How the rail industry’s access map lost its way – and how to get it back on track

*** Update 5th March 2021 *** Following the publication of this blog Northern have been in touch and have now amended the descriptions of the stations mentioned below. However, a brief look at other stations across the Northern franchise reveals numerous examples of inaccurate information and there remains much to be done across this and other Train Operating Companies to provide accurate information to people with disabilities.

In April 2019 to great fanfare the UK rail industry, through the Rail Delivery Group, proudly announced the launch of its interactive accessibility map. The aim of this map was to improve accessibility information for passengers and increase the confidence of passengers with disabilities to travel by train. Further, it also announced the launch of a revolutionary app, due to be fully operational by Summer 2020 which would track rail users with disabilities in real time.

However, it soon became clear that there were numerous errors in the information contained within the map, including how stations were identified as fully or partially step-free. For example a station with step-free access to each platform, but no level access between platforms would be highlighted with a green pin, indicating a fully step-free station. This ignores the fact that wheelchair users returning to the station that they set off from will obviously arrive at the opposite platform, and often face two sets of completely inaccessible stairs to get back to where they came from. This is not full accessibility, and for a map which is meant to assist people with disabilities to describe such a station as fully accessible is very poor, and an example of the type of challenges faced by disabled people who want to travel independently on the railway.

When this issue was raised with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) in relation to a number of stations on their Great Northern route, they quickly changed their description to indicate partial access, indicated by a yellow pin, one of the stations being Arlesey in Bedfordshire below.

However, what GTR have neglected to mention is the nature of the route, either between the platforms inside the stations (how many steps to negotiate) or the length of the route outside the station from one platform to another. In the case of Arlesey this is a 1.4km journey, much of which is on an unlit main road and involving significant gradients. Some stations will have more accessible routes than this, some will be worse, but this information must be provided so that people with reduced mobility and disabilities can make informed choices. Train Operating Companies can’t act like the world doesn’t exist beyond their ticket barriers.

While GTR have at least been proactive in changing some aspects of their station descriptions the same can’t be said for Northern, who seem resolute in refusing to change any ‘fully accessible’ green pin descriptions at their stations. Below are their ‘Access Map’ descriptions of Hexham, Riding Mill and Stocksfield stations, all located on the Tyne Valley Line.

Unfortunately, these descriptions fail to mention the following:

  • Hexham – since the problems with their description were first raised they have breezily added “it’s quite a long walk from one side of the station to another, but it is accessible at all times”. This neglects to mention that the route is 660 metres long, crosses three main roads, lacks dropped kerbs and has a stretch with no pavement. As there is no map at the station to indicate this route it could well be a much longer journey if you get lost along the way!
  • Riding Mill – another cheery description of a 10 minute walk between platforms. This is actually 760 metres, unlit along some of its length and with very steep gradients in parts.
  • Stocksfield – the description doesn’t actually say anything about the distance between platform. It is roughly 540 metres, also with an unlit section and no dropped kerbs.

Below are the routes for each, highlighted in red. All three of these stations have a green pin denoting full step-free access… (images courtesy of Google Earth)

This situation is repeated at many stations across the UK. So where did it all go wrong and how can it be put right? From what I can see and speaking to disabled people and rail industry members there seems to be three main issues.

  • The poor quality of the ‘Knowledgebase’ system that holds information on every station in the UK.
  • The lack of accountability regarding who is actually in charge of ensuring this information is correct and is regularly updated.
  • The ‘tick box’ culture that exists in the rail industry in relation to accessibility.

Knowledgebase

The Knowledgebase is a static system holding information about facilities at each of the 2500+ stations on the UK rail network. This information is held centrally and is meant to be kept up to date by each of the Train Operating Companies responsible for operating and maintaining their stations. As we can see (and it’s also widely acknowledged by those in the rail industry) the information contained within it is not fit for purpose in relation to accessibility information. Take a look at a description on a station on the clunky National Rail Enquiries (NRE) website and you’ll often see contradictory information, or an absence of necessary details. An example from Ben Rhydding station (Northern again I’m afraid!) below. This station has a green pin on the access map, denoting full step-free access. However, the NRE description can’t quite make up its mind.

One bizarre example of a description of the route between two platforms is Acklington station in Northumberland, another station managed by Northern. Now this is one of the least used stations across the UK with less than 500 passengers a year, but all the same there should be a standardised approach to all stations, whatever their footfall. As you will see below the NRE description reassuringly describes the journey between platforms as ‘no problem’ with access via the road bridge and ramp.

The reality is somewhat different. Do we really expect wheelchair users or visually impaired people to negotiate this!

Northern do redeem themselves slightly by having a hover facility on the larger station map descriptions, which enables you to see a photo of the various facilities available and the potential barriers to travel faced by wheelchair users such as gradients or steps etc. GTR are virtually the only Train Operating Company (TOC) in the UK that hasn’t upgraded their station information to include photos of their stations, despite this deficiency being brought to their attention back in 2019. This means that their passengers have to rely on rather unhelpful 2-D maps of station facilities, not drawn to scale, and without any information about routes between platforms outside of the station limits.

Accountability

It’s not easy to find this out but the accountability of accessibility info is as follows:

  • National Rail Enquiries website – responsibility of and managed by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
  • Stations Made Easy – responsibility of TOC’s, managed by the RDG
  • Access Map – responsibility of the TOC’s managed by the RDG

To add to this we also have the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) who have set out station accessibility classifications as set out below:

In reality what has happened is that every TOC approaches this issue in a different way so there is no consistency across the network. Some label their stations correctly, many don’t. Some use the ORR classification, some don’t. While great care may be taken in some descriptions, in others it seems clear that the person writing them has never visited the station. There is no evidence of an audit of the information provided, and no reassurance of a date when the information was last updated. Stick the woeful Knowledgebase data into the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster which lets down people with disabilities and those with restricted mobility.

I would like to say that I have found a TOC who gets everything right, but I have not and for whatever reason, the Rail Delivery Group do not seem to be able to manage this process, although speaking to individual employees I have found them approachable and helpful. The current approach, with 13 different TOCs doing things their own way, with markedly variable levels of success or seemingly motivation there must be a change. What is definitely 100% RDG’s responsibility is the ‘Passenger Assist App’, announced in 2018, trialed in 2019 and promised to be available to passengers in 2020. From what I understand it is still in testing mode and unlikely to deliver the seamless travel benefits that were promised.

‘Tick box’ Culture

I’ve met many people in the rail industry who are committed to improving accessibility across the rail network. However, I still get the general impression of an industry with a tick box approach to accessibility, happy to settle for second best as long as some sort of effort has been made, and a feeling that work is being done almost as a favour, not as a right. Again, this is a culture that must change.

How can we fix it?

I believe 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 there seems to be no oversight of checking what is published is actually correct.

This really is the easy stuff, if we cannot get this right how are we going to cope with the far more substantial challenges of achieving equal access on the UK railways. I suggest the following 10 point plan 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.

  1.  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 also made available online in both map and video run through formats.
  2.  The length of the route and the steepest gradient encountered on the route must be displayed at each exit to the station and also made available online.
  3.  The route must be clearly signposted throughout its length.
  4.  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.
  5.  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.
  6.  The external route must checked for any potential accessibility issues on a regular basis.
  7.  A standalone body dealing with the provision of accessibility on the railways – perhaps a souped up version of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee
  8.  A comprehensive and independent audit of the information contained within ‘Knowledgebase’ – the database that contains station information. For example all photos to be reviewed to check that they are representative of the current layout. This check, of every station, to be completed on a regular basis, no longer than one year apart.
  9.  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.
  10.   If level crossings are part of the external route, mandatory 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.

If the government are serious about ‘levelling up’ the UK, a good place would be to start on the railways. The pandemic has changed the world and how we live in it. Hints are already being dropped by senior members of the rail industry that we should expect fewer services. However, this is the time to be bold on public transport as once we have overcome the pandemic, the even greater challenge of climate change awaits us. This isn’t the time to give up the ghost on railways and it mustn’t be the the time to skimp on investment in accessibility.

Julian Vaughan

28th February 2021

Links and Sources

Access Map: http://accessmap.nationalrail.co.uk/

National Rail Enquiries: https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations_destinations/default.aspx

Rail Delivery Group: https://www.raildeliverygroup.com/about-us.html

Office of Rail and Road (Accessible Travel Policy): https://www.orr.gov.uk/guidance-compliance/rail/operator-licences-exemptions/atp

Railway technology Magazine – Introducing the new Passenger Assist App: https://www.railtechnologymagazine.com/Comment/introducing-the-new-passenger-assist-app

3 thoughts on “How the rail industry’s access map lost its way – and how to get it back on track

  1. Julian, I have worked in this area for over 25 years (over 40 in Rail) indeed I was the man who turned a fund into an output (AfA Programme) on behalf of DfT, helped develop The Code from 05 to 13 and was UK infrastructure rep on the TSI PRM (now PRM NTSN). I could give you the whole background as to the sorry state of affairs that we now find ourselves in. Gary Tordoff.

    Liked by 1 person

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