British commuter trains to get closer to can of sardines

October 16th, 2008 - 2:34 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Oct 16 (IANS) British commuter trains may soon resemble Mumbai’s overcrowded suburban services, if new passenger capacity rules are any indication.The department of transport has chosen a simple way to increase passenger loads on tracks without adding a single seat. It has raised the limit on standing passengers from the existing 10 for every 100 seats to 30.

The department said that its loading standard assumed that each standing passenger would have 0.45 sq m of floor space: any less and the train would be officially overcrowded.

The announcement has elicited only smirks, with people saying the department is blind to the fact that the revised limit is already in breach on scores of trains.

For instance, the most overcrowded service is First Capital Connect’s 7.15 a.m. service from Cambridge to King’s Cross, which has 76 people standing for every 100 seats. The figure could have been higher had there been an inch of extra space.

Train commuting is a major problem in Britain, with demand outstripping supply. Passenger numbers have gone up by 50 percent, but not the carriages. Out of 1,300 new carriages promised by this year, only 423 have been ordered and none delivered so far, according to The Times.

But then, the government alone is not to blame for this. An investigation by The Times last year revealed that hundreds of train carriages are lying idle in sidings all over the country. They add up to roughly 10,000 extra seats.

The carriages are owned by three banks and leased to train companies. The companies are trying to save money by hiring as few as possible. A prominent company has so few trains that some of its peak services have four carriages instead of the usual eight.

The lopsided situation has made daily travel dearer. Private train operators have hiked current day, peak-time prices steeply to keep the crowds in trains manageable.

For example, Virgin charges 215 pounds for an open single in standard class from London to Warrington, but as little as 13 pounds for passengers able to book several weeks in advance.

Centro, the public transport authority in the West Midlands, has already complained to the National Audit Office (NAO) that the new standing passenger rules would result in even worse conditions on trains in the region and encourage people to travel by car, thereby adding to road congestion.

There is a worry that the government’s offhand approach to the problem will only increase fares to a point where affording a train trip will be a greater headache for passengers than travelling standing.

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