A disabled campaigner has taken the first steps towards launching legal action over the rail industry’s use of a long-delayed and “fundamentally broken” passenger assistance mobile phone app.
The industry hoped its Passenger Assist app would make it easier for disabled passengers to book assistance with train journeys, but Doug Paulley says it is a “massive disappointment” and will even prevent many disabled passengers from travelling.
The Rail Industry Group (RDG), which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways, had already been warned that the app was not fit for purpose.
But this week, Paulley (pictured) published a detailed account of the app’s flaws, and has told RDG, South Western Railway and TransReport – the technology firm responsible for designing the app – that they should consider his blog a “letter before action”, the last step before he takes legal action.
He is now seeking an admission that they have discriminated against disabled people by failing to make the wheelchair space and assistance booking processes “easy and reliable”; a promise to fix the problems with the system; and suitable financial compensation.
Early versions of the app that were trialled secured support from disabled people, many of whom worked to improve its accessibility.
It was finally launched in May, nearly three years after originally planned, with TransReport securing £2.3 million in venture capital funding for the project earlier this year.
But Paulley said the Passenger Assist app does not have many of the “revolutionary features” that had been promised.
He says it provides no way for staff and passengers to contact each other; no way for disabled passengers and staff to get in touch with each other when there is rail disruption or if mistakes occur; and no GPS tracking of the passenger to let staff know their location.
There is also no way to use the app to buy a ticket at the same time as booking assistance.
Most importantly, says Paulley, it does not allow a disabled passenger to book a wheelchair space, and in fact “makes no mention of booking wheelchair spaces at all”.
Instead, he says, it simply provides “a one-stop place to book passenger assistance… with a comparatively accessible interface (thanks to the input of some excellent disabled rights activists) and with the passenger’s assistance needs and biographical details pre-filled in without having to redo them for each booking”.
He adds: “This is a benefit, but nothing like that promised all those years ago, and sadly those benefits are offset by some significant problems.”
Paulley says in the letter before action that TransReport also took over responsibility last autumn for the database of the 1.25 million assistance bookings made on the rail network every year*.
Since then, he has experienced “repeated and significant problems booking wheelchair spaces”, and he says that TransReport’s system is wrongly telling rail staff that spaces are not available, even though older systems show that the spaces are available and allow staff to book the same spaces on the same trains.
But he says there are also other flaws with the app.
If rail companies do not mark a disabled person’s journey as “completed”, which he says they never do, the journey “hangs around forever” in the “Current Journeys” section of the app.
The app also allows users to book assistance onto and off London Underground journeys, which cannot be booked; allows train ramps to be booked to help board rail replacement coaches; and allows ramps to be booked for stations that are only accessible by several flights of stairs.
Paulley says the app also allows passengers to make booking requests at “impossible short notice”, for example for a train that is leaving in five minutes.
Paulley has included South Western Railway in his legal warning after a marathon wheelchair space booking “nightmare” that lasted more than an hour and still did not result in a usable booking.
All of this, he said, “to attempt to do what a non-disabled person can do in seconds on their website: make the bookings and practical arrangements to secure their accommodation and travel”.
RDG had declined to say by noon today (Thursday) if it recognised the concerns Paulley was raising and if it was trying to fix them.
But Robert Nisbet, RDG’s director of nations and regions, said in a statement: “The Passenger Assistance app is just one element in improving disabled passengers’ experiences.
“This app is the first of its kind on British public transport, so getting it right took time.
“We also wanted to ensure the functionality so the app went through several rigorous trials and was pre-released to an ‘early access’ group for feedback.
“The app was rolled out with functionality that is already improving requests for assistance such as providing an alternative to having to call in order to reserve assistance.
“We are adding functionality, and welcome feedback.
“We are balancing rolling out improvements as quickly as possible with ensuring we get them absolutely right for customers, to give them confidence on their journeys.”
A South Western Railway spokesperson said the company was “aware” of the problems Paulley had highlighted and said that its staff “provide feedback to industry partners on a regular basis”.
He added: “We’re sorry for the unsatisfactory experience that Mr Paulley had when booking his assistance with us.
“We’re investigating the matter further, so that we can ensure this does not happen again.
“We regularly provide feedback on TransReport as part of the industry-wide effort to improve the passenger assistance system and simplify the assistance booking process.”
TransReport has refused to comment.
*The last available pre-pandemic figures
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