Rail passengers suffering 'daily trauma' on overcrowded trains

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Overcrowding routinely experienced by commuters on Britain's trains is "positively frightening" and will get worse, MPs reported yesterday.

The Commons Transport Committee urged train companies to take immediate action to tackle the problem which amounted to a "daily trauma" for many passengers. The regime for monitoring overcrowding was "absurd", the MPs said, because it was calculated once a year throughout an operator's franchise area, rather than on specific routes in the rush hour. The system "significantly understated the true level of crowding", they added.

The committee's report, Overcrowding on Public Transport, said stricter performance criteria should be introduced to force operators to improve a "difficult, unpleasant and unacceptable" situation.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the committee chairman, said train companies tolerated packed trains because it was profitable to do so. She said that overcrowding had a major impact on commuters' quality of life. "Overcrowding is not an act of God," she said. "It is something that can be dealt with and should be dealt with urgently."

The report found that some companies, such as Arriva, which runs trains in the north of England, were using the supposed requirements of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as an "excuse'' for failing to tackle the issue. Arriva told the committee that it could not run trains which were longer than platforms at particular stations, but the HSE told MPs that it was prepared to assess such applications on a case-by-case basis.

The inquiry found it was "commonplace'' for trains to be so full that passengers could not enter or leave them. The MPs said overcrowding was "bad, and is likely to get worse" and staff reported for work "tired, stressed and uncomfortable" after difficult journeys. It also found that the problem was not confined to the south-east of England but was experienced in northern England and Scotland among other areas.

While the present lack of capacity on the network pre-dated the Government's 10-year transport plan, ministers should not be complacent, the report said. Overcrowding was caused by a number of underlying problems, such as a lack of track and trains, a flawed franchise system, a sub-standard and unreliable network and trains that were often too short for particular services.

The report said: "Some crowding can be inevitable at peak times, but our inquiry has convinced us that the level of overcrowding is so great that many travellers face daily trauma on their journeys."

The MPs said that they were "astonished" that it had been left to the Rail Passengers Council to take the lead in research into the health effects of overcrowding. MPs called on the Strategic Rail Authority to ensure that train "sets'' were sufficiently flexible so that coaches could be added to them when necessary and that rolling stock could be used all over the network.

The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, said the problem was being addressed by increasing capacity through new trains and more reliable services. But he warned: "There are no quick fixes."

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