The ORR

Published 29th May 2012

Better levels of punctuality

LONDON - The Office of Rail Regulation threatens Network Rail with multi-million pound fines unless better levels of punctuality for passengers on long distance train services are achieved.

The rail regulator has instructed Network Rail (NR) to deliver plans, agreed jointly with train operators, to improve punctuality on long distance services in 2012-13.

It was also instructed to speed-up improvements towards meeting its punctuality target of 92% in 2013-14. If NR misses these targets, it will potentially face fines of millions of pounds based on how much they underperform against agreed targets.

Points don’t always mean prizes!

These include a fine of £1.5 million per 0.1 percentage point it drops below the 92% punctuality target. Current performance is running at 89.2% for long distance services and ORR says that NR promised to achieving more, and taxpayers and customers have paid the company to deliver.

ORR’s in-depth investigation into NR’s performance showed that NR struggled reaching its long distance punctuality target. Even after recognising the impact of cable theft and suicides, ORR concluded that many of the difficulties NR encountered are of the company’s own making including timetable planning and predicting and spotting equipment failures.

More trains are running on the network which means the opportunity to recover time is reduced, but the company could have done more to deal with the risks to performance.

And of course, while NR is underperforming, train failures are masked by the delay system and this used to be common policy for example, when Railtrack was performing badly but train failures were high.

They said:

ORR Chief Executive, Richard Price, said: “Levels of punctuality on long distance rail services across Britain are good by historical standards but passengers should be experiencing even better levels of train performance, benefitting from the punctuality commitments which they and taxpayers have funded Network Rail to deliver.

“Let me be clear, we expect Network Rail to hit their targets, and to achieve this by implementing sustainable improvements that really benefit passengers. In the last year, approximately 13.7 million passengers’ journeys on long distance trains were affected by late or cancelled trains – and this is unacceptable.

That is why we are proposing a penalty which puts pressure on Network Rail to achieve its funded target – an incentive for the company to do everything it can to deliver improvements for passengers including reducing the number of long delays that impact so badly on rail users.

Virgin’s views

Virgin Trains added to the debate saying, "Clearly the infrastructure performance of the West Coast Mainline continues to be unacceptable and this has had a major impact on Virgin Trains' customers and those of other operators, who have seen punctuality fall well below expected levels.

We have repeatedly told the ORR and NR we must have a reliable infrastructure if we are to continue the remarkable growth of recent years, when we have seen the number of customers double to 30million. Anything short of this will affect the potential of the West Coast Mainline to continue its success."

“We welcome the ORR's action to focus NR's attention on long-distance routes and press for urgently-needed improvements. However, we are disappointed that there is no focus on immediate improvement, as we and our customers want to see short-term progress, especially as the Olympics and Paralympics will be a showcase for the industry.

The problem has been highlighted in recent days as improved weather has ruined performance through heat-related delays with some days being at around 60 per cent punctuality. Also, Network Rail will only achieve its 2014 target if there is immediate improvement.

Network Rail’s views

Network Rail’s chief executive, David Higgins put his name to a brief comment:

“We welcome the ORR’s recognition that we, and the train operating companies, have already done much to improve long distance punctuality in this control period – which is currently running at a record level of 89.2 percent for the past year – and we accept the challenge to deliver an even better service.

"We are determined to do all we can to achieve that through balancing the continued growth in demand with passengers’ desire for improved reliability in terms of punctuality.”

The future

ORR also says that if NR does not perform, it will take away the money allocated to it so is this a real threat when the funding package is billions of pounds? A few million pounds lost in fines could well be the cheaper option than investing in better performance.

And if the money is sequested from NR, who benefits? Taxpayers or the Government? It could all be a hugely expensive money-go-round!

On the other hand, the train operators are being paid millions in delay compensation, not all of which is refunded to passengers as the system is supposed to do.

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