Disabled campaigners from across the country have converged on Downing Street to warn the prime minister that his government’s “extremely dangerous” rail reforms will cause “mass exclusion” on the network.
They were there to deliver a petition, drawn up by The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFBUK) and backed by more than 150 organisations.
The petition calls for all ticket offices to remain open, for all trains to have guards, and for safe levels of staffing across all rail stations.
A succession of disabled people’s organisations and allies arrived at Downing Street on Monday to hand over a copy of the petition and present their own evidence that the rail reforms risk plunging disabled people further into isolation.
Transport secretary Mark Harper has previously been told that his “discriminatory” plans to remove guards from trains, cut staff and close ticket offices will prevent many disabled passengers travelling on the rail network and put lives at risk.
But grassroots groups of disabled people believe Harper, prime minister Rishi Sunak and his government are not listening and that their plans are “unacceptable, unsafe and unworkable”.
Representatives travelled by train from as far as Manchester, Leicestershire and Cumbria to deliver their letters to 10 Downing Street.
In its letter, NFBUK said the government’s proposals to allow the removal of guards, the closure of ticket offices and cuts to staffing were “inherently discriminatory” and “extremely dangerous”.
Sarah Leadbetter, NFBUK’s national campaigns officer, told Disability News Service (DNS), after delivering the petition and letter: “We want to be on the train, we have the right to be on the train.
“If there is no staff, no ticket office, no assistance to get me on a train, I will not feel safe.”
Kevin Greenan, from Rochdale, who also delivered the petition, added: “We will keep pushing and pushing and pushing until we achieve something.
“The service that guards provide for me is invaluable. Without guards, I couldn’t travel.”
He said his frustration was targeted at Harper and his “immoral and illegal actions”.
He said: “He’s taking a right from us. He’s damaging our independence.”
Among other disabled people’s organisations that handed over copies of the petition were Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, Inclusion London, Surrey Coalition of Disabled People and WinVisible.
In her letter to the prime minister, Nikki Roberts, chief executive of Surrey Coalition of Disabled People, said: “These proposals will result in those who can board a train with no assistance being able to travel and those that need assistance being left behind.”
There was also support from The Association of British Commuters (ABC), which handed Number 10 a letter and a dossier of evidence proving “widespread discrimination” in the rail network across the south-east of England due to “staffing policies combining driver-only trains and unstaffed stations”.
Such discrimination prevents disabled people accessing their right to “spontaneous” travel, the prime minister was told in the ABC letter.
ABC told Sunak: “We hope you will recognise that any further destaffing will lead to escalating discrimination on the network.
“The right to spontaneous travel is a fundamental human right and it cannot be tolerated that, in twenty-first century Britain, this is still up for debate.”
Emily Yates, ABC’s co-founder, told DNS that NFBUK’s campaigning had been “so active, so powerful that it would be impossible not to support them”.
But she said the government had refused to listen to the concerns about destaffing.
She said: “I have been involved in this campaign for seven years.
“They are not listening any more now than they were seven years ago. Today is an effort to throw everything at them.”
In its letter, WinVisible stressed the importance of having staff on stations and trains to ensure the safety of women, including disabled women.
Claire Glasman, co-founder of WinVisible, told DNS: “As disabled women, we are concerned about women’s safety and safety as disabled passengers.
“Some of us are targeted for harassment, also because we are women of colour or lesbian.
“It’s really scary. When you go on a journey, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, you feel on edge, you can’t relax.”
Sam Jennings, a wheelchair-user who was awarded £17,000 in compensation after she was left stranded on trains and station platforms more than 30 times by the rail company Southern, joined Inclusion London and WinVisible to hand over the petition.
Jennings also handed in her own three-page letter to the prime minister (see separate story).
She told DNS: “It is completely unacceptable that in 2023 public transport is inaccessible in one of the richest countries in the world.
“It breaks my heart that there are people who will not leave their houses or will not use trains or are too scared to use trains, because it is public transport.”
Steve Saunders, campaign lead for East Sussex Vision Support, who handed over the petition with the help of his guide dog Rosie, blamed the reforms on the train operating companies’ need to make money for their shareholders.
He told DNS he was particularly frustrated with the failure of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to do more to enforce disabled people’s right to travel through legal action.
He said: “One of those things I should be able to rely on is those reasonable adjustments that make it possible for disabled people to live their lives in a normal way, the same as able-bodied people take for granted.”
Among MPs who supported disabled constituents as they handed over the petition were Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, Mike Amesbury and Bell Ribeiro-Addy.
Amesbury said he had wanted to “speak to people first hand” about the barriers they face on the rail network.
He is a member of the Commons transport committee, which this month launched an inquiry into the effectiveness of the laws that are supposed to ensure an accessible transport system.
Asked for the government’s response to the call for all ticket offices to remain open, for all trains to have guards, and for safe levels of staffing across all rail stations, and to the evidence of discrimination across the rail network that was handed in at 10 Downing Street, the Department for Transport said in a statement: “Everyone should be able to travel with confidence and the safety of passengers will [be] central to any reforms.
“Our Access for All programme has delivered step free accessible routes at over 200 stations [since 2006], with additional improvements at over 1,500 stations.
“By modernising the railway and moving staff out of ticket offices, we can enable them to provide more face-to-face assistance, so all passengers get the help they need.”
Picture: (From left) Kevin Greenan, Sarah Leadbetter and Nellie, and Paula Peters from DPAC
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