Official data supplied to The Yorkshire Post reveals that in South and East Yorkshire, and on journeys between large towns and cities in the rest of the county, the number of Northern Rail services arriving on time failed to reach the 50 per cent mark.
Amid complaints of persistent overcrowding on rush-hour services, the figures, for the four weeks to December 10, also show that hundreds of trains were cancelled or allowed to run with fewer seats than planned.
The data is in sharp contrast to the headline figures used by the rail industry, which report services as “on time” if they arrive at their final destination within five or ten minutes of schedule.
Analysis of the four-week figures reveals that in Yorkshire alone, 509 journeys were cancelled, and 1,078 trains had too few seats.
The following month, another 328 journeys were cancelled, and 721 trains had “less than planned capacity”. In the same period, one in three local trains in South and East Yorkshire arrived late.
The revelations prompted calls last night for an overhaul of the way train companies report delays.
Rail expert and author Christian Wolmar called the current system “arbitrary” and said it encouraged train companies to skip stations in order to get to the final stop within five minutes of the scheduled time.
Mr Wolmar said: “I’ve never understood why we can’t just have a measure that would give the number of minutes trains are late, divided by the number of trains.”
He added: “It’s also extraordinary how little attention is paid in the north to little needs such as ensuring that trains are long enough. It only takes a football match and the trains are suddenly chocka, and there seems no capacity to extend them.”
David Sidebottom, a director at the watchdog, Transport Focus, said passengers found it “hard to square” the published punctuality figures with reality.
He said: “Your train can be five minutes late yet it’s still on time. If you’re travelling on just part of the route it might be even worse, because only the final destination is measured.
“We are pushing the industry to move to a “right time” railway, based on the actual running of the train, rather than this artificial five or ten-minute window,”
Mr Sidebottom called on Northern to communicate more with passengers, especially when trains were late or carried too few seats. He said: “That is a real frustration because at its worst, people are left behind on platforms and may have to wait a considerable period for the next train.
He also said Northern should do “more education and less persecution” of passengers who tried to buy a ticket after boarding a train when they were in a hurry.
Northern said trains with fewer carriages were “an unfortunate necessity in some situations” and could be caused by maintenance, train faults and other factors. A spokesman said: “We don’t hold any carriages in reserve and run more than 65,000 services during each period. 98 per cent had the correct number of carriages.”
The company added: “We recently outlined our commitment to modernise services across our network. We are in the process of refurbishing our trains and introducing 281 new, purpose built, carriages. Of course, this can’t happen overnight and our trains will be phased in and out of refurbishment in order to ensure minimum impact on our daily services.
“Further changes are on the way, but we ask that our customers bear with us whilst we continue to make the significant improvements to their stations and services, delivering a rail service fit for the 21st Century.”
At the Department for Transport, which can fine operators for providing too few seats, a spokesman said: “Northern will be investing £400m in 281 new carriages which will help improve journeys for passengers.”
The figures cap a dismal week for Northern, which faced ridicule on Tuesday after a Leeds train drove off without its conductor.