The organisation that runs most of Britain’s railway infrastructure is installing more inaccessible footbridges across the country, in apparent breach of its duties under the Equality Act.
Earlier this month, Network Rail – whose directors report to transport secretary Mark Harper – defended its decision to install an “innovative” new “FLOW” railway footbridge that is completely inaccessible to many disabled people, at Wistanstow, Shropshire.
Its decision caused shock and anger among many accessible transport campaigners, with one describing the move as throwing access “under the bus”.
Only last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the equality watchdog had taken action under the Equality Act against both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the rail regulator over concerns that cuts and reforms to train services were making the network ever more inaccessible.
But DNS has now been passed details of plans by Network Rail to build at least two more inaccessible footbridges in other locations in England.
In Wokingham, Berkshire, Network Rail is set to replace two run-down inaccessible bridges (pictured) at a point where the railway line splits into two near the town centre.
But the planned new single footbridge that will replace them will also only be accessible to pedestrians who can use steps, unless the local council can obtain the necessary funding and planning permission for an accessible version by August.
In a letter to Wokingham Borough Council, Network Rail said the construction of an accessible bridge was “deemed to be unviable at this time” but that the bridge “has been designed to allow for modification to make it fully accessible should this become a possibility in the future”.
And in its planning application to the council, it argued that it had “no demonstrable, positive duty” to provide an accessible structure because the previous combination of a level crossing and a footbridge were also inaccessible.
Network Rail is also planning to install an inaccessible footbridge at Copmanthorpe, near York, as a replacement for a level crossing.
The local parish council has complained that the new bridge will be inaccessible to many people, and it has asked for an alternative design that uses ramped access.
But Network Rail has used a similar argument to the one it used in Shropshire, arguing that the crossing was not currently used by anyone with reduced mobility because of rough terrain on either side and that an accessible bridge would cost millions more pounds to build, while the ramps would be “visually intrusive”.
Meanwhile, in a post on social media, Network Rail’s chief executive Andrew Haines praised the new inaccessible footbridge design that has been used in Shropshire – which he said was “one of the most beautiful things we’ve built in the railway for many, many years”, and said he hoped to reduce its cost “to a position where hundreds of communities can benefit from it”.
Network Rail runs most of Britain’s railway infrastructure, including 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts, and its aim is “to ensure [its] policies and actions support the wider strategic policies” of UK and Scottish transport ministers.
The UK government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy “sets out the Government’s plans to make our transport system more inclusive, and to make travel easier for disabled people”.
The strategy also says that one of its five main themes is: “Improving physical infrastructure – ensuring that vehicles, stations and streetscapes are designed, built and operated so that they are easy to use for all.”
Accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley said Network Rail’s decisions were “a disgrace”, and that he was now considering taking legal action over the Copmanthorpe plans.
He said its approach “puts to bed the idea that physical inaccessibility on the railway is due to ‘19th century architecture’.
“They’re building new inaccessible structures in 2023. This isn’t due to legacy.”
He added: “Once again, disabled people and our access needs are treated as totally unimportant.
“It is transparent that access has not been any serious consideration in developing this bridge, and it is such a massive insult. I am utterly enraged.
“This must not be allowed to happen.”
Another accessible transport campaigner, Sam Jennings, said the comment by Haines, which she spotted on his Linked In account, “confirms that while disabled people are tax-paying members of the public, we are deemed lesser right from the top down.
“This is why there is such an issue with disability discrimination – it’s cultural, from the top down in the rail industry, when chief executives celebrate inaccessible design and then the industry pushes back so hard when challenged.
“Public transport is for the public. We are all taxpayers (regardless of our incomes) and we should all have access to public infrastructure and services.
“Anything less than this is discrimination.
“The rail industry needs to realise it’s not the 1970s anymore – the world has changed and we all have a right to access transport and live our lives freely without being othered and excluded and #DisabledByTheRailway.”
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel, and a member of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said it was important that Network Rail was pushed on the issue, “else they may persevere with inaccessible design, which will exclude disabled people for decades, isn’t fit for purpose and is totally unacceptable”.
He said: “As a mobility scooter-user, I find it incredulous Network Rail are not adhering to their own inclusive design principles.”
Network Rail claims its designs follow principles such as putting people “at the heart of the design process, ensuring they can use the railway safely, easily and with dignity”, that it “acknowledges diversity and difference and is responsive to people’s needs”, “offers choice where a single design solution may not work for everyone” and “provides buildings and environments that are convenient and enjoyable for everyone”.
Jennings said: “Regrettably, they are treating equal access as an afterthought and are simply not listening to disabled people or recognising they too enjoy the countryside and that all terrain mobility aids exist.
“There are 50 accessible Miles without Stiles routes in the Lake District National Park that I enjoy.
“Why are disabled people’s equal access requirements being ignored in the Network Rail inclusive design process, resulting in social exclusion?”
Adrian Betteridge, from Wokingham walking and cycling group WATCH, who told DNS about the Wokingham plans, said: “It’s an appalling decision by Network Rail to try and build a new bridge at great expense which is unusable by anyone who may have difficulty with steps.
“They are choosing to ignore their own corporate documentation which recognises the importance of accessibility to make a small saving, on a bridge which they claim will be in place for the next 120 years.
“Wokingham Borough and Town Councils are both willing to facilitate and contribute towards an accessible bridge, and it’s good that Network Rail have engaged in discussions about this, but they have yet to make an unequivocal statement that they are equally committed. This kind of behaviour belongs in the past.”
Network Rail declined to explain how installing inaccessible new footbridges complies with the government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy.
It also declined to clarify its chief executive’s social media comment, or to confirm that it believes it has no duty to improve access when replacing an inaccessible bridge, how it justifies this position, and how many new inaccessible bridges it is planning to install.
But a Network Rail spokesperson said: “Network Rail is a big, responsible company that must follow current legislation and is reviewing current proposals for new footbridges.
“The new ‘flow bridges’ will have a fully accessible version before any roll-out of the production model.
“At the moment we have one prototype installed to test proof of concept.”
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson declined to say if the government was concerned about the series of inaccessible bridges Network Rail was building.
But he said: “Public bodies are required to take due regard of the needs of people who share protected characteristics, including disability, under the public sector equality duty.”
DfT has also made it clear that the rail industry has a legal obligation to meet current accessibility requirements whenever it installs, renews or replaces infrastructure and that it will work with the Office of Rail and Road and take enforcement action if these standards are not met.
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