What will people do to avoid an overcrowded train?

A busy train carriage with all the seats taken and people standing.
Posted on: March 4, 2022 Posted by: Liz Davidson Comments: 0

What will people do to avoid an overcrowded train?

Think back to the last time you travelled on an overcrowded train.

Were you hemmed into your seat or stuck in the gangway?

  • Did you cautiously ask yourself if you needed the loo?
    Hope the answer was no. Resolve not to think about it again. Don’t make the thought a reality.
  • Were you frustrated at that person that really felt the need to push through in search of the refreshments trolley?
  • Was there a flash of anxiety that when the train pulls into your station, you won’t be able to reach the door before it sets off?


People hate overcrowded trains

Last year we collaborated with University of Bristol on a behavioural study to explore how passengers might exercise flexibility in travel times to choose less crowded trains.

The project used online behavioural testing platform Gorilla. It filtered 3315 respondents down to 471 respondents that 

  • regularly commuted pre-Covid on a busy train;
  • held a season ticket pre-Covid; and 
  • intended to return to commuting post-Covid.


A quiet train carriage with spare seats.

One of the questions included a picture of a near empty train carriage and asked them how the image made them feel.

The following question was a picture of a carriage with all the seats taken and several passengers standing in the aisle. And again, the survey asked how it made them feel.


(For copyright reasons, these not the same images as those used in the study.)

A busy train carriage with all the seats taken and people standing.

Empty carriages overwhelmingly evoke feelings of serenity, contentment, ease, satisfaction, relaxation, calm.

Busy carriages evoke feelings of frustration, distress, annoyance, fear, anger, and, where accompanied by resignation, feeling miserable, gloomy, depressed.

The findings aren’t surprising. Just thinking about our own experience of busy trains shows that. It is, nevertheless, worth digging below the surface. 

What does it mean for train operators?

Although overcrowded trains evoke strong negative feelings in passengers, what lengths will they go to to avoid an overcrowded train?

The pandemic has changed the parameters of that last question. Lockdown accelerated the remote working trend and, frankly, many people can now choose not to travel.

The flip-side is that people employers are more willing to accept flexible working patterns, and this opens up opportunities for demand management.

The research explored these questions within the wider context of concern about Covid and new information possibilities. 

The final report hasn’t been published yet, but we have had sight of the results.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we’ll be at Rail Innovation Exhibition in London on 22nd March 2022.

If you’re going to be there too, we’d love to talk about this project and its implications for passenger experience and demand management. Sign up here


University of Bristol logo

Our thanks to the Dr. Katharina Burger, Elisa Becker and Raffaello Rossi for involving us in this project.

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