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Last Updated: Friday, 25 June, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Trains more punctual 'at a cost'
Punctuality figures for the first three months of 2004 have improved
The government's rail watchdog has said more trains are running on time - but operators must still "redouble efforts" on punctuality after record spending.

Figures show 83.1% of trains ran on time in January to March 2004, compared to 80.5% in the same period last year.

However, the Strategic Rail Authority said punctuality was still worse than before October 2000's Hatfield crash.

Chairman Richard Bowker said results must reflect the 5bn of public money spent on trains and stations last year.

Passengers can feel reassured at the record level of investment in Britain's railways over the past year
Richard Bowker
Strategic Rail Authority chairman

The figures come a day after a 24-hour strike planned by the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union for 29 and 30 June was called off when Network Rail tabled a better deal on pay and pensions.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) said despite recent improvements in performance, rail operators could not match results from the January to March 2000 period immediately before the Hatfield crash, when passenger train punctuality reached 89.1%.

However, only four companies failed to improve on their performance in the first three months of 2003.

Mr Bowker said: "Passengers can feel reassured at the record level of investment in Britain's railways over the past year.

'Strong leadership'

"They will now want to see the industry redoubling its efforts to ensure that performance of the railway fully reflects this unprecedented level of support.

"Passengers and taxpayers deserve no less."

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Mr Bowker highlighted a 12% improvement in punctuality by Virgin CrossCountry from January to March this year.

He credited the SRA's "strong leadership" for its role in demanding "dramatic changes" to the operator's timetable.

Apart from the tiny Isle of Wight line, the best-performing company was Merseyrail, which ran almost 95% of trains on time.

Next month, the government will announce major changes after Transport Secretary Alistair Darling ordered an overview of the UK's train network.

BBC transport correspondent Tom Symonds said the government was worried about the "vast amount of money" going into the railways and what it sees as the "lack of clear decision-making" in the industry.

The BBC recently revealed the possible nature of planned changes after obtaining a leaked document featuring draft proposals.

They include the probable scrapping of the SRA itself.

Set timetables

Under the leaked plans, the government would be given more power to make major decisions such as fare-setting and how much should be invested in the railways.

The role of Network Rail is also being considered, though the government said it had no plans to renationalise the company which looks after infrastructure including track, tunnels and stations.

It could be required to set timetables which companies will not be able to change.

According to the leaked document, the SRA will be abolished not because it has failed, but because it lacks the power to do its job properly.

The BBC's Tom Symonds
"Things are getting better, but there is still some way to go"

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