London 2012 access boss’s ‘enormous task’ at Network Rail


newslatestThe disabled consultant who played a key part in ensuring the accessibility of London 2012’s purpose-built venues says she will use that experience in her new role as Network Rail’s access and inclusion manager.

Margaret Hickish is now responsible for access and inclusion issues across Network Rail’s huge estate of depots, offices and 17 of Britain’s largest stations, including Paddington, Liverpool Lime Street, Glasgow Central, Charing Cross and Waterloo.

Although she has been working on a short-term contract for Network Rail since last February, she was appointed to a permanent post only last month.

She told Disability News Service that her new job had much in common with her work with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).

She began working as an access consultant with the consortiums that produced the London 2012 “masterplan” in early 2007, before later joining ODA as its accessibility manager.

Her priority in her new role has been to ensure Network Rail’s policy and strategy on accessibility and inclusion is right, and to keep visiting stations until that policy is “well-known and well-rehearsed”.

“Rather like I did at ODA, at the beginning I was very involved and then once you get people up to speed you can start to step back,” she says.

“It is about making people comfortable with the process, about them being able to ask questions and being able to understand why they are doing it.”

The task is huge, with the equivalent of 12 Olympic stadia being built by Network Rail every year. It is, she says, an “interesting challenge”.

“Looking at new buildings, adapting old buildings, how you can best concentrate efforts to improve accessibility right across the rail network… it is an enormous task.

“It is not one that is going to be finished quickly because Network Rail has a huge estate, but equally it is a wonderful challenge and the people here want to get it right, they want more disabled people to travel on trains, and they want more disabled people to work at Network Rail.”

She is working hard to improve inclusive design across the organisation, again taking the same approach as ODA, so thinking not just about disabled people but anyone who might have issues with the built environment, and “future-proofing” the work, “getting it right not just for the next five years but for the next 10 to 15 to 20 years.”

Asked to sum up the current state of accessibility across the rail network, she admits it is “inconsistent”, and adds: “That is the main thing. You can leave from one station, which may be wonderfully accessible, and arrive at one which isn’t. That impinges on people’s confidence to travel.”

A powerchair-user herself, she travels “almost everywhere” by train. Last week, it was to Bristol and Glasgow, and York and Leeds the previous week. This week it is Birmingham and across London.

Her work base is Milton Keynes, and she travels there from her home in east London, and so Euston and Milton Keynes are stations she knows well. Both have “challenges”, Euston because of the sheer number of people who use the station, and Milton Keynes because of a lack of amenities. Both are in the process of being upgraded.

“I have not ever managed to find the accessible loo on Milton Keynes station,” she says, “although I know there is one somewhere.”

Hickish says she was comfortable with the conclusions of the Commons transport select committee, which reported last September on the transport barriers faced by disabled people.

Much of the committee’s concern was directed at the bus industry, but there were recommendations for rail as well, not least to end the requirement for disabled passengers to have to book assistance 24 hours in advance of their journey.

She says Network Rail is examining how a turn-up-and-go system of assistance might be achieved, and is working with the Association of Train Operating Companies, but warns that it is not as easy to make it happen as it might appear.

“It is about making sure people are safe, not leaving them abandoned somewhere because something didn’t happen,” she says.

“Network Rail don’t run any trains, so we have to work with the train operating companies on this.”

Being able to “turn up and go” is easier to achieve at staffed stations, because if a station has no staff, someone on the train has to deliver the assistance instead.

But Hickish points out that many journeys from Network Rail’s stations – in fact, more than half – are carried out without the disabled passenger giving 24-hour notice of their need for assistance.

She says she is “quite confident” about turning up and going, despite falling foul of a logistical foul-up herself, although she declined to name the offending train company.

“I have never been stuck off a train,” she says, “but I got stuck on a train last August. Nobody came to get me off the train and I had to get off at the next available stop. They turned me around and got me back in half an hour… but it shouldn’t have happened.”

Another major issue she faces in her new post is the controversy over London’s huge Crossrail project, which despite its £15 billion budget will not be completely accessible, with seven of its 37 stations failing to offer step-free access from street to platform.

Hickish is currently examining the seven stations one by one, and says colleagues are “looking at what is achievable”.

But she admits to being “puzzled” by the comments of the London mayor Boris Johnson last summer when – during a live television interview with retired Paralympian Ade Adepitan – he pledged that all of the Crossrail stations would be made accessible, although his office later retracted that promise.

“It really does depend on the topography of each site and what there is surrounding it,” says Hickish. “You really need to know if you will have to knock down another building.

“It is far more complex than just putting in a couple of ramps. Particularly in and around London, there are big land ownership issues.”

Hickish says that part of her task will be to ensure that inclusion is built into every Network Rail project from the start, and not tacked on frantically at the end with a last-minute funding bid.

But she insists that her job is about not just “allowing people in and out” of a station. The inclusion part of her brief, she says, is “allowing people to enjoy the stations”, particularly the big terminals that have been refurbished at huge expense, such as King’s Cross and St Pancras.

“Passengers are enjoying their wait between trains, with stations becoming destinations as well as places simply to travel through. We are trying to ensure everyone can enjoy their wait between trains.”

The same applies to Network Rail’s offices. Its commercial premises should be just as accessible and inclusive as its stations, she says, so everyone is “welcome, and warmly welcome, and included”.

Network Rail is setting up a built environment accessibility panel and is looking for applications from disabled people. The closing date is 3 February.

30 January 2014