When will Labour stand up for a step-free railway?

Blaming the Victorians for a large percentage of our rail network being inaccessible to a significant proportion of the UK public is wearing very thin after 150 years. While some progress has been made since ‘Access for All’ funding for step-free stations was introduced by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2006, thousands of platforms across the United Kingdom remain no-go areas for wheelchair users, those with restricted mobility and parents with young children.

Whilst the government frequently points out that 75% of rail journeys are through stations with step-free access, it remains the case that around 40% of stations in the UK do not have step-free access.

Leagrave station in Bedfordshire – currently a no go area for people with disabilities

The current state of the UK rail network presents a huge barrier to the 14.1 million disabled people in the UK. People with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled workers; are far more likely to be in poverty, and suffer loneliness four times the rate experienced by non-disabled people.

Labour’s core values of social justice, solidarity and equality of opportunity intersect with all the above, and we should be leading the way in removing the barriers put in place preventing disabled people from playing a full part in our society. In 2018 I wrote a blog ‘Labour must be bolder on Equal Access’. Reading it back now, it is disappointing how little has changed.

While the Shapps/Williams review published in May 2021 states that ‘Great British Railways’ will be given a statutory (legal) duty to improve accessibility, it does not quantify by how much or give any indication of a timeline of improvements. It is concerning that the promised audit of stations will not be completed until 2024 and it is not clear who will undertake that audit. Further, while the various pots of money allocated for accessibility improvements will be consolidated into one large pot, there is no sign that there will be any additional funding to speed up accessibility improvements across the network. The Leonard Cheshire charity has done a great deal of work on assessing the current situation and what it will take to level up the UK rail network. You can read their ‘Get on Board 2020’ report here. In the report research by WPI economics estimated that £400 million a year will be needed to make the rail network in England step-free by 2030, equating to just 1.6% of annual transport spending in England. *figures for Scotland and Wales are contained within the report. However, on current levels of funding the network won’t be step-free until around 2070.

Infographic from page 22 of the Leonard Cheshire ‘Get on Board: 2020’ report showing the spend for step-free access required as a total proportion of public transport spending

Therefore, even going by the most expensive estimate, the total cost of a step-free network to platform level would be a total of around £6 billion, with the cost spread over 10 years. A sizeable amount of money, but worth bearing in mind that the government spends over £1,000 billion each year. With an ageing population and the urgent need for a significant shift away from the car towards less carbon-intensive public transport, quite apart from the moral issues around equality, surely a price worth paying. Further, this investment provides a return to the economy. In 2014 a report was commissioned by the Department for Transport to evaluate the benefits, including financial benefits of the ‘Access for All’ scheme. It was found that the average benefit-cost ratio was 2.4:1 i.e. £1 of invested returned a benefit of £2.40 to the economy.

Looking at what commitments Labour have made towards a step-free rail network over the last few years makes for thin reading. The 2017 Labour manifesto, still one of the best books I have read, stated in relation to accessibility on the rail network: “we will ensure safe staffing levels, ending the expansion of driver-only operations and introducing legal duties to improve accessibility for people with disabilities”. It went on to say that “Labour believes in the social model of disability – that it is society which disables people and it is our job to remove those barriers”. The 2019 manifesto stated “Labour will…improve accessibility for disabled people, ensuring safe staffing levels and end driver-only operation.” Going on to say “Labour supports the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ and again committed to the social model of disability, as described above. In contrast to the hostile environment endured by disabled people under this government, I have no doubt that a Labour government enacting either of these manifestos would have shown a great deal of empathy and compassion and treated disabled people with dignity. Further, the commitment to working ‘with’ disabled people rather than ‘for’ disabled people was very welcome. However, in terms of detail, both manifestos lacked any specific time-based commitments to making the rail network accessible to all.

One of the major issues around rail accessibility is the opaque decision-making process through which some stations receive the funding – and other stations miss out. Below is a list of the criteria, but as there are no ‘league tables’ of how each station matches up to the criteria, communities across the UK have no idea whether their station is going to be accessible in the next five years or the next 50 years.

The current list of criteria which through which station bids have to navigate

It seems to be a case of who shouts the loudest that succeeds in the bun fight that occurs in the run-up to each five-year railway control period. Controversy about the recent ‘towns fund’ also raises the suspicion of political favouritism in decisions that lack any transparency or public oversight.

The current ‘Access for All’ model is broken and we urgently need a rolling programme of improvements and a crystal clear and transparent process of allocation, with targets set for completion. It is worth noting that the Office of Rail and Road advice to the Williams Rail Review contained (on page 33) a recommendation to have “greater transparency of the governance and decision making criteria for ‘Access for All’ funding”. This advice does not seem to have made its way across to the Shapps/Williams review. Above all, end-users need to be involved throughout all stages of the process. literally from the ‘blank piece of paper stage’ until completion. Otherwise, adverse accessibility issues can be baked into designs, that are difficult if not impossible to rectify at a later date.

Of course the pandemic has moved the goalposts in terms of public transport usage and it remains to be seen just how long term this impact will be. My personal view is that while many enjoy the flexibility afforded by remote working, and companies eye an opportunity for considerable cost savings, when the pandemic eventually recedes people will again seek more social interaction, at work as well as with friends and family. Further, with road traffic returning back to pre-pandemic levels, short term and medium steps need to be taken to encourage and enable a return to less polluting forms of transport.

A step-free rail network isn’t the answer to all our transport issues. It must be part of a range of improvements to create an integrated transport network, with seamless physical and ticketing connections between different transport modes.

It is clear that Labour is being very careful to avoid being seen in the same light as what some see as the profligate Corbyn era Labour Party. This caution has resulted in something of a policy vacuum and there have been a number of occasions where Labour have quite rightly pointed out issues with government policy, only to be subsequently unable to set out what a Labour government would do. We can all think of reasons why we and others shouldn’t vote Tory, but we have to offer something for people to vote for.

Politics boils down to priorities. A step-free rail network, seamlessly integrated with other transport modes would bring huge benefits to the UK, intersecting and addressing multiple issues across our society. At the heart of Labour values is the desire to create a just society for everyone. It’s time for Labour to put these values into practice and create a rail network accessible to all. Above everything else, it is time for Labour to be bold.

Julian Vaughan

Twitter: @juliman66

November 2021

Sources and further reading

Great British Railways – The Shapps/Williams plan for rail: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/994603/gbr-williams-shapps-plan-for-rail.pdf

Leonard Cheshire ‘Get on Board 2020: Making the economic case for “levelling up” inclusive transport: https://www.leonardcheshire.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/Get-on-Board-2020-policy-report.pdf

Steer Davies Gleave: Access for All Benefit Research: https://uk.steergroup.com/sites/default/files/2021-03/Access4AllBenefitResearch2015.pdf

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