Who, what, why: How to get off a busy train

A crowded train

Train overcrowding is unacceptable, and going to get worse, according to a report by MPs. But passengers often do themselves no favours by the way they crowd around doors when getting on and off.

Elbows at the ready and breathe in. You'll need to as a new report from MPs says overcrowding on trains in England and Wales will get substantially worse over the next four years, despite rises in ticket prices.

Plans to improve the situation will be unveiled soon, says the government. But could beleaguered passengers make the best of a bad lot by learning to get on and off trains more efficiently?

The following is an all too typical scene - a train stops, the doors slide open and anyone trying to get off is greeted by a wall of people. Alighting passengers must slowly funnel themselves through a small opening in the crowd.

The Answer

  • Allow everyone to get off
  • Keep a consistent flow of passengers getting on
  • Don't push just because everyone else is

For passengers trying to get on as quickly and easily as possible, this is exactly the wrong thing to do, says productivity consultant Eugene Chinal. Pushing gets you nowhere fast. It's all about creating - and maintaining - a steady flow, he says.

"The thing about efficiency is getting a consistent flow - if flow is impeded you get a build up. It's the same when driving on the motorway or trying to get into a football stadium."

Train companies realised this a long time ago, says Mr Chinal, who has worked with many transport companies on time and motion studies. Newer trains incorporate features to increase passenger flow.

Getting the flow

Graphic showing the flow to get on and off a train quickly
  • 1 - Let all passengers off the train
  • 2 - Get on the train
  • 3 - Keep moving down the train to keep the flow consistent

Heavy doors that opened manually by turning a clunky handle have been replaced by electronic doors that open automatically, as soon as the train stops.

And speed is not always a solution, he adds. Too fast and people may stumble. Take it steady to keep things flowing.

"When it comes to flow, even the smallest action or impediment can have a snowballing effect, behind the person and in front of them," says Mr Chinal.

There is also a correct sequence to making embarking and disembarking as painless as possible. Firstly, all passengers who want to get off should be allowed to do so quickly - which means those eager to board the carriage ought to stand well back. Getting on as someone is getting off is a big no-no.

Once everyone is off new passengers should step on. It is very important that they continue moving down the carriage, this allows the flow to remain consistent. Stopping in the first clearing of free space slows everyone down, says Mr Chinal.

But getting on and off public transport efficiently is also very much about state of mind, not just the physical.

Queuing is like any other of society's rules. People observe a queue because they know what behaviour is expected of them to maintain order. Having the right attitude is as important to keeping things flowing as moving one's feet.


Question mark

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

It's when people become more selfish that these systems start falling apart, says psychologist Dr Colin Gill. Yet if conditions are anything to go by, this is only going to get worse. The "already unacceptable levels of overcrowding will simply get worse and ever more intolerable", says the report from The Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Such social rules are starting to breakdown throughout British society, adds Dr Gill.

"We are becoming a society of individualists, rather than a society. In modern culture people don't get rewarded for doing the right thing and there aren't so many sanctions for doing something wrong. There are fewer moral absolutes."

We are also driven by a "herd instinct". People don't want to be on the outside because they feel vulnerable, says Dr Gill. It's why we push to be in the centre.

Below is a selection of your comments

Sounds so simple. Try doing that if you have luggage.

Darren, Newbury

The issue with moving down into the carriage is when you are getting off. I travel on local trains in London fairly regularly and it's surprisingly easy to become banked in as the train fills up, only to have to try and work your way through the crowd when it gets to your stop and constantly apologising to everyone whilst desperately hoping the doors don't close before you can get out, which is why I tend to aim for an alcove near the door and take my chance it's on the right side. However I do agree with the suggestion to let other people off first, although generally most people are quite good at this.

Laura, Lancaster

I travel on commuter trains and tubes a lot. If I am standing by the door of a busy train and people want to get off, I step down from the train to enable people to get off faster, and I get on again when the way is clear. Why don't the automated and other announcements encourage everyone to do this? If we all did this, the process would be smoother and quicker, and train services would have a better chance of keeping to their timetables.

Nick, London, England

It's all very well talking about how people 'should' behave when getting on and off of trains but the reality is that, as soon as someone else makes a move, everyone else has to. I've had so many people walk past me when I'm queuing and then push in at the front that I've given up queuing and do the same. Most train users would be happy to have some sort of system in place that prevents us having to use our elbows to get on and off but until that happens, we need to use them or we won't get on the trains at all.

Colin, Merstham, England

In London foreign visitors do not understand any of this they do not queue and barge in, how to deal with that? I agree that announcements should be made when a train approaches the platform, people would then be educated in the procedure, at present they just rush to get on ignoring people wishing to get off.

Gill Robertson, Gloucestershire

We drive on the left, all our walkways are signed 'keep left', so keep it simple by turning left when boarding and disembarking. Get off the train by turning left or straight ahead to get behind boarding passengers who in turn should wait with left shoulder towards train and turn left to board once the outbound flow stops. Nobody should ever turn right to get on or off a train as this is like driving the wrong way around a roundabout!

Dirk Jones, Reading, UK

Make it a one way system. On at one door, off at another door further down the carriage, which would create the desired 'flow'.

Maurice Rolfe, Herne Bay

It is all very well saying passengers must keep moving down the train, the biggest hold up is trying to find space to put your luggage, you cant walk down to your seat with it and sit down out of the way. The obvious solution is provide more luggage space so we can easily put it out of the way, some passengers put it in the gangway and then passengers are having to climb over it which is causing all the confusion. Lose one or two seats and get better luggage space.

Joyce, Staffordshire

Train doors should be aligned with platform to make queues feasible. But I guess this is too sophisticated to be implemented for rail companies in the UK.

Hua, London

After 24 years of travelling to London every day I have learnt is 'all's fair in love and commuting'.

Toby, Chelmsford

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