Disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have been celebrating this week after a four-month campaign forced the government to abandon plans it had previously backed to close nearly 1,000 rail ticket offices across England.
Transport secretary Mark Harper announced on Tuesday that ministers had “asked train operators to withdraw their proposals”, reversing the government’s previous position supporting the closures.
The government climbdown followed months of protests, lobbying, rallies, legal action and research by disabled people, DPOs and allies, with 750,000 people responding to public consultations on the proposed closures.
One of the DPOs that has played a significant part in the campaign is The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFBUK).
Sarah Leadbetter (pictured), NFBUK’s national campaigns officer, said the government’s announcement was “really good news” and had been a “very big surprise” when it was announced.
But she said the victory was “bittersweet” because she expected further worrying reforms to follow, which could include new proposals on ticket office closures (see separate story).
Leadbetter had herself – along with fellow accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley – taken a legal case against four publicly-owned train companies and Harper.
Days after starting their legal action – which is now likely to be withdrawn – train operating companies had extended the 21-day consultation period.
Paulley said yesterday (Wednesday): “It is a great relief that the government have given up these ill-conceived and ableist plans, for which they disingenuously blamed the train operating companies.
“This caused so much distress, and treated disabled people’s access needs with such contempt.
“So many fought so hard, in so many ways, to prevent this from occurring, and we should be proud.
“But we shouldn’t have had to, and imagine what positive things our energy, emotions and commitment could have achieved if they were not forced to be occupied fighting this iniquitous disgraceful proposal borne out of this hateful government and complacent industry.
“So I think we should celebrate our achievement.
“But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the prospect of destaffing the railway is gone, nor the ableist mindsets that allowed such a hateful initiative to be proposed in the first place.”
And he said he expected new proposals to expand “driver only operation” of trains would follow the decision to withdraw the ticket office closure plans.
Sam Jennings, one of the disabled activists who campaigned against the closures, said support for the campaign had been “unprecedented” and that disabled people had been treated with “contempt” and as an “inconvenience”.
She said: “I am relieved and also somewhat emboldened.
“Now let’s see real commitment to improving accessibility and making ‘turn up and go’ work for everyone so that no-one is left behind or ever #DisabledByTheRailway again.”
She called for the Rail Delivery Group – which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways – to be disbanded as “they are the barrier to a functioning, accessible railway”.
He said the government U-turn was “an important moment in history for disability rights and demonstrates the collective power of campaigners, activists, the RMT union and DPOs”.
But he added: “History will remember those who remained silent, who will be on the wrong side of disability rights.”
He said DfT had forced the train companies to push through the proposals and then “threw them under the bus” when an overwhelming majority of responses to the consultations opposed the plans, including 99 per cent of those received by London TravelWatch.
The proposals would have seen staffed hours at Jennings’ local station, Ulverston – where wheelchair- and mobility scooter-users depend on staff to assist them across the tracks to one of the platforms – cut from 13 to just two hours a day, with no staffing on Sundays.
He said this would have caused “an end to spontaneous travel and would have eroded the legal right to turn up and go travel”.
He praised local MPs Tim Farron – who led a parliamentary debate objecting to ticket office closures – and Simon Fell, who lobbied ministers and toured stations with the rail regulator.
But Jennings said he feared the victory was “just the beginning and not the end” of proposals for damaging reforms, with the Rail Delivery Group now looking for savings elsewhere.
He said: “Campaigners and the RMT need to remain vigilant that it does not result in a recruitment ban and destaffing by stealth and the DfT pushing for more driver-only operated trains, which would have equally disastrous consequences for disabled people.”
Transport for All (TfA), which played a key part in the campaign to oppose the closures, this week celebrated the “major victory”, which it said was “down to the tenacity of disabled people and our community”.
Katie Pennick, TfA’s campaigns manager, said: “Today represents the best possible outcome – but it’s not a step forward, instead we have resisted things getting worse.”
She added: “The disastrous and discriminatory proposals should never have been put forward.
“It took multiple legal challenges, public uproar, cross-party opposition, and ultimately a watchdog decision for the Department for Transport to finally withdraw its support for the closures.”
She said the government had been insisting “until the eleventh hour” that the plans would improve accessibility.
The Association of British Commuters, which first raised the alarm in June about the imminent announcement of plans for widespread ticket office closures, said on Twitter that the government’s defeat was an “absolutely historic victory”.
The Rail Delivery Group said its proposals “were about adapting the railway to the changing needs of customers in the smartphone era, balanced against the significant financial challenge faced by the industry as it recovers from the pandemic”.
It added: “While these plans won’t now be taken forward, we will continue to look at other ways to improve passenger experience while delivering value for the taxpayer.”
But it has refused to rule out bringing back further proposals for ticket office closures (see separate story).
Harper said the proposals “do not meet the high thresholds set by ministers, and so the government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals”.
The Department for Transport (DfT) also refused to rule out future proposals for ticket office closures.
DfT said it aimed to consult on a draft national rail accessibility strategy next year, and had provided £350 million to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations through the Network North plans, which were announced after the prime minister pulled the plug on extending the HS2 high-speed railway north of Birmingham.
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