Here’s everything we learned from the Office of Road & Rail’s new station usage statistics

London Waterloo: still topping the charts after all these years. Image: Getty.

Ignore all the PR nonsense about “Blue Monday”: it’s the most wonderful time of year. Why? Because today is the day Britain’s Office of Rail & Road release their station usage statistics, and if you can’t find joy in that then why are you even reading this website?

Anyway. Here’s everything we learned from some station names with numbers next to them.

London is by far the busiest bit of the rail network

The ten stations which saw the highest passenger traffic – measured in combined entrances & exits – in 2018-19 include eight London terminals and one big station in outer London. Outside the capital, only Birmingham New Street makes the list, in fifth place.

Busiest by far is London Waterloo, which serves a huge swathe of southern England, with just over 94 million users across the year. Here’s the top 10, in gif form:

Stratford is the busiest station in outer London

The odd one out on this list is Stratford station, which is in the wilds of East London rather than a major rail terminal. It’s so busy, one assumes, because it’s a massive interchange, served not just by mainline trains but the Central and Jubilee lines of the London Underground, two branches of the DLR, one of the London Overground and TfL Rail, a suburban railway line which will one day turn into the Elizabeth line/Crossrail.

All this means that if’s a useful change for many journeys within London (some of which, since they involve National Rail-owned lines, will show up in these figures). It’s also, if you’re coming from Essex or East Anglia, a great place to change from your train to local transport to Docklands, the South Bank or the West End.

All of which makes me wonder if London Liverpool Street would be topping the chart were in not for the incredibly useful interchange one stop up the line. But that is of course unknowable.

London also dominates the list of busiest interchanges

Four out of five – again, Birmingham New Street the only exception.

The fact Stratford isn’t here gives some pause for thought, since it’s obviously the station’s role as an interchange that makes it so busy. (There can’t be that many people going to Westfield.) My guess: it’s because many of those changes involve changing from rail to tube or DLR services, and so the ORR classifies them as entrances and exits rather than interchanges.

Even outside London several of the busiest stations are still basically in London

Gatwick Airport is in Sussex, but is still on the London Rail map because it’s a London Airport and only a few miles outside town. Reading is now on that map, too, served by TfL Rail, because it’s going to be on the Elizabeth Line. Brighton is a bit further out – but it’s still in the commuter belt.

Basically: rail travel is something you’re a lot more likely to do if you’re in the bit of the country that looks towards London than the geographically much larger bit that doesn’t.

Birmingham New Street has got busier

Here’s an animated chart showing how the top 10 stations have changed over the past decade. Glasgow Central has dropped out; Clapham Junction appears and then vanishes...

...but the main pattern is that Birmingham New Street is quietly climbing the rankings. The massive rebuild of the station, which has made it much more user friendly – and the long period in which it was a nightmare because said rebuilding was still underway – are presumably to blame.

Liverpool’s busiest station isn’t the one you’d think

The big station in Liverpool is Lime Street: that’s where all the intercity trains end up. But that doesn’t make the top 10. Instead, Liverpool Central – an underground station served by the Merseyrail metro network – is.

LimeStreet only has 400,000 or so passengers fewer than Central, so is probably only just missing ranking here. Nonetheless, these figures, combined with London’s dominance, suggests that, if you really want people to use your station, what you need is for it to be useful to commuters and other local passengers, not the regional or national networks.

The ORR doesn’t know what Edinburgh Waverley is called

“Edinburgh” station? What’s that? Bloody hell.

Some stations get fewer than a passenger a week

Three stations had fewer than 100 users in 2018-19. Two of them, Stanlow & Thornton in Cheshire and Reddish in Greater Manchester, had just 46 each.

The second of this is only served by a smattering of what are known as “parliamentary trains” – those that stop there entirely to meet a legal requirement, because closing the line is a faff – and since it gets precisely two trains a week it’s no surprise that nobody uses it. The former actually gets several services a day. It’s just that not many people bother to visit the refinery it serves, whose staff, one assumes, all drive.

Anyway: one fun thing about this is that, as the Guardian’s Alex Hern has noted on Twitter, it’d be incredibly easy for train nerds to juke these numbers by all visiting Denton for a laugh. If they wanted to, for some reason.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).