The seats of change?

The government needs all the positive PR it can get at the moment. It may not be able to announce an end to the credit crunch, lower taxes or cheaper beer, but at least 14,500 extra seats is something.

The seats in question will be provided for the comfort of passengers on the Thameslink rail route from Brighton to Bedford, and form part of a £1.4bn investment that will see 1,100 new carriages running on the line by 2015.

Rail engineering firms will be falling over themselves to get a piece of this action, which is one of the biggest tenders of its type in recent years.

It is also worth asking how the Thameslink seat bonanza fits in with the bigger picture of the UK’s rail network.

One of the biggest issues facing the rail industry is increasing capacity while managing wild fluctuations in demand on the busiest routes.

On urban commuter lines the morning and evening rush hours will see passengers crammed into every nook and cranny of the carriage, gasping for breath, praying for their ordeal to end and unable to believe the price of the fare for their journey from hell.

A few hours later the very same carriage will be an oasis of calm as a few day-tripping pensioners make themselves comfortable, look at their off-peak, railcard-assisted tickets and decide that the railways really aren’t that bad after all.

Naturally it is the beleaguered commuters that make the fuss, and providing capacity at peak demand is a political hot potato for the government as well as an organisational headache for the industry.

The solution seems relatively straightforward – run longer trains with more seats, giving passengers a better chance of spending their journey to work in something approaching comfort.

This, according to the Department for Transport, is what the long-suffering Thameslink commuters can look forward to by 2015, when they will have 12 carriages to choose from rather than the current eight. This is the latest move by the government to address rail overcrowding by throwing seats at it.

The problem is that demand is projected to rise, and some observers of the rail industry forecast that it will simply overwhelm any extra capacity on the Thameslink route and everywhere else, leaving us with bigger, better overcrowded trains.

Under this scenario, adding extra carriages to trains is rather like building more lanes on crowded stretches of motorway. In no time at all the road seems as busy as it ever was. You certainly wonder how it coped before it was enlarged, but the benefit is invisible to the naked eye.

This isn’t an argument for doing nothing. There may well be 14,500 less stressed passengers in the south east of England in seven years. Rail congestion, however ­– and indeed the issues facing mass transportation in general – are unlikely to be solved by extra capacity alone.

Andrew Lee, editor