Train delays reach record levels

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The Independent Online
PRIVATE TRAIN companies will be forced to produce "action plans" to improve punctuality on the nation's rail network after official figures revealed yesterday that 17 of the 25 rail operators are performing worse than a year ago.

Nearly one train in five is "officially" late on commuter routes into London, and Great Western - operating a former InterCity route - is being fined nearly pounds 100,000 a month for failing to run its services on time.

Punctuality has declined on 48 of the routes operated by train companies and improved on only 16, the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising reported.

Passengers were "clearly less than impressed with the service", said John O'Brien, the franchising director. "The general reduction in satisfaction levels suggests poor punctuality colours passengers' perceptions of the service in other areas. These results continue to paint a very unsatisfactory picture of performance as a whole."

Officials expect all operators to produce plans aimed at improving punctuality within the next two months.

Customer satisfaction surveys showed that many passengers were dissatisfied with the poor performance. On Anglia Railways, there was no significant improvement in customer satisfaction levels in any of 22 separate categories of service.

There were also no significant improvements in satisfaction levels on Connex South Eastern and Merseyrail Electrics, while a number of other companies could boast improved satisfaction in just one category.

The punctuality and reliability figures compare performances for the 25 train operators for the year ending 27 June 1998 with the period 12 months earlier.

Trains run by Great Western, dubbed "Late Western" by its customers, are so unreliable that some passengers are moving to towns with more punctual services.

Lucy Pinnock, 38, has abandoned Westbury in Wiltshire and now drives 25 miles to pick up a service operated by South West Trains at Salisbury.

Mrs Pinnock is preparing to sell her four-bedroom, 200-year-old town house. "The prices are much higher there, so I will only be able to afford a smaller, two or three-bedroom property in Salisbury," she said.

Thames Trains - which links London with Surrey and Oxfordshire - fared even worse on punctuality. The most recent figures showed that nearly 20 per cent of trains are late.

Commuters in Birmingham are also suffering. Chiltern, which has recently bought new rolling stock and invested pounds 18m in new track, has seen punctuality drop.

Three months ago, only 9 per cent of services were labelled late, but this has now risen to nearly 16 per cent.

Virgin Trains has been identified as one of the most improved services - although the poor performance of its Scottish route ensures it remains bottom of the league table. However, Virgin points out that the monthly figures show a steady recovery from last year's abysmal performance.

On reliability, 33 routes declined, 21 were better and nine were about the same.

Mr O'Brien's office blamed part of the poor punctuality on Thames and Great Western to Railtrack "infrastructure" problems, which also affected other operators such as Wales and West and the Cardiff train company.

Railtrack, the owner of the nation's track and signalling, has been blamed by many operators for applying speed restrictions and hampering performance.

However, yesterday the company hit back, saying that "while once being responsible for nearly 70 per cent of all train delays, that figure has fallen to a little over 43 per cent".

The Association of Train Operating Companies, which represents the 25 private operators, said the results were "disappointing" but said the companies were victims of their own success.

"A major cause is the expansion of the network - 7 per cent more passengers, 50,000 more trains and many new services - which has placed serious demands on rolling stock and staff," said Giles Fearnley, chief executive of Prism Rail, which owns five private rail operators.