Network Rail has been ordered to pay a massive £53.1m fine to the Treasury after “failing to deliver” on punctuality last year.
The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has slapped the huge fine on the track operator after it revealed that last year almost one in six long-distance trains ran late, nearly twice as many as permitted by the 92% punctuality target.
On long-distance performance in the five years ending March 2014, the ORR said NR "did not deliver all of its plans to improve performance and, particularly in the early years of the (five-year) funding period, had insufficient knowledge of the condition of its key assets, such as earthworks, electrical equipment and drainage".
The ORR added that on London and south east England (LSE) passenger services in 2013/14, NR achieved punctuality levels of 89.6% against a target figure of 93.0%.
Over the period 2009-14, the ORR concluded that there were approximately 73,100 additional late trains over and above funded obligations, while for LSE there were approximately 265,500 additional late trains over and above funded obligations.
Following news of the fine the Treasury today pledged to plough some of the penalty back into the railways to help provide faster Wi-Fi on commuter services.
Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne said: "This is a time of unprecedented growth and record levels of investment in Britain's railways. As a result, today we have the safest, most improved passenger railway in Europe."
Mr Carne, who joined NR in February, went on: "We accept that we have fallen short of the regulatory targets for train punctuality and that this is, in part, down to our failure to reduce infrastructure faults quickly enough.
"At the same time, the sharp increase in passenger demand has led us to run more trains at peak times, even when we know this will lead to a more congested railway and punctuality targets may suffer.
"Passengers do want trains to run on time, but for many people, particularly commuters at the busiest times of the day, increased services with less crowding is a key priority. This trade-off between congestion and punctuality is a daily issue on many routes."
Mr Carne continued: "The industry is now benefiting from significant funding but there remain challenges following many decades of underinvestment.
"Getting train reliability back on track is a key priority for us over the next three years in particular and we have good plans to improve the underlying reliability of our assets alongside significant investment to increase capacity and relieve congestion. I am confident that by the end of this control period (2019) we will meet and indeed exceed the regulatory performance targets."
Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail union, responded angrily to news that the fine would be used to fund an expansion of wi-fi services: "This is yet another example of the crazy money merry-go-round that is at the heart of our fragmented rail industry.
"All the politicians are doing is taking taxpayers' money from Network Rail and re-cycling it through the Treasury - this time to spend on one of their pet projects, faster wi-fi that should be paid for by the private rail companies.
"Once again, passengers lose out while private rail firms are laughing all the way to the bank."