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Overcrowding on British trains

By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries |


First Great Western's high-speed trains are less likely to be overcrowded on the Oxford to London line than the local services on the same route (photo © Georgesixth).

First Great Western's high-speed trains are less likely to be overcrowded on the Oxford to London line than the local services on the same route (photo © Georgesixth).

Britain has a reputation for overcrowded trains, which is in some measure due to the enduring popularity of rail travel in England, Wales and Scotland. Over the last nine years passenger journeys by rail in Great Britain have more than doubled. In 2013, over 1.6 billion journeys were made by train.

Yet our own experience of travelling by rail around Britain is that trains are often very lightly loaded. We’ve been lucky, our positive experience no doubt abetted by our affection for travelling in very rural areas. Luckily, we rarely need to travel at peak times.

UK Transport Minister Claire Perry met with rail operators on Wednesday this week to review overcrowding issues on trains. Overcrowding on rail services is most marked on peak period trains to and from major cities — most particularly to and from London.

Data released at Wednesday’s meeting highlight three real pinch points in network capacity, which are as follows:

  1. Early morning stopping trains with First Great Western from Banbury and Oxford to London. The most overcrowded services are not the fast trains on this route, but rather the local trains which serve local stations in the Thames Valley (via Didcot, Reading and Maidenhead).
  2. Evening departures with London Midland from Euston on the main route north towards Birmingham and Crewe. In 2013, the 16.46 from London Euston to Crewe had the dubious distinction of being Britain’s most consistently overcrowded train, with a load factor of 211%. Fortunately extra carriages have now been added to this train to address the problem.
  3. A small number of morning peak TransPennine Express trains on the Manchester-Leeds axis (in both directions).

Of course, you’ll run across many full-to-capacity main line services on trunk routes in Britain, particular on Friday and Sunday afternoons. There the secret really is to book a seat in advance. Britain is unusual in that seat reservations are issued for free. In many countries there is a fee.

Morning peak services to London on some main lines are notoriously overcrowded. The stats highlight one train that’s really worth avoiding. That’s the 06.30 semi-fast train from Nottingham to London run by East Midlands Trains. This 10-carriage train was noted as running with a load factor of 155% in second class — so with over 200 passengers standing for the final part of the journey into St Pancras. Hardly a good way to start a busy working day in the capital.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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