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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
The five main reasons trains are late
Long-suffering rail commuters are unlikely to bat an eyelid on hearing rail delays are worse now than in 1997. But what is making the trains run late?

It was not a good summer on the railways. The threat of tracks buckling under the severe heat, line closures for maintenance work, and an acute power cut in London all contributed to late running services.

One in five peak-time trains was delayed over a four-week period in July and August, according to initial calculations by the Liberal Democrats.

The overall picture - peak and non-peak services - takes longer to filter through, and next week the government will announce performance figures for April to June 2003.

Yet, they too are expected to confirm what many rails users already know - that in Britain, trains are far from punctual. A passenger survey published last week by Which? magazine found 82% of people had suffered at least one train delay in the previous five days.

What are the root causes?
The biggest case of delays is the knock-on effect of other delays. Unlike a road jam, train drivers cannot just squeeze past a broken-down loco and speed off. The defective engine must first be towed into the sidings.

Thirty-nine percent of all delays are "primary" and account for a knock-on 61% "reactionary delays".

Isolating the exact causes is hard, since, in many cases they are highly related. But generally they separate as follows:

WHAT DOES 'LATE' MEAN?
Local/commuter trains on time if they reach destination within five minutes of scheduled time
Inter-city trains have 10 minutes' grace
1. THE HARDWARE - trains, tracks, signals, tunnels, embankments, overhead lines; combined they account for the biggest cause of delays. Under-investment in Britain's railways was particularly poor in the early years of privatisation, resulting in crumbling infrastructure and worn out trains. Extensive renovation plans, such as track renewal, the upgrade of power lines in the southern region and the West Coast Main Line modernisation, account for further delays as lines are either closed or speed restrictions applied while the works are underway. New rolling stock is sometimes more of a headache than old kit, since there is a bedding-in period and there is more to go wrong with the complicated electrics.

2. OPERATIONAL MANAGEMENT - according to the Strategic Rail Authority, Railtrack did not understand a lot of the data it amassed about the railways. So when it came to acting fast on a delay - organising quick fixes, workarounds, etc - it was not able to do so. One year after Network Rail took over the job, the legacy still exists.

Several trains
Too many trains, not enough track or slack
3. TIMETABLING - after privatisation, the notion of prioritising services was largely scrapped, with the result that a chock-full inter-city service running two minutes late could be held up by a half-empty commuter train on the same line. A greater emphasis on safety means drivers tend to be more cautious now, says Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways. And "advances" such as automatic electric doors, compared to slam doors, can add crucial "delay seconds", says Ford. "A buzzer sounds to alert the disabled passengers, the doors must shut slowly to avoid fingers getting caught - it can add 10 seconds at each station." Totted up, these tiny delays make it more likely a train will miss its clear slot in the timetable

4. CONGESTION - since privatisation, there has been a 20% jump in the number of rail services on the same old track. More trains mean tighter timetables and less room for manoeuvre when things go wrong.

5. LACK OF SLACK - cost pressures mean there are fewer free hands to take the reins when something goes wrong. Likewise, the increase in services mentioned above means, in the event of a breakdown, there is less spare rolling stock for contingency use.


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