In another life I counted people – specifically, passengers getting on and off trains at London’s railway stations. Sometimes I’d travel on those trains and count the numbers sitting or standing in coaches. We worked in teams collecting this data for the train operating companies who used it in their strategic planning.
For a station count, we stood at every exit and as the human wave swept through the barriers, we clicked to count the footfall.
"Did you click me?"
When the commuter numbers swelled to hundreds in five minutes, and thousands in less than an hour, my thumbs were tap dancing between the levers on my three-clicker gadget in a miniature Strictly Come Dancing shimmy shuffle. During breaks, we shared tips on the best way to ‘catch everyone’. This included adjusting ourselves to seeing in terms of rows (instead of single individuals) and counting three for every person we caught passing through.
My colleagues, who were ex-railway men, were more zen than I and achieved a level of calm and steady click rhythm. In contrast, I bashed the levers as if trapped in a video game, zapping an endless surge of armed warriors marching towards me, who were instantly replaced. At the end of a shift, we compared the columns of figures in our paperwork like scalps we’d won in battle.
"Sitting on the floor seems completely normal"
Occasionally, I’d spot a famous face in the crowd (the former Conservative party leader William Hague at Victoria station; the writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen at King’s Cross) and very occasionally, I was spotted, and a commuter stopped and asked “Did you click me?”
The one train I’m sure I never counted was the 17.46 London Northwestern, run by West Midlands Trains from London Euston to Crewe – the country’s most crowded commuter train.
According to a report published in autumn 2018, there were more than twice as many standard class passengers as the registered capacity on the 17.46 from Euston to Crewe, giving the service a load factor of 214%. There are eight coaches on this service and each coach carries 70 seats.
"It depends how fast I can run"
I decide to experience the 17.46 first hand and turn up at Euston station early one Wednesday evening. Commuters, homeward bound, are gathering in front of the departure board, their still faces tipped upwards, scanning the train times while others troop across the dark stone floor to the platform with bags on wheels, bags on backs, bags and phones in hand, and coats slung over arms (it's a hot day).
Compared to neighbouring stations at King's Cross and St Pancras International, Euston is looking dull and dated these days, but its atmosphere is brightened by two buskers strumming and singing beneath stairs to an upper level of eateries and their old time songs jolly up the vortex of the concourse: Hello, Goodbye; Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Englishman in New York.
Watching from the platform, I observe many more passengers standing or sitting on the floor, as if this was completely normal.
“It depends how fast I can run,” Kiera Henry tells me, when I ask if she ever gets a seat. She's cheerfully camped down between two sets of shoes. “If I have luggage then I can be a bit slow…"
"You can ask people not to get on the train but they just want to go home"
As the announcement goes out, giving the platform number for the country’s most crowded train, half the station seems to turn and make for number one, charging across the floor and thundering down the ramp leading to the familiar green livery of the waiting Northwestern train.
The Train Operating Company, West Midlands Trains, is owned by a consortium of three companies: Abeillo (70%) East Japan Railway Company (15%) and Mitsui Group (15%).
As commuters bolt into coaches, I question a guard about the overcrowding. “You can ask people politely not to get on the train because it’s too full,” he told me. “But they just want to go home, especially if the previous train is cancelled. We can’t stop them.”
“Can’t you add more coaches?”
“This has always been an eight-car. Sometimes you want to put on a 12-car but you can’t because the platform’s too short. That’s not the case with this train.”
So what's the official response to the chronic overcrowding on this train? A London Northwestern Railway spokesperson said:
The growth in demand for our services on this route has been phenomenal in recent years. We share our Euston passengers' desire to see more capacity.
In May, we added an extra 1,500 seats to our trains in the evening peak leaving Euston. While we currently can't increase the size of the 17.46, in December  we will have an extra 40 carriages. A brand new fleet of trains, with extra capacity to carry more people, is being built for this route. These new trains will start to appear on our network from 2020.
"Sometimes you gate-crash first class and sometimes they let you sit there"
In coach four of the 17.46, I ask passengers if they usually strike lucky with a seat.
“No, it depends what time I get here,” says Peter Ward, en route to Rugby. “You have to be here 20 minutes before the train leaves and even then, you might not get a seat. Sometimes you gate-crash first class and sometimes they deregulate and we can sit there. This is pretty typical.”
What would you advise if you could speak to someone at West Midlands Trains?
“I wouldn’t blame the operators of this service because actually the reason why it’s so busy is because it’s a fraction of the cost of travelling on Virgin, where you can reserve seats. You pay the cheap price and you take the choice. It’s market forces.”
Have you had any memorable experiences on this journey?
“Every so often someone jumps in front of a train and you get held up for six hours.”
"I think these trains are much nicer than Virgin"
Further along, Mary is on her way to Atherstone.
“I don’t think the toilets are very good – pretty poor – but I don’t know how you’d manage that. They need to be cleaned every hour to keep them up to standard. It would be nice to have an extra carriage so no one had to stand, but on the whole, I think these trains are much nicer than Virgin. Virgin trains are so claustrophobic, these ones have got bigger windows so I prefer them.”
Through the glass I catch sight of fields dotted with sheep and rolls of meadow hay edged by the dark green trees of coming twilight.
How do you spend your time? I ask Inara Abolis, also on her way to Rugby.
“Just sitting,” she smiles, hands neatly folded and no phone.
Kally is more focussed: “It really depends on the day. If I’m sitting down, I’ll do some of my reading for work and right now I’m just thinking about it.”
"I've arrived at Milton Keynes. Oh the glamour!"
The Have-Nots — passengers standing or sitting on the floor — are as affable and relaxed as the have-seats. Most that I see are happy to distract themselves from physical discomfort by diving into the virtual world of their Samsung, their only worry being the possibility of phone death.
Katie, cross-legged on the ground and on her way to Milton Keynes, tries meditation: “I feel it will probably help comfort me a bit.”
Any advice for West Midlands Trains?
“It just feels like there’s a massive gap between train times to Milton Keynes especially. The one before this is the 17.16 and there’s a 30-minute gap and there’s loads of people travelling at this time.”
Eight green carriages slice smoothly through the countryside as passengers stand shoulder to shoulder in silence, minds following the onward trajectory of the train, thinking into the future: what’s in the fridge for dinner? Has that Amazon parcel arrived yet? Eyes drift and settle, drift and settle, we’re altogether, but separate. Here am I floating in a tin can, far beneath the moon…
“I’ve arrived at Milton Keynes. Oh the glamour!” I hear someone say into his phone as hundreds get out at this first stop to Crewe. They swarm upstairs to the exit, the journey already finished and forgotten — until tomorrow morning.
In another life, I lived in China where I travelled by bicycle, bus and train. Back in the 1980s, catching a train in the ‘Middle Kingdom’ was a serious business; you were competing with thousands of others for a ticket (hard seat, hard sleeper, soft seat or soft sleeper).
In those pre-internet days, it would be impossible to turn up at the station on the day of travel and expect to get on a train. The crowds were gargantuan, quite unlike anything I’ve experienced since, but also a fascinating cross-section of human life. And so it was on the 17.46 to Crewe. (And yes, we were only ever going to ride this one to Milton Keynes.)