Reduction in seats on Great Northern trains to/from Cambridge from May 2017

On this page I analysed the number of standard class seats available on Great Northern trains to/from Cambridge, between King's Lynn and King's Cross, following the introduction of new trains, and timetable changes, in May 2017. This was picked up on reported in a local Cambridge paper here. An article published the following day, here, contained Great Northern's response to my observations. On this page, I look at each of their points in turn.

A Great Northern spokesman questioned the accuracy of Mr Booker's analysis, saying that during the three-hour morning peak, on the fast services from Cambridge to London, the actual number of standard class seats lost is 396.

This is comparing apples with oranges. My analysis looked at a two-hour window, and considered all services between Cambridge and King's Cross, not just the fast services. Even so, I cannot see how Great Northern have come up with this number. There are two fast trains per hour between Cambridge and London, so that's six trains in a three hour window. So the claim is that each train has lost 396 / 6 = 66 seats. Since we've established that there approximately 40 seats lost per four carriage unit, or 10 seats per carriage (with the exact value depending on whose numbers you believe about the seat counts), that would mean that there is an average of 6.6 carriages on each of those fast trains. Using Great Northern's own document showing peak-time train lengths, we can see that all of the fast trains between 06:00 and 09:20 have at least 8 carriages, so the average cannot possibly be 6.6, and therefore the claim that only 396 seats have been lost in a three-hour window must be far too low. Even if we define peak as being really early, from 5am to 8am, so that we include two 4-carriage fast trains, we still get an average train length of 8.66 carriages.

The spokesman also said there were 239 standard seats on an older Class 365 train, meaning there are 36 fewer seats per carriage.

There is confusion over the exact seat counts. But my attempt to count the seats agrees exactly with Great Northern's claim here: I also believe there are 239 standard class seats on a Class 365. However, I calculated 38 fewer standard class seats per carriage (based on a count of 201 standard class seats on a Class 387) rather than the 36 that Great Northern are now claiming. But, in another article, here, Great Northern claimed that there were 46 fewer seats on the new trains (so 44 standard class after taking into account the first class seats), and not the 36 that they are now claiming. So, which is it, Great Northern? 44 or 36? Or shall we stick with my count of 38? In my original analysis, I showed that the choice between 38 and 44 fewer seats made little difference to the final conclusions. Without recalculating everything again, I'm fairly certain that if 36 is the correct number, that will also make little difference to the final conclusions.

He said the company has never said there is more standing capacity, or that they are running more services to make up for the loss of seats.

Great Northern's Twitter feed regularly makes the claim that there is a greater overall capacity when people question the reduction in seats, for example here and here, with many other tweets claiming the same thing if you search for them. I admit that all of these only ever state that overall capacity has increased, and do not mention standing capacity explicitly, but if overall capacity has increased and the number of seats has been reduced, then what other type of capacity has increased?

In this article there was a strong implication that there would be extra trains across a large proportion of the route ("these one dozen extra King's Cross trains at Ely should ease crowding on the King's Lynn services which will be a real boon for our passengers" and "Great Northern claims that this will add over 3,300 more seats across the day by doubling the frequency in the off-peak and plugging service gaps at this station at peak times"). I now feel that these quotes were very cleverly worded to make it appear as if extra trains were running all the way between King's Cross and Ely, but in actual fact the statements were only referring to the extra trains that have been added between Cambridge and Ely.

He also denied the company has said there is more standing capacity in the new trains, and says they are using exactly the same metrics as before.

See the Twitter links I gave above for examples of where Great Northern has claimed more standing capacity. Until Great Northern publish the official standing capacities of the old and new trains, it is impossible to agree with, or dispute, the statement that they are using the same metrics as before.

He added that in the off-peak time there are 262 more seats in a standard hour, because Great Northern is now running more eight-carriage trains instead of four-carriage trains. That adds up to more than 1,800 extra seats a day.

In my analysis I stated pretty clearly that I do not know the number of carriages per train, especially off-peak, and I have assumed an average of 6 carriages per train off-peak (midway between 4 and 8 carriages) both before and after the change. If the number of off-peak carriages has been increased with the new trains, then clearly my analysis is wrong. If Great Northern choose to publish the number of carriages on all of their trains, both before and after the May 2017 timetable change, I will gladly update my analysis.

Great Northern say they will be introducing a new Thameslink service in 2018, which will create nearly 3,000 extra peak seats from Cambridge to London.

Note how at the start of Great Northern's response, they were talking about the seat reduction on fast services between Cambridge and London. They've now switched to talking about all services, not just the fast services. Switching from one metric to another like this in the middle of an article is almost certainly going to confuse anyone who is not reading the response very carefully, but since it's Great Northern who have made that switch, I'll run with it. A quick look at the proposed timetables between Cambridge and London for Thameslink in 2018 shows that all of the new additions to the timetable are stopping or semi-fast services, and not fast services, and so the vast majority of these extra seats must be on the new semi-fast and stopping services. If Great Northern were still only talking about the fast services with this claim of 3,000 extra seats, that would mean 500 extra seats per train (assuming two fast trains per hour and Great Northern's three hour peak window), which would mean that every peak train has to be lengthened by about eight carriages. And given that they're already eight or twelve carriages long, this is impossible.

The new fleet of trains are the first on our route to give passengers much-needed air-conditioning, as well as state of the art on board information systems, accessible toilets and designated areas for wheelchair users and power points at every pair of seats. We will very soon be adding free on-board Wi-Fi.

That's going way off-topic for this discussion, and moves onto points that I had no desire to bring up. But, since Great Northern have introduced them: whilst air-conditioning is nice, it must be reliable if you're going to use it to replace opening windows. From looking at Great Northern's Twitter feed, there are regular complaints about the air-conditioning not working and people suffering because they can't open the windows to at least get some (warm) air to circulate.

The passenger information systems seem to list the upcoming stations correctly most of the time, but still manages to get confused and get it wrong some of the time, much like the ones on the old trains. The only difference, which must be the explanation for the "state of the art" tag, is that they now include the carriage number, so that you know if you're in the right part of the train when one divides. Personally, in the past, I've always managed to successfully count the carriages from the outside before boarding and don't recall ever ending up in the wrong part of the train, but maybe this "state of the art" additional information will help some people.

The old trains also had accessible toilets and a designated space for wheelchair users, so I'm not sure what's changed there with the new trains.

Power points are a good and useful addition to the new trains (if you can get a seat to be able to use them!).

Adding Wi-Fi is surely completely independent to the model of the train, so I don't see how that can be claimed as a direct benefit of the new trains themselves. Is it not just something Great Northern have decided to do at a point in time that happens to be within a few months of the introduction of the new trains?

There are fewer seats in the peak but this is because the new trains are built to be safer for passengers with the seats positioned further away from the bulkhead ends, meeting updated crash-worthiness standards.

I agree with the statement about fewer seats in the peak, but have no knowledge of crash-worthiness standards! Though if passengers have to be further away from the bulkhead ends, surely that has to apply to standing passengers as well as seated passengers? Is there an area of each carriage that it's now considered unsafe to stand in? Do I need to further reduce my calculation of the available floor space for standing passengers to take this into account?

Off-peak, Cambridge will receive one and a half times as many trains as it does today - six trains an hour instead of four.

Again, this has switched from talking about fast services to all services. Currently, there are two fast, one semi-fast and one stopping service off-peak per hour between Cambridge and London. With the proposed timetable changes from Cambridge to London, there will be two fast, two semi-fast and two stopping services. So no extra fast services.

The new Thameslink service will give our Cambridge customers direct services to St Pancras, Farringdon, City Thameslink, Blackfriars, London Bridge, East Croydon, Gatwick Airport and Brighton.

Again, this is going off-topic, but looking at the proposed timetable changes from Cambridge to London, you only get direct access to these places if you're prepared to take a semi-fast or stopping service between Cambridge and London. The fast services will still terminate at King's Cross.

The trip to Gatwick Airport will be about half an hour faster than it is today.

Today, it takes 50 minutes to do Cambridge to King's Cross and 30 minutes to do Victoria to Gatwick. Let's assume 30 minutes for a tube connection between King's Cross and Victoria, so in total that's 1 hour and 50 minutes to do Cambridge to Gatwick, or a bit longer if you're unlucky with connections at Victoria (there are 9 trains per hour off-peak between Victoria and Gatwick, so you're never going to be waiting too long). Online journey planners, which are notorious for allowing much longer than you really need for a tube connection, will offer fastest journey times of around two hours for Cambridge to Gatwick via King's Cross and Victoria, pretty much agreeing with this analysis. They do, I admit, also offer a variety of longer options, involving changes at Finsbury Park, St Pancras or London Bridge, or some journeys via King's Cross and Victoria with a clearly excessive 50 minute tube connection, but it wouldn't be fair to compare the slowest option before the Thameslink changes with the fastest option afterwards, so we should disregard these longer routes.

The new proposed timetable from Cambridge to Gatwick direct, using the semi-fast trains between Cambridge and London, takes exactly 1 hour and 50 minutes to get between Cambridge and Gatwick Airport. So there is very little, if any, time saving, depending on the exact connection you could or couldn't have made at Victoria, unless you deliberately choose to compare against one of the slower original routes to Gatwick. It will definitely be more convenient, with no need for the tube transfer across London, but in no way is it half an hour faster.


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