Train overcrowding reaches 10-year high

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The Independent Online

Overcrowding on London commuter trains in the morning rush hour is at its highest level for a decade, according to figures released yesterday.

Five companies have been ordered by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to make life more bearable for passengers, by increasing the capacity of their services. On the authority's hit list of operators running overcrowded services into London are Connex South Central, First Great Eastern, Silverlink, South West Trains and Thameslink.

The worst performer was Silverlink who, under emergency timetables, operated at nearly 10 per cent over capacity in the morning rush hour – three times worse than its performance the previous year.

Ultimately, the authority has the power to remove the companies' franchises, a decision it has already taken in the case of Connex South Central – where the licence has been awarded to GOVIA. However, Stagecoach has retained its South West Trains franchise, despite being the second worst performer in the south-east region.

The data shows that despite widespread flooding and the speed restrictions imposed in the wake of the Hatfield disaster, the number of people commuting into London late last year and in early 2001 was 2.6 per cent higher than 12 months previously at an average of 466,920 a day.

Mike Grant, the authority's chief executive, warned that the figures – which cover 10 companies running trains into the capital – showed "the urgent need to increase capacity". He said: "The figures also demonstrate that predictions of passengers after Hatfield were simply wrong – there is a strong and continuing growth trend.

"Our concern is to press manufacturers to deliver more trains as soon as possible and get the train operating companies and Railtrack to work together to run them reliably."

Mike Hewitson, secretary of the Rail Passengers' Committee for Southern England, said the biggest problem was when commuters were forced to travel at certain times in the morning. He said the SRA needed to speed up the re-franchising process so that companies could invest in longer trains and longer platforms. He said: "One of the most irritating problems for commuters is when a train which is scheduled to be 12 carriages long, turns up with eight. That is an increasing problem. Operators need to have enough maintenance staff and enough rolling stock to cope with unforeseen circumstances."

George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: "These figures are proof – if proof were needed – that the Government needs to take some early decisions about key infrastructure programmes so that the industry can get on with the business of delivering capacity enhancements." He said it was clear trains were running at, or close to, capacity.

The SRA announced that for the third consecutive year the number of passengers commuting over the Forth Bridge into Edinburgh during peak hours had increased substantially. Based on surveys in early 2001, the number of passengers on morning services was 3,250 – a rise of a quarter on autumn 1999 figures. But levels of overcrowding on ScotRail services only rose from 2.8 per cent to 3 per cent because the company provided additional capacity, the authority said.

The SRA's survey appears to contradict figures published by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) last week. ATOC reported that 50 million rail journeys had been lost since the Hatfield disaster because passengers had been frightened from using the railways. However, rail managers explained that commuter figures had grown while off-peak and business travel had been cut.

* Train companies must give passengers specific details of how to escape in an emergency. The change in rules, proposed yesterday by the Health and Safety Commission, follows recommendations in Lord Cullen's recent report into the October 1999 Paddington train crash that claimed 31 lives. In the Paddington inquiry, there were passenger complaints about a lack of emergency hammers and difficulty in using them.