Commuters forced to stand for overcrowding beyond the limit

BRITAIN'S COMMUTER rail network is close to breaking point, the Government's rail watchdog warned yesterday, as he published figures showing that passengers are suffering severe overcrowding.

Two commuter services into London - Thameslink and South West Trains - exceeded their permitted overcrowding limits last year.

Thameslink, which runs from Bedford to Brighton via London and from central London to Wimbledon, carried 7.1 per cent more people than the capacity of its trains allowed. South West Trains, the commuter service from London to Surrey and Hampshire, recorded 3.9 per cent overcrowding.

John O'Brien, the franchising director of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf), said: "Clearly, if numbers continue to grow at the predicted rate, the system will soon become overloaded. Commuter capacity is a key issue that the Strategic Rail Authority will need to urgently address."

Mr O'Brien said that both train companies must devise action plans to ease overcrowding. They may be fined or even lose their franchises if they fail to deliver.

The Opraf system, which only covers the 10 commuter services that run into London, gives train companies a 3 per cent threshold to allow for standing. Opraf said the other eight of these operators had stayed within the threshold, despite achieving an annual 3.8 per cent growth in passenger numbers.

The figures are the latest blow to the industry, following dreadful punctuality and reliability figures that prompted the Government to intervene and call a rail summit.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for transport, said yesterday that carrying more passengers was no excuse for poor performance. "Passengers expect and deserve to travel in comfort. That doesn't include standing for the length of the journey," he said. "As passenger numbers continue to grow there will be more strain on current capacity. We look to the franchising director, where possible, to reduce any severe overcrowding."

The London Regional Passenger Committee, the official watchdog for the capital, said passengers on Thameslink faced "appalling problems". Rufus Barnes, LRPC director, said: "There does not appear to be a short-term solution because of the infrastructure limitations in south London."

The Association of Train Operating Companies said the rail system was "wrestling with the problems of its own success".

"We are having to cope with unprecedented growth of 25 per cent over the past four years. We have introduced 1,000 extra services a day to cope with increasing demand but we still need more trains and major improvements to track and signalling."

Railtrack last week unveiled a pounds 27bn 10-year investment programme but only committed pounds 1.4bn of new money to expand the network. The Health and Safety Executive said it had commissioned research into whether overcrowding affected railway safety.

t Trains carrying cars will return tomorrow as a private venture, four years after British Rail axed them to save money.

Motorail aims by 2001 to take 20,000 cars off the roads each year. It will cost pounds 360 return to put a car on the train from London to Glasgow. Passengers have to travel separately but train operators GNER, Virgin and ScotRail are offering low fares, and Motorail also hopes easyJet will offer cheap air fares for passengers.

WORST LINES FOR OVERCROWDING

ROUTE % passengers in

excess of capacity

Thameslink

Wimbledon-Blackfriars 14.1 per cent AM

Thameslink

Wimbledon-Blackfriars 12.1 per cent PM

Silverlink

London Euston-Watford 10.9 per cent AM

South West Trains

Short distance services 6.3 per cent AM

Silverlink

Richmond-Woolwich 5.9 per cent AM

South West Trains

Long distance services 5.8 per cent AM

Thameslink

Bedford-Brighton 5.8 per cent AM

Thameslink

Bedford-Brighton 5.5 per cent PM

Connex SouthCentral

South London routes 4.6 per cent AM

Thames Trains

All Routes 4.4 per cent AM

Source: Office for Passenger Rail Franchising

AM=morning peak; PM=evening peak

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