Westminster report: Railways near tipping point

PUBLISHED: 11:10 10 May 2007 | UPDATED: 12:28 04 May 2010

Jim Paice MP

Jim Paice MP

ANYONE who has taken a peak time train from Ely to London is likely to have endured chronic overcrowding, struggled to find a seat, and ended up at their destination fairly fed up. I know I have. The deep dissatisfaction among Ely s commuters to London, r

ANYONE who has taken a peak time train from Ely to London is likely to have endured chronic overcrowding, struggled to find a seat, and ended up at their destination fairly fed up. I know I have.

The deep dissatisfaction among Ely's commuters to London, revealed in the Ely Standard recently, is sadly not surprising. In fact, as many people might suspect but few actually realise, the early morning train to London Liverpool Street is officially the most crowded passenger service into London.

To make matters worse, the 18:15 service from King's Cross to Cambridge is also in the top five most crowded trains serving London, which amounts to a pretty gruelling day's commuting for local residents returning to Ely. Is it really fair that people paying upwards of £3,640 for an annual season ticket can spend most of their journey stood in the aisles?

The Government's measure for over-crowding - Passengers in Excess of Capacity (PIXC) in Whitehall speak - is derived from the number of passengers forced to stand, divided by the total number of people travelling, and expressed as a percentage. The level for PIXC deemed acceptable by the Government is 4.5 per cent. Local commuters, however, experience crowding almost 20 times this level and the user group Passenger Focus fears that the situation will get worse with the number of people using Ely Station expected to rise.

Of course, rising passenger numbers since privatisation is good news, both for the environment and for relieving congestion on our roads. But under Labour, while passenger numbers have increased, capacity has been cut, leading to the current situation of severely overcrowded trains at peak times. And all the while fares have been getting more expensive, far outstripping inflation.

Clearly a strategy for capacity improvements is urgently required to maintain the increase in demand and to provide passengers with a level of comfort that is in line with rising ticket prices. And by capacity improvements I do not mean ripping seats and toilets out of carriages (which seems to be the Department for Transport's definition) but rather better trains and longer platforms.

Obviously this will not be cheap, but the Government is due to receive significant extra funds following recent rail franchise auctions, mostly paid for by passengers through the fares they pay. It is a priority for that money to be spent on tackling overcrowding.

If the Government continues to take passengers for granted (and the recent cut in transport investment doesn't bode well) we are in danger of reaching a tipping point where passengers reject over-crowded trains in favour of other forms of more polluting transport. This would have disastrous implications for efforts to reduce rising carbon emissions from road transport.

If we are to meet our international obligations on climate change, it is clear that we need a major increase in rail use, over and above what we have seen in recent years. To do this we will need to put rail at the heart of Britain's transport system and embark on a rapid programme of capacity enhancements on our railways to provide passengers with greater value for money.

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