Network Rail fined £53.1 million for 'failing on punctuality'

A record fine of £53.1 million has been imposed on Network Rail for failing on punctuality. Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

By Joel Hills: Business Editor

One in ten trains arrive late. The Office of the Rail Regulator is unimpressed.

The record fine of £53.1 million has been imposed not on the train operators, like Virgin and FirstGroup plc, but on Network Rail.

Network Rail doesn't run trains, it is responsible for looking after the railway infrastructure: the tracks, the bridges, the tunnels, many of the stations and the railway timetable.

If a train is late, in most instances the regulator takes the view that the buck stops with Network Rail.

Over the last five years, £22 billion of taxpayers money has been given to Network Rail to invest, today £53.1 million has been handed back.

It's the price of failure but Network Rail has done much right. The regulator praises the way money has been spent delivering "real benefits to passengers," but as the service has improved so has its attractiveness.

At peak time on the average weekday morning, every train headed into London is full of passengers, every track is full of trains. If anything goes wrong the disruption can be considerable.

Network Rail also had to wrestle with extreme weather earlier in the year. The fine takes that into account, but reflects the fact that passengers care about punctuality and the regulator feels it could and should have been better.

One in 10 trains arrive late, the Office of the Rail Regulator has found. Credit: Edward Smith/EMPICS Entertainment

Investment to increase capacity on the network is underway. Trains and platforms are being made longer, signalling upgraded and a new route is being tunnelled under London.

Network Rail was funded to deliver 92% of long distance trains within 10 minutes of the scheduled time in 2013-14 - it managed 86.9%. The number of trains arriving early or within one minute was even lower - 68.1%.

In the 20 years since privatisation train punctuality, broadly speaking, is unchanged, arguably an achievement given that the number of passenger journeys over the same period has doubled.

The service is not as reliable as it should be, fares have risen at a pace that would intimidate a Mallard, but train travel is resurgent.