The British rail industry is still struggling to improve train punctuality, according to figures published today.

Although 23 out of the 25 passenger train companies did improve their trains-on-time record in the first three months of this year, the overall punctuality figure of 80.9% was only marginally better than the figure for July-September 2001.

Today's figure was only a little better than the January-March 2001 figure of 76.3% - a period badly hit by the numerous speed restrictions imposed after the October 2000 Hatfield rail crash.However, it was well up on the 71.3% achieved in the last three months of 2001.

Today's figures from the strategic rail authority (SRA) also show that overcrowding on London routes, although easing, is still a problem. In addition, only 42% of passengers think the railways were value for money.

But there was some cheer for the industry in a passenger survey which showed that 73% of customers were either very or fairly satisfied with their train journey on the day they were questioned, compared with a figure of 69% for spring 2001.

Satisfaction with punctuality and reliability of services also rose in January-March 2002 to 65% - compared with 59% in spring 2001 and 64% in autumn 2001.

Nick Newton, chief operating officer of the SRA, said: "These figures are good news and much credit must be given to those in the industry who have co-operated to make improvements.

"There is still much to be done to consistently achieve the levels of performance passengers have a right to respect."

For the first time, the SRA figures included fare price comparisons. On average, ticket prices rose by 2% in 2001 compared with 2000. For standard class tickets the average increase was 1.5% and for first class tickets it was 6.0%.

In the year to January 2002, fares in London and south-east England fell by 0.1%. On regional networks there was an increase of 2% and a rise of 5.1% on long distance and high-speed routes.

Commenting on the figures, Alistair Darling, secretary of state for transport, said: "I am pleased to see the improved punctuality and reliability reported today, for most train operators, by the SRA.

"There is though a very long way to go to achieve the levels of performance and reliability we all want. The railway industry is increasingly working closely together to deliver significant and sustained improvements in performance across the board."

However, the shadow transport secretary, Theresa May, said: "For the sake of passengers, we are pleased to see an improvement. But a situation where more trains are delayed now than before the Hatfield crash is clearly not good enough.

"The fact that the proportion of trains running late remains twice what is was in the period shortly before Hatfield is a disgrace."

She went on: "The current position is made more difficult because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the rail network with Railtrack still in administration. Alistair Darling needs to show how stability can be brought into the network and capacity increased if passengers are going to notice any improvement in the service."

Richard Bowker, SRA chairman, said consistent improvement on the railways would take time, but added: "We've got a number of operators doing significantly better than they were in the previous quarter and the previous quarter before that.

"There is actually now, however, a very significant focus on performance across the whole industry and well, for the first time, we have something called the national rail performance plan which we are all working very hard to deliver.

"It is actually a much more coordinated approach to performance than we have seen before," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

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