Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Dr Roger Sexton (OPT 01)



  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.


  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 available—even 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 idleness—cannot 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 together.)

  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.


  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:

    (a)  Thameslink 2000.

    (b)  The east-west Crossrail.

    (c)  The Hackney to Chelsea tube.

    (d)  The Camden Town/Kings Cross to Waterloo tram route.

  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 end.)

    (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.


  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 rigid single-decks.

  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.


  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 trains—this 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 sporadic—it 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 carriages—contrast 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.



  The typical provincial double-deck since about 1998 is:

    —  10-12 metres long;

    —  seats about 80 with as many seats crammed in as possible;

    —  has a single doorway;

    —  has a forward-ascending staircase on the off-side about two metres behind the driver;

    —  has a luggage section over the nearside front wheel;

    —  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 common phenomenon:

    —  The front of a double-deck is "crowded" by about half a dozen passengers standing by the luggage pen and buggy area;

    —  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:

    —  12 metres long;

    —  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.)

Single Decks

  These are currently:

    —  nine to 12 metres long;

    —  seat between 30 and 50;

    —  have a single doorway;

    —  have a luggage section over the nearside front wheel;

    —  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 common phenomenon:

    —  The front of the single deck is "crowded" by about half a dozen passengers standing by the luggage pen and buggy area.

    —  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 and middle;

    —  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.)


  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 abolished.

  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 Transport—half fare for all pensioners. (And this should extend to trains as well as buses.)


  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?


  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.

Roger Sexton

December 2002

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