03 September 2011
A generic piece on overcrowding on trains
Patrick Crozier

Some overcrowding
Most Londoners know what it is like to get on a train at peak hours.  The carriage will be crowded.  You’ll be so tightly packed that you won’t be able to read.  You’re almost certain not to get a seat.  And even if you do manage to get a seat you will find it too narrow and lacking in legroom.

The reason for this is simple enough: plain ordinary supply and demand.  Normally prices adjust so that supply and demand are in balance.  But when fares are artificially held down by the government - as they are in London - supply falls and demand increases.  In this case it means less space and more passengers and thus, overcrowding.

[As an aside. I always find it funny how the same people who condemn high fares also condemn overcrowding which is a direct result of low fares.]

There is also an issue with investment.  Even if the incentives lined up there would be a problem.  Train operating companies (last time I looked) typically have a government-mandated franchise period of about 7 years.  But trains take 20 years to justify the investment so it makes no sense for operators to buy longer trains - let alone build the longer platforms needed to accommodate them. [Not that they could given that these are owned by Network Rail.]

Now the overcrowding situation in Tokyo is far from perfect but if I had to be overcrowded I would be overcrowded in Tokyo.  There is more standing room so you are more likely to be able to stand up straight and there are more doors per carriage so it’s easier to get out.  And if you are extraordinarily lucky and manage to get a seat it is at least comfortable.  I can’t help but think that this is due to Japan’s rather more sensible private railway system in which operators own both the trains and the track and can do more or less what the like with them.  [Except, incidentally, when it comes to fares which like London are held down.  Hence the overcrowding.]

Isn’t all this just a case for state ownership?
We tried that.  It was called British Rail and there was plenty of overcrowding there too.

Why was overcrowding so bad on British Rail?
Because politicians liked keeping fares down but disliked shelling out for new rolling stock.

But if fares were free wouldn’t the train companies put them up sky high?
I don’t know what would happen initially.  When markets are introduced overnight all sorts of funny things happen because the price signals aren’t in place.  It takes a while for things to adjust and (in this case) for train companies to work out just what their customers really want.  What you have is a choice between short-term pain and long-term gain or short-term gain and long-term pain.  There is no short-term gain, long-term gain option to my knowledge.  [Writing this I am reminded of Brian Micklethwait’s quest for examples of where freedom makes things better overnight.  Not here I’m afraid, Brian.]

It is worth remembering that in the days when fares were freer (before nationalisation) although people grumbled (particularly about freight rates - but that’s another story) it wasn’t that big an issue.

Isn’t it pretty obvious what people want? What they want is a seat.
Is that true?  Sure they want a seat but how much do they want it?  Let’s face it on many lines in London you can get a seat if you are prepared to pay the First Class fare.  But how many people are prepared to do that?  The truth is that people are prepared to forgo the comfort if it means saving some money.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that given enough freedom and enough time things will work out for the better for just about everybody.  Some companies will change their working hours for some staff encouraging them to travel outside the peak.  Train companies will have a variety of classes ranging from luxury to standing-only depending on what people are prepared to pay.  And standing will be nicer.  One of the worst aspects of standing in London is that you can never stand up straight.  You’re always standing at a slightly contorted angle.  Usually because you are bang next to a seat.

But I think you would also find that train companies would invest heavily on routes people wanted to use.  They would lengthen trains and platforms and improve headways and remove bottlenecks.


  1. I don’t mind standing; in fact it’s often the case that I’ll have to stand for the duration when getting a train into London, as my stop is one of the last on the way into the city. However if overcrowding is to be the norm and what seems to be acceptable these days, then more standing space would be great - on a typical overground train the only standing area is around the doors, with limited rails to hold on and stand upright. Not only is it a further inconvenience as more people leave or board the train, but the lack of anywhere to hold on is uncomfortable too - if anything, removing a row of seats per carriage to provide for additional standing space would be of huge benefit! But I doubt that would go down so well with the rest of the public.

    Posted by Worldwide Parcels on  13 September 2011 at 06:11 pm

  2. On some tube trains there are seats that go up or down, but they always seem to stay down, presumably because the last person to see the seat down (or for that matter up) and empty sits on it, and stays sitting no matter what.

    How about more of such seats, and a rule that they all go up during the rush hour?  They could perhaps be locked in the up position.  Would that create more standing room?  I assume so.

    Michael, you’ve been everywhere.  Do you know any railways that do that?

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on  23 September 2011 at 01:00 pm

  3. They do have such seats on some trains in Tokyo on the Yamanote Line. 

    In Paris I noticed that as well as them having these sorts of seats (known as “strapotins") the convention is that if you are sitting on one you give it up as soon as others have to stand.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  23 September 2011 at 02:13 pm

  4. I would like to hear of one example of a totally privately-run railway anywhere in the world, that invests in all the things you mention, ie tracks, platform extensions and trains to cope with excess demand. The UK private railways all had a serious investment problem (Stock Exchanges were investing in sexier shares) from about WW1 onwards. Railways are effectively public utilities (a bit like roads!). BR did have crowding, but it was hugely cheaper to run than the current farce, and it was heading in the right direction businesswise, when ideology turned it into a lawyers & consultants’ paradise.

    Posted by Fandroid on  18 November 2011 at 10:36 pm

  5. Keio, Keikyu, Seibu, Tobu, JR East, JR West, JR Central.  In the UK up until 1948: Great Western, LMS, LNER, Southern.

    I am afraid you are making the classic mistake of thinking that the current system has something to do with free markets.  It doesn’t.  TOCs cannot buy track, Network Rail (which is not really private anyway) can’t run services.  None are free to set fares.

    In the 1920s, train companies were prevented from offering road services, had common carrier rules foisted upon them and, as I understand it, in some cases had restrictions on how much profit they were allowed to make.

    Having said that we should bear in mind that from 1900 onwards rail suffered severe competition from the automobile.  It seems unlikely it could have gone on as it was as a universal service.  However, there were and are markets (particularly, inter-city, suburban and bulk freight) that it was particularly suited to.  One of the tragedies of government intervention is that it has prevented rail from exploiting those markets to the full.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  19 November 2011 at 02:09 pm

  6. It occurs to me that I have made a serious mistake.  In a truly free market you don’t get excess demand.  Or, at least, it’s a rarity.  If there is more demand than supply, the price rises until the two match.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  20 November 2011 at 01:11 pm

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