Rail companies are fined pounds 4m over late trains

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RAIL companies have been fined pounds 4m for running trains which were late or with too few carriages, according to figures published yesterday. The latest Office of Passenger Rail Franchising bulletin showed punctuality worsened on 35 routes and improved on only 17 in the past 12 months.

John O'Brien, the franchising director, warned train operators that some needed to "dramatically improve" their punctuality and reliability figures, which were "unsatisfactory" and had declined since last year. "Passengers have a right to expect performance to improve year-on-year. Instead, punctuality generally, although still better than in 1995/96, has slipped back from the improvements achieved during 1996/97 ... I now urge the industry to ... bring about sustained improvement ... across the whole network."

The worst performers on punctuality were Virgin's West Coast services in Scotland, where 69.5 per cent of services were on time, although the company's much-criticised English operations improved.

Also singled out for running too many late trains were Great Western and Thames. Some of the blame was laid at the door of Railtrack, which instituted speed restrictions while repairing track.

A Great Western spokeswoman said: "There have been exceptional problems which have contributed to a worsening of our performance, including an unusually high number of speed restrictions - 40 - imposed by Railtrack."

Keith Bill, of the Save Our Railways campaign, said many parts of the country were reaching a crisis. "If Tony Blair and John Prescott do not step in with some tough radical measures which will turn this right around, it won't be long before passengers vent their fury on New Labour and not the last administration." John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of transport, said it was unacceptable that in many cases the performance of train operators still continued to be worse than last year.