/ 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