Space on trains


A modern rail company wants to run trains to full capacity and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is a point where trains get too full and the customer’s experience suffers. This is not economically good for a train operator.

Typically this happens not because of a miscalculation on the train company’s behalf but because of an assumption that demand will be steady. Typically demand is steady and predictable and trains are not overfull.

But assumptions go awry, trains get delayed for a variety of reasons and when they do, more passengers use the next train than anticipated.

There is no chance to just grab a couple of extra carriages, but train operators do have the opportunity to open up first class carriages to second class ticket-holders where conditions in the second class carriages become uncomfortable. This is called declassification.


Declassification has a downside, first class ticket holders may find themselves in a more crowded carriage than they might have expected and they can legitimately point to the second class fair as the one they should have paid.


I travelled on a train that should have been declassified last night. The problem was that no-one knew if it was or wasn’t. All we heard from the guard was an announcement to use all available space, which is like asking a drowning man to breathe in.

I had spoken to the guard at the station I boarded and advised him that previous trains had been cancelled making over-crowding on his train inevitable. He did not think he had authority to make the first class coach available. I tweeted south_west trains but they told me I would have to ask the guard. Clearly there was no mechanism to take the decision.


Here is a sensible suggestion for train companies. They devise, adopt and publicise a policy for declassification that empowers guards to de-classify when the train is clearly over-crowded. Guards should be notified digitally of requests to declassify from passengers and passengers should be shown the route to talk to the train operator using messaging devices readily available to all.

The train operators I like (South West Trains included) are good at responding to twitter but not good at sorting out the problems we had last night. In the end the passengers invaded first class without permission because they were so uncomfortable they took the law into their own hands. When they found the first class compartment completely empty they called back through the train and passengers eventually found their way from one carriage to another till the first class compartment was nearly full.

I’m quite sure that anyone who had a first class ticket wasn’t inconvenienced (there were none of us!) but had they been, I would gladly have testified on their behalf if they sort a partial refund.


The bottom line is that we pay high rail fares and – though we usually get VFM – sometimes we don’t. It is relatively painless to sort things out through declassification and a proper process – fully advertised – is one of the most immediate and cost-effective ways of improving customer satisfaction I can think of.

So – if there’s a digital suggestion box for the train operators, I’d like to post this article into it!



About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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8 Responses to Space on trains

  1. ancientllm says:

    If you are lucky enough to travel on a service where there is wifi/mobile signal, this would work. Sadly there are vast swathes of the network, as with the roads, where there isn’t a mobile signal so if your toc doesn’t offer wi-fi, this isn’t going to work! Regards, Rob

  2. Peter D Beattie says:

    Henry. Overcrowding on trains must be an area for Health and Safety to act so did you ask them for an opinion of the situation. The Guard should be able to act for safety of passengers so should be absolved from any rules from his employer?

    Peter D Beattie
    Ex-Railtrack Shareholder

  3. Gerry Flynn says:

    For years under British Rail it was always the prerogative of the Guard to open up First Class if the train was over crowded, however, under privatisation this went out the window in the pursuit of maximum profit!

  4. Peter D Beattie says:

    Gerry. ‘Mazimum profit’ should never override ‘Health and Safety’!

  5. Mike Lacey says:

    I understand that Southern Rail deliberately have too few drivers and rely on them doing lots of overtime. Too much profiteering. Saddiq Khan is looking to take them all into Transport for London, who can make the Tube network run with no problem. Good for him.

  6. henry tapper says:

    You don’t have to use the onboard wi-fi – you just need a personal hotspot of 3G to send or receive a tweet!

  7. Any Permitted Route says:

    Whilst I get the frustration here, there’s a delicate balance to be had. Season tickets are profitable /because of first class customers/. They travel in sufficient numbers during the peak to subsidise the cost of standard class fares, and declassifying first class in peaks is a sure-fire way to start pouring money away.

    The control room does not, and would not, get involved in on-train crowding issues. Where it’s DOO, it’s simply not feasible to contact drivers whilst they’re working to have the discussion about a non-safety-critical issue; where there are guards, their job is to monitor the train and if necessary make the decision to declassify the train. Twitter teams receiving a few tweets is not representative of a train – how many times do I get a seat at the front of the train and people are crammed in at the back? A bit more common sense from my fellow passengers would not go amiss…TOCs could do better to manage behaviour, sure, but trains are busy now. Standing 20-30m shouldn’t be seen as a great evil.

    As for TfL taking over…well, if and when that happens, there won’t be a problem, as there won’t be a first class, and all trains will run at 5 coaches but 3 times as often, according to…well, TfL at least.

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