Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by Dr John Disney (OPT 04)



  The views in this submission are both personal views and those of colleagues collated as part of my ongoing research into commuter and business travel patterns at The Nottingham Trent University. They should not be read however as an official view of the University.

  Overcrowding on public transport is perceived as a barrier to modal switch by habitual motorists whilst regular public transport users view it as a nuisance which may deter them from making certain journeys at certain times. This submission considers the three main modes of land public transport separately as different criteria apply to each of them.


  As the most popular mode of public transport it is not surprising that overcrowding is sometimes a major issue especially on busy urban routes (rural buses only reach saturation point on occasional school journeys).

  Overcrowding can lead to uncomfortable cramped conditions for those passengers on board; difficulty in exiting; perceptions of an unsafe environment especially for standees; long waits for those passengers left behind.

  Modern bus design is a major contributory factor to overcrowding and the Committee is recommended to reconsider the "Construction & Use" regulations for PSV in the light of modern low floor bus designs. Whilst these buses are theoretically an improvement for all passengers, in practise they are making the journey more difficult for many passengers. Reasons are as follows:

    —  Seating capacity has been reduced by approx 20% and most of the seating lost (in comparison with "high floor" buses) is the most accessible ie at the front of a single deck bus and in the lower saloon of a double-decker. This means that passengers congregate as standees both in the buggy/wheelchair zones and in the gangway or even on the platform rather than go to the rear of the bus and/or upstairs. (Both of these movements involve negotiating steps whilst the bus is moving so are avoided by many passengers, especially if they are carrying baggage). The effect is that the bus is perceived as overcrowded even if its load is less than its seating capacity. A recommended solution would be to prohibit standing forward of the buggy/wheelchair zone (and/or the staircase).

    —  The gangway can become obstructed by protruding buggies or luggage. A recommended solution is to devise a buggy zone which has a folding arm which could be lowered to ensure that the buggy is physically contained within the designated area and to act as an additional rail for passengers; also buses should not be permitted without dedicated luggage racks. The Optare Solo is a particularly bad design in this respect.

    —  On high frequency services, late running buses become overcrowded and bunch whilst there is usually at least one near empty bus following. The solution is to provide more bus priority schemes and enforce them as congestion is a principal cause of bunching, whilst encouraging manufacturers to fit GPS as standard (and operators to retrofit it) so that the driver of a full bus can see how far behind the next bus is.

    —  Standing capacities are based upon the maximum laden weight which the chassis can bear; this should be changed to be based upon floor space so that standing capacities are feasible whilst retaining a degree of comfort for passengers.

    —  The current condition for qualifying for Fuel Duty Rebate (Bus Operators Subsidy) that buses must both pick up and set down at all stops which they serve should be repealed immediately. This would allow longer distance buses to set down on inward journeys into cities without having to pick up short hop passengers which lead to the bus becoming overcrowded and more importantly allow them to impose a "first setting down point" criteria so that short hop passengers are prohibited from taking up space required by longer distance passengers who face a long wait if the bus they require is full (especially if they wish to board on the route out of the city centre rather than at the terminus).

    —  Operators should be encouraged to retain a fleet of "reserve vehicles" and sufficient drivers to provide duplicate journeys where and when required. The Annual Vehicle Excise Duty for buses operating less than 10,000 miles per annum should be substantially discounted and insurers should be encouraged to offer discount insurance on such vehicles; Operators' O Licences should permit up to 20% additional low mileage vehicles to be operated for these purposes.


  In order to meet their financial targets LRT schemes assume that peak time services are going to carry typically 70% of their passengers as standees. Whilst this is deemed acceptable in London (on both the Underground and Docklands LRT) where there is little choice of mode due to road congestion and severely restricted car parking, it is not desirable in the provinces and LRT schemes should be reappraised on the basis that no more than 33% of their peak time passengers are expected to stand. This may mean that vehicles need to be longer or services more frequent or even that some schemes fail to be funded and are replaced by more cost effective schemes such as Guided Buses or conventional bus lanes.


  Given the capacity constraints of the network, it is remarkable that operators are being allowed to replace large trains with more frequent but shorter trains. The Virgin Cross Country Voyager scheme was always going to be a disaster and it gives me no pleasure to report that my worst case forecast scenarios are actually being enacted. However many lessons can be learnt from this and other schemes such as the Midland Main Line Turbostars (due to be replaced in 2004 with larger trains after only four years). These are:

    —  Passengers will always require to travel at certain times eg commuters wish to reach city centres by 0830-0900 and depart between 1630 and 1800; business travellers wish to arrive for meetings commencing typically between 0930 and 1100; shoppers wish to arrive around 1030 and depart around 1500; tourists wish to have a full day at their destination and depart between 1700 and 1800 as tourist attractions close; sports fans wish to arrive in good time for the start of the event but leave as soon as possible at the finish.

    —  A train service that uses smaller trains will never be able to meet these demands even if its overall capacity is much greater; arriving at the match at 1515 is of no use to a football fan if kick off is at 1500 however much the operator may discount tickets on this train.

    —  Small trains are unable to cope with the loads experienced when the preceding train fails for whatever reason. This train may be run by another TOC but the effect is the same. This means that passengers are doubly inconvenienced.

    —  Seat reservation systems must be effective. The electronic system used on Voyagers is useless due to the following reasons:

      —  It is impossible to tell at a glance when boarding the train whether seats are reserved or not without close examination of the tiny display screens on the luggage racks. This could be solved by a red light indicating a reserved seat.

      —  Reservations are often only for part of the journey but passengers need a strong geographical knowledge of the train's route to work this out.

      —  The system is often not working so passengers sit in what they believe is an empty seat only to find that someone else has a reservation leading to arguments and dissatisfaction.

      —  Whilst passengers are trying to find reserved seats (or an unreserved one if they don't have a reservation) they obstruct the gangway leading other passengers to assume that the train is full so they then sit or stand in vestibules, entrances and gangways blocking other passengers' routes to refreshments, toilets and exit doors.

    —  TOC's should be required to state the number of unreserved seats on each train in the timetable and this should be a minimum of 25% of the train's capacity. Information systems should be improved so that announcements can be made at each station en route regarding the train's actual seating availability and TOC's should hold spare rolling stock to provide relief trains or additional coaches coupled to existing services. Road coaches should only be used in emergency situations not as the norm as Virgin now seem to be doing.

    —  Season ticket prices should be raised to at least ensure that season ticket holders contribute through the farebox to the overcrowding which they often cause, particularly the long distance commuters using inter city style services not designed for the commuter market such as Grantham, Leicester, Coventry and Swindon to London; Newcastle and Berwick to Edinburgh; Derby and Cheltenham to Birmingham. Cheap season tickets have distorted both the housing and employment markets and encourage excessive commuter journeys; in many cases annual season ticket holders pay less than the business traveller making the same journey just twice a week as season ticket prices have been regulated whilst Standard Open Fares have been subject to no such controls and have therefore been subject to some extreme increases. Season ticket holders requiring seat reservations should be charged a reservation fee for each reservation made but all other seat reservations should be free and passengers should be able to make a reservation by telephone or internet up to one hour before any train leaves its starting point irrespective of the type of ticket they hold (except season tickets).

    —  Capacity constraints at stations and other pinch points on the network should be addressed as a matter of priority and platforms should be lengthened to cater for longer trains using prefabricated extensions to reduce both time and cost. Trains should not occupy platforms for more than 15 minutes between workings; sidings should be built (or re-opened) for these purposes and improved waiting facilities created for passengers on the platform.

December 2002

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