Posted 27th May 2009 | 5 Comments

Network Rail’s claim of ‘record punctuality’ runs into criticism

AN announcement by Network Rail that passengers last year “enjoyed the best train punctuality ever recorded on Britain's railways” has been met with criticism — and an official complaint to the Office of Rail Regulation by Virgin Trains

Network Rail’s statement said that in 2008 90.6 per cent of trains “arrived on time” — the highest number since records began in 1992. The company added that April 2009 was a record month in its own right with 93.5 per cent of trains arriving on time over the course of the month — “the highest ever recorded.”

Among those quick to criticise the statement was Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Secretary Norman Baker, who warned passengers “not to be hoodwinked.”

He said: “The industry considers that anything up to five minutes late, and in some cases even 10 minutes, is still on time. Many passengers will have a different view.”

Figures released to the Liberal Democrats earlier this year by the Association of Train Operating Companies had shown that between January 2008 and January 2009:

- More than 21,000 trains were more than half an hour late
- Almost 3,000 trains were more than one hour late
- 144,000 trains were either completely or partially cancelled
- In total, trains were delayed for almost 100,000 hours

Mr Baker added: “It's not good enough to simply record that half a million trains were within five minutes of their schedule. On time should mean on time.”

Theresa Villiers, his Conservative counterpart, was also unenthusiastic. “Passengers will welcome today's news of improvements to punctuality. However Network Rail still has a long way to go,” she said. “While punctuality has improved we need to see action taken to improve capacity and give rail passengers better value for money.”

Bruce Williamson, a spokesman for the pressure group Railfuture, said: “It’s a step in the right direction but a lot more needs to be done. We continue to lag behind Europe in terms of both cost of tickets and punctuality because of the ongoing lack of investment in rail.”

Gerry Doherty, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, described Network Rail’s figures as “just spin and poppycock.”

He added: “They do not begin to compare with the old British Rail (BR) figures before privatisation in 1996. The old InterCity services regularly reported punctuality figures of 92 per cent and the biggest part of BR, Southern, regularly reported figures of 95 per cent during the early 1990s.”

However, Network Rail has extrapolated the current method of measuring punctuality — called the Public Performance Measure, which monitors all-day performance of trains and records them on time if they reach their destinations within five minutes of time, or 10 minutes if they are long-distance services — back to 1992 when British Rail started measuring punctuality under a formula agreed for the Passenger’s Charter with John Major’s government. 

On this basis, in 1993/4 (the last full year before BR started to break up for privatisation) the InterCity group of services achieved 91 per cent within 10 minutes of time compared to a Government target of 90 per cent.

In the same year, Network South East achieved its target of 92 per cent performance within five minutes  during peak times, and Regional Railways (target 90 per cent) achieved 92 per cent for'express' services and 90% for urban services.

But by extrapolating today’s PPM system of measurement, Network Rail suggested BR’s overall punctuality record in 1993/4 was little more than 87 per cent.

The Network Rail figures also showed that in the last year before the company took over from Railtrack, 2001/2, “train performance was languishing at record low levels, 78.6 per cent.”


VIRGIN Train’s criticisms came after the Network Rail figures showed that last year its services on the West Coast Main Line had the worst punctuality record — 80 per cent — of all the long-distance train operators (whose punctuality is measured with 10 minutes of scheduled arrival time at destination).

Virgin’s concerns appeared to be acknowledged by Network Rail which said that both Virgin Trains and London Midland had “seen their train punctuality noticeably fall” as a result of the disruption caused by the completion of West Coast main line route modernisation.

The company explained: “Network Rail this week took decisive action to improve train performance on the route with the creation of a new specialist maintenance team at the southern end of the route tasked with improving the reliability of the infrastructure. Some of the company’s best engineers from across the country are being used to create this new team as the company focuses efforts on pushing performance levels on this key route back towards 90 per cent.”

However, in a strongly-worded statement, Virgin said: “Our customers will be far from satisfied with these figures — and nor is Virgin Trains.

“After £9bn was spent on the West Coast Mainline, customers have every right to expect performance to be at least as good as the rest of the country. That has not happened and sadly it proves that many of our past concerns about Network Rail were correct.

“We have complained formally to the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and now demand that the regulator holds Network Rail to account, and that Network Rail delivers the performance we and our customers expect.”

Kevin Chapman, of West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport, said: “These figures are disappointing. Passengers expect high quality, punctual and reliable services. We hope that, with all the work completed on the West Cost Main Line, services will improve. It is unacceptable for two of the biggest rail operators in the Midlands to be in the bottom for punctuality.”

A London Midland spokesman said: “London Midland is working hard to improve performance across our network and it is true to say that the extent of the West Coast Mainline project works in 2008 did have a major impact.”

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Tom West, Birmingham, UK

    Miss Natasha Graham, could you give some evidence for your statment please?

  • andrew ganley, Cheam, united kingdom

    Does the 9bn invested in WCML upgrade include the Rugby area where every
    other week a major signal failure occurs?

  • Miss Natasha Graham, London, England

    I'm replying to the above about Network Rail. The reason they have improved on train journeys is that they have stopped maintaining the whole of the Network Rail Infrastructure. It will only be time before a train accident happens AGAIN.

  • George Boyle, High Peak, England

    Perhaps the politicians should look at airline *on time* statistics where 30 minutes late is *on time*, AND the clock stops when the wheels touch tarmac which is a long time before you can get out of their little cigar tubes.

  • leslie burge, leicester, england

    The problems of punctuality even after WCRM work show why we need brand new high speed lines built to continental gauge and latest in signalling equipment.Upgrading old lines just isn't cost effective and is shown to be
    incomparable to HS 1.