Train operators were on Tuesday accused of manipulating journey times to avoid paying fines after data showed some key commuter routes into London now take longer than they did 20 years ago.

But industry body, the Association of Train Operating Companies, dismissed the claims made by Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, who said that journey times were being stretched to meet punctuality targets.

Mr Baker’s deputy, Mark Hunter, on Tuesday told the Financial Times that according to the Thomas Cook European Timetable, journey times on a number of key routes bringing commuters into London had increased in the past 20 years, despite significant investment to make rail more efficient.

He said that the journey from Victoria from Lewes – Mr Baker’s constituency – now took 67 minutes compared to 61 minutes in 1987.

“People are packed like sardines, and it is difficult to get a seat. Although millions of pounds have been invested, the service hasn’t improved, and we demand an explanation.”

A spokesman for ATOC called the accusation “simplistic nonsense” from people who had no understanding of how rail worked.

“We do not massage the times to avoid paying fines. We have done a lot of work to make the networks more efficient, considering the significant increase in congestion, and it is just rubbish to say that we have opted for the cheap route to make ourselves look better.”

Since the mid-1990s, 20 per cent more trains had been added to the network and the number of rail journeys had increased by 45 per cent, the spokesman added.

Punctuality had improved significantly to 90 per cent-plus after languishing around 80 per cent a decade ago, he added.

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