Overcrowding on Trains – Nothing Changes


30 years ago, the Central Transport Consultative Committee (CTCC) reported on the overcrowding on British Rail’s trains. The quality of service standards that described overcrowding were supported by agreed load factors, and as a measurement of the train capacity can be traced back to the 1980s. In the CTCC reports from 1986/87, and 1988/89 they looked at this in relation to BR’s Network Southeast Sector, and the load factors for sliding door stock was set at 135% and for the old slam door stock at 110%. On top of this it was agreed that no passengers would stand for journeys of more than 20 minutes, unless it was their choice.

Nothing has changed – and before anyone says passenger numbers have changed dramatically – proportionately that is not necessarily accurate. Interestingly, the 21st century standards for journeys comparable with BR’s Network Southeast commuters use something called Passengers in Excess of Capacity (PIXC), which in essence is a Load Factor. The measurement is the same today as it was in 1987-89 – i.e. 135% for modern sliding door stock. In 2006, this is what Passenger Focus reported:

“Capacity is deemed to be the number of standard class seats on the train for journeys of more than 20 minutes; for journeys of 20 minutes or less, an allowance for standing room is also made. The allowance for standing varies with the type of rolling stock but, for modern sliding door stock, is typically approximately 35% of the number of seats.”

But is that a wrong understanding? According to Transport Focus, the PIXC measures seems to vary by train operator, and is only carried out annually, on a weekday in the autumn. The current means of arriving at a PIXC value for the train service was considered to be of concern in respect of accuracy, and they made this observation:

“The PIXC measure for a Train Operating Company (TOC) as a whole is derived from the number of passengers travelling in excess of capacity on all services divided by the total number of people travelling, expressed as a percentage. PIXC counts are carried out once a year, on a typical weekday during the autumn. Passenger Focus has a number of concerns at the adequacy and accuracy of this measure.”

These methodologies and seat (smaller seats?) numbers may have changed, and the replacement of the CTCC and its regional variants by “Transport Focus” has diluted the way these statistics are reported. Since Transport Focus covers all forms of transport, it would be difficult for them to do anything but provide a broad brush approach, using the DfT’s figures to provide that we might describe as unrepresentative of the rail network as a whole.

But the latest Transport Focus Annual Report (2018-19) does not even mention overcrowding on trains at all. They do however record that in the previous year they had received no fewer than 6,525 complaints from passengers, and in the year 1990-91 – a record year for complaints about British Rail, 7,220 were received. In BR’s case, the massive under-investment, and delays ordering new rolling stock – especially the ‘Networker’ trains on the southern commuter routes was a major factor.

Of course you should not take data without any corroboration, and certainly not as many politicians seem willing to do – take them at face value. In the graph from an ATOC publication in 2008 – “Billion Passenger Railway” – it cannot be stated with any confidence that people are choosing to travel by rail in greater numbers as a result of privatisation.

The chart is neatly divided into particularly interesting time periods.

So, why the sustained increase in passengers depicted by this chart from 1995? There was not such a defined beginning to this uplift as might be inferred, especially considering the increased number of rail accidents, and indeed passenger and railway staff fatalities in the years up to the turn of the century. Of course, what was hailed as the ‘Big Bang’ took place in 1992. At that time, business markets were de-regulated, or opened up, and Europe wide travel and trade increased, following the decline of much of the UK’s traditional and manufacturing industry.

ATOC Chart 2008

Data source: ATOC’s 2008 publication Billion Passenger Railway for 1830 to 2001. Link to graph: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RTGBchart201823.pdf

Take the section between 1923 and 1947 – the so called “golden age of the train” – the peaks and troughs are easily comparable to the economic depressions after WW1 and the rapid uplift during the wartime period of WW2. Passenger numbers remained fairly static after nationalisation, in the immediate post war period, and even rose towards the end of the 1950s. The decline in numbers may be ascribed to at least two competing factors – i) the increased numbers of private cars and the massive road building programme, and ii) the dramatic decline in investment from the mid 1970s. In the 1970s too, there was a global shortfall in availability of fuel oils, and progressing into the 1980s, the increasing awareness of environmental factors.

But then – using current Government published stats for PIXC values, as in the chart below, it is not so easy to compare the periods of time as described in the first chart. It looks from this chart that overcrowding isn’t a problem – well below the 35% of passengers in excess of the number of standard class seats. But of course for the train capacity – including the actual number of seats – first class is excluded from these calculations, so what is the point of the PIXC measure? First class seats are also excluded from the overall capacity of the train – its load factor – irrespective of whether it is a 2, 4, 6 or 8-car unit.


It is far too simplistic just to say people are using the railways more than ever before, and that is a problem.   Social and economic activity patterns have and are continuing to change, and the ‘problem’ is unlikely to reduce any time soon.

Even using the figures thought to be of concern by Transport Focus, it does appear that overcrowding has certainly gone up, especially after the 2008/9 financial crisis. Despite the uncertainty and questionable accuracy of simply measuring standard class capacity, overcrowding has more than doubled since the turn of the century.

10 Worst Trains_2
The Government have produced some interesting reports around overcrowding, but in one case, they referred to the data about the 10 most overcrowded peak train services with a warning:

Warning: These figures should be treated with caution

10 Worst TrainsThe document was published on 24th July 2018, with this title: “Top 10 overcrowded train services: England and Wales spring and autumn 2017”. Two years earlier, in October 2016 a report entitled “Rail Technology: Signalling and Traffic Management” was published by the Commons Select Committee on Transport, and on the “Background and Context” section, an “urgent need for greater capacity” was declared.

GB Rail Passenger Journeys 1950-2016Another factor in generating more overcrowded trains, and the need to grow capacity is likely to be that the ‘travel to work’ (TTW) has changed as work patterns have changed. People no longer live close to their fixed place of employment, and tend not to walk, or cycle, or use public transport as much as in earlier years, which could also be linked to the industrial decline in the UK.

But perhaps a further reason to account for increased passenger rail travel that ought to be considered is the rapidly increasing congestion on the UK’s roads, whether for private or commercial travel. Would it be true to say that the travelling public are fed up with long queues around accidents, with lorries shedding loads onto arterial routes, or upgraded roads to cope with the increased traffic.

At the turn of the century, ‘sustainability’ came to be used more and more in describing, and defining national, regional and local policies, in almost every sphere of activity involving business and people. In Britain, economic activity continued to be increasingly centred on London and South East England, and pressure for expansion – ‘improvements’ – to the travel to work modes of transport grew. Much of this appeared to be focussed on the ‘9 to 5’ office work activity – be it a fledgling digital business, or financial services – whilst there was little expansion in rail freight. Was it the closure of goods and marshalling yards that created the explosion of parcel delivery firms carrying goods from seaports to distribution centres to the customers’ doors?

In 2008 the Transport Studies Unit of Oxford University published an interesting paper about planning rail networks to meet 21st Century mobility needs – Reinventing the wheel – planning the rail network to meet mobility needs of the 21st century. This according to the authors – “places a key role on the railways, as this mode provides an efficient form of transport and it encourages a modal switch”. So more than a decade ago sustainable mobility was a major issue, and the role of rail was seen as key. There was also a prevailing view that ‘higher speeds’ would increase the railway’s capacity to carry passengers – but presumably only if you increased the frequency and reduced the headway. Each of these latter would need significant investment in technology through signalling systems, and of course high-speed trains. This also significantly needs greater investment. Ultimately, the use of trains has a positive bearing on our attempts to reduce transport impacts on the environment, and may well be more sustainable in the long term. However, a new high-speed railway, with in creased frequency and shorter gaps between trains will not solve the overcrowding problem that the UK faces today, or in the next 5 to 10 years.

Changes to the passenger services – whether from timetabling, additional trains, new technology, or the “digital railway” – seems to be making very little progress. The claims of considerable investment in new trains is weighing against the perceived improvements in capacity – especially considering the latest levels of complaints when compared to 30 years ago. Then, it could be argued – and was – that under-investment was at the heart of British Rail’s problems with train capacity and overcrowding – but is that true today?

Useful Links:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.