01 February 2011

Fancy a massage?

It has been revealed that during key dates during November and December, nationalised train operating company (TOC) East Coast had permission granted to add extra time to their long-distance rail journeys in order to make them more punctual. This was without consultation with the very people who both pay for the services and who travel on the trains in question.

Not only that, the timetables were not altered, only the working times used by the rail industry, to which the public has no access. Often guards' (or drivers when guards do not control when a train departs a station/guards not present) duty sheets show two departure times from certain stations - one is the published timing for the traveller and the other is the working timetable.

And guess which set of timings is used to rate TOC punctuality? That's right, not the ones used by every passenger who ever sets foot on any train in the country but the secret industry timings!

So, you have a situation where a train can legitimately depart from a station at a different time to that stated in the public timetable/website; the punctuality of a TOC is rated against a secretive timing and the manner in which a train's punctuality is recorded is a complete fix - only the time at the journey's final station is taken into consideration and a leeway of 9:59 is afforded East Coast in any case.

Up to TWENTY, yes two-zero minutes were added to the journey times between the final two calling points of East Coast's journeys during the key Nov/Dec dates so that their punctuality could be recorded as 'improved'. In the event, the company managed an impressive but outrageously disingenuous 99.4% during the massaged period. But passengers still believed they were arriving late as they were not told. I would love to know whether the automatic compensation payouts were still paid, despite many trains that passengers believed were 24 minutes late actually arriving on time, so far as Network Rail and East Coast were concerned.

Anyone who has any role to play in running scheduled bus and coach services will be shaking their head at this point. Not only is the punctuality of scheduled operation of bus and coach services checked at any point VOSA compliance officers choose to observe, but the 9:59 long distance/4:59 local service lateness tolerance simply does not exist. 95% of scheduled bus and coach services must arrive within 1 minute before or 5 minutes after the passenger timetabled times. And this is all times. A route with 20 timing points sees all twenty required to conform.

A train from Edinburgh to London King's Cross can have around 10 timing/calling points and the timings to which the guard permits the driver to depart do not have to necessarily be the same as those in the public timetable and none except the last at King's Cross is used to record punctuality. With the 9:59 lateness tolerance and up to 20 minutes secretly added to some journeys, a total delay into KX of 29:59 would still have been recorded as punctual.

The railway does not suffer from seemingly endless temporary traffic lights, not does it suffer with tractors or combine harvesters or even learner drivers. East Coast itself has surprisingly less integration with other TOCs, which lowers the potential for problems as operators vie for priority. And its services are given priority headcodes, so signallers afford their trains priority over local, stopping services whenever practicable.

To some - many - the almost secretive antics of Network Rail and East Coast make a mockery of train travel, they really do. It doesn't take long for someone you start chatting to on a train to start criticising the service they receive - both in terms of comfort (standing for hundreds of miles) or price (some season tickets have increased by far more than the headline 5.8% for regulated fares due to a special leeway afforded TOCs by the now Coalition-run DfT). If you then drop the bombshell that their performance is rated against invisible timings and that a commuter travelling between York-Newark can always travel on a train that is late and that these journeys could technically be considered punctual, the whole conversation spirals out of control and incomprehensible laughter will surely ensue.

And to show that not only East Coast is capable of imaginative accountancy - through legitimate means - one TOC 'down south' has released its punctuality figures to two decimal places, that just happens to be 0.04% above the level at which compensation needs to be paid to many of its long-suffering commuters.


Anonymous said...

As a passenger I don't really care about the actual departure time (as long as it is not before the advertised time!), I only care about the service meeting the advertised arrival time.

Keith Morton said...

The astonishing thing about this for me is that East coast/Dft/Network Rail/whomever think this is actually necessary. It suggests a deep lack of confidence in East Coast’s abilities, because, quite frankly, the timetable is already very well padded. Most regular ECML users going northbound beyond Newcastle upon Tyne are conscious of this cynical practice. I have been routinely used to finding my train, say, 20 mins or so late south of Newcastle. In these circumstances I am usually pretty confident that it will still arrive on (published) time at Edinburgh. Conversely, a timely departure from Newcastle inevitably heralds a proud on-train announcement approaching Edinburgh that the service is “10 minutes early”. But this latter situation is much rarer!