04 February 2009

Trains are too punctual

The boss of the UK's largest rail freight company has complained that passenger services are operating too punctually and that this is having a negative effect on his services.

On the face of it, this might not have been the best remark to make, especially coming from Keith Heller, chief executive of the company known until recently as English, Welsh & Scottish Railway Limited (EWS). Mr Heller's comment was structured, however. He claims that there is such a push from all concerned to ensure passenger services are not delayed that his freight trains - traditionally much slower - are being further held-up on slow lines while they're overtaken.

Moreover, the chief executive of EWS's new owner, DB Schenker, claimed that his services were being held stationary in sidings so that passenger services weren't delayed by even 1 minute. He is of the opinion that punctuality targets for these passenger trains are too ambitious and that specifically the government is at fault for pledging to see train punctuality rise to 92.6% by 2014.

Mr Heller wanted to know "What's wrong with 90 per cent? There's a price to going to 91, 92 or 93 per cent. Let's think about what the trade-offs are in driving to a higher level. In any market you are trying to get to a sweet spot. You don't want to over-service the customer. For the sake of efficiency and lower cost, we have to be prepared to take the risk of small delays. People should live with that in return for an affordable network."

His remarks are likely to infuriate rail commuters up and down the country, who will want to see punctuality far in excess of the 92.6% government figure, not beneath it.

And yet the Times claimed that senior figures within Network Rail "agree with Mr Heller but are reluctant to speak publicly because train punctuality is politically very sensitive."

Rail watchdog Passenger Focus wholly disagrees with Keith Heller's comments about wanting to see train punctuality lowered to 90%, taking the pragmatic percentage of 95, or 19 in 20 punctual arrivals.

Is 100% punctuality possible? If the East Coast Main Line (ECML) is anything to go by then no, not really. National Express East Coast (NXEC) announced last week that, for the first time since privatisation, all its 136 passenger services, operating along the ECML, arrived on time. It would be interesting to see if that date saw far greater delays to DB Schenker services than normal, in a bid (fluke?) for NXEC to operate as per its timetable for the first time in over a decade!!

To be fair to NXEC, it has only been the main ECML operator for 13 months, its predecessor GNER being the main rail service provider thereon since privatisation.

It's worth pointing out that a long-distance passenger rail service is not considered late unless it arrives in excess of 9 minutes and 59 seconds; short-distance ones have a lesser window, being a 'mere' 4 minutes and 59 seconds. (GL)