Inter-City train cancellations rise 40% in a year

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The Independent Online

Train cancellations on Britain's five long-distance and high-speed rail services have increased by more than 40 per cent in a year, it was revealed yesterday.

The number of trains failing to turn up increased from 1,231 in the year to January 1999 to 1,764 last year, according to figures published by the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority. Cancellations increased on all five express networks. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin West Coast deteriorated the most, with 56 per cent more trains failing to turn up in the year to January - 448 services compared with 245 during the previous 12 months.

Midland Mainline was close behind with 54 per cent, then Great Western with 28 per cent, Virgin Cross Country 11 per cent and the Great North Eastern Railway just under 1 per cent. The worst of all for cancellations nationally was the South West Trains regional operation, where nearly twice as many trains were cancelled in the year to January (93 per cent). In second place overall was Scotrail with 75.6 per cent, while Gatwick Express, the gateway for many travellers coming into the country, showed a deterioration of 43.8 per cent.

Generally, however, there was a substantial improvement in reliability led by companies such as North Western Trains which was 65 per cent better, Chiltern Railways 55 per cent and Wales & West 53 per cent. But passengers generally put up with poorer punctuality on the railways last year, the figures showed. Delays worsened on more than half (39) of the 77 routes run by the 25 passenger train companies in 1999 compared with 1998. Punctuality improved on 37 routes while one route stayed the same.

Scotrail came out the worst for delays with 69 per cent more trains failing to turn up on time, followed by the London-Essex LTS service on 67 per cent and Merseyrail Electrics on 53 per cent. Despite the disappointing punctuality figures, companies' overall performance improved enough to ensure that, for the first time, none featured in the bottom grade E in the SSRA's performance table. There was also a greater number of operators - nine - in grades A and B than previously.

In separate figures just for the period 17 October 1999 to 8 January 2000, three companies - Great Eastern, Cardiff and Virgin West Coast - achieved improvements. Merseyrail Electrics and LTS both slipped back a grade during this period while the other 20 operators maintained their previous status. In the year-long figures for 1999, only one company - the Isle of Wight Island Line - got into category A, scoring top grades in both punctuality and reliability. Mike Grant, chief executive of the SSRA, said that more needed to be done. "I appreciate that, overall, punctuality levels are failing to match passengers' expectations," he said.

The Central Rail Users Consultative Committee, the passenger watchdog, said the figures showed that on average, nearly nine trains in every 100 were late.

The committee's chairman, Steve Francis, said that overall improvements in reliability were very welcome: "However, passengers using long-distance and commuter trains are only too aware of ongoing delays.

"We are still waiting to see the emergence of a sustained picture of overall performance improvements. For many passengers, the experience of rail travel is still poor."

A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said that the number of cancellations represented less than one per cent of services run. "For every one additional train cancelled there are an extra 53 additional services," the spokesman said.

Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin Trains, said his company had increased the number of services by 13.5 per cent and had still exceeded the industry requirement of 99 per cent of trains running. He said the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, which worked out the figures for cancellations based on data provided by the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, should recognise the achievements of rail staff.