02/11/2018 00:02 GMT | Updated 02/11/2018 10:31 GMT

'They Only Listen When People Tweet': Staff Say Overcrowding Ignored by Train Companies

On a normal weekday, almost 170,000 people a day are forced to stand on train journeys.

Jack Taylor via Getty Images

Staff on board trains are so sick of overcrowding on busy services that some are telling passengers to tweet negatively about the rail company to provoke a response, HuffPost UK has learned.

The issue emerged following an incident on a Virgin train between Liverpool and London last weekend, which was standing room only in many parts of the train.

Passengers on board told HuffPost that the train manager spoke bluntly over the tannoy. He told passengers of the overcrowding: “It’s embarrassing for those of us working on here.

“I encourage you to tweet at them, tweet them photos, they will listen to you, they don’t listen to us”. 

Unions have told HuffPost that train companies are ignoring the health and safety concerns of on-board staff when it comes to packed carriages.

Figures released earlier this year by the Department of Transport revealed that on a normal weekday almost 170,000 people are forced to stand up on trains during the morning commute into the biggest cities.

The five most overcrowded stations are in London, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds and Cardiff.

But union organisers say the issue is potentially dangerous and that their complaints are repeatedly ignored when the issue is raised with train management. 

A train conductor, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost it’s something her colleagues often complain about, but that people are afraid to speak up about.

She said: “As on-board staff there is only so much we can do with the space we have. And what that Virgin conductor suggested, I agree. There is nothing that we can do.

“I think general consensus [among colleagues] is that it’s a population and infrastructure issue.”

Craig Johnston, a relief regional organiser for the RMT union in the north, who used to be a train guard, said he is not at all surprised by the comments heard on the Virgin train.

“It has been a persistent problem for as long as I can remember,” he said, “but it has become more acute in recent times for a number of reasons.

“It’s not just the Virgin train services, there are other services which are equally as bad and some of them are long distance as well. CrossCountry has a particular problem with chronic overcrowding, so does the TransPennine Express.”

He said many people don’t realise that there are no restrictions for how many people can be “crammed onto” trains. 

“Our reps regularly raise the issue of overcrowding on trains because there are health issues as well. People can have panic attacks, people can be taken ill because they are standing for such long periods of time on trains that are jolting about. For people who are elderly or infirm, it isn’t a pleasant experience and that can cause problems as well.” 

Johnston said a lot of people now reserve train seats when booking because of the problems and because of the way the ticketing system works, trains are set to be overcrowded before they even set off. 

“It means you get walk-on passengers getting onto trains where there are no seats that haven’t been reserved. Unless you have reserved, you’re going to be standing.”

Johnston also said he is not surprised at the reluctance of on-board train staff to speak out against the problems, because train companies often take action if people do. “You get something akin to the Spanish inquisition if you do say anything.” 

Steve Hedley, senior assistant general secretary of the RMT, said: “The guards on the trains, and indeed the staff on the platforms, bear the brunt of passengers’ fury when they have really bad journeys and overcrowding is one of the worst ones.

“We can understand why people are getting frustrated but what this has resulted in is the frontline staff have been taking more and more abuse, both verbal and physical. It’s on the increase and we’re not happy about that as a trade union.

“We can understand the public outrage at the services they are getting but it’s really not the staff’s fault.”

He said the train manager’s point that the company may not listen to staff, but might pay attention to tweets, echoes how a lot of train staff feel. 

“There is supposed to be a system in place with union reps negotiating with management and being able to bring these things up and prevent them from happening in the first place. The frontline staff are the best people to bring the issue up of overcrowding and which stations have the most problems,” he added.

“They won’t listen to the feedback that we are giving them in meetings where they are supposed to, but they seem more interested when they see someone puts something on Twitter. 

“You have the experience of thousands and thousands of staff who have been on the railway a long time who are completely ignored, but someone random tweets something and that’s the top of everyone’s priority list.” 

He added that the new timetabling which resulted in widespread cancellations and delays made the situation even worse. 

A Virgin Trains spokesperson said: “Liverpool is increasingly popular as a destination and the first southbound services on a Sunday can be very busy, especially when Liverpool FC have played at home the day before, which was the case this weekend.

“We are always listening to our customers and colleagues, and the Liverpool route is consistently one of our highest scoring  for overall customer service.”

On Thursday, Virgin Trains announced it was scrapping the Friday peak restrictions on trains out of London Euston. 

Restrictions will be removed permanently from Friday, following a 13 week trial
that has also helped dramatically reduce congestion on key evening services.

During the trial, the popular 19:00 London Euston to Manchester service saw the average maximum number of passengers fall by 61%. Normally this would be the first service available for passengers with off-peak tickets.

Similar benefits were seen on the West Midlands route where the average maximum number of passengers on the 19:03 London Euston to Birmingham New Street fell by 75%.

“Rather than everyone waiting for the first off-peak train on Friday evening, people can now travel whenever’s convenient for them,” explained Sarah Copley, Commercial Director at Virgin Trains. “This change means we’ve been able to reduce congestion, whilst helping people save money and make an earlier start to their weekends.”

A spokesperson from TransPennine Express said: “We understand our customers’ frustration and recognise that our services, particularly at peak times, can be very busy. That is why we will be introducing extra capacity across our network.

“Over the next two years we will be introducing 220 brand new carriages on our services, which will provide 13 million more seats a year for our customers, with the investment worth over £500m.”

A spokesman for the Great Western Railway said it was undergoing “the biggest upgrade in a generation”, including brand new trains which will transform it from having one of the oldest, to one of the newest fleets in the country.

He said: “New Intercity Express Trains are already in service, providing thousands more seats everyday between South Wales, Bristol and London; and in August we began operating the first of our new fleet specifically tailored for Devon and Cornwall; with the full delivery and a new timetable agreed with Network Rail, these new trains will deliver more seats, more frequent services and quicker journeys.”

HuffPost UK has approached CrossCountry Trains for a comment.