Rail companies have delayed plans to launch a new mobile phone accessibility app, just days after they were warned that the technology appears to breach their duties under the Equality Act.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) had been set to launch its much-delayed Passenger Assist app, which it hoped would make it easier for disabled passengers to book assistance with train journeys.
Transreport and RDG had been set to launch the app across the railway network last week, nearly three years after originally planned, but days before the launch they were warned that they could face legal action if they went ahead.
Disabled campaigner Doug Paulley told RDG two weeks ago that such a move would breach its duties under the Equality Act.
This is because the app fails to include a way for disabled passengers to book a ticket at the same time as they book assistance, while it also fails to include a way to book a wheelchair space on a train.
Paulley said this would make the widespread use of the app “a retrograde step”.
He said: “Non-disabled people can make all the requisite arrangements for travel in one straightforward transaction by whatever means.
“RDG had the opportunity to finally enable disabled people to do similarly via the app.
“It will be most regrettable if it turns out that it has failed to take up this opportunity.
“I am sad to be forced to threaten such action, but I feel forced by the prospect of such lack of critical functionality in this app.”
Paulley also contacted the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, and reminded it that its own guidance states that train operating companies must make it clear that advance tickets can be bought at the same time as booking assistance via Passenger Assist.
This is possible through a website or by telephone, but the new app would not include such a function.
Paulley also pointed out that it would not be possible to book a wheelchair space at the same time as arranging assistance on the app, which he said was a “significant shortcoming”.
He told ORR: “It feels to me very discriminatory that all non-wheelchair users can book their accommodation on the train interactively in seconds, yet wheelchair users are not afforded this basic ability.”
An RDG spokesperson declined to explain why the launch of the app was postponed, and whether this was related to a possible breach of the Equality Act.
But she said in a statement: “Train operators are investing in new technology to improve accessibility on the railway and ensure passengers get the assistance they need, through the pandemic and beyond.
“We are aiming to release a new app to allow rail users to request assistance via their smartphone soon and are working closely with government to ensure the launch supports the safe return of passengers to the railway following the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“The app will give passengers greater control over their journey, enable passengers to amend their profile easily and make it quicker and easier to request assistance on their journey.
“We are working with Passenger Assist users and industry experts to support evolving additional functionality to the app in future.”
In response to Paulley, ORR said that it did not consider that the app would mean train companies would be in breach of their guidance, if they continued to offer at least one way to request assistance and book tickets at the same time, by phone or through their websites.
ORR also said it understood that the app would “as a matter of course book the wheelchair space, where this is reservable, when a wheelchair user requests assistance with boarding the train” and so a “separate request to book the wheelchair space is therefore unnecessary”.
It continues to refuse to force train companies to allow online booking of wheelchair spaces through its guidance.
But Paulley told ORR in response that it was “particularly regrettable that this new, centralised, much-vaunted app, marketed as being intended to be a centralised one-stop solution for disabled people, simply doesn’t have this functionality” and that it “doesn’t appear on the roadmap at all”.
And he said that the app simply triggering a request for a member of staff to book the wheelchair space “doesn’t do what I need”.
He said this was already available through website booking, and he added: “I don’t know if the space is available or booked to me unless and until I get the confirmation through; and then quite often it isn’t booked or is erroneous.”
An ORR spokesperson told Disability News Service in a statement: “We want all passengers to be able to travel safely with confidence and ease.
“Any new technology that helps facilitate booking assistance is to be welcomed.
“We’ve discussed the new Passenger Assist app with the Rail Delivery Group throughout its development to understand how it might benefit both passengers and staff when fully launched.”
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