The stark regional divide in railway reliability across Britain has been laid bare, with figures showing 20% of TransPennine Express (TPE) 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.
Exclusive figures obtained by the Guardian show the true level of disruption suffered by passengers because they include pre-emptive cancellations made by 10pm the night before, which are not counted in government statistics.
Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, demanded the government close this loophole and begin withdrawing contracts from failing operators.
TPE, which runs trains in the north of England and Scotland, has the highest cancellation rate of any British train operating company, at 19%-30% each week. It routinely cancels up to 60 services the night before, blaming high levels of staff sickness and a driver training programme. These so-called “P-code” cancellations, which must be made by 10pm the night before, disappear from the timetable and are not recorded by the Office of Rail and Road, which compiles railway performance data.
P-codes were designed to be used in circumstances beyond an operator’s control – for example, overrunning engineering work or a landslide blocking a line. But some rail companies – with TPE the worst offender – use the code when they do not have enough staff, misleading customers about the true reliability of their services.
Greater Anglia, which runs services from London to Essex and the east of England, cancelled 2.3% of trains in November. It also operates the Stansted Express, which recorded 3.7% cancellations. Neither made any P-coded cancellations.
C2C, which has the franchise for the London to Essex line, cancelled 285 trains in the same period, equating to 3.54%.
All three companies said they did not use P-codes for cancellations that were their fault. East Midlands Railway, which cancelled 2.9% of trains in November, said it had made just five P-coded cancellations because of short-term train crew sickness.
London Overground cancelled 4.5% of trains in November. All but a handful of those cancellations were made on the day, rather than using the P-code.
Train companies serving the north of England have cancelled the most trains in recent weeks, the Guardian has learned. TPE cancelled one in five trains (19%) in November. Most of those (13.8%) were P-code cancellations. During the half-term week beginning 23 October TPE cancelled 30% of all trains.
A TPE spokesperson said the company was “extremely sorry” for a service that had “fallen short of what our customers, and our stakeholders expect and demand”. It blamed “the combined impact of prolonged higher-than-usual sickness levels and an unprecedented driver training burden – caused by Covid and additional requirements placed upon us by the December 2022 timetable changes and the TransPennine route upgrade”.
Grand Central, which operates between Bradford and London, cancelled 15.7% of trains in November, including P-codes. It said its figures were skewed by strikes in the first half of the month.
CrossCountry, which runs trains from Aberdeen right down to Cornwall, cancelled 14% of all services – 972 – in November and said it did not P-code for train crew shortages. “CrossCountry do not support P-Coding for a business-as-usual day, as that makes the train ‘disappear’ from retail systems leaving the customer confused,” a spokesperson said.
Northern Rail, which was taken over by the government in March 2020, said that between 16 October and 12 November it cancelled 7% of total services. Its on-the-day cancellation rate was 4.8% (2,418 services out of about 50,000). A further 1,252 services were either removed or amended as part of planned cancellations or service amendments because of “absence with fully trained train crew”, a spokesperson said.
David Sidebottom, the director of the passenger watchdog Transport Focus, demanded greater transparency in performance data.
He said: “We’re acutely aware of the impacts that cancellations have on passengers – especially if they are at short notice. We’re uncomfortable that trains can be removed from the timetable as late as 10pm the day before they should have run and then don’t count as a cancellation in reliability data.
“We are pressing for greater transparency here, as well of course for train companies to keep focusing on running trains on time and not having cancellations.”
Avanti West Coast cancelled 7.7% of services in the four weeks from 16 October, based on the vastly reduced timetable it implemented in August. It did not use any P-codes.
Haigh said the government must close the loophole that meant P-coded cancellations did not show up in official statistics.
The Labour MP said: “This loophole allows operators to hide the true scale of the rail crisis across the north – it must be changed. It would be scandalous if performance payments were being awarded on the back of this phoney data.
“Enough is enough – passengers have been taken for a ride for too long. It’s time the government hold these failing operators to account, and without urgent improvement, begin withdrawing the contract.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The government is investing billions into northern transport and working closely with train operators to swiftly recruit new drivers and put long term solutions in place so passengers can travel confidently without disruption. The transport secretary met with northern mayors on Wednesday to discuss the current challenges.”