In April 2019 the UK rail industry, through the Rail Delivery Group, proudly announced the launch of its new interactive accessibility map. The aim of this map is to improve accessibility information for passengers – and increase the confidence of passengers with disabilities to travel by train.
The map can be found here http://accessmap.nationalrail.co.uk/
Unfortunately, and probably not a surprise to many people with disabilities, a close look at this map reveals an alarming number of errors. These errors, rather than ‘boost confidence’ could lead to very unpleasant travel experiences and at worst potentially hazardous situations.
As Chair of the ‘Bedfordshire Rail Access Network’ I first took a look at stations across Bedfordshire and noticed that Arlesey station was highlighted with a green pin – which by the logic of their traffic light system denotes ‘full step-free access’ ( yellow is ‘partial access’ and red is ‘no access’). Below is a screenshot of how it was originally described.
Most people agree (apart from the Rail Delivery Group or the Train Operating Companies it seems) that a train with no cross platform step-free access must not be described (as Arlesey station is) step-free.
As you’ll see in the written description it does (correctly) state that there is no step-free access between platforms. What it neglects to mention is that the route between the platforms (if you can find it as there is no map) involves a journey of around 1,400 metres along an unlit main road and involving significant gradients. Fair play to Great Northern that when this was raised with them, they immediately changed the pin to yellow, but there is still no indication of the journey between the platforms.
Taking a look round other stations it became clear that this was not just a one off and that there were more serious errors and misinformation. As I’m originally from Northumberland I thought I’d take a look at Hexham station on the Carlisle – Newcastle route, managed by Northern Rail. Below is the original map description:
Again it had the green pin, although clearly there is no level cross platform access – the description indicated the barrow crossing had permanently closed. Again I queried this via social media and while not receiving any response checked a few weeks later and information had been updated to that shown below:
Northern had breezily added to the description: “it is quite a long walk from one side of the station to the other, but it is accessible at all times”.
Now I know this station quite well as I lived in Hexham until I was around 18 years old, but I did do a ‘street view’ check on Google Maps to refresh my memory. Below is the route of the ‘accessible’ journey.
In summary this journey (note there is no map at the station to describe it) is 660 metres long, crosses three main roads, lacks dropped kerbs and has a stretch with no pavement. This is not a feasible or safe option for people with disabilities. Rather than acknowledge the error, Northern Rail have doubled-down on it and resolutely declined to change the green pin to yellow.
Other examples are Riding Mill, two stations down the line towards Newcastle. Again the green pin denoting full step-free access with the cheery description of a ’10 minute walk’ between platforms (it’s 760 metres with an unlit section and a steep gradient in one part) and Stocksfield station which doesn’t actually provide any indication of the distance between platforms (540 metres with an unlit section and no dropped kerbs).
Having taken a deeper look at other station managed by Northern, similar issues come up. Having looked at 75 stations to date around 20% have incorrect descriptions. Another glaring issue, for another blog, is the high number of unstaffed stations and low number of stations with toilets, both strong disincentives for many to travel by rail.
It’s not all bad, the map itself is a work of art, if at times a work of fiction, and sometimes you can be gently surprised when a station such as Godalming with its shiny new lifts shyly neglects to even mention their existence on the ‘stations made easy’ map.
However, what is clear is that there needs to be a ‘guiding mind’ when dealing with accessibility on the railways. The current division of the task between the Rail Delivery Group, the relevant Train Operating Company, the Department for Transport and the Office of Road and Rail is clearly not working. All parties are looking at each other to complete the tasks and their seems to be no oversight as to what is published is actually correct.
This really is the easy stuff, if we can’t get this right how are we going to cope with the far more substantial challenges of achieving equal access on the UK railways. I would suggest the following as priorities in terms of the provision of accessibility information. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list and I welcome any comments/additions.
- At stations with no cross platform step-free access, any route/s between platforms that involves leaving the station must be clearly displayed on maps at each exit and made available online in both map and video run through formats
- The length of the route and the steepest gradient encountered on the route must be displayed at each exit to the station and made available online
- The route must be clearly signposted throughout its length
- Hazards such as the absence of street lighting or drop kerbs must be mentioned in the description of the route – with the installation of dropped kerbs, lighting etc. requested as a priority with the relevant local authority
- When station information is updated the date of the update must be displayed on the map and this information must be checked on a regular basis – and the date of this inspection displayed
- The external route must checked for any potential issues on a regular basis
- A standalone body dealing with the provision of accessibility on the railways – a souped up version of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee
- A comprehensive and independent review of the information contained within ‘Knowledgebase’ – the database that contains station information.
- A comprehensive and independent review of the ‘Access Map’ discussed above. The Rail Delivery Group and the Train Operating Companies have clearly failed in both their supply of accurate information and management of it. They shouldn’t be allowed to mark their own homework
- If level crossings are part of the external route inspections to take place in relation to the suitability of the route for a wheelchair, particularly in relation to the flangeway gaps (the gap between the rail and the crossing surface) which have been the cause of a number of fatal and less serious incidents involving wheelchair users across the world
There is hope on the horizon with the Office of Rail and Road’s new guidance on Train Operating Companies Accessible Travel Policies, although I can already see some issues with their station accessibility guidance and it seems to be very weak in terms of enforcement and penalties for non-compliance.
It strikes me as very odd that while the ORR insist that the above classification of the station as either A, B or C is mandatory, the provision of the sub-sections (set out below) which actually get to the nitty gritty of the access issues is purely voluntary, or as they state ‘good practice’. Many stations will actually fall into the B2 category as they only have lifts for part of the traffic day as they are only staffed part time.
In conclusion one issue is crystal clear – the rail industry must do far better as people with disabilities continue to be let down on a daily basis. It’s time for actions, not good intentions.
follow me on twitter at: @juliman66
Sources and further reading
ORR July 2019 Accessible Travel Policy Guidance
ORR November 2017 Economic Enforcement Policy and Penalties Statement
Rail Delivery Group’s Press Release re Access Map 17th April 2019