This afternoon, representatives from Bedfordshire Rail Access Network (BRAN), Network Rail, GTR, Richard Fuller MP and Central Bedfordshire and Biggleswade Town Council officials met to discuss progress on step-free access at the station, as well as the transport interchange and proposed new toilet facilities.
Since the previous meeting, another hurdle has been overcome and the step-free scheme for Biggleswade station has now been fully funded, endorsed and authorised by the Network Rail Investment Authority Panel. The next steps are awarding the construction contract and buying the materials and plant required. Works are due to start on site in October of this year, with the lifts due to enter into service in June 2023. Both these dates are unchanged from my previous update given in May.
A bus interchange construction ‘groundbreaking’ ceremony is due to take place in late August and the interchange is still on course to be completed by March 2023. When both projects are complete this will provide seamless and step-free access between buses and trains. The Central Bedfordshire Infrastructure Delivery team is keen for the BRAN team to be shown around the interchange prior to opening, to both check all is ok and to publicise the facility to disabled people in the area.
Work on a new accessible toilet facility at the station is due to begin at the end of August 2022 and be completed by the turn of the year. This will be a very welcome addition as the absence of this basic facility puts off many people from travelling on public transport. The final design of the toilet facility has yet to be decided, but is likely to consist of two toilets, both of which will be accessible. Further, a feasibility study is ongoing into the provision of a toilet on one of the platforms.
If all goes to plan, by June 2023 Biggleswade will have an integrated step-free transport hub alongside secure cycle facilities and, at long last, the provision of toilet facilities at the station. This will both reduce our reliance on our cars and enable disabled people, those with reduced mobility and parents with young children to use the station with ease. Inaccessible transport results in disabled people being unable to play a full part in our society and these improvements will enable them to travel independently.
As a result of inflation resulting in significant cost increases to the scheme, two reviews were carried out to see if savings could be made in the ‘non-core’ elements of the scheme, i.e the areas of the scheme that didn’t affect the delivery of step-free access to the station. As a result of these reviews, the steps to the additional bridge which will provide access to the lifts have been removed from the scope of the scheme. This means that the additional bridge will only have lift access – and those passengers who do not wish to use the lift will need to use the current stairs.
We were told that this will save the project £582,000 and will bring the project back within budget. While we understand that savings needed to be made and don’t regard their exclusion from the scheme as a deal-breaker, it does present a number of problems. Firstly, it does not ‘future-proof’ the station for increased passenger numbers in the coming years, when one staircase per platform will not be able to safely accommodate higher passenger numbers. Secondly, there are serious deficiencies within the current staircase, which means that its use is problematic for visually impaired people who may wish to use the stairs. Finally, the staircase is in very poor condition and both the staircase and the bridge itself are likely to need to be repaired in the near future.
We asked if any disabled people had been consulted or were present at these two reviews. It seems they were not. We pointed out that this issue would have been flagged as an issue if disabled people had actually been involved in these scoping decisions. So once again, decisions on changes that impact disabled people were made without disabled people being part of the process. This is an example of how, no matter how unintentional, problems can be designed into a project due to the lack of first-hand knowledge of the problems faced by disabled people. That is why disability activists keep demanding “design with us, not for us”. As these stairs aren’t within the scope of the step-free scheme, funding for improvements to them will have to come from elsewhere. We have asked for an urgent meeting to discuss this issue with the relevant people.
While it is good news that GTR, as landlords of the station, are looking at the provision of a platform toilet, as yet there is no funding available to build one. This is something we will keep pursuing in the coming months – if the drainage study shows that it is a viable option.
While we were talking about the new toilets there was a discussion about how access to them could be set on a timer, so that when the station is unstaffed the toilets cannot be used. The reason for this is to reduce the chances of vandalism, and issues if anyone gets stuck in them. We then asked if there were any plans to extend the hours that Biggleswade station is staffed and whether the lifts to the platforms could remain open if there were no staff on the station. We believe that if a station is unstaffed then the lifts may have to close. GTR advised us that there were no plans to extend the hours that staff were present at the station, but were unsure if this would mean the lifts would have to go out of service when the station had no staff present. I understand this may be dependent on whether the lifts have a link to a central control room. We asked that this is clarified as soon as possible, as if the lifts do have to be closed the station will once again become inaccessible to disabled people – and they travel late at night and on weekends too!
There were also discussions about ensuring that the bus service timings linked up with the timings of the trains services to and from London. Discussions on this are ongoing and we stressed how vital it is that the timings are combined to encourage people in the surrounding area to use public transport. There were also discussions about what would happen to the current bus station in the market square and where bus stops would be provided if this area is pedestrianised. It seemed clear that this will take some time to reach an acceptable solution.
Overall, a mixture of good and bad news, but the date for step-free access at the station remains unchanged and is currently ahead of the original completion date target which was Autumn 2023. However, we won’t relax until the first person has used an in-service lift at the station.
Many thanks to my BRAN colleagues who as always provide invaluable advice. On a personal note, although Richard Fuller and I disagree politically on virtually everything, we continue to put these differences aside while we work together to a successful outcome of the project. As always, feel free to get in touch if you have any questions. Contact details are below and you can follow BRAN on Facebook here.
Chair Bedfordshire Rail Access Network
22nd July 2022
Leonard Cheshire: Accessible Trains https://www.leonardcheshire.org/get-involved/campaign-us/accessible-trains
Rail Delivery Group: Access Map http://accessmap.nationalrail.co.uk/
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson: Our rail network is decades behind target in providing access to disabled people https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/our-rail-network-is-decades-behind-target-in-providing-access-to-disabled-people?heycid=705790
Great Northern: Assisted Travel details https://www.greatnorthernrail.com/travel-information/travel-help/assisted-travel