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Train reliability dips sharply in northern England despite reduced service

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Cancellations and punctuality for train companies operating in northern England including Avanti West Coast worsened sharply this summer, despite them scheduling far fewer train services, statistics from the rail regulator reveal.

A review of passenger train operators’ performance by the Office of Rail and Road showed that TransPennine Express and Northern both culled more than 15% of their timetable from the previous summer, far more than any other operators in the UK.

Meanwhile Avanti, which connects the capital with large cities in the West Midlands, north-west England and Scotland, planned 8% fewer trains and then cancelled 12% of services on the day, and more than 60% of its surviving trains failed to arrive on time.

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The ORR admitted that even these statistics probably underplay the chaos in the north, because trains cancelled before 10pm the night before – “ghost” services that are then not listed on departure boards – are not counted as official cancellations. That also means trains lost to strikes are not counted as cancelled.

The regulator said it was working with the rail industry to beef up the reporting and “understand more accurately what passengers are experiencing on the network”.

Even without recording the trains lost to strikes or ghost cancellations, the ORR passenger rail performance report paints a damning picture of a growing north-south divide in train services.

Avanti outstripped all others for cancellations in the July-September period, declining fastest over the year to 12.2%, with TransPennine Express, LNER and CrossCountry behind them in the rate of declining reliability.

The First Group/Trenitalia-owned intercity operator also had the worst punctuality score, of just 38.8% of trains arriving on time.

The ORR report echoes recent Guardian analysis that shows the north bearing the brunt of rail’s problems, in a year of record cancellations across the network. More than 314,000 trains were fully or partly cancelled across Great Britain in the last year to 15 October.

The last quarter, the ORR, said was the worst for cancellations since its records began in 2014 – and those cancellations excluded six strike days when 80% of services did not run.

Avanti is planning to add significantly more services to its timetable from this weekend, with TransPennine Express and Northern also bringing back services and changing schedules, although northern leaders have expressed doubt that they can deliver.

The timetable will however be upended almost immediately by industrial action, and engineering work over Christmas. More strikes will bring most of the railway to a halt next week, with members of the RMT union at Network Rail and 14 train operating companies due to walk out on 13-14 and 16-17 December in the long-running dispute over pay and jobs. After trains are reduced for Christmas and New Year’s day and engineering, strikes will recommence in January.