Government secretly slashes funding for rail access improvements


newslatestThe government has quietly slashed spending on a programme to improve access to rail stations by nearly 30 per cent, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.

Network Rail this week published its new £38 billion plan for “delivering a better railway for a better Britain” over the next five years, with “more trains, more seats, reduced congestion and bigger, better stations”.

The Conservative transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said the plan would “generate growth, create jobs and boost business while delivering faster journeys, greater comfort and better punctuality for passengers across the UK”.

But the five-year plan makes no reference to improving access to stations in any of its 10 “priorities”, and fails to mention disabled people, disability, or access, across any of its 34 pages.

Only 452 of 2,533 UK railway stations currently have step-free access via lifts or ramps to all of their platforms.

It was only when DNS approached Network Rail that it revealed that the budget for the Access for All programme – which pays for improvements to access at rail stations – had plunged from £370 million over its first 10 years to just £103 million over the next four.

This will mean a drop from £37 million a year to less than £26 million a year across England, Wales and Scotland.

Network Rail insists that its major station redevelopments – such as those at LondonBridge, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Victoria and Glasgow Queen Street – already have access improvements built in.

A spokeswoman said: “The driving force behind these upgrades is to increase capacity for the growing number of trains and passengers on the network, but they will also include significant improvements to accessibility.”

Margaret Hickish, Network Rail’s access and inclusion manager, said there had been no need to mention access in the five-year plan because accessibility was now seen as “business as usual” across the organisation.

But she said funding decisions were made by the Department for Transport (DfT), which also chooses which stations should receive Access for All money.

She said the drop in Access for All funding would “inevitably” have an impact on the number of stations where access improvement work could be carried out.

Hickish, a powerchair-user herself, and previously accessibility manager for the Olympic Delivery Authority, said: “It is obviously not going to allow you to do as much as you would have done before.

“More money would always be welcome and would allow you to do more stations more quickly.”

She said the impact of the drop in funding was likely to be on the majority of smaller stations that were owned by Network Rail but managed by train operating companies.

Network Rail said that the first 10 years of Access for All would eventually lead to physical improvements to 160 stations, including new lifts and ramps at large, key stations such as Clapham Junction, smaller stations such as Middlesbrough and Sutton Coldfield, and key Olympic and Paralympic venues such as Slough and Swanley.

The funding for the next four years will see improvements to a further 35 to 40 stations, which DfT is in the process of choosing, but this will mean an average of less than 10 a year rather than 16 a year over its first 10 years.

DfT points out that it also has two smaller funding schemes, with a £37.5 million programme for mid-size projects, set up three years ago, and about £7 million a year funding available to train operators for smaller-scale access improvements, which has been used to improve more than 1,100 stations since 2006.

DfT has not yet confirmed whether these programmes have been extended as part of Network Rail’s five-year plan, so the drop in access funding could be even greater than £11 million a year.

Baroness Kramer, the Liberal Democrat rail minister, said: “Access for All has been a real success since it was launched in 2006, and by 2019 we will have invested £470 million in improving accessibility at nearly 200 stations.

“We have also delivered medium and small-scale accessibility improvements at more than 1,100 stations through additional government funding.

“In addition, Network Rail and train operating companies are required to make accessibility improvements in line with EU [European Union] and UK standards whenever they carry out infrastructure work at stations.

“However, we recognise that more can be done, and are looking at how we can continue this work.”

3 April 2014