New government figures show that the number of disabled people travelling by train has increased sharply in the last year.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) statistics show that disabled people were assisted to use a train 1,146,000 times in 2015-16, an increase of 7.7 per cent on the previous year and a rise of 21 per cent in just three years.
The number of bookings made through the national passenger assistance booking system rose by 7.6 per cent to more than 341,000 (each booking usually involves several requests for assistance).
Neither of these figures includes assistance provided by Network Rail or train companies when a disabled passenger has asked for help without making a booking.
Other figures published by ORR show that the number of people with a disabled persons railcard rose by 9.6 per cent to more than 192,000 in 2015-16, an increase of more than 47,000 (nearly a third) in just three years.
The railcard allows disabled passengers to receive a discount of a third off adult rail fares on the national rail network.
The figures on assistance and railcards will add weight to calls by campaigners for the government to continue investing in improving the accessibility of the rail transport system.
Faryal Velmi, director of the user-led charity Transport for All, said: “It is really positive that there seems to be an increasing amount of disabled people who are travelling on trains.”
She said the true number of disabled people travelling on the rail network was likely to be far higher, because of the number of people who “turn up and go” without booking assistance in advance.
And she said disabled people needed to push the Association of Train Operating Companies to scrap the national passenger assistance booking system and instead enforce a genuine “turn up and go” system, so that wheelchair-users and other disabled people do not have to book in advance if they need assistance to travel by rail.
She said: “If we are seeing more disabled people use the railways, it makes an even stronger case that we need to treat disabled people as equal citizens with a ‘right to ride’, and get rid of this unfair policy.”
Last month, seven organisations, headed by Transport for All, criticised Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, for recommending in a spending review that nearly £50 million allocated to Access for All – a scheme introduced by the Labour government in 2006 to fund access improvements at rail stations – should be delayed until 2019 at the earliest.
Sir Peter had recommended that Access for All funding for 2014-19 should be cut from £102 million to £55 million, with the rest carried over to the next spending period, 2019-24.
The Department for Transport (DfT) is due to respond to Sir Peter’s report – which contains his detailed recommendations for “replanning” Network Rail’s investment programme for 2014-19 across England and Wales – later this year.
Velmi said the ORR figures added weight to their call for DfT to ignore Hendy’s recommendation to cut the Access for All funding.
TfA and the other six organisations said in their letter to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin that most stations still do not have lifts, tactile paving, audio-visual information, induction loops and other equipment that enables disabled people to use them, and so “great swathes of the UK rail network are no go areas for disabled people, particularly those with mobility impairments”.
They said the Access for All fund had delivered “much needed ring fenced funding” to improve this situation.
A DfT spokeswoman said*: “It is great news that more passengers than ever are taking advantage of the disabled persons railcard, giving access to discounts across our railways.
“It is also encouraging to see that more customers are benefiting from improved passenger assistance at stations.
“We are determined to make rail journeys better for all passengers, and we’ve made significant progress since 2010 in improving accessibility across the entire transport network.
“Our Access for All programme has delivered improvements such as accessible toilets, tactile paving or induction loops to more than 1,200 stations across the country.”
And she said that “89 per cent of buses are now fully accessible, compared to 59 per cent in 2010, and we have committed over £500 million since 2006 for accessibility improvements at stations across the UK.”
*She was not asked to respond to concerns about Hendy’s Access for All recommendation
Picture: Transport for All members campaigning for better access to rail services last year