Overcrowded trains are our most pressing problem
I recently had the luxury of spending a week travelling our railways using a seven-day All Line Rover, completing many of the journeys I had always intended to make but never quite got round to (Settle-Carlisle, Kyle of Lochalsh, Cambrian Coast/ Festiniog/North Wales, to name a few).
During the course of my week I was able to see, in a fresh light, the current state of our rail network.
Firstly, of all the trains on which I planned to travel, only one was seriously disrupted - a train from Inverness to Edinburgh was cancelled. But the ScotRail staff at Inverness are to be commended for doing an excellent job, ensuring that connections for Edinburgh would be held for those now taking the later Glasgow train, and distributing refreshment vouchers to passengers.
It seems to me that the most pressing problem facing the network today is not speed, but capacity. Many of the trains on which I travelled were full to capacity, if not overcrowded, with passengers standing.
A particularly bad example of overcrowding was an Arriva Trains Wales train from Birmingham International to Porthmadog. So many people were crammed into the two coaches onwards from Machynlleth that at the numerous halts along the coast, it was necessary to detrain significant numbers just so that people could get off the train - inevitably, this led to time being steadily lost.
All credit to the guard, who performed admirably in the circumstances and made sure that no one should be left behind to wait two hours for the next train.
Discussing this with other passengers, they were surprisingly objective: they didn’t want more trains; they didn’t even want faster trains; they just wanted the ones that do run to have sufficient capacity to cater for the traffic on offer.
Another example was a ScotRail service from Edinburgh to Aviemore. The train was seriously overcrowded, and a journey of nearly three hours is really too long to sit perched upon a case in a corridor.
Surely finding a way in which train capacity can simply be augmented or reduced by the addition of a coach or two in shouldn’t be too technically demanding, especially for a train in which all coaches are powered?
A modest investment in platform lengthening might also be necessary (although I am sure most of those passengers standing would have been agreeable to moving along to the front or rear of the train to get off, as a reasonable exchange for having a seat).
While there may well be a case for new or replacement lines to places not currently enjoying a good service because of severe infrastructure limitations, more modest improvements to improve overall capacity and service quality would surely be more cost-effective than any number of new or replacement high-speed lines.
I suspect that politics and career aspirations play their part - there are more brownie points to be gained in building a new railway line (justifying it by arguing that the current network’s capacity or speed cannot be further improved) than steadily working to improve what we already have, utilising newer technologies which are constantly emerging to best advantage.
ScotRail 170428 nears Dalwhinnie on March 3 2017, heading south for Edinburgh. On his rail trip around the UK Steve Robbins found SR’s Edinburgh‘s service on the line to be seriously overcrowded.