Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by RMT (OPT 13)


  RMT welcome the opportunity to make some brief comments on the investigation into overcrowding on public transport. We shall confine our comments to the mainline railway.

  Overcrowding on the railway network is an increasing problem. There are a number of safety concerns that we wish to raise with the committee. Indeed the implications for health and safety do not just effect our members who have to deal with the practical difficulties, but also the well being and safety of passengers. In addition when considering the difficulties of overcrowding we need to consider not just the level of services offered by train operating companies, but also other constraints. In particular many stations simply do not have the capacity to handle increasing numbers of passengers.

  RMT fully accept that the difficulties of overcrowding will not be overcome overnight. Ultimately only sustained high levels of investment will deliver increased capacity on the railway. Until the increased capacity comes on stream it seems inevitable that there will be some measure of overcrowding. Indeed figures provided by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) advise us that services are already overcrowded, especially on routes serving London terminals. However we must advise the committee that we are now very concerned at the implications of a possible cut in funding by the SRA. We believe that this will result in some operators cutting services and therefore increasing the problem of overcrowding.

  The RMT sees all overcrowding first and foremost as a health and safety problem. This applies to both railway staff and the passengers. Many of our members now dread coming to work where they have to face a constant outpouring of complaints and verbal abuse from disgruntled passengers. The number of physical assaults on staff is also increasing. Traincrews who face the same problems can also encounter considerable difficulties if they are required to go through the train in an emergency, or to gain access to any on-board equipment. There have even been instances where the police have had to be called to persuade some passengers to leave the train just so the driver can gain access to the cab.

  For the passengers themselves, it is equally accepted that overcrowding is not just a discomfort issue. It has certainly on occasions led to health problems due to consequential high temperatures and lack of adequate ventilation, particularly on long journeys or if the train has been extensively delayed. It can also impede escape in the event of a fire for example. In addition, many trains are not equipped to cope with standing passengers. Many trains have nothing for the passengers to hold on to, and it may only be the crush of other people that helps them stay on their feet. Overcrowding is also spilling over on to more stations, some of which are less able to cope with the consequential problems.

  RMT have stated that only the delivery of sustained investment year on year can deliver the required level of increased capacity. The SRA could consider some temporary relief measures. For example train operating companies could be asked to consider changes to train-stopping patterns but this will not seriously tackle overcrowding and inevitably certain passengers will be disadvantaged by changes to services.

  In the recent consultation carried out by the SRA the Authority outlined possible proposals to cut overcrowding on some services by enabling train passenger operators to alter the fare structure. The union rejects the idea of pricing passengers off services by enabling railway companies to increase fares through the loosening of the current regulations that protect passengers from substantial fare increases over and above inflation. This will be a good profit making exercise for train operating companies but will provide no long-term solution to the problems of overcrowding. Indeed railway ridership is closely linked to levels of employment and for the vast majority of passengers there is limited opportunities to alter the times they travel to and from work. Any loss of customers will clearly be detrimental to the Governments wider social and environmental objectives for increasing the use of public transport and tackling road congestion.

  The union would also caution against the introduction of compulsory booking for tickets. One of rail's greatest attractions, as compared with other transport modes such as air travel, is the ability to turn up and go. The reality is that these types of actions merely act as a deterrent against travelling by rail, and in that sense are no better than the discouraging effect of overcrowding.

  RMT is in no doubt that what is clearly needed over the long term is high levels of investment in order to create greater capacity on our railways. The infrastructure needs to be expanded in places to relieve bottlenecks, which in turn should then allow more trains to be run. Earlier we mentioned that the capacity of many stations would need to be given serious consideration. Where train services become increasingly overcrowded many railway stations will simply not be able to cope with increased numbers of passengers. In many instances there is also a lack of staff available to assist in managing potential safety problems at stations.

  It is possible that station platforms could be extended to provide for longer trains. However on some services there is no bar to running longer trains except for the fact that there is an insufficient number of available carriages. Whilst some of the shortage of available carriages is historical in its origins, it has been perpetuated and even intensified within some new build programmes.

  The services run by Virgin Cross Country are a good example of this problem being exacerbated by train operating companies. Since the replacement of seven car trains with four/five car DMUs overcrowding is commonplace on many Virgin Cross Country services. Although the company have said this has partly arisen as a result of a 40% increase in passenger numbers, they are still only looking to develop a business case to increase the number of carriages on each train to five. If current growth continues, the additional capacity provided by the extra coach will not reduce overcrowding by the time of actual delivery. Clearly the train operator is primarily concerned with the cost of the additional car units as opposed to the safety and comfort of its passengers.

  Overcrowding on these services has been made worse by the fact that spare train paths that could have been used for timetable recovery are no longer available. Passenger operators only purchase the minimum number of train paths that are necessary to run timetabled services. It is evident that the competition and cost cutting of the privatised railway is affecting services. RMT have welcomed the recent moves by the SRA to reintegrate certain passenger franchises but ultimately the problems outlined above can only be effectively tackled on a strategic basis by the reduction and eventual removal of operators who will always place commercial considerations in front of the needs of the travelling public.

  The reduction in services by train operating companies will no doubt assist certain operators in resolving punctuality problems and associated fines. However this merely underlines the perverse incentives of the privatised railway and will of course do nothing to ease the problem of overcrowding.

  As stated, what is needed is expansion not contraction. However the recent reports of passenger operators being asked to prepare proposals on the basis of a 10% or 20% cut in funding are alarming. It is our view that if this becomes reality cuts on this scale will inevitably impact on services.

  Obviously we are also concerned that staffing reductions will inevitably follow. At the current time around two thirds of expenditure goes on track access charges and train rentals. Therefore if significant cost savings were to be found relatively quickly the number of people employed would have to be reduced. Staffing levels on the railway have already been cut to the bone and there is little opportunity to reduce staff numbers without impacting upon service provision.

  We are also aware that many of the contractual train leasing costs incurred by operators are due to expire in 2004. The union is concerned that this might provide a golden opportunity for certain passenger operators to reduce fleet sizes by cutting back on service frequencies and train lengths. This is clearly something that the SRA must not allow. Instead as far as reasonably practical within existing capacity constraints the SRA must explore various means to ensure that the franchise conditions include sufficient commitments to provide for the expansion of services sufficient to meet foreseeable demand.

  We advised earlier that the union sees the problem of overcrowding primarily as a health and safety issue. As such, we believe there should be legally enforceable risk based loading limits for each class of rolling stock, as there is with buses. However it is important to recognise that compliance will need to be on the basis of reasonable practicability. This already applies to other areas of health and safety legislation. Otherwise impossible responsibilities are placed upon train and station staff who have to try and enforce these limits. These problems will inevitably be exacerbated by any further reductions in staffing levels on trains or at stations.

  In conclusion we would reiterate that RMT have increasing concerns relating to overcrowding on the network. Only in the long term will this be solved by sustained levels of investment. However the current fragmented structure of the railway gives rise to commercial considerations that impact quite clearly on the levels of overcrowding on the railway network. These issues therefore cannot be entirely divorced from the committee's consideration. In the short term we also ask that safeguards be put in place to ensure that cuts in funding do not impact upon the frequency of services. As we have stated it is possible that train operators could reduce fleet sizes in 2004 when train leasing costs are due for renewal. This will undoubtedly increase the problems of overcrowding.

December 2002

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