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Are Southern really worse than everyone else?


I had begun my daily routine. The hour had just passed 6pm, and I was standing in the concourse in London's Victoria station in a teeming mass of people. We were all staring at the orange and black screens, waiting for the boards to show some kind of hope that a train, any train was going to pass our way. Unlike many of the passengers, heading for the south coast, I was waiting for a train to Clapham just a single, tantalising stop away.

With trepidation I approached a man wearing a green jacket with the word "SOUTHERN" across his back. Tentatively I asked whether he knew of any trains that would be passing my way. I was greeted with a blank stare, and a shrug, before he walked away. I decided to consult the tea leaves left in my takeaway cup, maybe they'd be more informative.

As I stared mindlessly at the boards, being jostled by people sprinting past me for phantom trains, I began to wonder to myself. Headline after headline had ripped apart Southern's service. One paper claimed it is "Completely useless", another that it caused numbers of people to lose their jobs, and others still that the disruption is affecting house prices. Was this just a new sport that newscasters had begun, blowing a small matter entirely out of proportion? Surely Southern couldn't be much worse than everyone else? More to the point, I thought looking at my watch, how many of these sodding trains actually run on time?

Well, it turns out, that entirely depends on how you measure time. After an arduous search I discovered Network Rail have either been reading Alice in Wonderland, or have access to a DeLorean, as they have managed to create two definitions of "On Time".

  1. Right-time performance.
    1. Network Rail have decided this measure is "an unreliable measure of performance" probably because this is how you or I would understand "on time". In short the train is early, or arrives within a minute of schedule.
  2. PPM or Public Performance Measure.
    1. Network Rail's preferred measure essentially states that a train is on time if it arrives late. Only marginally late, but still late. In this measure commuter services are measured as "on time" if they arrive within 5 minutes of their schedule, and 10 minutes for long distance services.

My journey through the looking glass complete, I had yet to reach 88 miles per hour in a decidedly static, and un-DeLorean shaped Victoria Station. However my understanding of time had shifted. So I set about understanding whether Southern Trains are as god awful at time keeping as everyone says they are. The picture was not a rosy one.

After trawling through a web of dead ends on the Network Rail website I found the latest performance statistics. Measured against the PPM, or "within 5 minutes measure", only 70.3% of Southern trains arrived on time. A less than respectable 23rd of 26 in the Top of the Pops Railway Special.

When we look at 'on time' as defined by the rest of us, this figure falls even further, with 40.6% of trains on time. Unsurprising really. This means that 356,000 people every day don't arrive at their destination on time.

After digging around on Southern's website I found that this is the worst it has ever been, down from a peak of 86.4% of trains arriving within 5 minutes 12 months ago.

In addition, even fewer trains are running with the correct number of carriages. This is almost certainly the cause of my impromptu and unwelcome daily yoga session as I attempt to contort my body to fit the gaps between my fellow commuters. According to Southern's own records, 3 months ago, only 92.9% of peak trains had the correct number of carriages.

Absolutely none of this gave me any solace. In fact, as I sit here, typing these words, after travelling home on the District Line, my only consolation is that my office has just moved. This means I can use the wonderful South West train service to Waterloo, which is only overcrowded, rather than both delayed and overcrowded. So every morning as I barge my way on to the packed 7.33 from Twickenham, desperately positioning myself in between two sweaty men, basking in the aroma of Lynx and farts, I will remember the poor souls, lost on a platform in Horsham waiting for a train that will never come, and thank my lucky stars.