Virgin Trains was at the centre of an overcrowding row this week after accusations levelled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Virgin Trains was at the centre of an overcrowding row this week after accusations levelled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn 'traingate': why it's time to stop complaining about overcrowded trains

Overcrowding on trains is not as big a problem as you think, and any alternatives are a case of "be careful what you wish for", argues our travel expert Simon Calder

Simon Calder@SimonCalder
Thursday 25 August 2016 12:07
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Goodness, lots of people have been getting cross about empty seats on Virgin Trains. Last week I grumbled there were too many empty seats aboard the 5.30pm from London to Glasgow on a Friday: perishable assets being squandered at a time of peak demand.

But Jeremy Corbyn complained there were too few aboard the 11am from London to Newcastle on a Thursday. He was filmed sitting on the floor in the corridor, saying: “Today this train is completely ram-packed.”

Then Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group runs the East Coast and West Coast rail franchises with Stagecoach, chipped in with a tweet: “Mr Corbyn & team walked past empty unreserved seats then filmed claim train was ‘ram-packed’.”

CCTV shows Jeremy Corbyn taking a seat on train after filming himself sitting on the floor

The Labour leader later challenged that account, saying he hadn’t taken the empty places “because they were reserved seats”.

To avoid the problems Mr Corbyn experienced, a couple of suggestions: book a specific train by midnight the day before you travel, and your Advance ticket comes with a seat reservation; it will also save money for you (or whoever pays for your ticket). That could also help address the Labour leader's assertion that tickets are “incredibly expensive”.

Of course it’s not always possible to plan in advance. In that case, Virgin Trains East Coast has an online Seat Availability Checker, a “traffic light” system that allows you to “See if a train's likely to be chock-a-block, or terribly, awfully lonely. Then book accordingly.”

For example, the 7.30am southbound train on Mondays from Edinburgh starts off as green (“Likely to be lots of seats”) as far as Newcastle; then it’s amber (“some seats”) to York, where – because it is the first off-peak non-stop departure – it is red (“few seats”, or, if you prefer, “ram-packed”).

The segment of the journey that Mr Corbyn described as “ram-packed”, at 11am on a Thursday between London and York, is green.

Time, I thought, to move the discussion on. So I suggested that to sort out the railways, Mr Corbyn must confront the realities that politicians shy away from: that some fares need to rise to manage demand; that antiquated working practices must be modernised and that fare regulations need to be changed to stop the scandalous waste of peak-time trains leaving with too few passengers. (There I go again, grumbling about empty seats on Virgin Trains.)

The online response was interesting. “Anglednose” said: “I wonder if Virgin are paying the Indie for this puff piece or is it just the journo who received an envelope full of £50 notes?”

“Artemis” tweeted: “Are saying [sic] Corbyn pulls stunts? Did you research this properly? I doubt it. Any amateur detective could do better. I could just as easily say you receive a freebee [sic] on a Virgin flight for this. Proof is another matter.”

And Stevie sent a polite email asking: “How many complimentary tickets have you received from Virgin Trains in your lifetime?” The answer is two: a couple of years ago there seemed to be a complete meltdown of the firm's West Coast customer-relations operation. Several thousand people, including me, failed to get a timely response to complaints and queries, and were eventually sent a letter that basically said, “We’ve stuffed up, have two return tickets to anywhere we go, and let’s make up.”

My friend Ben and I took up the offer and went to Glasgow, the most distant point on the network from London. Plenty of empty seats, as I recall.

Mr Corbyn says: “The reality is there are not enough trains, we need more of them.” Well, with passenger numbers doubled in the past 20 years, they are certainly more crowded than they used to be. Commuter services around London and other big cities are overstretched, basically because everyone wants to get to work at roughly the same time.

This is where fare rises come in: the best way to spread demand is to offer a financial incentive, rewarding people who are prepared to travel extra-early or just after the rush-hour, and putting up prices for people who simply have to travel on the 8.03am from Guildford to Waterloo. Sounds harsh? Then please offer an alternative solution.

Yet looking at inter-city trains, across the country and across the year, overcrowding is not a big problem. Taking First and Standard Class seats together, the average “load factor” is slightly less than half. But some trains are standing-room (or sitting-on-the-floor) only, and with longer journey times that is especially uncomfortable and annoying.

There is a simple solution to the problem of those trains with too many passengers, not enough seats. It is best articulated by Mark Smith, the Man in Seat Sixty-One; his website, seat61.com, is the best source of information and inspiration on international rail journeys.

“We could run our trains like the French, Italians and Spanish where every long-distance train has compulsory reservation and every ticket automatically comes with a reserved seat,” he says.

That would mean no more standing, or floor-sitting. But, says Mr Smith, it also would also imply “No more catching an earlier train if your meeting ends early, or a later train if you feel like an extra pint. Even a flexible ticket is only valid on one train unless you go to a ticket office and change it. Those who would have stood – and got home, no doubt complaining about overcrowded trains – would simply be left behind to find a hotel and travel next day when a seat became free.

“The old Chinese proverb applies, be careful what you wish for.”

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