Campaigners are set to take legal action against the government over its failure to provide an accessible service for disabled passengers across part of England’s rail network.
The Association of British Commuters (ABC) plans to seek a judicial review of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) handling of the Southern Rail franchise, which covers parts of south London and southern England.
It has told transport secretary Chris Grayling that one of its four legal grounds for seeking a judicial review is his “unlawful failure” to comply with his duties under the Equality Act 2010 to “monitor and enforce the obligation to provide an adequate train service for disabled passengers”.
ABC is arguing that Grayling’s failure to monitor the franchise properly has allowed Southern to indirectly discriminate against disabled passengers.
The campaign group says Southern services are marred by frequent and serious overcrowding, failures in equipment that assists disabled passengers, and too few staff to help them on and off trains.
ABC is also arguing that forcing disabled passengers to book assistance in advance, when that does not even guarantee them assistance, is “totally unacceptable, unlawful and immoral”.
Southern Rail plans to replace conductors with “on board supervisors” (OBSs), whose job will not include stepping onto the platform at stations.
Campaigners fear that introducing these supervisors will mean that disabled passengers who need assistance on platforms at unstaffed stations could be left stranded and unable to board their train.
Southern is also planning to allow OBS trains to operate with only a driver in “exceptional circumstances” – which is likely to make travel even harder for disabled people – and has also admitted that two-fifths of its trains are already driver-only operated (DOO).
Campaigners have said that DOO trains may be reasonable at a well-staffed station but not on a network where stations are often unstaffed.
Southern is embroiled in a long-running industrial dispute over its plans to replace guards with OBSs.
ABC believes that if DOO trains become the norm on the Southern network, it will result in a “permanent breach of the Equality Act” when trains stop at unstaffed platforms.
Last month, the Commons transport select committee said in a report that it was concerned that no equality assessment had been made of the potential impact of DOO trains on disabled people’s access to train travel.
The ABC legal action – paid for through crowdfunding – has been backed by disabled access expert Ann Bates, an independent consultant for Southern.
She told Disability News Service earlier this year that Southern’s plans would lead to “unacceptable” and repeated breaches of the Equality Act by denying disabled passengers the support they need to travel.
To back up her concerns, Bates – a wheelchair-user – had spent a day travelling on Southern services with an older passenger and a blind person, confronting repeated access problems, including platforms without portable ramps, unstaffed stations and unhelpful call-centre staff.
Bates agrees with ABC that running a driver-only train to an unstaffed station – if there was a passenger on board who could not exit without assistance – would be a clear breach of the Equality Act.
She said she hoped the ABC legal action would force DfT to take seriously its Equality Act obligations on the railways.
Bates said she believed that asking disabled passengers to pre-book their assistance was not a reasonable adjustment under the act, although she does usually pre-book her own journeys because she has a better chance of securing the assistance she needs to board and disembark a train.
She added: “I have worked since the 70s to get equal access to buses, trains, coaches, and we will not be defeated by a rail franchisee that just wants to cut costs.”
She warned that if the struggle to oppose Southern was lost, similar changes would be brought in by rail franchises across the country.
ABC is now calling on disabled Southern passengers to describe their own experiences of the company’s services, which will be used to help with the campaign and possibly the legal action.
A DfT spokesman said: “Improving rail services for Southern passengers is a priority for us and the operator.
“We announced last month that Network Rail would deliver £20 million of improvements on this line and appointed a rail industry expert to lead a project board to drive up performance.
“We have responded to correspondence from lawyers acting on behalf of the Association of British Commuters.”
Southern has previously argued that running a driver-only train would not breach the Equality Act, and that the OBS role provides it “with the opportunity to improve the quality and consistency of support provided to disabled passengers”.
It has claimed that un-named actions it plans to put in place will allow it to comply with its Equality Act obligations.