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Key Issues:

Train Companies
Key Issues
A guide to the main issues by BBC Transport Correspondent Tom Heap


Your train should be there for you to get on and should get you to the destination on time. Britain's railways are not meeting this simple expectation. The latest annual figures show the number of serious train delays increased by nearly a quarter last year to 437,000. The worst performer was Virgin and the best was ScotRail. Some services never ran at all - only one percent of trains were cancelled but this again was more than last year.

The problems result from train breakdowns, staff shortages and track failures. Railtrack is currently being threatened with a 40m fine if they fail to reduce the number of delays they cause. Poor punctuality earned the companies a 7m fine last year. But they claim their performance is now improving as they train new drivers and bring in more reliable rolling stock.

It is likely the service will get better but the potential buffer is congestion. More trains are being squeezed onto the tracks and, just like the motorways, there are hold ups due to sheer weight of traffic. If one train breaks down, there is very little slack in the system, so it tends to slow up many other services.


We may moan about them but more and more of us are getting on the train. The number of people using the trains has gone up 25% in the last three years. It is the result of economic growth, traffic jams on the roads and, the companies would claim, a pleasant travelling experience. This growth was totally unforeseen at the time of privatisation. In the long term the industry is delighted as it shows they have a product people want to buy. More immediately it causes problems.

The impact on punctuality as mentioned above is one. But the critical factor is how it worsens each individual's journey. The train is crowded - you may have to give up the seat usually devoted to your briefcase, more and more commuters have to stand up for their whole journey.

So although the trains are carrying more people, those people tend to have a more miserable journey. This directly affects how they feel about the railways. The industry expects this demand increase to continue and research commissioned by the BBC suggests coping with it will cost 40bn in the next 10 years. It means more trains; more tracks and better signals.


It is of little comfort to today's passengers but it is true that for the last 50 years the money spent on our rail network was woefully inadequate. Many of our locomotives are 25 - 30 years old. Some signalling is Victorian and the tracks are dying of old age.

Under public ownership money was spent sporadically, but long term investments were at the mercy of government spending cutbacks. The train companies have ordered more trains but only 1 in five of those required have been delivered on time. Three hundred new trains a year are needed just to keep pace with those reaching the end of their natural life.

The companies say they need the government to guarantee them longer operating licences if they want long term investment commitments.

But the big money is needed for the tracks. Building a two-mile stretch of line to relieve a bottleneck in Hertfordshire is expected to cost 150m. Railtrack's investment proposals earlier this year have been widely criticised as inadequate. Sufficient investment is the foundation for a good rail network. The hottest debate in the industry is how this can be achieved. A new incentive structure might be agreed to encourage more investment out of Railtrack. There may be more money from government or more money directly from us in higher fares.


A safe journey should be taken for granted. After Paddington it isn't.

Passengers may be beginning to put their fears behind them but the industry is very nervous. The "system failure" blamed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for the accident is still the same system operating today. And if proof were needed that it is still flawed, look no further than the most recent figures for signals passed at danger - the immediate cause of the Paddington tragedy. So far there have been 73 incidents, just seven less than last year in a month when everyone should have been extra-cautious.

But there will be change - the Southall enquiry will make recommendations in the New Year. By then Lord Cullen will have begun his investigations into the Paddington accident and a further enquiry will be underway into which is the best technology to prevent trains overshooting red lights. The 1bn automatic train protection system demanded by the unions and victims families is still not the government's preference. It is likely we will see safety regulation powers taken away from Railtrack, but still nobody has decided yet who will shoulder the responsibility.

Trains are still the safest form of land travel - one of the reasons the HSE pushed for an early reopening of Paddington Station was the belief that commuters were using their cars instead and that was a much greater threat to human life.


On average fares have gone down relative to the retail price index since privatisation. But beneath the average there are some wildly varying figures.

Some fares are controlled by the franchise director. His current formula is to peg these to 1% below inflation. But the variety of tickets is bewildering - family discounts, standard returns, off-peak offers, network cards, apex fares and holiday packages. To further confuse the customer, each train operating company tends to call its options different things.

Tickets bought well ahead are often surprisingly cheap but those bought on the day ruinously expensive. The passenger's watchdog, the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee, would like to see fare rises pegged to the companies' performance.

If passenger numbers continue to grow above the rate at which the network expands there may be pressure to remove the cap on fare increases to control overcrowding. This would go down well with the industry, which could run trains that were comfortably full with passengers paying fat fares. But it would be a failure of the government's policy of getting more people off the roads and boosting public transport - along with being extremely unpopular.