Sunday, 6 January 2013

"Right Time" isn't the Right Way for most of us

I've blogged previously about my concerns over "right time performance" figures being used on the railways, and now it seems the rail industry itself is unhappy, according to comments in the recent trade press.
Let's be clear. "Right time performance" - where the measure is within 59 seconds of the published timetable - is interesting for the inner geek that lurks inside us all. Who wouldn't be interested to see just how "efficient" our railways are when measured on a more or less "exact" basis?
It is all part of the Government's "transparency" drive - again, something hard to argue against.
The Train Operating Companies argue that these figures risk harming the railways image when comparing journeys against other transport modes - and they are right.
How many of us jump in a car and have an arrival time at our destination in our minds, and then compare it when we actually arrive? If I leave my house at 9am and drive the approximately two and a half hours to my favourite seaside spot in Llandudno, do I think "I'm going to arrive at 11:36 am and then compare it unfavourably when I get there at 11:40? Of course not! Because the realism is that there may be all sorts of reasons that I might get delayed on the way.
Why is that "realism" missing from this argument?
Of course we need punctual railways. Watching Chris Tarrant's "Extreme Railways" recently, when his train was delayed in some African town by over 8 hours (and no one seemed to care very much!) is one thing - and I wince when trains start to appear late by over 10-15 minutes. But isn't the current Public Performance Measure of within 5 minutes for regional / commuter services and 10 minutes for long distance services a much more rational way of measuring performance? Of course there are arguments about timings within some journeys that appear to allow wriggle room for some TOCs on some journeys, but the basic argument is surely a sound one.
On my journeys around the country over many years, I have rarely even considered making a connection that appears less than 15 minutes, and I often like to build in slightly more.
"Right Time" compared to "PPM" is not only unflattering in some examples, it also sends entirely the wrong message. For example, Southeastern's PPM is 91.6% - quite impressive. But it's "right time" score (within the minute rather than 5 minutes) drops to 65.8%. How many of us are seriously going to be affected by 5 minutes in our lives? But no doubt newspaper hacks far and wide will use this data to cast a negative image over the railways, adding it to fares increases and the like.
Who is going to produce "right time" information for road journeys? Why are we much more inclined to sit in endless traffic congestion in our cars and shrug our shoulders? Are we seriously going to think "I won't make the shops in my car within 59 seconds of my pre-set arrival time"? No. Because we don't generally operate our lives in such a way.
"Right Time" might be a useful method for the rail industry to look at where journeys and delays are problematic and prioritise actions to tackle this, but it doesn't really tell me much as a traveller.  My life isn't organised in chunks of 59 seconds - and I suspect most of us are the same.


  1. The big difference with railways is that there should not be anything unpredictable that happens on the journey - everything is controlled. That's the difference with the roads where not much that happens is controlled. So it should be possible to be more punctual than driving or taking the bus. That should be the selling point for trains.

    If we want people to use the railway network as a network, with changes and connections, then they need to be able to plan their journey. That's what happens in Japan where you can plan quite complex train journeys safe in the (almost certain) knowledge that they trains will leave and arrive on time, to within a minute. If you plan a journey involving 3 trains (not unreasonable if you're going from a small town to another small town) then you have 2 connections to plan for - it's not easy if the first train you take might be 5 minutes late, there's a knock-on effect on subsequent connections.

    If we can't get almost all trains to run to within a minute's accuracy, then perhaps we should not print the precise time in the timetable. Imagine a timetable that lists train times like "about 12:30" and "just after 7". In a way it sounds quite nice, but I'm not sure it would go down well with passengers!

  2. The issue here is that things happen all the time on the railway that are unpredictable - and need to be assessed, to maintain a safe service. We need to look at reasons why, as you suggest, other countries' railways may appear to perform better than ours.
    But having an expectation that railways will operate to within a minute of it's published timetable provides an unfavourable comparison with other modes where you don't think of a journey in the same terms. That is the point of the blog. I don't believe I'll arrive at the fish & chip shop at 20:34 after leaving my house at 20:28. Why should I put such extreme accuracy in a railway journey when I don't for any other aspect of my life?
    Of course we should aim for the best possible service but who else lives their life to within 1 minute of their actions every day? Nonsense to hold a bullet to the railway's head in such an example.