Passenger Focus

An end to ‘cattle’ trains: solutions for overcrowding

A new survey by the London Assembly has found that overcrowding is the main reason for commuter woes in the capital. From clever carriage designs to innovative apps, Adele Berti takes a look at some cutting-edge solutions.

Image: William Perugini |


ravelling in London during peak hours can be one of the most painful experiences the average commuter has to go through, especially when it entails squeezing into a tube or train carriage for hours, with little to no space to move.

Indeed, ‘travelling like cattle’ ranked first as the most disliked part of using London services in a recent survey carried by the London Mayor’s office, followed by excessively high temperatures on trains and inflating fares.

Yet, as confirmed by Florence Eshalomi, chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, without prompt intervention, the issue is only likely to get worse.

“London’s population is expected to grow from 9.1 million now to 10.8 million by 2041,” she said in a press release. “However, our research shows that the transport system is already struggling to cope with the number of people in London today.

“Londoners do not deserve to feel as if they are travelling like cattle in packed buses and train carriages.”

But London’s case is far from isolated; rail services all around the world – from the US to Europe, India and Australia – are experiencing similar issues, signalling that change needs to happen if a cross-country commuter revolt is to be avoided.

As for the UK capital, the Mayor’s office has pledged it will look into new solutions to ease overcrowding, and many other operators, managers and franchises globally are doing the same. Could any of the following suggestions help?

Modernising and expanding what’s already available

Capacity constraints are clearly at the heart of the problem, as in London and many other places, most peak-hour commuters inevitably flow to a small number of tube or rail stations. Adding to this, it’s often the case that these stations and the trains serving them are ageing, as they were built to meet smaller passenger rates.

As a result, expanding and improving existing networks, combined with modernisation of signalling systems and rolling stock, is by far the most straightforward solution.

London is currently working to meet these demands, as the arrival – albeit repeatedly delayed – of Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line will help even out traffic in key locations such as Paddington, Liverpool Street and Bond Street.

An expansion of the network is also a key priority for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which recently announced plans to invest $37.3bn in improving the city’s existing subway, which will include three new stations and 19,000 new cars.

The same principle applies to intercity trains, where improving the network and adding a newer and faster fleet is crucial. In the UK, this could be happening as soon as 2021, with an extra 1,300 carriages set to become available across the network, as announced by the Rail Delivery Group in 2018.

Image: karnizz |

Apps and websites highlighting less crowded carriages 

In the age of digitalisation, technology is increasingly becoming commuters’ best friend and a powerful ally for rail franchises. The industry is currently witnessing a sharp rise in ticketing websites and travel maps that can work out the best route to avoid congestion.

Among these, Citymapper – available in several cities in Europe and outside it – is offering its ‘where to get on the train feature’, a tool that shows users which train carriages are more likely to be empty.

Something similar is currently being trialled by British rail franchise Thameslink. In January this year, the company joined forces with big data company CitiLogik to test Rail Watch, a system that analyses Vodafone mobile signals and information on train capacity to identify how full the incoming train is.

Currently still in its trial phase – taking place between East Croydon and Brighton – the technology uses colour-coded notifications to tell passengers whether or not they should board.

Meanwhile, an ongoing scheme launched by TfL earlier in May is using Wi-Fi on the Underground to track passenger movements, especially through London’s busiest stations. As part of the project, data gathered from mobile signals will be used to ease overcrowding, providing TfL with key insights on journey patterns.

Redesigning space inside trains

Folding seats, double-decker trains and wider standing spaces are some of the options manufacturers are considering to overcome capacity constraints. As the industry prepares for the prospect of serving an ever-growing ridership, redesigning trains and the space inside them is more than ever paramount.

In this context, positive signals are currently being seen in Israel, where operator Israel Railways is to introduce standing carriages as part of efforts to reduce overcrowding. The new trains, which fall within the operator’s wider ‘suburban travel’ pilot, will feature folding seats and handles, while regular seats and tables will be dismantled from the floor.

Indeed, folding seats are becoming another popular congestion-relieving solution. In the UK, for example, PriestmanGoode – the designing company behind the new Piccadilly Line tube carriages – launched, in 2016, a new set of seats that can be folded during peak hours, claiming they could increase capacity by 30%.

Finally, double-decker trains are currently being considered in Tokyo, where commuter woes are set to reach unprecedented levels when the Olympics start in 2020.

Quid pro quo ticketing solutions

Tokyo Metro recently made international headlines as it started offering coupons for a bowl of soda noodles for commuters willing to take a pre-peak hour train for ten consecutive days.

The scheme, which started trials in January this year, could be pivotal in handling the extra 650,000 people who will be using the network during the Olympics.

Similar – though often less extravagant – quid pro quo solutions can be found on other networks, with Singapore’ case offering a prime example.

Faced with unbearable congestion rates on its morning peak-hour trains, in 2014, the city-state’s Land Transport Authority launched an initiative that offered free travel to people ending their commute before 7.45am.

Having run between 2015 and 2017, the scheme was cancelled in October 2017 and replaced with discounts of up to $0.50 for early commuters.

Hiding trains from commuters 

“Hiding” trains was among the solutions to overcrowding proposed by the UK Government in June last year.

As reported by The Times, the Department for Transport (DfT) was indeed considering not informing commuters on a platform that a train is approaching, and not letting them on-board when it arrives.

The plan for these ‘hidden’ trains was specifically targeting the CrossCountry network, which runs between northern in England and Scotland, carrying over 40 million passengers per year.

Although this idea was just one of many the DfT proposed as part of a wider public consultation on the future of Arriva, the franchise running CrossCountry, it certainly made for an interesting case.