The rail regulator has ordered train companies to stop abusing a loophole which means that any train they cancel the night before does not count in their official cancellation statistics.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said train cancellations were at “record levels”, far worse than official figures suggest, driven by an increased number of unrecorded “pre-cancellations”, known as “p-coding”.
These can be confirmed as late as 10pm the previous evening and are not included in the timetables that railway performance statistics are measured against.
A Guardian investigation in November found that one rail company, TransPennine Express (TPE), abused p-codes so much it was regularly cancelling 20%-30% of its train services in autumn. Yet it was legally bound to only report rates of between 5.6% and 11.8% for the same period – services cancelled on the day.
On Wednesday this week TPE cancelled 45% of the 333 trains it was timetabled to run. A hundred of those were pre-cancelled the night before.
On Thursday the ORR acknowledged a significant “gap” between the cancellation statistics it collected and the passenger experience. It has written to the rail industry outlining the need for “full public transparency” in how p-coded cancellations are recorded.
“Removing trains from the timetable in this way can mean that a train a passenger expected to catch when they went to bed can disappear from the timetable by the time they leave for the station, unaware that the train has been cancelled,” the ORR wrote.
Historically such changes have been made to support the introduction of emergency timetables when poor weather or infrastructure damage has required a wholesale change to train service on a route. Service performance is measured against the replacement timetable instead.
But the ORR said p-codes had been used “differently” over the past year, with late changes made to timetables by withdrawing services when insufficient staff or no appropriate trains were available. “This is an inappropriate application of the Network Code’s provisions on emergency timetables,” it said.
The regulator has asked Network Rail to “coordinate the industry to come up with a better way of doing things”. Until this takes full effect, the ORR requires all train companies to supply specific data on any “resource availability pre-cancellations”. It has promised to publish this data alongside official statistics in future.
Feras Alshaker, the ORR director for planning and performance, said: “We recognise this temporary mechanism was used to help passengers through a time of frequent disruption by telling them as early as possible when their train service was cancelled. But good passenger information can still be achieved while retaining full transparency, robustness and trustworthiness of the official statistics.”
TPE said that on Wednesday this week it recorded 100.5 pre-planned cancellations – with partial cancellations being counted as 0.5 per service – and 50.5 on the day. A spokesperson said it had reported the full range to the ORR and published all cancellations via Journeycheck.