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Rail franchises at risk as punctuality declines

THE PERFORMANCE of the privatised train companies has declined despite repeated warnings from the Government that those who fail will lose their franchises. Reliability and punctuality both worsened on average in the period from June to September, according to figures from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf) published today. Performance by some train companies fell by as much as 7 per cent.

John O'Brien, the franchising director, said: "Overall performance over the last three months has shown no improvement and punctuality has continued to decline." He said he was still talking with operators about implementing action plans he called for in August.

Opraf said that reliability declined on 32 route groups, half of the entire network, while 26 improved compared with a year ago. Reliability of two train companies, North Western Trains and Wales and West, fell by more than 1 per cent. Punctuality also suffered a sharp fall with 42 route groups showing a decline and only 19 improving. Punctuality on three - Chiltern Trains, North Western Trains and Thames Trains - fell by 7 per cent, while Cardiff Railways' time-keeping dipped by 6 per cent. Mr O'Brien said Opraf was negotiating measures to boost performance.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said companies predicted that performance would only improve noticeably once the railways started to feel the benefit of the billions of pounds currently being invested in the system.

Ivor Warburton, chairman of Atoc, said: "We have got the builders in and billions in new investment is being poured into new trains, new track, new signalling and training new drivers. In the long term this will improve reliability and reduce congestion."

But he warned that some improvement programmes would cause extra delays during the construction work. He said the privatised companies were running thousands more train journeys than under British Rail.

Today's lacklustre figures come three months after Mr O'Brien condemned operators' "very unsatisfactory" performance. North Western and Chiltern were recently reprimanded by Opraf for poor performance and had to pay compensation to passengers. John Reid, a Transport minister, hammered home the message yesterday that operators failing to satisfy their passengers would not keep their franchises.