There is quite rightly, a great deal of anger about the failure of the rail industry to meet the 1st January 2020 deadline for all UK passenger trains to be fully accessible. Some of the extensions have been granted years into the future, despite more than a decade to either refurbish or replace non-compliant rolling stock.
Looking through the explanatory notes of the exemption orders for the non-compliant stock I see the familiar lack of understanding of the experience on the railways of people with disabilities.
It is crucial that we place people with disabilities at the heart of decision making – not as an afterthought for the sake of ticking a box, or to navigate the hoops of consultation requirements.
However, for many people with disabilities the above is a moot point, as there still remain thousands of railway platforms across the UK where it would be impossible to actually get down to platform and access compliant carriages, never mind those that remain uncompliant.
Since ‘Access for All’ funding was introduced in 2006 it’s tricky to get an exact figure on what has been spent on accessibility improvements, as there have been various movements of the goal posts, but roughly £500 million has been spent since 2006. This has led to step-free routes at around 200 stations and smaller scale improvements at a further 1,100 stations.
The budget for accessibility improvements in Control Period 6 between 2019-24, (spending on the railways is split into five year chunks) has been set at £300 million, including £50 million carried over from Control Period 5. This will ensure step-free routes at a further 73 stations, 24 which were originally planned to be completed before 2019. On a personal level having campaigned hard for its inclusion I’m delighted that Biggleswade station is one of the 73, but this is tempered by the fact that other stations in Bedfordshire, such as Flitwick and Arlesey lost out in bun-fight that takes place prior to each five year Control Period.
Those in the rail industry happy to pat themselves on the back often quote the figure that 73% of journeys take place from stations that are step-free. This ignores the fact this figure is skewed by the vast number of people without disabilities using these accessible stations. According to Department for Transport figures (November 2017) out of the UK 2,500 or so stations only around 460 have step-free access to all and between all platforms, this is only 18% of the UK rail network.
Another issue around accessibility is the quality of information provided by the train companies and how it is managed by the custodians of that information, which as far as I can gather is the Rail Delivery Group. The Office of Rail and Road seem to be having the same problem as they state in their submission to the Williams Rail Review: “Quantifying the precise number of mainline stations that are accessible to optimal build standards is difficult because it is difficult to ascertain due to issues with the accuracy of some station data”.
A prime example of this is the interactive ‘Fab Map’ launched in April 2019 which aims to make it easier to find out about accessibility at stations and boost passenger confidence about travelling by train. However, closer examination of this map reveals significant flaws which are likely to have the opposite effect on map users.
These flaws include:
- describing stations with step-free access to each platform, but no cross-platform access as having ‘full step-free access’ – indicated with a green pin on the map
- describing stations where level access between the platforms involves a journey outside the station across a level crossing as having ‘full step-free access’, these journeys can involve sharing space with road vehicles
- lack of any details of the distance of the detour between platforms (in the case of Arlesey station in Bedfordshire 0.90 miles) unlit areas at night or other potential hazards
- describing a station (Riding Mill in Northumberland) as fully accessible, but one which requires a 10 minute walk between platforms – with no indications as to any potential gradients or hazards on the way. As I personally know the route, I’m aware of significant and long gradients. For a person with restricted mobility, describing the journey as a ten minute walk is not helpful apart from ruling it out as an option, so why the green pin which indicates fully accessible?
The rail industry describing these partially accessible stations as fully accessible on what is seen as the cutting edge of interactive information technology seems to sum up the lack of understanding about accessibility. While it may only be seen as the colour of a pin on a map I believe it is a symptom of the barriers that remain to equal access. If we can’t get the easy things right, how will we deal with the significant, but not unsurmountable challenges that lie ahead. I’m pleased that Great Northern have taken this on board and adjusted their descriptions, but as you can see below Northern Rail continue to describe partially accessible stations with a green rather than a yellow pin.
I recently asked who is actually responsible for the ‘Fab Map’. The answer is the individual Train Operating Companies are responsible for the information, which is then managed by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). ‘Stations Made Easy’ (web based maps, pictures of each station) and reached by a clickable link in the Fab Map is governed by the same structure. While researching this blog I found that ‘Stations Made Easy’ used to be managed by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and audits of the information was undertaken by a private company, until the contract ran out in 2016. Since ATOC was absorbed into the RDG in 2017 it’s not clear what auditing of the information supplied takes place.
There a people within and outside the industry who work tirelessly to highlight the issues, but it does seem that they are banging their heads against a brick wall. I’m not sure whether the decision makers actually ‘get’ accessibility, or if they do by the time their good intentions have passed their way through multiple layers of management, when it comes to taking action the message has been lost. It’s clear we need more people with disabilities as decision makers, or as someone tweeted recently make it compulsory that every CEO of a train company board and alight every train they travel on using a ramp and then see what happens!
I’ve yet to meet anyone in the rail industry who doesn’t say safety is their top priority and at the same time no-one in the industry that says step-free access is not extremely important. Why is it then that it seems to be treated almost as a favour and that people with disabilities should be grateful for what is provided rather than it be seen as a fundamental right?
I also have concerns about how stations are selected to receive funding for step-free improvements. Currently this is based on the following criteria, in no particular order:
- footfall (from Office of Rail and Road data)
- incidence of disability in the area (from Census info)
- proximity to for example hospitals or school for disabled children (within 800m)
- stations with a high number of interchange passengers
- availability of third party ‘matched’ funding
- stations that would fill ‘gaps’ in accessibility on the rail network – with info on nearest fully accessible station and the journey time to that station and frequency of services
- DfT category of station – all UK stations are categorised from A to F (eg Kings X is category A, Bishop Auckland is category F)
- number of passenger assists at a station
- current level of access
- progress of any development work and what stage any Governance for Railway Investment Projects (GRIP) the development work is at – there are nine GRIP stages including project feasibility and option selection
- other renewals/developments at the station
- new land ‘housing’ developments near station (within 800m)
- support of Train Operating Company
- support of local disability group
- support of local council
- support of local MP
- support of local community
While on one hand I can see the benefits of the requirements of a particular bid to fulfil a wide range of criteria to ensure maximum benefit, the whole process ends up being very opaque. As far as I’m aware the DfT don’t release any details of how the stations are prioritised by the Train Operating Companies.
Although as Chair of the ‘Bedfordshire Rail Access Network’ team I was involved in the bid for Biggleswade station, we were not provided with details of other areas of the bid (such as priority ranking or matched funding ) other than what was already available in the public domain. The process is also arbitrary in that it seems that the stations that shout the loudest (we were very loud) and have the support of the local MP (we did) have better outcomes. Other stations such as nearby Flitwick, although having greater footfall than Biggleswade, did not have the same level of support and this was no doubt a significant factor in the station failing to receive funding for access improvements.
I believe a far more transparent and simpler process of selection should be created which will give the communities served by the stations a clear timeline as to when improvements will take place. Although it may appear simplistic, passenger numbers and proximity to alternatives should be the only consideration. This will be easy to communicate, easy to understand, won’t rely on the whims of how well or badly a bid was put together and won’t keep people in the dark about how long their local station will remain inaccessible. Governments should set out a clear timeline as to when UK stations placed in bands and priority order according to footfall will be made step-free, both to each individual platform and between platforms. For example priority should be given to all those stations with 1 million plus passengers per year that don’t currently have step-free access, the next band could be stations with between 750,000 and 1 million passengers and so on. The actual composition of the bands doesn’t really matter, the transparency and clarity that they will provide to the public really does.
The current government’s ambition as set out in their Inclusive Transport Strategy is:
“for disabled people to have the same access to transport as everyone else and for them to travel confidently, easily and without extra cost. By 2030, we envisage equal access for disabled people using the transport system, with assistance if physical infrastructure remains a barrier”.
The ‘Equality 2025’ target has quietly been dropped and there is the obvious get out clause “with assistance if physical infrastructure remains a barrier” which can readily be applied to just about any scenario! Many people with disabilities don’t want help, they just want to be able to travel independently.
No matter how it is spun it’s clear that at the current rate of progress the 2030 target will be missed. There are all sorts of issues with this, not least because we need to be encouraging increased use of public transport to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. Step-free access is not just morally the right thing to do, but it will also bring wider benefits to society, reducing social isolation and improving social and employment opportunities for people with restricted mobility. It also makes economic sense to do so as for very £1 spent on access improvements an estimated £2.90 is returned to the wider economy.
Access issues, and indeed the railways, shouldn’t be seen in isolation and accessibility improvements must be seen as part of an integrated, fully accessible and fully staffed transport network, with seamless transfer between different transport modes.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get a sense of a genuine commitment from government and that includes financial commitment to achieve their stated aim of equal access on the railways so I’m somewhat pessimistic at this stage. In fact I’m still not entirely sure exactly what their aims are. What does give me cause for optimism are the many campaigners across the UK who are pushing so relentlessly for improvements. It really shouldn’t have to be so difficult…
Sources and Information
Inclusive Transport Strategy
ORR’s advice re step-free access to the Williams Rail Review
Press Release re ‘Fab Map’
Access for All funding announcement – April 2019
Station Passenger Numbers
DfT National Implementation Plan for the Accessibility of the UK Rail System for Persons with Disabilities and Persons with Reduced Mobility – November 2017