Under a new system of giving the 25 privatised train companies an exam- style A to E grade, only the tiny but heavily-subsidised Island Line deserved the top mark. Another seven companies got a B with the remaining 17 classed as either mediocre or failing.
One operator, Silverlink, was awarded an E grade because of poor reliability.
Train operators are given grades for punctuality and reliability and the overall mark is the lower of the two. To qualify for an A for punctuality, operators must run at least 95 per cent of their trains on time, 90 per cent for a B, 85 per cent for a C and so on. Reliability is based on the number of trains cancelled, with an A grade for 99.5 per cent of services run, and 99 per cent for B.
Island Line, an 8.5 mile-long line on the Isle of Wight, won an A for running 95.0 per cent of trains on time and cancelling only 0.4 per cent. But figures published by the Office of Passenger Franchising (Opraf) show it receives 63.2p in taxpayer subsidy for every passenger mile - equivalent to pounds 2.82 for every journey made. This could make it cheaper to hire a taxi for each passenger.By contrast, Gatwick Express, the airport shuttle which won a B, pays back to the Treasury 7.7p per mile - an average rebate of pounds 2.22 per journey.
The detailed figures showed time-keeping worsened on more than half the network compared with a year ago with 45 route groups declining, 29 improving and three staying the same. Reliability was better with 37 improving, 31 declining and nine stable.
The regional breakdown revealed some dramatic falls. Punctuality on Birmingham's Cross City North trains plunged 12 per cent to 74.3 per cent. In the month to November 12, Connex only managed to run 66 per cent of its Kent Link trains on time. ScotRail was the best major operator with 95.9 per cent punctuality and 99.4 per cent reliability.
The Government condemned the performance as "disappointing". John Reid, the Transport Minister, said: "Passengers are getting a poor service and this is unacceptable. The new league table highlights more clearly than before which train operators are performing well and those who must try harder if they want a future in the rail industry."
The figures come a fortnight before a public summit of the railway industry called by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, after the last round of poor figures. The slump in performance comes despite a series of warnings to the industry.
John O'Brien, the Franchising Director, said: "Punctuality remains poor. The results are not good enough, and year on year results do not yet point to a widespread improvement."
The Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, a passenger watchdog, said the performance by companies on some routes was "truly awful".
The Association of Train Operating Companies said they were working hard to improve reliability and timekeeping while managing the "massive" growth in passengers and extra trains.
James Gordon, Atoc director general, said: "Punctuality is proving a hard nut to crack in the face of such unprecedented growth. The fruits of the massive investment programme are beginning to come through but it will be some time before we see dramatic improvements."
Silverlink condemned the new system as misleading. Its managing director, Charles Belcher, said he was given an E grade because problems with train reliability on one stretch of line wiped out a B grade for punctuality.
warnings that went ignored
DESPITE warnings, a change of Government, a new political agenda, and plans for a new regulator, almost nothing has changed.
t South West Trains escapes pounds 1m fine for cancellations: "You cannot achieve [your] objectives by taking a narrow and parochial view of your business and by standing on strict letter of your legal contracts and obligations." John Swift QC, Rail Regulator, letter to rail companies, June 11 1997
t Figures show trains later than British Rail: "Passengers deserve much better, bearing in mind the pounds 1.8bn from taxpayers going into the privatised railway." John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, May 11, 1998
t Complaints hit one million: "This shows how far rail operators still have to go to meet passenger expectations." Gavin Strang, Transport Minister, July 1
t "This isn't a case of `it's not broke, so don't fix it'. It is broke, I intend to fix it and the passengers are going to be at the forefront of my concern." John Prescott, August 13
t Labour party conference: "If the current companies can't make the trains run on time, then I'll call time on the companies that run the trains." John Prescott, September 31
t Punctuality falls - again: "Once again performance figures are disappointing overall. Passengers are getting a poor service and this is unacceptable." John Reid, February 10 1999
t Figures show only one company performing well: "...the results are not good enough." John O'Brien, Franchising Director, February 10