Exclusive: 'Gaming the system' claims prompt ORR investigation


The fallout from the spring timetable chaos has raised questions over whether rail operators are gaming the system to avoid missing punctuality targets.

Just as investigations into the timetable changes revealed a lack of overall oversight for the network, now questions raised by Transport Network have revealed a lack of appetite among government and authorities to interrogate journey time issues.  

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which publicly crticised itself in the wake of the May timetable chaos, is the only body that has so far suggested it is willing to look into this.  


The national rail regulator has told Transport Network is carrying out further investigations into whether the spring timetable changes had an unfair impact on passengers through longer journey times and gaps in services.

Even before the new timetable was introduced on 20 May this year, passengers had noted that existing journeys would now take longer under the new timetable, with some complaining that train operating companies (TOCs) were using these changes to improve punctuality statistics and avoid compensation for delays.

It follows last week’s publication of a report by the regulator, which criticised the whole industry for the chaos that followed the botched introduction of the new timetable in May.

The ORR’s director of strategy and policy, Dan Brown, told Transport Network that it will examine issues that had arisen during its inquiry but did not come under its terms of reference, including some journeys being timed to take longer and some services being dropped from timetables.

Mr Brown said: 'We did not look at the design issues around the timetable. All of these issues we did become aware of as we went through the inquiry. It was not in the terms of reference because it was not a function of the disruption that then occurred.

'Those issues have been raised with us - and I would add one more to that, some services were removed from the timetable, creating service gaps. There is a particular issue on GTR around services through Hertfordshire around Harpenden, where it was actually designed into the timetable that those service gaps would exist. Passengers assumed that those gaps were a function of the disruption that occurred whereas actually they were intended, in order for those service to be introduced back.

'One of the things we are thinking about, with our day job regulatory hat on, is what was the consultative process that Network Rail went through to reflect passenger concerns, in the design decisions that were taken around the timetable.

‘But that is separate from the inquiry because it wasn’t a function of the disruption that subsequently occurred.’

Responding to the move, Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: ‘Changes which mean longer journey times, fewer trains or having to catch an earlier peak fare train cannot be right.

‘It is right the Network Rail and train operators look again at services that have left passengers worse off than before the May timetable changes.’

Transport Network asked the ORR whether it saw itself as having a role in ensuring that TOCs did not ‘game the system’ in this way. It declined to answer, referring the question to the Department for Transport (DfT).

The DfT did not clarify whose responsibility this was but confirmed that it does not usually specify journey times as part of franchise agreements.

This suggests that the present system does give TOCs scope to extend journey times to make it easier to stick to timetables. The DfT also suggested that imposing obligations on journey times could prompt TOCs to game the system another way - by missing intermediate stations.

However, it appears that many rail franchise specifications impose on TOCs an obligation to 'minimise' both journey times and 'dwell' times at stations.

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents both rail companies and Network Rail, said passenger growth means that timetables would need to change for customers to have certainty about when their train will arrive.

A spokesperson said: ‘As part of the rail industry’s plan to change and improve we are substantially increasing the number of services and the length of trains which means there will be more passengers and sometimes we need to give them more time to get on and off the trains.’

TOCs have previously said that new, longer trains will provide more space for passengers and 'make getting on and off easier'.

A spokesman for South Western Railway, whose passengers have experienced extended journey times on services through Epsom to Dorking and Guildford, told Transport Network that these had resulted from changes requested by Govia Thameslink Railway, which also runs services through Epsom.

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