New figures released through the Freedom of Information Act have exposed how the government has slashed spending on its rail station access improvement programme over the last five years.
The figures show spending on the Access for All scheme fell from as much as £81.1 million in 2013-14 to just £14.6 million last year.
The figures were released in a freedom of information response by Network Rail to Disability News Service just a day before the government published its new Inclusive Transport Strategy.
Further information in the strategy suggests that the cuts are set to continue this year and next year, apparently with funding of less than £40 million over those two years.
But the strategy also shows that Network Rail’s pleas for more funding for the Access for All programme appear to have been successful, with spending due to rise to up to £50 million a year over the following five years, as well as an additional £50 million in deferred funding.
The strategy repeatedly states that this total will be “up to £300 million”, suggesting that it could be lower.
DNS has previously revealed that tens of millions of pounds had been cut from funding for the Access for All programme for 2014-19, but this is the first time that the impact of those cuts on year-to-year spending on station access improvements has been revealed.
The freedom of information response shows that spending in 2009-10, the last year of the Labour government, was £53.9 million, falling to £41.2 million in 2010-11, then £50.7 million in 2011-12, £39.7 million in 2012-13, and £81.1 million in 2013-14.
But spending then plunged over the next four years – in the first five-year planning period to begin under the coalition – with just £22.9 million in 2014-15, £24.6 million in 2015-16, £32.1 million in 2016-17 and just £14.6 million last year.
Spending on a new mid-tier programme, which began in 2011-12, for projects costing between £250,000 and £1 million also plunged, from £18.8 million in 2013-14, to £7.1 million in 2014-15, and dropping to as low as £0.9 million in 2017-18.
Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All (TfA), the user-led organisation which campaigns for an accessible transport system in London, said: “TfA is on record as saying that it’s shameful that the Access for All programme was ram-raided to support cuts elsewhere in Network Rail.”
But he said the figures now made “abundantly clear” the “scale of the impact”.
He said the investment of £300 million “after so many years of cuts and deferments” was “very encouraging”.
But he added: “All over the country, projects are fully planned and eager to proceed.
“An early injection of capital could see these projects rapidly changing the travel experience for the better for many, not just disabled and older people.
“Ultimately the promise of jam tomorrow is just that, a promise. Transport for All wants to see tangible improvements as soon as possible.”
A Network Rail spokesman declined to say if his organisation believed that the cuts to Access for All funding had led to five or six years wasted years in which many other substantial access improvement projects could have been carried out at rail stations across the country.
But he said in a statement: “Network Rail welcomes the government’s announcement of £300 million additional funding for the Access for All programme.
“Network Rail is committed to making the network more accessible and looks forward to working with the Department for Transport, train operators and local communities to identify suitable schemes.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) refused to defend the critical drop in spending on Access for All from 2014-15 or to confirm that spending would be less than £40 million in total this year and next.
Instead, a DfT spokesman said: “We remain committed to improving accessibility across all modes of transport, and have today announced £300 million of funding to further extend the Access for All programme.
“This is part of our work towards achieving a genuinely inclusive transport network, which meets the needs of all people, regardless of whether they are disabled or not.”
Network Rail has previously said that not all access improvements come through the Access for All programme, as some are funded through large mainstream schemes, such as the redevelopment of London Bridge station and the building of new Crossrail stations.
Apart from the increased funding for Access for All, the government’s new strategy offers almost no new money to improve accessible transport.
There will be £2 million for a new “public awareness campaign” to “promote ways of positively interacting with disabled people” on public transport and reduce disability hate crime; £2 million for new Changing Places toilets at motorway service areas in England; and £2 million to speed up the rollout of new audio-visual equipment on buses.
The strategy also includes pledges on improved “disability awareness” training for staff; improved data on inclusivity; and a warning for public transport operators that they face potential legal action if they fail to fulfil their obligations under the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty.
It also calls on local authorities to halt all Shared Space street developments that are still at the design stage while the government reviews and updates guidance, and it says DfT will temporarily withdraw its current guidance on shared space.
The strategy says the government’s “aspiration” is that by 2030 “all major transport hubs and terminals on both public and private transport networks will meet the needs of disabled people, including toilet and changing facilities, straightforward signage, audio and visual messaging and space to navigate”.
But the strategy also makes clear that many potentially controversial or difficult decisions – including whether to impose mandatory insurance on users of mobility scooters, whether to expand the blue badge scheme, what action to take to ensure priority use for the wheelchair spaces in buses for wheelchair-users, whether to tighten laws on local authorities and wheelchair-accessible taxis, and how to ensure better levels of staffing on the railways – have yet to be taken or have been quietly ignored.
Benson said Transport for All welcomed the “very challenging goals” set out in the new strategy, which he said were “much needed”.
He added: “We look forward to seeing the details on how they are planning to make transport in this country fully accessible by 2030 and seeing details of the investments that will back it.
“We also hope that the Inclusive Transport Strategy will meet our demands for a transport system that everyone can use.
“Whilst this strategy represents a significant step in the right direction, the intentions are only as good as the changes that result, so we look forward to seeing the milestones and targets by which these words will be judged.”
Picture: Activists from the Transport for All campaign group with Labour MP Heidi Alexander at Hither Green station in London in 2017 to protest at Access for All cuts
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