18 September 2010

Worst-ever Performance

Perhaps a good reason not to re-nationalise the operation of the country's rail network is provided in the latest punctuality data, compiled and released by Network Rail. It shows the best-ever punctuality recorded by a franchised train operator, 98.8%, achieved over the period covering 25 July - 21 August.

Put simply, this means 98.8% of the journeys operated by the train operating company (TOC) in question ran to time. The company? National Express c2c.

c2c has always been a high-flier in the performance leagues, along with Chiltern. Both benefit from relatively closed systems that see little interaction with other lines and TOCs. That's not to say both do not have their own challenges! Chiltern has to negotiate the bottleneck that is central Birmingham, for example.

Towards the foot of the recent data are two inter-city TOCs. The first is Arriva-owned CrossCountry, which criss-crosses the UK and thus has a plethora of potential delays through no fault of its own. This TOC, however, does not reside at the bottom. The least-punctual TOC in the UK for the period 25 July - 21 August is state-owned East Coast.

Quite why East Coast should have dropped to bottom place during its nationalised tenure is quite a mystery. This is a sentiment shared by the Office of Rail Regulation, who is effectively chairing talks and an action plan to be provided by both East Coast and Network Rail in order to improve punctuality.

And lest we forget that 'punctual' on the nation's rail network means anything but! Long distance services are considered punctual provided they reach their terminus (and only their terminus) up to and including 9 minutes and 59 seconds after their timetabled arrival. Shorter, regional services can arrive at their terminus up to and including 4 minutes and 59 seconds beyond that published in the passenger timetable, and still be considered punctual.

So, effectively, East Coast's punctuality figures for the first part of the high season show that 86.2% of its services arrived within the 9:59 window, or more pointedly, that 13.8% of its services were in excess of 10 minutes reaching their destinations.

If you discount the bizarre fleet repainting scheme and the tens of thousands of pounds this is likely to cost, significant sums of money have yet to be thrown at East Coast, by its government paymasters. In the scheme of things, introducing Virgin Trains-style free food doesn't cost that much either. Why the drop in punctuality, then? The age old one-liners simply do not stack up - "electrification north of Newcastle was done on the cheap and pantograph issues occur frequently" - since both predecessors GNER and NXEC had this to contend with and under the latter the East Coast franchise had its most punctual day since privatisation last year.

Unlike CrossCountry, East Coast is a relatively closed network, only sharing its metals with other TOCs and not having to generally criss-cross others. This should be one of the most punctual inter-city lines in the UK and the first year of nationalisation has seen matters get worse. With next May's intensive clock-face timetable being introduced, additional operational pressures will be placed on East Coast.

Those firmly in favour of the state running our trains point to the other high-fliers in the latest punctuality data: Merseyrail and London Overground. Both are long-term concessions rather than franchises, let by their nationalised owners - the first being Merseyside PTE and the second being Transport for London. Give the state greater control on what can and cannot be undertaken by contractors and a heap of cash and others could be performing as well as Overground and Merseyrail. Both also benefit from relatively closed networks, too.

Passenger watchdogs are likely to be a little less critical of East Coast's recent data, pointing out that punctuality is but one aspect of the 'passenger experience'. Some passengers are willing to run the risk of being 12 minutes late arriving in Aberdeen provided their ticket costs less than a benchmark figure in their mind. It could be argued that the very well-kept stations East Coast maintains are warm and inviting and far superior to the dour affairs offered by other TOCs while awaiting a late-running London service.

Some of the examples given by Network Rail for c2c's best-ever performance included the route's modernisation during the 1990s by British Rail, new, modern trains and a 40-seconds-before-departure dispatch of trains from central London. The East Coast Main Line saw similar improvements, with electrification and the introduction of Class 91s. All you ever read in railway mags is how reliable the stalwart HSTs are, and NXEC introduced the policy at King's Cross to both close the platform off up to 2 minutes before departure and remove each train departure from the departure screen 10 mins before it actually leaves.

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