Privatised railways make trains run later

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Official figures released yesterday show a year-on-year decline in the number of trains running on time. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, explains why rail companies have failed to deliver since privatisation.

More trains ran late or were cancelled between September to December last year than in the same 12-week period in 1996, it was revealed yesterday.

When the railways were privatised, Conservative ministers promised it would revitalise the ailing network. John O'Brien, the rail franchising director, who monitors the new owners' performance, said the punctuality and reliability levels "continue to concern and disappoint me."

There appears to be no let up in the slide in performance. Mr O'Brien said recent punctuality performances were "deteriorating" and that his office would continue to monitor the situation "very closely".

Figures are calculated for the 57 routes run by the 25 private train companies. For the 12 months ending 6 December 1997, 26 routes had better reliability figures than in the 12 months ending 7 December 1996. Twenty- six groups were worse and five stayed the same.

On punctuality, 28 route groups did better, 27 did worse and two stayed the same.

On reliability, South West Trains, which had to cancel a number of services early last year due to driver problems, was among those with poorer performance figures. Others faring worse included Connex South Eastern, Connex South Central and Anglia.

Poor performance is penalised by Mr O'Brien. His office collected more than pounds 2.4m in fines in three months from the train companies in punctuality payments. Connex South Eastern paid out more than pounds 1.5m alone. By contrast, a total of pounds 200,000 was paid to the companies in the same period in 1996 because performances were better.

On punctuality, Richard Branson's Virgin West Coast services managed some improvement in 1997 - but still fell well short of its Passenger's Charter targets.

Two West Coast routes - North West and Scottish - performed so badly that discounts for season ticket holders were triggered.

In addition to the Virgin West Coast discounts, routes where punctuality performance was bad enough to trigger discounts were Virgin's Cross Country, Great North Eastern - which runs the East Coast main line - and Great Western.

A spokeswoman for Great Western said that many of the problems were to do with infrastructure. "We had a power failure in Didcot in November as well as vandalised signals." Great Western added punctuality had improved since December.

Railtrack, the company that owns that nation's track, stations and signalling, accepted "some responsibility" for the problems. However it pointed out delays caused by the 25 operating companies, rather than Railtrack, have risen substantially over the past year.

Experts also pointed out that train mileage had increased by 7 per cent this year - while train numbers had not noticeably increased. "Some train companies have got more services without buying the trains needed to deliver them," said one train manager.

Mr O'Brien's office made it clear that this was an issue it intended to pursue. "It is something we need to discuss with the train companies," said a spokeswoman.