Trains are arriving even later, despite cutbacks to timetables

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The Independent Online

Britain's rail chief called yesterday for a "ruthless" approach to punctuality after figures showed that the performance of inter-city services had slumped again.

The statistics, for July to September this year, showed that punctuality on long-distance lines between London and the Midlands deteriorated most, with nearly four trains in 10 running late. During the same period last year, only half that number were late.

It means that Midland Mainline, the company concerned, is in the unenviable position of having operated the worst service on the network.

More than one in three trains operated by Virgin West Coast and First Great Western were also late, the figures from the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) show.

Overall, only 66.9 per cent of long-distance trains arrived on time, compared with 72 per cent last year. Performances declined even though the SRA introduced measures to improve reliability, including cutting back on timetables.

The exceptional heat in the summer was blamed for rails buckling and safety engineers imposing speed restrictions. Industry critics pointed out that the quality of the track on the new high-speed line between London and the Channel meant that the Eurostar trains did not suffer this problem.

Services in London and the South-east also got worse, with peak time punctuality declining from 81.9 per cent to 79.4 per cent. The performance of regional operators, on the other hand, improved by 4.4 per cent. At a national level, punctuality remained static at 80.8 per cent.

Apart from Island Lines, the tiny company on the Isle of Wight, the operator with the best performance was Merseyrail, which ran 92.4 per cent of its trains on time.

Overall, 10 companies improved their performance, 13 got worse and three remained the same. Richard Bowker, the chairman of SRA, said: "These are mixed results. The overall performance figure remains static and we need to be ruthless in pursuit of improvement and change on behalf of the railway's customers."

More positive for the rail industry was the fact that complaints per 100,000 decreased between July and September by 17 per cent. But even this good news was offset by the fact that the proportion of passengers who said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their journeys fell from 74 per cent to 73 per cent.

Yesterday's performance figures followed news that most rail passengers will face above-inflation fare rises from next month.

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers Council, said it appeared passengers were being asked to pay in advance for improvements. "As fares go up, the service that passengers get is not improving, so why should they pay more?" he said. "Passengers want to know when their service is going to get better and by how much."

George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said a reported 2 per cent rise in passenger numbers over the year was good news.

"It shows that the new trains, improving customer information and on-board service are making train travel increasingly attractive," he said.

Theresa May, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "These appalling figures fly in the face of promises from this Labour Government six and a half years ago that rail performance would improve."

John Thurso, the Liberal Democrat Transport spokes-man, said: "The Government will try to spin this as a good news story, but the reality is that Labour has no control over the railways."

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