Overcrowding – a question of more trains?

H&I, evening rush hour by Nico Hogg

Our national rail network is carrying more and more passengers, with growth of several percent per year. Inevitably, this leads to problems with overcrowding – and a great deal of frustration amongst passengers who are left standing.

Extra trains are of course the obvious solution, but there are other reasons why your particular train may be overcrowded. For example:

  • Cancellation of a preceding service
  • A special event bringing in more passengers
  • Train fault or maintenance backlog leading to fewer carriages being provided
  • Extra trains available, but platform lengths or track capacity prevent their use
  • Ticketing policy causing overcrowding on off-peak services
  • Incorrect balance between first and standard classes
  • Extra trains only needed once a day, so cannot be financially justified

While it doesn’t change the fact that you can’t get a seat, sometimes it helps to understand what the reasons for overcrowding are. FixMyTransport is great for finding out what caused the problem, and provides a way of seeing if anyone else if having a similar issue, which strengthens the case for sorting it out.

Overcrowding is an issue that comes up time and again amongst our users. Here are some examples which show the strength of feeling up and down the country:

Frustratingly for anyone running a campaign, information about train overcrowding is treated as commercially confidential by the rail operators and Department for Transport (DfT) – so it’s not available even through a Freedom of Information Request.

Providing such data would give passengers a much better idea of what was happening, and would allow us to make informed decisions about which services to avoid. Unfortunately, secrecy prevails, though some operators do give information about which services are expected to be busy.

So, if operators are aware of the overcrowding, and it happens all the time, but there are no current plans to fix it, then what can be done?

It really comes down to persuading the Government and the Department for Transport to make some changes. Routes are run by operators on a franchise basis – and those franchises are just a few years in length. Carriages typically cost between £1m and £2.5m each, and have a life of 40 years, so investment decisions are not trivial. Many operators may look at the short time remaining on their franchise, and make the decision that there is no point in sinking that kind of money into rolling stock.

One solution would be an agreement that any trains purchased would be used in the next franchise to justify the investment. A particularly influential time is in the consultation period before a franchise is re-let. The current set of consultations are listed on the Department of Transport website.

Passenger satisfaction on issues such as overcrowding will be more important in future; the recently awarded InterCity West Coast franchise promises “for the first time in an intercity franchise, better customer satisfaction as measured by the National Passenger Survey”, and there have also been resultant calls for more transparency in the franchising process.

As a passenger who is squashed like a sardine into your train every morning and night, it may not seem particularly useful to know the high-level reasons behind your route’s overcrowding: the temptation might be to give up and find an alternative method of getting to work. But we built FixMyTransport to help with huge problems as well as little niggles. What if everyone in your carriage signed up to your FixMyTransport campaign? 50 names are harder to ignore than just one.

And we have built-in functionality that allows you to contact the people who can make a difference to your campaign. Your MP will have some influence over these decisions, or you could support a local rail users group in pushing for improvements.

Once you know the reasons for the overcrowding on your route, you’re in an excellent position to gather support and press for change – and we’ll help you all the way.

Image credit: Nico Hogg



  1. Andy says:

    Operators don’t own or pay for trains, they just rent them from ROSCOs like Angel Trains. So how much they cost to build, and how many years they last for, is a problem for the ROSCOs.

    The important question for this situation would be how much does it cost an operator to rent an extra carriage for a year (or however long is left on their franchise), and whether any of the ROSCOs have spare carriages to offer out to the operators.

    But I suspect this is all theoretical, and that actually the DfT will decide how many trains the operator will have to rent in their franchise, and the ROSCOs won’t build trains without guarantees from the DfT that an operator will be forced to rent them, and as a result everything moves at a glacial pace and is entirely inflexible.

  2. Paul Hollinghurst says:


    Thank you for your comment. The majority of the rolling stock built for the UK is only ever used in the UK so ultimately the train operators end up paying for the capital cost of the trains however they are financed. It may be a consortium of a Bank and manufacturer rather than a ROSCO. I understand that an item of rolling stock costing £2.5m will typically result in a cost to the operator at least £30,000 per month per vehicle including maintenance costs and leasing, and have seen a figure of £17,000 per month for a life extended InterCity 125.

    Using these figures as an example, at the cheaper end of the scale a figure of say £15000 per month would be £500 per day or £10 per seat assuming it was only needed for 1 peak service and could be filled with passengers.

    However, as you mention in your final paragraph, there is the issue of whether the DfT will agree that the next franchise will be told to take on the trains. If not the risk of the trains being unwanted will push up the ROSCO’s rental changes and make them even more difficult to justify.


  3. Chris Smith says:


    Your piece was timely, but let’s the ROSCOs off too lightly. For example, you cite one of the causes of overcrowding as special events bringing in extra passengers. In the past, this could be coped with and was, indeed, an opportunity for extra revenue, but today it is much harder to add extra trains for special events. To their credit both ATW and FGW did so when Olympic football matches were played in the evening at Cardiff – with the risk of extra time and penalties meaning the the last trains would have been missed. They had extra trains ready and waiting for whenever they were needed. But what did Virgin do in similar circumstances for an England match in Manchester? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Result – chaos. That’s one of the many reasons for hoping that Virgin do not retain the WCML franchise, even if their objections to the initial decision were well founded.


  4. paulhollinghurst says:


    Thanks for reading the blog post and for the comment about ROSCOs.

    Although ROSCOs are often blamed for not providing suitable extra rolling stock, the competition commission report on the ROSCOs in 2009 essentially blamed this on the franchising system and not on the ROSCOS themselves. The major ROSCOs in general don’t get involved in the spot hire market as all their rolling stock is already allocated to TOCs and there is little incentive for them to have additional rolling stock available for occasional use, although some of the smaller leasing companies do have older rolling stock available.

    When specials are operated it is often by re-scheduling maintenance to free up extra units. Virgin have little scope to do this as until recently 48 out of their 52 units had to be in service every day leaving just 4 to cover overhauls and maintenance – quite an achievement:

    The competition commission report is here:
    and here is a quote from the report:
    “Conclusions on competition in the market for the leasing of franchised passenger rolling stock:
    43. We found that there was a restricted choice of rolling stock available to TOCs, arising partly from operational and technical restrictions on substitutability, but also because of direct or indirect specification of rolling stock in franchise ITTs, the costs and risks involved in switching to alternative used or new rolling stock, and the operation of the franchise system which reduces opportunities for competition. We also found that there were reduced incentives on TOCs to seek to negotiate better deals, in part because of the non-discrimination requirements in the Codes of Practice. We found that, given all of these constraints on the potential for rivalry between substitute fleets, the incentives on ROSCOs to compete with each other are lower than in a well-functioning market.”