Why are trains late?

Tom Edwards, BBC London transport correspondent, goes beyond ‘the wrong kind of snow’ to uncover the complex reasons for rail delays and cancellations

Why are trains late?

You hear the sighs of despair along the platform, then the phone calls from commuters as apologies are made, and meetings cancelled. But why are trains late? And what is being done to mitigate the delays? There can be many reasons why your train is late. And in the complex world of delays, the very definition of ‘lateness’ is not constant. A local train is late if it's delayed for longer than five minutes, while that's 10 minutes for intercity services. And if you’re stuck on the platform waiting, there's every chance the hold-up has been caused by another delay elsewhere: reducing the primary problem is crucial. 

In the UK, the top three causes of delays make for interesting reading. Most delays (39 per cent) are caused by non-track failures, such as signalling faults or overhead line problems. Recently, overhead wires have come down on the East Coast and West Coast mainlines, resulting in massive delays. However, 29 per cent of delays are attributable to ‘network management issues’ such as overrunning engineering works. And 21 per cent of delays are due to ‘external factors’ – events such as trespass and cable theft – while just four per cent of delays are caused by severe weather. 

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) is very clear in where it thinks the overall fault lies. In November 2013 it pronounced: "Previous underspends on maintenance work, deferred plans to renew infrastructure and other factors, including engineering works overruns, are contributing to delays to rail passengers." In fact, the ORR states that routine maintenance funding for tracks has fallen by around 30-40 per cent in just four years, if 2013 figures are compared with those of 2009. The regulator considers this underspend just too big – over four years, it amounts to £1.2bn – and argues that greater investment in maintenance is key to reducing delays. (Incidentally, since November 2013, Network Rail, which operates track infrastructure, claims it has increased its maintenance spending, but concedes that it is behind on plans for spending on renewal.)

Investment needed

Lack of investment has also hampered the railways. Old components and rolling stock usually have a higher failure rate than newer technology and stock. Engineers call this the ‘bathtube curve’, where after early problems, reliability stabilises until wear-out causes failure rates to rise. In London, we've seen huge investment in the Tube, funded in part through higher fares (the investment programme will cost £10bn). New trains and signalling have helped London Underground achieve what it claims is a 13 per cent reduction in delays year on year. And if you look at what has happened to the old Silverlink service in North London, it is unrecognisable after a £1.3bn investment in what is now known as the Overground.

There are, however, some down sides to investment. It increases reliability in the long run, but causes more delays in the short-term through closures and overruns. Weekend closures of Tube lines have given rise to much irritation among London travellers.

The control room 

There are also elements that transport authorities can't control: the external factors. Cable theft has been reducing due to tighter legislation although recently, these improvements have been counteracted by a rise in weather-related incidents.

On the plus side, Network Rail figures show that track and points failures are declining. The number of points failures was 8,048 in 2008, and by 2012 had dropped to 5,053. But the number of earthwork failures (landslips caused in part by climate change) has jumped from 61 in 2008 to 144 in 2012. Network Rail says it is working to improve delays. On overhead line failures it is using computerised checks to fix problems before they happen, and there is investment to target the routes that are most at risk. On overrunning repairs, it is ‘continually looking at ways to improve planning and implementation of engineering work, and … how to recover a situation and communicate to passengers when things do go wrong’.

The role of train companies 

So what about the train companies and delays? Trains do break down. The time it takes passengers to get on and off a train can vary and cause delays. Sometimes (as has happened with London Midland) there aren't enough drivers. Crucially, in my experience, commuters do understand that some delays are inevitable – what they don’t like is a lack of information when these events occur. But often, station staff have only as much information as the blank departure boards.

Now we are seeing the rise of social media interaction by train companies to keep commuters up to date. With many passengers using smartphones, transport authorities are using social media as their main way of communicating. During last winter’s storms, some companies recommended that passengers check their Twitter feeds, not the primary websites. The train companies – and commuters may struggle to believe this – also claim that performance is now at a near-record high.

If you look at Virgin trains they have 112,000 followers on twitter. South west trains have 94,000. So if there are problems the train companies can communicate very quickly with their own commuters. During the Olympics Transport for London also used social media to manage crowds and get commuters to change their travel habits. In effect they used it to create extra capacity.

Social media is also now going to be used on big infrastructure rebuilds like London Bridge. There the Thameslink programme will use twitter (as well as more traditional media) to warn commuters about delays and cancellations that will happen during the huge rebuild in the next 3 years.

What's the solution?

So where does that leave our railways – the fastest growing rail network in Europe – in terms of dealing with delays? Certainly, commuters will not understand underspending on maintenance, new tracks and equipment when delays are still frequent. Commentators also say that more resilience is needed, given the likelihood of more extreme weather. One signal box under water at Maidenhead caused huge delays, as did the failure of the seawall at Dawlish in the south-west of England.

However, the Office of Rail regulation says that what is really needed is a culture shift at Network Rail; it claims the company needs to shift from reactionary to proactive, from 'find and fix' to 'predict and prevent'. And Network Rail could face million-pound fines if its punctuality record does not improve. In mitigation, the company points out that its punctuality targets didn't predict the huge increases in passengers A Network Rail spokesperson says: "While train punctuality in Britain compares favourably with our European neighbours and is by historic standards at high levels, there is much more we can do and are doing to improve services. Over the past few years, Network Rail has reduced the delays caused by failures of its own equipment by around a quarter, and we aim to continue that trend in the years ahead." 

Doing this while operating a railway all year round is a significant challenge and we must remember that punctuality is only one measure of a successful railway. Record numbers of passengers are using the network, and punctuality must be balanced with other factors, such as increasing capacity to handle those numbers and keeping costs down. It's worth noting that on satisfaction levels across Europe, the UK's railways came out top on punctuality. The industry will take great encouragement from this.

Case study: DLR’s record-breaking results

Tom Edwards has focused on heavy rail but Dockland's Light Railway faces similar challenges. Ethos finds out how delays have been reduced, resulting in a record-breaking month.

The one hundred million people who travel on London’s Dockland’s Light Railway (DLR) each year will be delighted to learn that the 750-strong Serco team has just delivered DLR’s most reliable month ever, operating 99.8 per cent of scheduled service during January 2014.

This followed the record-breaking results achieved during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games when we carried almost 12m passengers – 100 per cent up on the same period the previous year – and passenger numbers peaked at 500,000 on the seventh day, against a pre-Games average of around 300,000. Performance levels also broke all previous records, averaging 99 per cent reliability.

Since the Olympics, train performance scores have improved further by using the lessons learnt during the Olympics and working with our client and suppliers to ensure we have the right resources and relationships to drive a ‘predict and prevent’ approach to operations and maintenance. The annualised average for train service delays of up to 20 minutes on the DLR network have been reduced by over 50% from seven to less three per period (28 days). Likewise, the yearly average scores for train reliability and departures have improved by approximately 1.5% points to new record heights of 99.3%.  Customer satisfaction scores have also risen 5 points from 83 to 88 at their peak. 

“We know that the top priority for our passengers has always been to have a safe and reliable service and achieving 99% reliability represents an extraordinary achievement by our people.  Providing training for all our teams and increasing the number of engineers across the network has enabled our staff to find innovative ways to stamp out delays and respond faster to faults, which has resulted in this record-breaking run,” says Kevin Thomas, Managing Director of Serco Docklands

DLR Ltd managing director, Rory O'Neill adds, “This performance was made possible by a continuous and sustained effort by all staff and we will continue to strive to improve performance even further.”

Further reading

Tom Edwards

Tom Edwards is transport correspondent for BBC London


  • Now, I'm no rail engineer, but it strikes me that full moving block signalling systems (like the DLR or the upgraded tube lines) must be far more resilient to delays than the traditional, fixed block signalling on Network Rail lines.

    When a train must only keep a clear stopping distance from the train in front, delayed trains still affect the trains behind. But when they have to keep a full block clear, surely this delay is compounded?

  • The article shows that investment underfunding will sooner or later come back to haunt you for years there has not been the investment in track signalling or rolling stock and we are now playing catch up.
    Unless we realise that spending now on various parts of the system before it becomes broke will save much more money later on.

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