Back on track, but still moving far too slowly

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There was some rare good news about the railways yesterday. Network Rail, the not-for-profit company that runs Britain's rail infrastructure, announced that punctuality has improved. We were told that 83.5 per cent of trains are arriving within five minutes of their due time. This means Network Rail has achieved the target set by the rail regulator.

There was some rare good news about the railways yesterday. Network Rail, the not-for-profit company that runs Britain's rail infrastructure, announced that punctuality has improved. We were told that 83.5 per cent of trains are arriving within five minutes of their due time. This means Network Rail has achieved the target set by the rail regulator.

Network Rail has done a competent job since it replaced the ill-fated Railtrack in 2002. It has paid attention to the basics. The major cause of train delays has been signal failures and maintenance work. Network Rail has improved efficiency by taking maintenance in-house. The introduction of "joint control centres" - in which the staff from train companies and Network Rail work together to sort out specific problems - also seems to have helped. The Government's substantial investment in the railways is also beginning to yield results.

But it would be wrong to get too excited about the announcement. Punctuality has undoubtedly improved - but from a very low base. After the chaos on our railways only a few years ago, it could hardly have got worse. And it is worth remembering that a train punctuality rate of 83.5 per cent is still lower than in most other developed countries. For a typical rail commuter, it means being delayed at least once or twice a week. What is more, there are still fewer trains arriving on time than before the Hatfield crash of 2000. Our railway services are only now approaching the performance level of five years ago. This is an appropriate context in which to view the claim of Ian McAllister, the Network Rail chairman, that the reduction of delays constitutes a "superb achievement".

And other persistent problems with the railways must not be glossed over. Last Christmas, passengers had difficulty getting cheaper booked-in-advance tickets because of a lack of notice given over timetable changes. And Network Rail is technically in breach of its operating licence for failing to give enough notice of engineering works to train companies.

It is encouraging that things are - at last - moving in the right direction, but we should be in no doubt that our railway service is still deeply unsatisfactory.

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