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100% on time: Is it really worth it?

Commuters suffer London train delays as new timetable arrives

The doors on one of Sydney’s new Metro driverless trains failed to open this afternoon, causing delays and huge queues, marring what the New South Wales Government hoped would be a day of celebration.

These are some recent news headlines from across the world highlighting the public demand for excellent performance in rail and mass transit systems. Thanks to social media, frustrations caused by the delayed trains are surfacing and forcing railways to address their performance. But is 100% on-time performance realistic, or even reasonable?


Before we answer this question, we must realise that railways are a system, and they require holistic thinking. Various elements interact and contribute to the final outcome. Control systems and infrastructure, especially if managed digitally, can enhance capacity. In addition, high levels of rolling stock customisation add to the challenge by imposing complexity. Finally, there are operations – the plan or timetable, the railway employees, the leadership, processes and systems that enable a daily service. Though often forgotten, they are at the heart of delivering punctual and reliable performance.

Investments in assets are needed, but the excellence cannot be achieved without clearly defined, well-organised operations and responsible people. Therefore, the culture around operations matters too. A work environment where performance is prioritised, managed and monitored, inevitably leads employees to focus on it. Conversely, employees will tend to neglect performance if they have no appropriate instruments to measure or manage it.

Like any system, railways are affected by stresses and shocks, which can happen at any time and arise from a signal, train or points failure, but also from unexpected weather events. In such cases, time is of the essence and plans, capacity and leadership are needed to recover quickly and prevent disruption from spreading. Thanks to digital technologies, incidents like this can be recorded in real time and this information used to improve the resilience of the system. It is important, however, to be able to estimate which is more likely to be effective: a change to asset (infrastructure, rolling stock) or the modification of operations?

Rising demand in the UK has stretched ‘dwell’ times at stations as trains have taken longer to load and unload, which in turn has affected performance. The solution came through operational intervention: for example, the London Underground deployed staff to help dispatch peak trains through passenger movement management, which improved performance significantly.

Coming back to the increasing passenger expectations, one could ask – for a system that is so complex – is it feasible to strive for perfection? Should 100% on-time performance be the goal? The answer, even if it may seem upsetting, is ‘no’, especially on longer journeys. The investment costs must be balanced with the resulting gains (revenue and passenger journey time savings). Inevitably, there comes a point where cost outweighs benefits and not every stress and shock can be managed. Higher risk items need to be prioritised.

The best performing metros and railways in the world typically achieve 98-99% on-time performance, but not 100%. This, however, is not a call for mediocrity, but for careful consideration. In each case, we need to be able to define what reliable service means in terms of on-time performance and what level of investment is required. Allocating money for the most effective measures is essential, especially when budgets are constrained.