by Phil Marsh

Sorry I’m late, my train was delayed – fact or fiction?

Published: 9th October 2014

Can we still use the old traditional excuse for being late – Rail.co.uk reports

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has just published performance details for the UK rail network covering April/May/June 2014 and provides an interesting analysis of how Network Rail and the train companies are performing.

Jargon – a quick introduction

First of all a bit of explanation may be required to fully understand how things are measured and reported. The key measure is called the ‘Public performance measure’ (PPM) which is the percentage of trains arriving at their final destination within five or ten minutes of their booked arrival time. The five minute measure is for London and South East and regional operators’ trains and the ten minute measure for long distance services which are more likely to be delayed.

The PPM is a moving statistic updated after every four-week reporting period and the annual output is known as the PPM Moving Annual Average’ (MAA). Cancelled trains or those that do not reach their final destination, or miss out stops to recover time are also collated in this monitoring process by ORR.

Significant lateness is defined to be over 30 minutes late at the final destination. Non passenger train’ performance are also monitored as the Freight performance measure (FPM).

We reported on how and why Network Rail (NR) was likely to be fined over £50 million by ORR for poor performance at the end of their last five-year funding period which ended in April 2014. In the event, NR promised to invest the money in passenger benefits to the network such as wi-fi – which also significantly benefits them for signalling and communication purposes. NR also signed up to improved performance over the next five years against which they were allocated funding by ORR.

The new five year funding period commenced in April this year and the ORR has changed the non-passenger performance measures by measuring the percentage of freight trains arriving at their destination within 15 minutes of scheduled time and only covers delay caused by NR. Passenger monitoring remains as before.

How late were the trains in Spring 2014?

Franchised train operation’ PPM for the first three months of financial year 2014-15 was 92.1%, 0.9 percentage points lower than the same quarter last year. But the MAA significantly worsened the end of 2014-15 Q1 and at 89.5% was a decrease of 1.5 percentage points. There was also a deterioration in train reliability or in other words more trains were cancelled than a year ago by 0.2 percentage points.

Franchised long distance and London and South East services performance also deteriorated with the PPM MAA reducing by 0.7% for long distance trains but the London and South East sector falling by a huge 2.3 percentage points.

Regional franchised and Scottish trains improved with the proportion of on-time trains increasing by 0.5 percentage points. Merseyrail topped the franchised on time table last Spring but C2C remain top of the PPM MAA tables at 96.6%. The ORR notes that both companies have pretty much sole use of their networks reducing the chance of delays which as with Island Line, always score highly in punctuality. Merseyrail with 1.7% and C2C with 1.3% were the lowest figure for cancellations.

Despite an improvement of 1.1%, Virgin Trains had the lowest PPM of all franchised operators with 86.6% of trains on time. Freight services MAA was 76.1% in Q1 2014-15, an improvement of 2.3 percentage points.

The privatised railway’s performance

Punctuality figures were rising under Railtrack from 1994 but following the dreadful accidents culminating in October 2000 at Hatfield, performance dived because of safety issues. The low point was between July and August 2001since when performance has improved peaking at 91.7% between July and August 2012. Since then it has declined to 89.5% for all operators using the MAA measurement despite the agreed industry funding designed to deliver agreed levels of punctuality.

This year to date

Across the UK rail network (excepting Northern Ireland), 92.1% of franchised services hit their PPM target between April and June 2014 which seems good but is actually 0.9 percentage points lower than last year. And it seems that the PPM figure will further worsen as several good months’ results will drop out of the MAA to be replaced by lower scoring ones. And the bad weather periods are now on us.

Franchised regional and the Scotland sector scored a PPM of 93.8% in the reporting period, up by 0.5 percentage points. But franchised London and South East services managed a PPM of 91.3% - a reduction of 1.9 percentage points. Franchised long distance trains which are more prone to cumulative delays managed a score of 89.9% of trains on time, 0.4 percentage points worse than last year.

Overall then the PPM MAA during 2014-15 Q1 worsened by 1.5% at 89.5%. It has to be said that performance was hit by the electrical storms damaging signalling cables on many routes, notably on Great Western and Wessex lines.

The franchised long distance sector scored 86.6%, the lowest since 2007-08 Q4 and franchised London and South East trains punctuality fell to 88.9%, the lowest since 2006-07 Q4. Even Scotland and regional services saw a reduction 0.4 percentage points on their PPM MAA coming in at 91.0%.

Are these scores good or bad?

There are not good, but not bad scores when all things are considered. There are more passengers travelling using more trains. More trains means that there is a reduced chance of recovering time. For example, 20 years ago, a train that ran non-stop for the last 100 miles into Euston, Paddington or Kings Cross could arrive 10 minutes early but today with more trains, the ability to catchup 10 minutes simply does not exist.

The ever increasing amount of passengers and luggage they carry can lead to delays at stations while they get on or off. And of course, more trains means more maintenance has to be carried out by NR, often in reduced timeslots overnight as passengers demand earlier morning and late evening trains.

Train numbers

Most people assume NR is at fault for delays but while they account for just over 60% of delays, trains break down, signalling cable gets stolen and trespass delays trains as well. For many years after the Hatfield crash, train companies masked their train failure rates behind the track delays. Train failure rates are increasing again, maybe due to the fact that trains are being used more and more intensively to cover the lease costs.

So new franchisees promise to employ more platform staff which sounds good, and is good but remember, they will be used to make sure punctuality is maintained and that they do not pick up penalties for delays.

Who did best?

London Overground topped the performance table for franchised peak-time services scoring 97.1%, a reduction of 0.6 percentage points while Chiltern, London Midland and First Great Western were the only operators to improve. So far as cancelled or significantly late trains were concerned less than 3% were affected but for full details, visit the ORR’s data portal.

So, can you use the late train as an excuse for being late? The above statistics suggest that you can't!

For the full details including cancellation statistics, visit the ORR’s website.

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