27 May 2009

The train now approaching platform 1 is... on time!

Some excellent news from Network Rail released yesterday is that for the first time since records began, average train punctuality is the highest it's ever been, standing at 93.5% for the month of April. Prior to that, in the year ending March 2008, punctuality was the better side of 90% for the first time ever, being recorded as 90.6%.

It could be argued that these results are incredibly encouraging: best-ever annual punctuality since records began in the midst of engineering overruns at Rugby and London Liverpool Street.

However records began being recorded as late as 1992 and while this means that today's best-ever punctuality is technically better than towards the end of the nationalised British Rail (BR) era (it is widely acknowledged that BR operated best immediately before it was broken up by the Tories in 1997 - a kind of swansong, really) there are so many glaring safeguards to ensure a train that runs physically late is technically classed as punctual, that it makes a mockery of, well everything.

The instance we're all accustom to on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) is National Express East Coast's (NXEC) journey time between Peterborough and London King's Cross. Southbound it can be as much as 58 minutes non-stop. Northbound, it can be as little as 44 minutes, again non-stop. How can this be? Are different tracks used? No. Is a permanent speed restriction imposed southbound? No.

It's done so that a train that can have operated consistently late, by say 14 minutes from Edinburgh southwards, can still be classed as on time when it arrives at its terminus in King's Cross. We're very conscious that there are many situations like this up and down mainland Britain and that NXEC's predecessor GNER happily ran with the same timings for just over a decade.

On 4 February we noted the the following at the foot of that day's entry:

"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."

We acknowledge that the bus industry has its VOSA-imposed "window of tolerance", but unlike the railways, every single timing point a bus operator publishes in its timetable needs to conform to this. On the railways it's the arrival time at the terminus only.

I promise you the following can and DOES regularly happen along the ECML:

Timetabled NXEC journey
2017 dep Peterborough
2115 arr King's Cross

Actual NXEC journey
2039 dep Peterborough
2124 arr King's Cross

This journey, despite leaving Peterborough 22 minutes LATE, and arriving at King's Cross 9 minutes late, is classed as PUNCTUAL in the rather clouded eyes of the Train Operating Companies, Network Rail and therefore the DfT and the government.

Approaching King's Cross, as this NXEC Class 91 is, the train could've realistically have been running up to 22 minutes late throughout its journey south from Edinburgh and yet so long as it arrives less than 9 mins & 59 seconds late at its terminus, is classed as a punctual journey.

In an exactly opposite vein from yesterday's rail report that was "blindingly obvious" these statistics are anything but.

Robin Gisby, a Network Rail director said: "Passengers are today experiencing the most punctual train service ever provided on Britain's railways." Not strictly true, Robin - "ever" really only extends back to 1992. What about the century and a half before that? And how would your data fair if you made a train that arrived 1 minute late be classed as late? (GWB)