TRAIN operators in Scotland should introduce a system to tell passengers how busy services are going to be in an attempt to spread out numbers and prevent overcrowding.
Norman Baker, the UK transport secretary, said firms already have the relevant data which would inform travellers how busy a train was going to be when they book.
He urged operators north and south of the Border to adopt a traffic lights system so that passengers booking along could avoid cramped trains.
Red would indicate a service is likely to be standing room only, amber would be relatively busy and with limited seats, and green would suggest there is plenty of space. London Midland already uses a similar system.
Mr Baker said the measures would give mostly occasional travellers, rather than daily commuters, more flexibility and could thin out numbers.
Transport Scotland has said that the new ScotRail franchise - whose operator is yet to be deternined - will contain new stipulations about data collection, although it could not yet say if this would be made available to the public.
First, the franchise operator until 2015, said it was primarily focused on promoting off-peak travel, on which ticket prices have been frozen, to ease overcrowding.
“The train companies know which services they are running which are overcrowded on a day-to-day basis”, Mr Baker said yesterday.
“Most people will want to use a particular train that suits them best, but some people may have flexibility, a half hour in either direction.”
He went on to say that rail transport in Britain had been a “massive success”, with the doubling the number of travellers in 20 years, but that the network has not managed to keep up.
“It’s only going one way, which is up, and that’s why we need to make sure we get more capacity but in the mean time if we can give passengers more information we want to do that.”
Mr Baker also hit back at the Institute if Directors comments yesterday that the controversial HS2 network is “folly”, saying the organisation’s members did “not know what they’re talking about.”
He said the super fast service from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds was the only way to keep up with passenger demand, and would ease overcrowding on London to Scotland trains as a result.
The UK government says the whole HS2 project will cost £42.6bn and be ready by 2032-33, although the cost and timescale are disputed. A report last week by the Institue of Economic Affairs said the cost could eventually reach as much as £80bn.
The Liberal Democrat minister added yesterday: “I’m sure they [the IOD and other critics] said the same thing about HS1, the Channel Tunnel, or about Heathrow Airport, or about any other scheme which have taken a long time to come to fruition.
“But no one is not saying we shouldn’t have build HS1, the Channel Tunnel.
“We have a capacity issue, I don’t want people standing all the way from Scotland to London on the train, and this is one of the ways of dealing with it.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Passenger Focus, welcomed the suggestion to alert passengers how busy services are.
HE said: “More information is always to be welcomed, and anything that can help passengers plan their travel will be useful.
“However, getting a seat is still a daily struggle for some passengers who are unable to change their working patterns. Continued significant long-term investment is needed to reduce overcrowding and prevent it getting worse in future.”
Virgin Trains said it was open to the idea and already has several measures to spread out passengers.
Jim Rowe, a spokesman, said: “We’re always open to considering ideas like this. For example we already highlight trains which are very busy on our website and when you are booking we say either make sure you reserve a seat or try another service.
“Our ticket office will also say if a train was very busy and might suggest it would be more comfortable hanging on for half an hour.”
A ScotRail spokesman said: “We have a long-term focus on encouraging off-peak travel and helping customers make informed journey choices.
“This strategy is successful, with the latest National Passenger Survey scoring us 13 percentage points above the UK average for the room we provide on board our trains.”