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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 14:09 GMT
The trouble with Britain's railways
Train platform
Commuting into London is a nightmare
test hello test
Tom Symonds
Transport reporter

Everyone from passengers to politicians to rail managers, accepts the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) figures show the performance of the country's trains has been poor.

It is very difficult to compare the latest figures - for autumn and early winter 2001 - with previous years.

At the same point in 2000 the network was on its knees, coping with the crisis following the Hatfield train crash.

So the best way of assessing the situation is to look back to 1999.

Railtrack collapse

Then, under 20% of trains were late. Now it is nearly a third.

Critics of the government have been quick to blame Transport Secretary Stephen Byers for causing more disruption when he brought about the collapse of Railtrack.

The Conservatives' Theresa May said: "These figures are the second worst since Labour came to power and evidence that they are failing on transport.

"Passengers are paying the price of Mr Byers' incompetence. The railways and the travelling public deserve better."

The collapse of Railtrack has had an effect, but only to a point.

Normal times

Railtrack caused 49% of delays in the months that followed the appointment of administrators to the company.

That represents a rise of just 3%, largely in line with normal times on the railways, before the Hatfield crash.

Following Hatfield, Railtrack delays shot up to 73%.

By contrast, the number of delays caused by train companies has risen steadily since Hatfield.

There is now evidence that two big problems are damaging the punctuality of train services.

Train breakdowns

In the autumn of last year it was not just leaves on the line that were holding up services.

Train breakdowns caused 40% of train company delays with another 21% caused by staffing problems.

The Rail Passengers Council believes it is the train operators themselves, not Railtrack, that should be looking closely at performance.

The SRA agrees - it is urging the industry to work harder, and in particular to work together more.

One idea is to reduce the amount of competition between train companies.

One company per line

At the moment, several train companies run services to each of the main London terminals, used by vast numbers of the country's passengers.

SRA chairman Richard Bowker is working on proposals to have just one company running each line.

It would mean, in many cases, abandoning the current distinction between long distance intercity train companies, and short-haul commuter companies.

For example, two operators serving London Paddington (Great Western and Thames Trains) could be merged into one.

But these are solutions that could take years to implement. For now, better rail services will simply mean better day-to-day management.

See also:

13 Dec 01 | UK
Rail services worsening
05 Mar 02 | England
Rail rage tackled by classes
31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Rail revival plan 'falls short'
14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Rail masterplan unveiled
09 Jan 02 | UK
Is UK transport the worst?
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