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What’s the least reliable train operator?

Who's the safest bet for a rail trip? Let's cut through the jargon and find out.
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Here at Railsmartr, we’ve been taking a look at the statistics for trains running on time, late or being cancelled. We’ll show you what we found for June and July 2023, so we can tell you what the least reliable train operator and the most reliable train operators are. We’ll also explain what the stats mean, and why you can’t always trust them.

This page was originally written in March 2023 and was updated with new data in December 2023.

How do we work out how reliable trains are?

A great question! We’re using data from the Office of Rail and Road, here. So, they’re able to tell us which trains were on time (exactly to the minute) and how many were cancelled

On this page, this is how we’ll compare the operators. We’ll look at how punctual they are and how many trains they’ve cancelled. We can then use these sets of data to measure the least reliable train operator (and most reliable train operator!)

So what’s the least reliable train operator?

From July to September, the least-reliable train operator, by the percentage of trains arriving on time, goes to Grand Central. But why? Let’s go through some of the reasons:

  • They’re a small company that only runs a few services each day. If even one service is cancelled, that has a big impact on their statistics
  • Services run on a busy section of the railway. The East Coast Mainline is prone to issues and their services interact with lots of others
  • Their trains aren’t reliable. The fleet of Adelante trains is prone to breaking down, put simply! They’re remedying this though. Extra trains are being introduced so that there are more spares to fall back on.

If we’re going off the rate of official cancellations, then CrossCountry is technically the least reliable train operator. However, they’re not actually the operator that cancels the most trains. But why? Let’s look into this more. 

Can we trust these statistics?

For some companies, you might be wondering how the statistics look quite reasonable, even though their trains seem to be so unreliable.

Put simply, if it’s cancelled before 10pm the previous day, it doesn’t count as a cancellation. This is known as ‘P-coding’ and means that it won’t be reflected in the performance statistics. Most frustratingly for passengers, the most common reason given is ‘a short notice change to the timetable’. This reason doesn’t tell you anything!

Often, if you try to find these trains online on a site such as Realtimetrains, they won’t appear at all. Rather than a cancellation, it’s more like a deletion. The operator will claim that these trains were simply never planned to run! 

The latest report by the Office of Rail and Road shows just how this works. They’ve provided the ‘official’ score for cancellations and an ‘adjusted’ store once you take these P-coded cancellations into account: 

data from orr showing grand central as least reliable train operator

The cancellation rate is a rather shocking 19.7%. Between July and September 2023, almost 1 in 5 Grand Central services did not run. So, by both measures, they were the least reliable train operator. 

Who’s the most reliable train operator?

Now we’ve covered who the least reliable train operator is, it’s only right to cover who the most reliable one is. 

If we focus purely on on-time trains, that’d be Greater Anglia. They managed to run 87.2% of their trains exactly on time. That’s an improvement of 6.9% compared to the same period last year. The most improved operator is Chiltern Railways. They ran 81.8% of trains on time, which is an improvement of 14.9% compared to the same period last year. 

The ‘franchised’ operator with the lowest rate of cancellations was c2c, with just 1.3%. Caledonian Sleeper isn’t far behind with 1.4%. However, Hull Trains was the most reliable operator overall, with an official cancellation rate of 1%

What do these operators all have in common? For one, a relatively common fleet of trains. On c2c, you’ll find one primary fleet of trains (and a small fleet of brand-new ones). Greater Anglia has one of the newest train fleets in the country, too. 

Meanwhile, Caledonian Sleeper has just one fleet of carriages and a few types of locomotive. Their trains run overnight and have large allowances in the timetable in case of engineering work.

c2c is also a fairly self-contained network. It’s unlikely that another company’s trains will cause them to be delayed and they only cover a small area of the country. 

What are the full statistics?

Want to know how your local operator did? Here are the full statistics for July to September 2023:

Operator On-time Cancelled (official) Cancelled (actual)
Greater Anglia 87.2% 1.5% 1.5%
Elizabeth Line 82.8% 5.2% 5.2%
Chiltern Railways 81.8% 1.7% 2.6%
c2c 80.7% 1.3% 1.3%
Caledonian Sleeper 76.4% 1.4% 1.4%
Heathrow Express 75.6% 3.5% 3.5%
London Overground 74.7% 3.0% 3.0%
ScotRail 72.1% 2.1% 2.3%
Merseyrail 71.4% 2.4% 2.6%
Govia Thameslink Railway* 70.6% 4.1% 4.1%
South Western Railway 70.1% 2.2% 2.2%
Southeastern 69.7% 1.8% 1.8%
West Midlands Trains 62.6% 4.4% 4.5%
Northern 60.5% 5.6% 8.2%
Transport for Wales 60.3% 4.5% 6.0%
LNER 59.9% 2.6% 5.0%
Great Western Railway 59.9% 4.4% 4.5%
Lumo 59.6% 1.2% 2.2%
Hull Trains 55.9% 1.0% 1.1%
East Midlands Railway 54.1% 2.5% 3.1%
CrossCountry 48.8% 7.5% 7.5%
TransPennine Express 48.4% 5.0% 13.2%
Avanti West Coast  46.3% 3.9% 3.9%
Grand Central 43.0% 6.7% 19.7%

*Includes Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express.

What can we take from this data? As you’d expect, companies that have smaller networks and don’t have to interact with too many operators tend to fare better. Those who travel over longer distances and interact with each other more are more vulnerable to delays.

We can also see which operators have been P-coding their trains to conceal the real statistics. TransPennine Express and Grand Central are the worst offenders, here. 

What can I do when there’s a delay?

When you book with Railsmartr, we’ll let you know if there are any planned changes to your train, if we’re given enough notice. If you choose to change your plans, we’ve got you covered, too.

You’re also entitled to claim compensation in the event of a delay. You can find out more with our guide on what to do when there’s disruption.

All punctuality data on this page is courtesy of the Office of Rail and Road. It was released on 01/12/2023. The next expected punctuality data release is 07/03/2024. (P-coding data is released every month). 

The data is also issued without liability and is correct at the time of writing (8th December 2023).

Author Richard

Hi, I'm Richard and I've been working for Railsmartr since 2022. I make sure that everything we communicate with customers is top-notch and write exciting and informative content for the website. When I'm not at work, you'll still find me on the rails - though often in the far corners of Europe!