Page last updated at 07:27 GMT, Tuesday, 18 August 2009 08:27 UK

Pledge Watch: More trains on time

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

It was a grim time for commuters back in January 2002.

BR Intercity train in 1990
Was the British Rail era a golden age for train travel?

Fifteen months earlier a Leeds-bound train had been derailed near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, killing four people.

The discovery that a cracked rail had caused the disaster led to a safety overhaul of the entire network.

While this happened, tighter speed limits were imposed, lengthening journey times.

It was under these circumstances that the then prime minister, Tony Blair, made a promise that things would improve.

Speaking on BBC One's Breakfast With Frost, he said punctuality would eventually return to "British Rail standard" - the level seen before the network was privatised in the mid-1990s.

Things could only get better.

'All-time high'

They had to.

Figures from Network Rail show that, in 2001/2, some 22% of trains were late - the highest rate since records began.

So, is the overall service enjoyed by rail users now as good as that under BR?

The raw data put out by Network Rail suggests so.

It found that in the year to this April 9.4% of journeys were delayed, described as an "all-time high" of punctuality.

The best set of figures under BR - 1993/4 - show 12.6% were late.

So, Mr Blair's pledge came true. In fact, it was surpassed - things got better than under BR. Or did they?

West Coast Mainline train at Glasgow
Or are services better than ever?

Sceptics might like to point out that, before 1992, no nationwide punctuality figures were kept, limiting the scope for meaningful comparison.

We have to take Network Rail's word for it that the early 1990s were as good as it got under BR.

In a recent statement, it said: "No credible numbers exist pre-1992 but anecdotal evidence from numerous senior ex-BR managers indicate that performance under BR was never better than it was in the 90s."

There are some further problems with the data.

From 1992 until 1997 the information on punctuality referred to "most services".

It is only since 1997 that all train journeys - on every day of the year - have been included.

In other words, the numbers under BR and its successors are not directly comparable, but have been "extrapolated" to make as near a fit as possible.

Tom Condon, a spokesman for the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, said: "The problem with getting back to BR standards is that under the old BR system there was never a national punctuality league table which Network Rail have published.

"Network Rail's claim to be doing splendidly is based on the fact that after Hatfield in 2000 everything went to pot."

How late is late?

On top of this, being "on-time" is not what most would take the term to mean.

Under the "public performance measure", used in the UK and many other European countries, short-distance trains are classified as on time if they arrive within five minutes of schedule.

For long-distance journeys this rises to 10 minutes.

This leeway has been factored in since train punctuality records began.

But campaigners have called for it to go altogether, to provide a fairer picture for passengers.

Mr Condon argues that the train operating companies are playing a few tricks on customers too.

Before, most people were able to claim they were late for work because their train was late, but that's often a lame excuse in this day and age
Hassard Stacpoole, ATOC

He said: "You've also got longer train journeys than before, with some operators factoring in 45 minutes longer than under BR.

"This gives them extra time to be late, without appearing to be late.

"Tony Blair didn't give a fig about the railways. He didn't want to renationalise them, so he had to pretend he was doing something about them."

In its spring survey report the rail watchdog Passenger Focus suggested that 81% of rail users were happy with their experience.

The organisation's chief executive, Anthony Smith, said: "Across Great Britain passengers continue to be broadly satisfied with their train services.

"Trains arriving on time continues to be a top priority for passengers and the industry has done well to improve punctuality.

"However, overall one in 10 trains still run with delays and for those passengers left on the platform or stuck on a stationary train, this isn't good enough."

'Busier network'

Experience of rail may be broadly positive, but the punctuality rate varies across the 20 operating firms, although even the worst is better than the nationwide average in those immediate post-Hatfield days.

According to Hassard Stacpoole, media relations manager for the Association of Train Operating Companies, the value of improvements to punctuality is greater because the network is getting more crowded.

He said: "You will find that we are running 20%-plus more trains than we were under British Rail, in what is a busier network.

"Overall we would say punctuality is much better than even under BR. We have one of the most punctual railways in Europe.

"Also we have some of the busiest mixed-traffic [freight and passenger] lines in the world. A lot has changed."

'Incentive'

Mr Stacpoole adds that commercial incentives, which did not exist under the nationalised BR system, work as a safeguard to improvements.

"If the trains are not going to run on time that's going to cost you money. Network Rail will have to compensate the operators or vice-versa (depending on who is at fault).

"There's an incentive to get things right. People expect their trains to run on time.

"Before, most people were able to claim they were late for work because their train was late, but that's often a lame excuse in this day and age."

So, "on-time" does not necessarily mean on-time and the punctuality records for BR - which began running the system from 1948 - started only in 1992.

The reminiscences of some former BR managers are all we appear to have to cover the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties.

With these caveats, it seems services are at least more punctual than the years immediately before privatisation.


Here is a selection of readers' comments.

I love it. We measure our current performance against that of a railway system 20+ years ago and pat ourselves on the back if we manage to do as well. The fact that technology has advanced such a long way for the rest of the world, allowing trains (which are more reliable) to be run closer together and at higher speeds seems to have passed by the UK.
Mark, Munich

I have travelled by train - here or overseas - at least twice a week every week since the 1950s and beyond a doubt the UK services are far better now that at any time in the past. The improvement began with privatisation (which I initially opposed) but despite some teething problems, the range, frequency and punctuality of trains and - despite public perception - the safety record, all stand comparison with anywhere in Europe.
Martin Ternouth, UK

What a superb time to raise this question, given the strikes on National Express East Anglia that are now in their third week and causing utter misery for all us commuters. The government haven't said a word on the matter despite it disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And they wonder why people don't use public transport more. A complete, shambolic disgrace.
Sarah, Colchester, Essex

Richard, SE England: Perhaps your employer (and other train operating companies) will suffer less from passenger-caused delays if it (a) indicates on the platforms EXACTLY where the approaching train will stop, and where to stand for a particular carriage or the cycle compartment, and ensures that trains actually stop at the correct position; (b) ensures that trains arrive at interchanges on time so we don't have to do the "suitcase sprint" to reach the onward services; and (c) provides WORKING departure boards, visible clearly on alighting from ANY carriage on ANY platform, to tell us rapidly which platform we should be heading for. And why is the standard NRES time allowance for changing platforms at an interchange usually less than 10 minutes, so that there is no incentive for a TOC to get you there in time to make the onward service?
Peter, Stockport, England

Milton Keynes to Paris. Milton Keynes to Euston: packed train dirty, hot, crowded expensive. Eurostar to Paris: aircon, seat comfortable quiet, roomy. Paris to London: aircon, comfortable , roomy. Euston to Milton Keynes: packed train, dirty, hot, crowded, expensive.
RW, Milton Keynes

Punctuality measured over single services is misleading as many people change trains during the journey. Under BR trains were held or extra stops made to ensure the network remained reasonably punctual. Now trains depart on time if possible - but travellers are left on platforms waiting an hour or more because of a missed connection. I gave up using our local line and drive to the main railhead for London journeys because of this attitude between two different companies.
Tim, Hereford

This is quite a fatuous article given that I couldn't even get a train into London where I work from my station this morning.
Rob, Hertfordshire, UK

Barry, shutting the doors 30 seconds before departure time has little to do with H&S and more to do with time keeping and pathing. As we are expected to leave AT the departure time xx:xx:00 and not somewhere within that minute, then the doors do need to be closed slightly before that time and 30 seconds offers guards a suitable time to be able to properly observe their door procedures. Or to be more blunt, the departure time is the time at which the train leaves, NOT the last point at which you can board. And connectivity went out when privatisation arrived and companies had to start bidding for paths on the network.
Paul, Manchester

I am currently employed by a train operating company so see things from a different point of view. I find that a large amount of delays, causing train to loose maybe one or two minutes at the station I work at, are due to passengers attempting to board at one set of doors rather than using all the doors that are available. A large majority of our trains depart on time. However, one complaint from passengers on a regular basis is that trains depart early owing to the fact that the doors have closed 30 seconds prior to departure, and the train then departs some 4four seconds early. I personally find that running early is worse than running late because passengers that have arrived on time for their train see it leaving. However, passengers should also be aware that they have to be on the platform at least two mins before the booked departure time of that service. So i think that better public education of how the railway works and public cooperation to avoid delays is the way forward
Richard, South East England

It's all very well saying that train companies are charged if their trains are late but where does that money come from? Why, the passenger, of course! Not only are we suffering the inconvenience of our trains being late but we're paying the fines for those late trains in the form of increased ticket prices.
David, Leeds, UK

We probably have so many trains late because we are setting ourselves targets that are too difficult. Spain's network is often thought of as very punctual, but when I travelled from Zaragoza to Barcelona on the high-speed line recently, they parked the train for several minutes before pulling it in to the platform on time. ADIF, the local infrastructure organisation, knows that trains regularly arrive early. Conclusion: - the Spanish achieve high levels of punctuality by setting themselves targets that are far too easy to achieve.
Graeme, London, UK

I think the point "before 1992, no nationwide punctuality figures were kept" itself is telling. Other than getting you there on time what other customer service measure is there that is more important for rail? The fact that BR never measured it speaks volumes.
Jason, Sheffield, England

OK, so punctuality has improved, but the point made in that article about train companies factoring in delays is very true. For example, a train from Reading to Oxford takes approx 20-25 mins. There are some evening services that allow 45-55 minutes for this journey and then publish that the train arrived 15 minutes early! I appreciate that evening is prime engineering work time, but surely the possibility of delays shouldn't be factored into the timetable.
Mark Jordan, Oxford, UK

If any of you think things are better now, you are badly mistaken. My father worked with BR from 1957 to 1998 and I have a keen interest in railways. BR did a fantastic job with the money they had. They had about 40-50% of the money that the companies now have. Yes, trains were not as clean as they are now, but they worked. Also after the APT farce they made sure any new stock worked from the start. The class 91s, 90s, 92s and all the smaller diesel units were tested and tested before being used. Now the class 180s are unreliable and breaking down.
Geoff, Leeds, UK

In my opinion the old "BR standards" are part of the problem, being created for a nationalised industry, where journey reliability was never a key objective. Simple answer is a national timetable like the Swiss and full refunds to passengers when trains are delayed by only a few minutes (say five minutes maximum). Thereafter all the companies involved can spend as long as they like allocating these refunds amongst themselves until they realise better time keeping would save them and their passengers money .
Jerry, Cardiff

Richard of Birmingham says: 'Recently, the arrivals board at Birmingham's New Street Station showed every train "on time".' Well, that's nice. But this morning at Kentish Town the 0956 to Sevenoaks was also shown to be on time. Unfortunately, the train did not arrive in the station until about 1006 - and was still shown to be on time when it left several minutes later. So as another of your correspondents comments, it is all smoke and mirrors.
Jonathan , London

I recall reading that in the '30s an engine driver had to explain to Sir Nigel Gresley why his train was late even if only one minute behind schedule. Trains might appear "on-time" today but my regular train into Waterloo has been slowed by about five minutes so that it is never late (and we don't qualify for season ticket discounts).
C E M, Ashford, Middx

More trains, seemingly faster services (takes me just over an hour to get to London from Nuneaton!) and cleaner trains - its all looking positive - just a shame about the cost!
Mike, Derby

The success of a rail network relies upon connectivity. Missing a connection because the doors are shut 30 seconds before due departure time is a servant to health and safety rather than the customer. Without a joined-up strategy we will never match foreign rail punctuality and cost effectiveness.
Barry, Bromley

I've recently been travelling on the continent, both in the German-speaking countries, where (as other commenters have mentioned) trains reliably run within seconds of the timetable, and in the Balkans, where it's not unusual for a train to terminate several cities too soon, or for a 12-hour stop in Belgrade to come not just unscheduled, but also unexplained and unannounced. So, things could be a bit better than we have them here, but they could also be a lot worse!
Peter, Cambridge

A couple of years ago we took a train to Vienna that had started its journey in Hamburg. On arrival they apologised that the train was three minutes late. Given that it had to cross two borders, use three different rail networks and took around 12 hours, this did not seem an unreasonable delay. Oh that the UK rail system could aspire to this level of punctuality.
Michael, London

BR years appeared so good because under the nationalised industry only the minimum of infrastructure maintenance was undertaken. Once the industry was privatised, like with the water industry, enormous programmes of reconstruction and modernisation were put into place. Because the government decided that the train operators and the infrastructure owner would be different commercial companies, Network Rail, as the infrastructure company was charged with two diametrically opposed targets; 1) provide sufficient paths for the expanding train services to operate and 2) at the same time renew, replace and update the rails, signalling etc on which the paths were to be provided. It was no wonder that problems arose.

This impossible structure was put in place by the Tories but Blair's government, utilising its usual sound bite mentality, promised dramatic change, approved targets without understanding them and then turned it back. Given the failure of the Blair and Brown governments to achieve any of their targets, why is the writer of this article so surprised that this failure also applies to our railways?
Chris, Poulton-Le-Fylde

As far as I can tell punctuality has improved. The only trouble is, if I can't afford the fares any more it really doesn't make a great deal of difference. Personally, I would love to relax in a train carriage with a good book for a long journey rather than be stuck in motorway queues. But if the government is serious about wanting people to manage without cars, they have to make public transport an affordable and viable option.
Fay, Derby

I live in the Netherlands where the train services are pretty good. I recently holidayed in Scotland and was extremely impressed with the cleanliness and timeliness of the trains. Also excellent experience with Southwest Trains in London from previous extended visits.
Mickey, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Punctuality statistics appear to rely on the final destination. They appear to conveniently overlook intermediate stops. On the West Coast Mainline Virgin have a nice clear run after Carlisle to catch up delays before arriving at Glasgow. Doesn't matter that passengers are nearly 30 minutes late at Carlisle and have missed connections due to this. Smoke and mirrors.
Mike, Rugby, England

Punctuality has increased significantly since BR days. Recently, the arrivals board at Birmingham's New Street Station showed every train "on time". Even if journey times are longer, after factoring in possible delays, we passengers prefer to arrive "on time". Additionally, trains are much cleaner, both inside and out, than in BR days. Just compare that with the condition of trains in Australia and non-TGV lines in France.
Richard, Birmingham

Many train companies close their train doors up to two minutes before departure. This means that train companies are on time if they are up to 10 minutes late, but passengers are late if they are two minutes early, as Private Eye recently pointed out.
Carmichael, Edinburgh, UK



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