A train operator threatened with being stripped of its franchise 13 months ago is within reach of joining the industry’s top performers, after extra rolling stock, maintenance and infrastructure improvements and staff training transformed its performance.
Mark Hopwood, managing director of First Great Western, told the Financial Times that the operator planned to have 92 per cent of its trains arriving punctually within a year – one of the best figures for a large franchise. Most trains count as on time if they arrive within five minutes of schedule, while for long-distance trains the figure is 10 minutes.
In February last year, Ruth Kelly, then transport secretary, formally warned First Great Western, owned by Aberdeen-based FirstGroup, to reduce train cancellations or lose its franchise. The company had been short of trains when its 10-year franchise started in April 2006 after many were transferred elsewhere.
When the Department for Transport acted, the operator was also struggling to integrate the former Thames Trains and Wessex Trains operations it took over at the start of the present franchise. Only about 83 per cent of its trains were arriving on time. Its current average is 90.5 per cent – in line with the industry average.
“In about 15 months we’ve got First Great Western from bottom of the [punctuality] table up to average, which I think is quite an impressive achievement,” Mr Hopwood said. “We’re targeting ourselves with getting to 92 per cent in a year’s time.”
A combination of factors had led to the recovery. “The key issues we’ve had to fix are around the reliability and availability of our own rolling stock, which we’ve seen significant improvement on,” he said.
Improved maintenance of its Super Sprinter diesel trains had reduced the frequency of casualties – failures causing a delay of five or more minutes – to an average of one every 20,000 miles from every 6,000 miles previously, Mr Hopwood said. The operator had also taken on an extra 250 staff, on top of existing numbers of almost 5,000, to prevent train crew shortages.
“We’ve addressed some of the more cultural issues, in terms of making sure that everyone in the business understands that punctuality and reliability are fundamentally important to customers and therefore fundamentally important to the business,” Mr Hopwood said.
Network Rail, owner of the rail network, had been responsible for more than half the delays when performance was at its worst, he added. British Rail, the former nationalised monopoly, did little work on the route after the mid-1970s. Network Rail replaced considerable amounts of track to improve reliability.
“We recognised that we had things in our business to fix; Network Rail recognised they had things to fix and there were things that in order to fix we had to work together,” Mr Hopwood said.
However, while work to improve punctuality continues, the operator now faces the task of working around major infrastructure projects as well. In 2010, Network Rail starts work both on a £600m remodelling of Reading station and the cross-London Crossrail project, which will use the Great Western main line between near Paddington and Maidenhead.
The work will eventually improve services for the route’s users but the challenge in the meantime will be to minimise disruption for passengers and freight users.
“It will take very careful management,” Mr Hopwood said.
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