Regulator needs to focus on consumer issues

At a conference I chaired recently, Bill Emery the chief executive of the Office of Rail Regulation gave his usual speech about the importance of ensuring Network Rail was motivated to become more efficient. He showed a graph with the usual upward curve showing that efficiency was improving and had almost continually since the bad old days of Railtrack. But, he stressed that it is time ‘Network Rail stopped just being proud that it is not Railtrack’ and to improve its performance more quickly.

 Quite right, but it was all pretty banal stuff. But then, as happens sometimes at these events, a local councillor got up and asked the emperor’s clothes question. He said: ‘When I am travelling, I am not interested in whether Network Rail is maintaining the railway more cheaply and reducing its costs every year. What passengers want is to have later last trains, more frequent services, clockface timetables and the like.’ Another delegate then asked about stations, and said that ORR ought to be focussing more on improving be looking at issues like toilets, and other facilities, such as buffets and other retail outlets.?

 As chair, I pressed Emery on whether it would be possible for the ORR to focus on these issues. After all, it has begun to press Network Rail into providing a seven day railway with far fewer weekend closures.

 He confirmed that, yes, it would be possible for the ORR to consider these issues but that recently it had focussed more on punctuality. That was an interesting response. In the complex world of rail regulation, it is the government that sets the parameters on, for example frequency and first and last trains of the day. However, a regulator with teeth should begin to look at the issues which affect the passenger experience, rather than just always looking at those behind the scenes indicators which in the end are all about money.

  • David

    If ORR is serious about punctuality, it needs to find a better way of measuring the delay minutes passengers suffer instead of concentrating just upon on-time arrivals at final destinations.

    Earlier this year, five of us traveled from Nottingham to Sheringham; the first part of our journey was by an EMT service which had started at Liverpool. This arrived at Nottingham on time, but when it came to depart there was a door problem; a fitter was called from Eastcroft, and he was able to rectify the fault. But this meant that we were about 15 minutes late departing.

    There were a number of signal checks – I think we were behind a Nottingham-Skegness stopper – and the cumulative effect was that we were about 20 minutes late by the time we left Grantham; we then experienced some “positive” driving (just how fast can a class 158 do down Stoke Bank on full throttle?) and good station working at Peterborough and especially Ely, but the conductor confirmed to me that we were still about 12-13 minutes late when we left Thetford.

    As I was musing as to whether or not we would make our connection at Norwich, I realised we had just passed under the GER main line and were approaching Trowse Junction; there was so much recovery time built into the schedule that we easily caught the Sheringham train – and the service would have been classed as an on-time arrival as we were only about three/four minutes late at final destination!

    But I do know that a passenger sitting opposite me on the early part of the journey missed her connection at Grantham, and I guess it would have been possible for someone to miss check-in time at Stansted by missing their connection at Ely; but there were also many passengers who’s journeys were affected by this delay – the Norwich-bound platform at Thetford is not the best place to wait when its windy!

    This particular service was well loaded, but there were very few seated around me who were either on the train at Nottingham or boarded there and went all of the way through to Norwich; most either got on or got off at intermediate stations (or both), and consequently most of the passengers using this train suffered a delay or disruption to their journey.

    This is why I believe ORR should find a better way of measuring punctuality; who is really bothered if x% of trains arrive at their destination on time when they know that their particular journeys will probably be late, but will be excluded from the statistics because they are between intermediate points?

    But the questions raised by the local councillors I find most interesting; should we really be bothering about building new high speed railways when what many people want is for a proper “service” to be provided on what we have already got, and at a reasonable price?

  • Stephen Humphreys

    I strongly agree with David’s comments.

    There appear to be other tricks used too. I managed to get stuck at Mansfield station waiting for a train back to Nottingham so I had a look at the timetable. The train I was due to get obviously turned round at Mansfield Woodhouse and travelled back to Nottingham. It was allocated 7 (it might have been 9) minutes to get to Mansfield Woodhouse from Mansfield but only 3 minutes to get back again. I had a good look at the times and they varied throughout the day but at the busiest times the time allocated to travel between Mansfield and Mansfield Woodhouse was the greatest. By my calculations the train could be over 5 minutes late at Mansfield but still arrive within 5 minutes of the advertised time at Woodhouse.

    I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of this around.

  • Dan

    Stephen – have a look at every timetable in the national rial timetable and see that the time spent from the penultimate stop to the destination – and then compare it wht the other way round starting point (ie said destination) to first station – always mysteriously takes a radically different length of time! These are of course called ‘Charter Minutes’. Does not apply if 1st stop is a long way from origin and vice versa – but for most services it applies (look at Reading – Paddington and vice versa – stevenage Kings Cross – or Beeston – Nottingham to use a local to you example).

    As David says – the real Perf Indicator would be minutes late at each scheduled stop. Easy enought to monitor on a system with real time info. Start talking about that and you start to talk about a meaningful target (or have it as a PI for any services going longer than say 50 or 75 miles). Still – the industry would pad out timetables even more then – and already slow journeys like Liverpool Norwich would take even longer. Look at the dwell times Cross Country uses on its routes – which undermine their end to end times and make rail uncompetive on time with car and plane.

    I guess this is the problem with ‘targets’

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