/ Travel & Leisure

The troubling truth about train delays

We’ve long been assured that nearly all trains run on time. Network Rail and the train companies recently released figures showing that 92% of trains were on time over the last year, but doesn’t that seem unlikely?

If you’re a regular commuter, you may be thinking it can’t possibly be right that 92% of trains are on time. And that’s because it’s not.

As it happens, these figures only count a train as being late if it arrived more than five minutes late (for short journeys) or ten minutes late (for longer journeys) at its final destination only. If delays were encountered en route but the train arrived at the terminus ‘on time’, no delay was counted.

Breaking it down

But now, Network Rail and the train companies have finally released more accurate punctuality figures. They paint a rather different picture – showing that only 70% of trains arrived on time (within one minute either side of its booked slot) in 2011-12. For long distance trains, the figure is even lower at 60%.

But I don’t want to lambast the performance behind these figures too much – more trains are running than ever, and I’m glad that the accurate figures are now publically available for everyone to see.

We only have figures dating back to 2001-2, the period most affected by reactions to the serious Hatfield train crash. After infrastructure was found to be at fault for the derailment, huge numbers of speed restrictions were put in place all over the network. It stands to reason that things could only get better from there.

And they have got better. The national figure of trains running on time rose from 47% in 2001-2 to a high of 70% in 2009-10; very close to the current level.

The Association of Train Operating Companies released some interesting figures for comparison. For example, the Civil Aviation Authority reported that 82% of domestic UK flights at Heathrow either arrived early or within 15 minutes of their due time in the last year, while the Highways Agency reported 83.5% of road journeys were defined as ‘timely’ when judged against reference times from historical data.

A bone of contention

Late trains and high fares are often the subject of much anger, as demonstrated by commenter Tpoots on a previous Conversation:

‘I pay an absolute fortune for my train fare and my train is regularly late… unfortunately I’m entitled to nothing back as I get a season ticket.’

This sentiment is often echoed, but now we’ve seen these recent figures, should we instead be pleased to see so much improvement over the years? Or are these delays simply not good enough weighed up against the fares we have to pay?

How late do you think a train should be before it’s considered ‘delayed’?

3 - 5 minutes (35%, 114 Votes)

6 - 10 minutes (20%, 66 Votes)

1 - 2 minutes (18%, 59 Votes)

More than 10 minutes (15%, 50 Votes)

No delay is acceptable (13%, 43 Votes)

Total Voters: 332

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Argus says:
12 July 2012

“Or are these delays simply not good enough weighed up against the fares we have to pay?”

We are still catching up after the Hatfield crash in terms of infrastructure maintenance and there are many many lines still using old clapped-out trains that are prone to breakdowns.

The poll is a little misleading , a train can be 5 mins late on a 4 hour journey and I think most will accept that, but on a 5 min journey delayed by that is too much. I think the delays should be based on a %age of the actual journey time rather than a specific minute figure

Thanks for your feedback William – we did wrestle with how best to phrase this poll question! In the end, we wanted people to answer based on their own journeys, whether they tend to be five minutes or five hours long. We felt that asking people to answer the poll based on a percentage of their journey time could make it more difficult for people to calculate their answer in order to respond.

I’m not going to get worked up about a delay of up to ten minutes unless it causes me to miss a connection. I think we need better polls on Which? Conversation.

What if a 10-minute delay happened to you every day on a journey scheduled to take 15 minutes? Looking at the length of the delay alone is ignoring the complete picture.

The train companies need to start giving refunds for late trains; currently this is not happening. For example, on a journey scheduled to take 25 minutes, it took 53 minutes, i.e. 28 minutes late. South East Trains refused to refund my fare because the train had not been at least 30 minute late. When giving refunds, train companies take no account of the scheduled journey time, and this is not acceptable. The thresholds for refunds should be set as percentage of scheduled journey time, not a fixed number of minutes. When a train takes more than double the advertised journey time, it is absurd to deny a refund.

Since there are many reasons why delays can occur, so perhaps the journey times are too optimistic. Adding 5% to claimed journey times will ensure that more people arrive on time or early, which makes planning easier.

Bear in mind that someone has to pay for compensation of those who have a delayed journey. If there is more compensation then fares will have to rise.

It’s fine if fares have to rise in general to fund compensation for delays. This ensures that those who receive good service pay a little more and those who don’t receive good service pay much less. It’s much less fair if everyone pays the same price, regardless of the level of service they receive.

With simple commuting journeys I would agree with you, nfh, subject to what I suggested above.

I don’t know what the best solution is for longer journeys where a missed connection could be a disaster or unimportant, dependent on the circumstances.

Some delays are due to serious problems (e.g. accidents and could weather) that cannot easily be planned for. I had intended to travel around 400 miles at the start of the year but all the trains out of Scotland were cancelled due to the weather. I made the journey on the following day and the train was re-routed due to a fallen tree. I missed two connections, had a couple of long waits, and finally arrived very late. I’m not blaming the train companies in any way, and we were kept fairly well informed of what was happening. In the circumstances it was disheartening hearing other passengers discussing their plans to seek compensation.

@wavechange, You make an interesting comment about the weather. Did you know around the time of privatisation British Rail management sold off all the cold weather equipment as they hadn’t used it for several years and it was making their books look bad, having to pay to maintain/house it etc. Now if we pop over to say Sweden or Austria where they know all about “bad” weather, I’m sure you’ll find that they cope, probably as they’ve got good cold weather equipment on hand. So personally any trains cancelled due to the weather I would blame BR management. And yes cancelled trains should be included in the stats for delayed journeys and they shouldn’t be allowed to simply ignore them just cos they managed to cancel them.

I don’t know much about the history of our railways and I have not made much use of rail travel. I don’t like poor service but there does seem be rather too much effort being made to push for compensation and I fear that this will increase prices for everyone.

I can understand why Sweden and Austria make serious provision for bad weather, but whether British weather is sufficiently bad to justify the increased costs is something that most of us are not in a position to make useful comment on.

I am very glad that I have never been involved in commuting. One of my ambitions as a young man was to live near where I worked, and this was fulfilled. I think I’ll leave the discussion there.

Further to william’s remarks about the disposal of cold weather equipment by British Rail, I expect it was clapped out and useless. I have certainly seen plenty of snowblowers, de-icing trains and point-heaters on my journeys. Cold and snow do not seem to be the biggest problems, however: the railways suffer much more from infrastructure washed away by floods, lines blocked by landslips, wires brought down by strong winds, and rails buckled by the heat. Add to that the theft of signal cables, lorries falling off bridges, and bad drivers on level crossings and you have plenty of reasons for delays that the train operators can hardly be expected to compensate for.

Phil says:
15 July 2012

My recollection of BR snowploughs is that they were largely converted steam locomotive tenders but road and rail managers based their decisions not to re-new cold weather equipment on “expert” opinion such as this:-


To John W’s list add suicides which have increased since 2008 and vandalism, a particular problem during the school holidays when the little darlings use the railway as a playground, play chicken, place things on the rails and throw stones at passing trains.

We also need to bear in mind the amount of padding in the published timetables. Our home station is about 22 miles from the terminus at Norwich. Towards Norwich 21 minutes are allowed but the return journey is timed at 17 minutes. The variation used to be much greater but, following complaints, the operator tightened up the schedules – albeit at the expense of inserting some extra minutes further up the line towards London. The same thing has been done in reverse between Colchester and London – three minutes longer in the up direction than in the down direction. Add the ten minutes “we-don’t-accept-that-is-a-delay” delay and you have a much prolonged travel duration over what is technically achievable and reliably was achieved under British Rail. It is fair to say, however, that right-time arrivals are far more prevalent nowadays which assists journey planning involving connexions, the trains call at more stations than they used to which is beneficial to intermediate passengers, and there is a half-hourly frequency most of the time whereas it used to be hourly.

Hectare says:
20 July 2012

The train companies define time like Einstein did; for them it is ‘relative’.
Services are shown on departure boards as ‘on time’ even though it is clear in the real world that the train is late. FCC have a cynical way of maniuplating the timetable in their favour by adding on an extra minute…the printed and displayed timetable will show a service to depart at 8.50, but when you are actually on the train, the driver announces ‘this is the 8.51 service to Kings Cross’ …This happens on the majority of their peak period services.


A chilling insight into what causes problems. But quite funny and from Mr. Osman of Pointless fame.