Monday, 16 July 2012

Is "Right Time" the Right Way?

Minor waves of excitement in the press recently as Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies produced "right time" information regarding punctuality.
Of course, the most important aspect of public transport is punctuality. You want your train, bus, tram or coach to be there when it's supposed to be there. It's the top "moan" amongst users when asked about journey experience.
On the railways, the current system classifies a train as "on time" if it is no more than 5 minutes late, or 10 minutes for long-distance services. The most recent figures (for the year to April 28th, 2012) show a figure of 91.7% under this method. But if you compare this to the figure for trains arriving within 1 minute of their scheduled arrival, the figure 69.8%.
What can we make of this?
The first thing to say is that there is always room for improvement. Getting people to use public transport on a regular basis relies on the selling point that it is a viable alternative to the private car. Punctuality is a crucial aspect of this. But is it always fair - as some media outlets inevitably did on seeing these figures - to give the railways a bashing for the "right time" figure?
We're talking about a figure "to the minute" here. How many of us run every aspect of our lives "to the minute"?
When I'm on early shift at work, I start at 0500. I aim to be there at, say, 0450. Leaving my house at 0440 for the 10 minute drive, I can arrive at anything between 0450 and 0455. Why? I have to pass through 6 sets of traffic lights on my way. If they are all on green (not usually) I'm fine. If they are all on red (as they are on occasions) it can add anything from 3-4 minutes on. As a motorist, who can I complain to about that? And yet I'm still "on time" for work when I get there, because journey times to the exact minute are not critical for me, nor as they are, I guess, for most motorists. Between 5-10 minutes should be perfectly acceptable, and such is the case of measurement on the railways.
This isn't to defend the 69.8% figure. We can and should do better. But my point is that travel, generally, has all sorts of reasons why we can't do things down to the exact minute, like robots. If a train departs 1 minute late because it has safely and securely accommodated a wheelchair user, is this something to look at negatively? What if the train arrives a minute late because of the sight of a trespasser on the line,  necessitating a proceed at caution operation? It is surely only the same as making a car journey, where unexpected roadworks, a collision, or a broken down lorry blocking the road can add a couple of minutes onto a journey. This is travel from A to B, and we are human beings, not robots.
"Right Time" data is, of course, interesting. This level of detail is a first for any transport industry in the UK or Europe, and the 69.8% figure is a huge improvement on the situation 10 years ago, when the figure was 46.9% (a fact not unsurprisingly missed by many media outlets last week)
In my view, of course the industry needs to do better, and on current trends, it will do. But I'm also wary of the doom-mongers who say that train punctuality is the disaster they always said it was. I don't live my life to the exact minute every hour of every day, and neither do most other people. The 91.7% of trains arriving within 5 minutes (10 mins for long distance) is the statistic for me that is worth building on.


  1. Very thought-provoking.

    I'm no railway expert but it seems to me that there should be less scope for minor variations in journey times - the traffic volume is completely predictable, there is unlikely to be a delivery lorry bumped up on the kerb half-blocking one of the lines, or a dustcart crawling along the track!

    The railways ought therefore to be aiming for and measuring right-time arrivals, even if there are perfectly valid reasons why they may not always be achievable.

    After all, a 4 minute late arrival may not be an issue for most people, but if its 4 minutes into a 7 minute connection involving a change of platform over a footbridge, for example, it could make life extremely uncomfortable.

    However, I share your scepticism about whether this data should be in the published. The public are only likely to really bother about the distinction between right time and +5 if the media tells them they should, so why feed the bullets?

    However, for me there is a far more serious issue. I'm pretty sure punctuality used just to be measured by arrival time at the destination station, meaningless on a long journey with lots of stops. Is this still the case? If so, a much more useful improvement would be to measure arrival times at all stations en route - surely not difficult to do as the raw data must already exist somewhere - as this would give a much more effective measure of train punctuality.

  2. Hi Phil, well, yes, you're right in suggesting that it ought to be more predictable - and in a way it is, compared to the roads! But there are a surprising amount of things that go against you on the tracks such as signal failures, poor rail conditions and sadly suicides.
    The connection comment I agree with, but what is a "comfortable" connection? I'm twitchy about anything below 15 mins, anywhere!
    I think you're correct about the methodology of recording times at destination stations - maybe this is where it needs more work.

  3. I always used to agree with Phil S that the railway is less susceptable to external factors than bus operators, but being a regular commuter now has opened my eyes to how a small delay at one station can have an ongoing knock on effect.

    At my station I board a southbound train at 0728, before which are southbound departures at 0721 and 0724 plus an empty stock movement. On occasions a freight train also comes into the mix. I travel to another station where I change trains - mine arrives heading east at 0748 following which there are eastbound departures at 0753 and my connection at 0758, plus a westbound departure at 0754 which has to cross the paths of the arriving 0753 and 0758 trains as it leaves the station. Needless to say, if the first train in this chain (the 0721) is late, all of the trains afterwards are also late, and my second train is still late when I get to work an hour (and 31 miles) from where I started.

    It is obvious as a passenger that some train operators build more slack into their timetables than others - and hence do tend to achieve better punctuality results. The question we as passengers have to answer is do we prefer slightly slower but punctual trains or faster journeys but with a greater risk of delay? Even as a commuter, I don't know for sure what my answer to that question is.