Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by David Starkie Esq (OPT 07)


  Overcrowded commuter trains are now recognised as a serious and immediate problem but it is not one that can be easily addressed, at least in the short term, by more investment. Adding line capacity to allow more trains to run at busy times is exceedingly expensive. Attempting to add capacity by lengthening train sets is also expensive, particularly when it is necessary to modify stations and increase track power supply. In addition, adding line capacity or lengthening trains can have important repercussions for the main termini. Even with existing volumes, serious problems occur at, for example, Victoria Station; the number of passengers wishing to enter the Underground system during the morning peak exceeds the stations safe capacity. Moreover, any solutions along the preceding lines are also long-term solutions; they would not relieve the problem in the immediate future.

  The normal response of commercial markets to circumstances where there is excess long-term (or recurrent peak period) demand is to increase the price of the goods or for the service concerned. The short-term responsiveness of demand to price in the case of the commuter railway will be very low and, therefore, it is likely that large increases in price would be required to have a significant impact on relieving overcrowding. Such price increases would be politically unacceptable. Even so, the current regulation of standard fares and season tickets, whereby these fares have been reduced in real terms in recent years, needs to be reconsidered. A modest and gradual increase in real terms might now be appropriate.

   In view of the difficulties of a solution involving long-term investment or significantly increasing prices, I would like to suggest an alternative way in which the price system could be used to help to alleviate the overcrowding problem. Paradoxically it involves a reduced price for travel; it is to introduce the concept of economy class into commuter rail travel. The concept is set out at greater length in an Annex to this memorandum (co-authored with Peter Kain, now with the Australian Bureaux of Transport Economics)[1]. The essence of the approach is to convert part of an existing train set to high-density accommodation especially for suburban and mid-distance services. (Travel times on these services are not too different from those experienced by commuters using London Underground.) Importantly, this "Economy Class" would be offered at a fare sufficiently discounted to divert passengers to the purpose-designed carriage(s) (in much the same way that reservation-only discount tickets shift travellers to less popular trains for intercity travel). Standing, or a mix of standing and lean-to seating, would be allowed only in this high-density part of the train.

  Passengers who remain in Standard or First Class would also be better off. For once, they would be getting what they paid for—a seat, without being hemmed in by a mass of standees. So Economy Class, by offering a different quality and fare combination and thus providing additional choice for the passenger, improves the welfare of all travellers. It provides the passenger with a better opportunity to match price with comfort, whether seated or standing. Those using Economy would receive a discount; those willing to pay for Standard (or First) Class will get a decent seat.

  Because converting existing carriages for high-density occupancy, would involve reducing the area currently occupied by seats, (the layout would be similar to the renovated standard gauge stock on London Underground) this would also provide opportunities for the more versatile use of space. For example, it offers the opportunity to improve access for disabled persons and to provide much needed space for cyclists and their equipment in off-peak times.

  The train operating companies would benefit because the approach potentially, and also somewhat paradoxically, increases the opportunities for revenue protection. Ticket inspectors would be able to circulate in Standard and First Class coaches without the hindrance of standing passengers. This would be less true in Economy Class carriages. However, it could be argued that there would be no need to inspect Economy Class tickets because passengers in these carriages would be holding only discounted tickets. (The issue is then whether passengers have a ticket at all; the introduction of ticket barriers at many stations is ensuring that this is the case.)

  The proposal I am putting forward, namely the introduction of an additional high-density class of travel at a cheaper fare is, of course, a common practice in the airline industry. A number of major airlines have in the last few years introduced an additional class of travel so that many long-distance flights now operate with four different classes. There are also distinctions in the density of seating and fare levels between charter airlines/low-cost carriers and the full-service airlines. I am also mindful that there is substantial commuting by coach into central London, particularly from north Kent, and this suggests a willingness by some commuters to trade high density seating for a lower fare.

  A recent newsletter circulated to passengers by Connex (Upfront Issue No 4) suggests that the London Transport Users Committee might be receptive to ideas (page 6) broadly along the lines set out above. The same newsletter suggests that Connex is willing to keep an open mind on the possibility of offering a discounted ticket to someone standing on the trains (page 6). The suggestion for exclusive areas for standing passengers makes it easier to do so.

December 2002

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