Making the trains run on time: the tyranny of performance indicators

Cole, Bart and Cooper, Christine (2005) Making the trains run on time: the tyranny of performance indicators. Production Planning and Control, 16 (2). pp. 199-207. (

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In this paper, we will consider the use of performance indicators in the newly privatized British rail industry. Specifically, we consider those targets set by the Department for Transport in its attempt to hold the private rail companies accountable to rail users. The narrow scope of these indicators, which are strongly centred on punctuality and reliability whilst focusing only slightly on one aspect of safety, suggests that their use reflects a wider political agenda; these indicators are chosen specifically to promote the perception that the state plays a major role in holding to account private companies which provide a public service. To enforce this idea, we draw upon Tsoukas's 1997 paper, The Tyranny of Light. We use his metaphor of performance indicators casting light onto certain areas of an organization thereby casting the rest of the organization into darkness. The use of railway performance indicators is an example of how there is an increasing tendency on the part of government to quantify what cannot be quantified or 'make the invisible visible'. Aside from questioning whether or not the quantification of railway performance through indicators really does throw any light onto railway performance we also probe the dark areas. The dark side of railway privatization can be found partially in the drastic decrease in the number of highly skilled workers employed by the railway and in the articulated reduction in tacit knowledge. The reduction of staffing, the destruction of tacit knowledge and skills and the employment of less skilled staff have had a serious impact on all aspects of railway operations in the UK, right through to the very serious issue of safety. We will argue that the use of these performance indicators does little to gain the trust of rail users, and we provide empirical evidence to confirm these findings.