TRAIN punctuality plunged during the first bout of bad weather this winter, with more than one train in four on the east coast main line running late, figures out today revealed.
Northern Rail services fared little better, with nearly 20 per cent of services late.
A total of 81.7% of trains ran on time in the period from November 14 to December 11 2010 compared with 89.4% in the same period in 2009.
Punctuality of some train companies fell to around 70% in early winter 2010 period, but Chiltern Railways, the best-performing company, managed to run 94.4% of trains on time.
East Coast punctuality was down 13 per cent year on year and Northern Rail down eight per cent. A quarter of TransPennine Express trains were late.
Only one of the 19 passenger train companies - South West Trains - did better in early winter 2010 than in the same period last year, with its punctuality rising from 87.4% to 87.9%.
The poorest-performing company in early winter this year was West Coast operator Virgin Trains, with punctuality sliding from 83.6% to 70.4%.
First ScotRail saw punctuality slip the most, going from 89.5% in early winter 2009 to 70.6% in early winter 2010.
The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), which monitors NR, said the company's performance had been poor and that it was investigating how the industry was handling passenger information during disruption on trains and at stations across the country.
Rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus said it understood bad weather can disrupt services, but what was unforgivable was "the poor quality of information."
NR said the conditions had made it "very difficult to maintain both capacity and punctuality".
An ORR spokesman said: "This is the toughest period of the year for the rail industry, and performance is coming under severe pressure.
"Today's figures show that NR's most recent performance has been poor. While the recent weather conditions have been challenging, NR must act in the best interests of passengers while quickly delivering improved punctuality."
He went on: "We are currently investigating how the industry is handling passenger information during disruption on trains and at stations across the country.
"It is absolutely right that, with new systems, technology, processes and training to support improvements, rail passengers should expect to receive accurate and timely information during disruption.
"We will use our initial findings to help operators and NR address immediate issues."
Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: "This is the third tough winter in a row and yet passengers' grim stories continue to filter through.
"Passengers understand that severe weather can disrupt the railway and individual staff are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. However, what we passengers cannot forgive is the poor quality of information."
Mr Smith went on: "The message from passengers is clear - treat us like human beings and give us useful, timely information, early notice of delays, and more help from railway staff when delays happen.
"Now passengers should send a message to the industry and claim compensation for any disruption to their journey. We would expect train companies to show seasonal goodwill especially as prices are set to rise in the new year."
NR operations and customer services director Robin Gisby said: "Passengers will appreciate that these harsh weather conditions make it very difficult to maintain both capacity and punctuality.
"We took an early decision to keep as many people moving as possible by prioritising which routes to keep open to run the maximum number of trains possible. Reliability becomes more important to passengers than high levels of punctuality."
He went on: "As of today, the railway remains open for business although several train operators are running revised timetables because of some operating constraints with the infrastructure or a shortage of available trains.
"We are currently planning to run greater than 90% of a normal service. Regrettably, some services may not run and punctuality remains much lower than we would like. Our priority is to run as many services safely and reliably and to work jointly with the operators to provide the most up-to-date information to passengers."
A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said: "The figures from mid-November to mid-December don't compare like with like. We had to deal with much more snowfall this year than we did last year.
"NR and train companies have worked round the clock to clear snow and ice to ensure that the majority of services have got in on time. However, no one likes delays and where there has been disruption, train companies have apologised to passengers."