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

This page analyses 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.

For some time after the introduction of new trains in May 2017, Great Northern did not appear to publicise the number of seats on their old ("class 365") and new ("class 387") trains. So I counted them. Assuming four-carriage trains, there are 239 standard class seats (plus, for the sake of completeness, 24 first class seats) on the old trains, and 201 standard class seats (plus 22 first class) on the new trains. That's a reduction of 38 standard class seats per four-carriage train, or 9.5 seats per carriage.

In July 2017, this article appeared in a local Cambridge paper, in which Great Northern stated that there were 271 seats on an old train (so 247 standard class after subtracting 24 first class) and 225 seats on a new train (so 203 standard class after subtracting 22 first class). These numbers give a difference of 44 standard class seats per four-carriage train, or 11 seats per carriage, which is a slightly larger reduction than my own seat counts. I have left the main text of this page using my own seat counts, but, for completeness, have added the calculations based on Great Northern's counts as well. It makes very little difference to the conclusions I draw.

Great Northern have countered the reduction in seats in two different ways, by saying they're running lots of extra trains (here), and by saying that overall capacity has increased on the new trains due to them having more space to stand (here and here). I'll now consider each of those points in turn.

How many trains?

It's easy to see if Great Northern are running extra trains. We can look at the timetable post May 2017, and compare it to the pre May 2017 timetable.

Off-peak, Great Northern now run:

This is exactly the same off-peak service as there was before May 2017. If you care specifically about Ely, then one of the four London trains has been extended to run to/from Ely instead of Cambridge, but does not continue all the way to King's Lynn.

Meanwhile, at peak times, where I have arbitrarily defined peak as being from 7am to 9am (arguably slightly late, but chosen because a lot of people commute on the first off-peak train, which can be just as busy as the peak trains), Great Northern now run:

Again, this is exactly the same as it was before May 2017. Ely once again gets special treatment, with one extra peak-time train from Ely (not King's Lynn) towards Cambridge at the very beginning of that two-hour window, at 7:15am.

How many carriages per train?

So, what do the limited timetable changes mean for the number of standard class seats? Well, in order to work this out properly, we need to know how many carriages make up each of these trains, which is something that's surprisingly hard to find out. I've combined information from various sources and written it up here. You can read that link if you want the detail, or just take what I say about the number of carriages in the rest of this page at face value.

Considering off-peak first, we have:

And what about peak times? Well:


To summarise, considering standard class seats only, the changes are equivalent to:

Depending on whether the 07:25 from King's Lynn/08:15 from Cambridge has been reduced in length or not, the peak-time analysis might be over-estimating the reduction by approximately four carriages.

Standing capacity, determined by floor area

Standing capacity is a lot harder to judge, because it's entirely subjective based on your opinion of how many people can stand in a given floor area. Measuring the available floor space is easier and not in any way subjective, and so I did measure it. The detailed results are discussed here (or are available in a spreadsheet, as both the original .xlsx file or rendered as a PDF), but the one-line summary is that the claim that there is more standing capacity for standard class passengers on the new trains is false. The old trains have just over 68m2 of floor space available for standard class passengers to stand, whilst the new trains have 61m2.

An article from RailFuture says that the current standing allowance is 0.45m2 per passenger (approx 2.25 people per sqaure metre), although this is about to be reduced to 0.25m2 per passenger (4 people per square metre), but this only applies to journeys of up to 20 minutes (much longer than Cambridge or King's Lynn to London). Make of that what you will, but if you were to pick somewhere between these two values for standing capacity, and assume 3.5 people standing per square metre, then this has the interesting effect that the standard class standing capacity on an old train is equal to 239 people - exactly the same as the seating capacity. Under the same assumption, a new train has a standard class standing capacity of 213, slightly more than its seating capacity. These numbers are in a very similar ratio to the seating capacity, and so if you were to adjust my seating calculations above to consider overall capacity instead of just seating capacity, the results would be very similar. The overall capacity reduction would be (239 + 239) - (201 + 213) = 64 people per four-carriage unit, or 16 people per carriage. The peak-time reduction in capacity between Cambridge and King's Cross would be 16 * 7.5 * 8 + (239 + 239) = 1438, which is still equal to 12 full (seating and standing) carriages, rather than the original 13 carriages when considering only seating capacity.

Even if you increase the standing density to an absurdly high and dangerous 7 people per square metre, the overall Cambridge to King's Cross peak time capacity reduction is still 11.5 carriages. The detailed calculation for various different standing densities in the spreadsheet I linked to earlier.

Official standing capacity

I personally believe that the only way Great Northern can claim an increase in standing capacity on the new trains is for the official standing capacity of the old trains to have been calculated using the old figure of 2.25 people per square metre, whilst the official standing capacity of the new trains has been calculated using the new figure of 4 people per sqaure metre. That would obviously be an unfair comparison, but without knowing what the official standing capacities of both trains are, I cannot prove that this is what has been done. However, I cannot see any other possible explanation for Great Northern's claim that the new trains have more standing capacity, given the reduction in floor space.

After I added the section on standing capacity to this page, I was sent a link to minutes of a meeting between a passenger group and a different train company (c2c), which state that the overall capacity of a 12-carriage class 387 (new train) is 1488 with 675 seats, which would mean 813 standing, or 271 standing per set of four carriages. If you add back in the first class standing area to my measurement of 61m2 of floor space (to get the total floor space for four carriages, rather than just standard class), you get approximatey 68m2 of floor space, and 271 people in this area gives a standing density of 3.99 people per square metre, which does at least back up half of the suggestion I have just made. It is impossible to go further without knowing the official standing capacity of an old train.

Great Northern's response

On 19th July, Great Northern responded to some of the points I have made on this page. I have considered all of the points in their response here. On 24th July, they made a further response where they confirmed that the extra trains exist only between Cambridge and Ely, and stated that they were wrong to claim that the new trains had more capacity: apparently Great Northern "does not have the latest standing capacity figures", and their previous claims that standing capacity had increased (despite not actually knowing either way) were an "honest mistake" for which they are "truly sorry".

I would like Great Northern to publish information about the number of carriages on all trains between King's Cross, Cambridge and King's Lynn, peak and off-peak, and before/after the timetable change, along with information about the official capacities of the old and new trains, both seating and standing. This information will allow a definitive analysis of the effects of the reduced capacity to be performed, and is the only way to settle this debate one way or the other. To the best of my knowledge, they have not yet released such information.

Contact me

Have I made a mistake anywhere? Can you help clarify the number of carriages on any of the trains? Do you know anything about how official standing capacities are calculated? Mail me.

Update (19 June 2017): Intially when I wrote this page, I wasn't aware of the possible removal of four carriages from the 07:25 King's Lynn / 08:15 Cambridge train to London. The page has been updated accordingly, and therefore now quotes more seats as being removed than it did initially, whilst highlighting that this is still ambiguous.

Update (22 June 2017): I took some limited data from Great Northern's website about the number of carriages per train in the peak, and refined the overall reduction in peak time seats accordingly. Documented and added the link to what information I know about train lengths.

Update (5 July 2017): Great Northern published their seat counts for the old and new trains, which differ slightly from mine, but not enough to make major changes to the conclusions. I have included calculations based on Great Northern's seat counts for completeness.

Update (6 July 2017): Extended the page to include an analysis of floor area and standing capacity, as well as seating capacity.

Updated (11 July 2017): Added the reference to the minutes from c2c which give the official standing capacity for the new trains.

Updated (19 July 2017): After Great Northern responded to this page, I added an additional page considering each of the points they made in turn.

Updated (25 July 2017): Great Northern made a further reponse, confirming that the new trains do not have a larger standing capacity.