The Railway and Overcrowding

I have recently exchanged correspondence with Michael Roberts, the Chief Executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) on this subject on behalf of my constituents:

Letter from ATOC:

Rt Hon John Redwood MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

18 July 2012

Dear Mr Redwood

In response to your letter published in the Evening Standard on 9 July about overcrowding on commuter services into Britain’s major cities, I thought it might be helpful to clarify several of the points made and explain what steps train companies are taking to reduce overcrowding.

Turning to specific the points in your letter, you suggested that “lighter weight trains would brake better and reduce the long distances needed between trains for safety reasons”.

A safe braking distance is dependent on the grip between steel wheels and steel rails that can be guaranteed under normal operating conditions. Lighter weight trains would only offer a solution if the braking capability of current trains were constrained by their weight, but this is not the case. The current upper limit on braking capability is set by a combination of the physics of a steel wheel interacting with a steel rail and the need not to injure standing passengers when braking heavily.

Train companies are currently investigating whether alternative braking technologies in use on other networks could bring further capacity and safety benefits while ensuring that Britain’s rail safety record remains the best in Europe.

A major development in this area is the deployment of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERMTS) across Britain’s railways. In its simplest sense, this system replaces conventional trackside coloured light signals with an in-cab signalling system. This will allow the distance between trains to be reduced and will enable a greater number of services to run each hour. This system is already in operation on a small part of the network and will be expanded to the Great Western Main Line, the East Coast Main Line and the Midland Main Line over the next decade. New Thameslink and Crossrail services will use ERMTS from the outset.

You raised the matter of using rubber wheels on rolling stock and I can confirm this has been considered by train companies. Rubber wheels are used on some metro systems (eg Paris) and will deliver a greater amount of grip between the wheel and the rails when operating in dry conditions. It is incorrect, however, to say that they will perform better in rain and snow. When wet, rubber tyres on steel rails deliver significantly poorer grip than steel wheels on steel rails and are thus not used on mainline rail systems where most of the running is in the open air.

Substantial efforts have been made by companies and Network Rail over recent years to mitigate the impact of poor weather conditions, particularly on the heavily used but exposed ‘third rail’ electric railway in London and the South East of England. During a particularly significant snowfall, however, there remain major challenges to running services.

Finally, I dispute your comment that train companies “can’t be bothered” to improve services as “each region is still a monopoly”. The industry has made significant progress since privatisation, with train companies now running 20% more services a day than they did fifteen years ago. In addition, the industry has set out plans to provide around 180,000 more seats when services are busiest. Train companies compete not only at the franchise bidding stage but in many regions against one another and across the country against car and domestic aviation.

I hope this response is helpful and I would be happy to meet you to discuss in more detail the work train companies are doing to improve capacity on the railways.

Yours sincerely

Michael Roberts
Chief Executive, ATOC


Reply to Mr Roberts:

Mr Michael Roberts

Chief Executive

Association of Train Operating

Companies (ATOC)

3rd Floor, 40 Bernard Street

London WC1N 1BY

23 July 2012

Dear Mr Roberts

Thank you for your letter of 18 July. I was glad to learn that you do intend to improve comfort, safety and capacity on commuter services, and I look forward to seeing the improvements on Thames Valley lines serving my constituency. We currently lack the frequency and comfort of service that many passengers would like. You seem to accept capacity is inadequate, as you refer to people having to stand on trains as a normal condition you plan for. We do not allow standing passengers on coaches or passengers without proper seats in cars.  Perhaps you could let me have the details of how you plan to improve services for the Wokingham constituency.

You say you could not introduce faster braking with lighter trains. Surely if you reduce the weight that has to be slowed, you can slow it more easily with the braking force available. You also go on to say that nonetheless you are looking at alternative braking technology which might allow faster braking, which implies some acceptance of my case.

I am glad you are looking at signal systems which might raise capacity on existing lines. I was also interested to see you are examining rubber wheels. I did not have in mind rubber tyres on steel rails, but a rubber tyre option that could engage with a concrete or other friction generating surface which could engage for braking or when the steel on steel system is slipping too much. Hydraulic engagement with a concrete runner or with a suitable strip near the tracks would do the job of generating friction and traction in difficult weather conditions.

I do not feel that railway companies have done anything like as much as airlines and the motor industry to improve the standards of safety and comfort, or to provide the extra capacity modern travellers need. I do hope your letter points the way forward to a better record in future. Having to stand on a train is not acceptable. Providing no seat belts on fast intercity trains remains a worry.

Yours sincerely

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP
Member of Parliament for Wokingham


  1. Paul Withrington
    August 14, 2012

    All those crushed rail commuters may like to know that in New York there is a contra flow bus lane 11 feet wide carrying 700 45-seat express coaches in the peak hour, thereby offering over 30,000 seats. In comparison, four inbound tracks are required at Victoria Main Line to accommodate 30,000 crushed railway commuters.
    The truth is London’s vast surface Rail network is, in highway terms, substantially disused, even in the peak hour. The 21st Century solution is to take the steel rails off and operate the motor roads so create so as to avoid congestion. That would cost a fraction of the steel tyred option whilst offering all London’s crushed surface rail commuters seats half the present fares. Countless lorries and other vehicles would transfer to the new routes at huge environmental benefit to London. However, for that to be a reality we have to junk the religion that the railways have become.

    Those who love rail may like to contemplate the Motorway and Trunk Road network paved with railway lines. If it were the place would be at a standstill, as are the railways in highway terms.
    Here are some useful links:

    Central London
    Cost of conversion
    Fuel and emissions (That one takes no account of the very large savings that would accrue from existing vehicle transferring the converted network).
    Death rates
    Or go ot he facts sheets here or to the topics here and browse.

    1. lifelogic
      August 14, 2012

      Indeed the BBC/Sir John Betjeman/State sector railway religion. Does this religion have legal protection from being offended I wonder?

  2. Alan Wheatley
    August 15, 2012

    I think we should step back and consider the case for commuting. As long as more money can be made in the the cities, especially London, more people will look to be earning it. As transport links improve they will come from further afield. But is this a trend that should be encouraged and supported.

    For instance, there is a very large housing estate being built on the Western outskirts of Aylesbury which has been provided with its own station to enable easy commuting to London. Why? Aylesbury is a large town with lots of industry. Why is the new Aylesbury housing not optimised for expanded Aylesbury industry?

    Obviously there must be some commuting, but it seems to me it should not be assumed that more must be better. I think there are better strategies for housing, employment and efficient working practices that look more to localised solution throughout the country.

    Walking to work is healthy from several points of view.

    1. Paul Withrington
      August 15, 2012

      A solid basis for life is that every pot should stand on its own bottom. Why should commuting be subsidised, particularly rail, when the radical option of removing the steel in favour of asphalt would provide a better service for all but the longest 5% of journeys at one quarter the cost? Answer, the sentimentality that the great age of steam engendered.
      The cost of the denial to is vast both in cash terms and in term of the opportunity lost. Those rail right of way, if converted, would attract countless lorries and other vehicles from the unsuitable city streets and rural roads that they now clog, saving a great deal of time and fuel. Additionally endless acres of near derelict railway land would become intensely valuable.
      Railway people deny that, claiming the rights of way are too narrow etc. However, the clear distance between tunnel walls and on viaducts is 24 feet, exactly the same as the width of the carriageway of a brand new two-way trunk road. The alignments are superb and there are few junctions. On the approaches to towns and cities there are vast widths.
      The cost of converting the entire network would be not more than £20 billion, see
      The problem is two fold. Firstly the numbers are so different from the myth as to beggar belief and secondly, and as previously, the railways are a religion.

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