been extended
to almost all non-London long distance services. The end of this
process was reached this September when Virgin introduced its
new high-frequency cross-country timetable relying on 4-5 coach
"Voyager" trains in place of seven-coach HSTs.
This policy of frequent, short trains has two
drawbacks. One is the problem of "paths" and capacity
at stations. All the main stations in the Midlands are now extremely
congested. The other problem is that these very short trains do
sometimes get extremely overcrowded, especially at weekends. And
passengers seeing an overcrowded train will still pile on rather
than wait 30-60 minutes for the next train, as they fear that
the next train will be just as bad or even worse.
The answer to this sort of problem is again
longer trains (six to ten carriages) running at less frequent
intervals. Yes, in a sense this is a worse service, but people
do not want to travel long distances stood crammed together. And
the problem of congestion at provincial stations (such as Nottingham)
needs the urgent attention of the Strategic Rail Authority.
I wish I could say that there was a nationwide
problem of overcrowded buses, but (outside London) this is just
not the case. Rather the problem is that in the deregulated provinces
we often have too many buses chasing too few passengers. Even
here in Nottingham, where the bus is still holding its own as
the means of public transport, it is relatively rare to see a
bus so crowded that it leaves passengers behind. There are however
two fundamental problems which need to be addressed. The first
problem leads to apparent overcrowding. The second problem sometimes
interacts with the first, and can lead to full-fare paying passengers
being crowded off a bus.
9. THE DESIGN
The typical provincial double-deck since about
seats about 80 with as many seats
crammed in as possible;
has a forward-ascending staircase
on the off-side about two metres behind the driver;
has a luggage section over the nearside
has a "buggy" section with
tip-up seats behind the luggage section. This section is right
opposite the bottom of the stairs.
These design problems, combined with factors
(a) to (f) identified in section two above produces the following
The front of a double-deck is "crowded"
by about half a dozen passengers standing by the luggage pen and
these passengers block the foot of
the stairs. (Sitting on the foot of the stairs is not unknown);
these passengers make it difficult,
sometimes impossible, for other passengers to get through, either
to the top deck or to back of the lower deck;
in extreme cases, the driver thinks
he is full up, and leaves passengers behind even though "there
is plenty of room on top".
The provincial double-deck needs to be redesigned.
It should be:
have at least two doors, front for
entrance and middle for exit;
the stairs should remain in the current
position behind the driver;
it should be illegal to stand level
or forward of the stairs;
the area between the doors should
have very few seats. This area should be primarily for buggies,
luggage and standee passengers.
As an alternative, we should look carefully
at the possibility of buying right hand drive versions of the
double-decks used by either:
(a) Berlin City Transport; or
(b) a Copenhagen operator (these vehicles
are at least partly British built); or
(c) the Swiss Post Office on the St Gallen
to Heiden route. (The British version could be made higher.)
These are currently:
nine to 12 metres long;
seat between 30 and 50;
have a luggage section over the nearside
have a "buggy" section
with tip-up seats behind the luggage section. Alternatively, or
additionally, there may be a buggy section on the off-side.
These design problems, combined with factors
(a) to (f) identified in section two above, produce the following
The front of the single deck is "crowded"
by about half a dozen passengers standing by the luggage pen and
These passengers make it difficult,
sometimes impossible, for other passengers to get through to the
back of the bus.
In extreme cases, the driver thinks
he is full up, and leaves passengers behind even though there
is plenty of room at the back.
(This problem of standing at the front when
there is room at the back is also prevalent on the few provincial
bendibuses in service. It will be a major problem with 15-metre
rigid single-decks, if they become common in Britain.)
The provincial single deck needs to be redesigned
along continental lines.
there should be two doors, front
there should be a large space opposite
the middle doors for buggies, luggage etc;
the normal entrance should be at
the front, but passengers encumbered by luggage, buggies etc.
should be allowed to use the middle door to enter.
(This is achieved in Sweden by putting a special
button on the outside of the bus next to the middle door. When
pushed, a flashing light appears on the driver's dashboard.)
10. THE IMPACT
I would start by saying that the whole issue
of "concessionary fares" should be the subject of a
separate enquiry by the Commons' Transport Committee. I would
draw the committee's attention to my article in "Local Transport
Today" for 12 September 2002. I would, however, entirely
agree with the Commission for Integrated Transport (The Times,
2 December, page one) that free pensioners bus passes should be
Free Seniors' bus "concessions" actually
produces overcrowding. Moreover, where the free travel is confined
to off-peak times, a new "peak" is created just after
the concession becomes valid, and just before it ceases. This
can result in fare-paying passengers being crowded off by the
pensioners. Living in Nottingham, I know not to try and catch
a bus between 0930 and 1000.
Worse still, Seniors are a major cause of the
problems outlined in section nine. With very few exceptions, they
absolutely refuse to go upstairs, usually want to sit at the front
on both single and double decks, and if these front seats are
not available, stand in everybody's way. (Fare-paying) parents
with baby in buggy often have a hard time getting into the space
reserved for them. I have even seen Seniors refuse to budge from
the tip-up seats.
As is well known, both Scotland and Wales have
introduced free bus travel for Seniors. The results have been
entirely predictable. A headline in the transport journal "Transit"
sums it up: "Free bus travel for pensioners granted without
engaging grey matter". Some Scottish and Welsh buses are
now overcrowded, and the Welsh assembly faces a massive cost overrun
of about 60% over budget.
It almost goes without saying that, in the light
of the Celtic experience, English Seniors should not be granted
unlimited free bus travel. Rather, the whole of Britain should
go in the direction suggested by the Commission for Integrated
Transporthalf fare for all pensioners. (And this should
extend to trains as well as buses.)
11. VERY CHEAP
We often here the cry, "knock the fares
down and the trains/buses will be packed." Again, the "grey
matter must be engaged" before we go along that route. The
Belgian province of Vlaanderen (Flanders) has introduced very
cheap fares for buses and trams (it has no legal power over trains).
Britain should carefully monitor this radical but dangerous experiment.
My local inter-urban bus operator has a very
cheap family rover ticket. During the school holidays, that can
lead to gross overcrowding on inter-urban routes, with full fare
paying passengers left standing at the stops.
The worst example of the potential ill-effects
of a very cheap fare deal comes from Germany. On a Saturday or
Sunday a group of up to five people can buy a "Schönes
Wochenende Ticket" for just 28 Euros. This allows unlimited
travel on all German stopping and semi-fast trains. Fast inter-cities
are excluded. The result is extreme overcrowding on stopping trains,
as people make cheap inter-city journeys using the slower trains.
Worse still, passengers at the intermediate towns and villages,
for whom the stopping service are really intended, are sometimes
unable to even get on "their" trains.
In short, cheap fare deals may (over)fill the
buses and trains with passengers, but is that what we really want?
12. DESIGN OF
Here, as with buses, our continental friends
are far in advance of Britain. Most local trains I encounter in
Denmark, Germany and Switzerland now include what the Germans
call a "Mehrzweckraum"a multi-purpose space.
This area (often a third or a half of a carriage) has tip-up longitudinal
seats, and a huge space in the middle for luggage, buggies, wheelchairs,
and (if needed) standing passengers.
This feature should be incorporated into all
British local trains.
I find that, whenever I respond to a government
or similar consultation, I almost always end up saying, as I have
already in effect said in the last few paragraphs, "look
how they do it in the rest of Europe".
European passengers have always been happy to
stand for short distances. Whatever may have been the position
in the past, this is now true of British passengers. Standees
are fine, provided they don't obstruct "passenger circulation".
British buses, trams and local trains must be
redesigned to cater for "crush loads".
Free travel for Seniors and very cheap travel
for others should not be introduced.
To avoid overcrowding, the public transport
system needs to be planned by central and regional and local government.
The Free Market will NOT provide.