Rail passengers have been delayed or disrupted on more than half of all train services departing from 15 of Great Britain’s busiest stations in the last year, Guardian analysis shows, exposing what has been described as a “broken” railway system that cannot easily be fixed.
Experts said the figures – which show rail services in the north and Midlands as the hardest hit – demonstrated the impact of two decades of privatisation, which had increased costs and public subsidies, combined with labour shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.
The analysis came as industrial action paralysed the rail network on Boxing Day. Millions who had to travel instead turned to their cars, as members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) went on strike as part of a long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions. The AA estimated that 15.2m vehicles were on the roads on Boxing Day.
Rail unions have planned several more strike days in the first week of January. The RMT union plans strikes across four days early in January, and the Aslef union, which represents drivers, is staging a strike on 5 January.
The Guardian analysis of rail delay and cancellation data from the performance tracking site OnTimeTrains found that Manchester Oxford Road was the worst performing station in terms of the severity of delays experienced by passengers. Of trains departing from the station 48% were delayed and more than one-in-10 were cancelled in the year to 18 December.
The analysis, which looked at the 100 busiest stations in Great Britain, found that stations in the north and Midlands tended to get proportionately more delays and cancellations.
Tom Haines-Doran, author of Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Broken Railways, said the figures on the extent of railway disruption were further evidence of a completely broken system.
“In all senses of the word, the railways aren’t functioning, they are dysfunctional in every important respect,” he said. “And that means that to fix them isn’t just a simple task of fixing one or two aspects. The whole system has broken down and it’s going take a lot of effort and a lot of money to fix it.”
Figures obtained by the Guardian this month revealed the level of disruption suffered by passengers in the north and the stark regional divide in railway reliability across Britain.
Data showed that 20% of TransPennine Express trains were cancelled in November, compared with 2.3% on one commuter line in and out of London, and 4.5% on the London Overground.
Haines-Doran said the dire state of the railways was due to a “perfect storm”. “We have a situation where the railways are costing more than ever before, fares are higher than they’ve ever been, and yet cancellations and delays seem to be higher than they’ve ever been before as well. The failures of privatisation are coming home to roost financially and in terms of the dysfunctionality of the system.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, the rail industry membership body, said that the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on staff numbers, as well as extreme weather events and rail strikes, were to blame.
The analysis shows that Coventry was the second worst performing station for severity of delays, with 63% of trains from the station being delayed and 5% cancelled.
Coventry was followed by Milton Keynes (58% delayed, 5% cancelled), Crewe (47% delayed, 6% cancelled), and Preston (38% delayed, 11% cancelled).
Other Manchester stations were also among the worst performing. Manchester Piccadilly had 9% of trains cancelled and 37% delayed, while 8% of trains were cancelled and 32% were delayed at Manchester Victoria.
In London, the worst performing station was East Croydon, followed by St Pancras and then Blackfriars. All three stations are on the Thameslink service between Bedford and Brighton.
The figures were collected by OnTimeTrains from open data sources. The website assigns a score to each based on the arrival punctuality of trains. Those arriving on time are assigned 100%, falling to 10% for a delay lasting more than 10 minutes, and 0% for a cancellation.
The cancellation figures only include those services cancelled on the day. Trains preemptively cancelled up to 10pm the night before do not appear in industry systems and delay repay claims are not allowed in those circumstances – meaning the true level of rail disruption is even higher at some stations.
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group said: “The pandemic reduced the number of drivers and other staff who could be trained during 2020 and 2021, while staff absence rates have inevitably been higher since the pandemic began. Regrettably these absences often lead to services being delayed and, or, cancelled. But train operators across the industry have been working tirelessly to recruit and train new staff to improve resilience.”
Extreme weather events were also increasing, the spokesperson said, explaining that in the past 15 months the industry had faced Storms Franklin and Eunice, extreme temperatures of over 40C and flooding. Strikes by three rail unions, meanwhile, had “caused severe disruption to services both on strikes days and on the days either side of them”.
The spokesperson added: “We are working hard to agree reforms in working practices with our staff so we can fund a pay rise for them and meet the changing needs of our customers as well as raise awareness of Delay Repay, while making the process easier with one-click and automatic compensation for delays of just 15 minutes.”
The Guardian reported this year that train cancellations across Great Britain were at a record high, with one in 26 of all train journeys being cancelled or part-cancelled in the year to 15 October.