Get a grip on late trains, watchdog warns authorities

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Rail industry chiefs must do more to deal with late services, overcrowded trains and inadequate stations, a government watchdog said yesterday.

Rail industry chiefs must do more to deal with late services, overcrowded trains and inadequate stations, a government watchdog said yesterday.

In a highly critical report, the National Audit Office urged the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority to get a grip on the system and take less on trust.

Train companies should win bigger financial rewards for meeting tough targets on punctuality and "short" trains, and those that fail to meet them should face stiffer penalties, the report said. Industry controllers should also demand remedial action from train companies for late services. At present, the SSRA intervened only if there were excessive cancellations or insufficient seats.

Train operators were often reluctant to scrap servicesrunning late to prevent them showing up in cancellation figures. That caused increased disruption to the timetable, said the audit office report, called Action to Improve Passenger Rail Services.

Rail authorities were criticised for not doing enough inspections to ensure stations were efficient rather than relying on "self-certification". Passenger numbers were growing in all parts of Britain, but information on overcrowding was infrequently collected, expensive to collate, unreliable and covered only commuter routes in London and Edinburgh.

The audit office found Chiltern Railways, Connex South Eastern, LTS Rail and Silverlink could have significantly reduced overcrowding if they had provided the capacity they promised in peak periods. The arrival of the new rolling stock was unlikely to solve overcrowding problem in London and south-east England.

Service performance varied greatly throughout the country, as did the cost of travel, with passengers in south-east England paying far more per mile than anyone else.

The authority's "fares adjustment mechanism" also came under fire because that meant companies were rewarded for improvements in performance many commuters still regarded as mediocre.

The report dealt with the measures taken since privatisation by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising(Opraf) and by the SSRA, in effect its successor,

Sir John Bourn, head of the audit office, said: "Although overall performance has been marginally better than BR, there is not yet evidence of sustained improvement. The SSRA must ensure it has both the information and the powers it needs to deliver the further improvements in punctuality, reliability, capacity and quality of service we all want to see."

David Davis, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said there were wide variations in reliability and punctuality, not all of which could be explained by the inadequacy of infrastructure bequeathed by British Rail.

He said one of the key measures of the quality of the service was the extent of overcrowding, but information on the subject was "hopelessly inadequate". Companies' reports on stations for which they were responsible should be treated with scepticism.

The SSRA said the shortcomings highlighted by thereport were being addressedin negotiations with traincompanies over franchise replacement. Incentives and penalties for train companies were being doubled.

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers' Council, said many of the report's findings were reflected in the daily experiences of travellers. A vital omission was the issue of access to statistics that showed the causes of delays to the services of each train operator.