Network Rail said today that train punctuality hit a ten-year high in the six months to June, with 91% of trains turning up on time (a figure that may sound far-fetched to most commuters, but we’ll take their word for it). The company, which finally went into the black for the first time last year, even managed to record a £780m profit, up 4% - partly because it’s been able to chop 26% off its costs in the last three years.
The surprising part is that punctuality has improved even as the network comes under ever greater strain. Passenger numbers are at the highest level for 60 years, according to Network Rail – three million of us are now taking the train everyday, making the UK the fastest growing train network in Europe. And over the last decade, freight use has also shot up by more than 50%.
News of these record figures will be fairly galling for investors in the now-defunct Railtrack – but since Network Rail has to re-invest its profits back into the train lines, it’s probably good news for the rest of us. After all, there’s still plenty more work required: without heavy investment, our ageing rail infrastructure just won’t be able to take the strain of all these extra passengers.
‘The need to boost capacity on the network is clear,’ chairman Ian McAllister said today. ‘We have outlined plans of how we'd like to expand and develop the network over the next five years and beyond. This will deliver more trains, more seats, more frequently’. His company invested £1.7bn in the network in the first six months, and expects this to rise to £4bn by the end of the year.
One caveat of today’s results is that it does not cover the period during which the autumnal conditions can disrupt services. Let’s hope that some of that £4bn is spent on something that can sweep leaves off the line, or the picture may not be so rosy for Network Rail next time around.