Publication of a report that called on ministers to invest billions of pounds in removing access barriers to the rail system was delayed by the government for nearly a year, emails released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.
The delay meant the report by the government’s independent advisers on accessible transport was not published until February this year, six months after the publication of last summer’s National Disability Strategy.
The strategy – later declared unlawful by a high court judge – announced only a nationwide accessibility audit of mainline rail stations, rather than the substantial new funding called for in the report by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC).
The DPTAC report was finally released on 14 February 2022, 10 days after the closure of a government call for evidence on its Whole Industry Strategic Plan for Rail (WISP), which was supposed to “help shape the Strategic Plan and the future of the railway”.
DPTAC’s chair, Keith Richards, had previously told Disability News Service (DNS) that the reason the paper was not published earlier was because it was “a long-evolving position statement that DPTAC has been developing over the last few years”.
But emails released to DNS under the Freedom of Information Act show that DPTAC had called in March 2021 for its Working Towards a Fully Accessible Railway report to be published.
In one email to a Department for Transport (DfT) civil servant, someone from DPTAC* said on 5 March 2021: “I checked the DPTAC website earlier today and found that our paper on ‘Working towards a fully accessible railway’ isn’t currently on the website.
“As it has been in the public domain for some considerable time this seems somewhat anomalous.”
Another email the same day, also apparently from someone at DPTAC, said: “So if you can get this ‘officially’ published asap that would be great.”
There are further discussions about timings and adding footnotes, and a suggestion on 31 March 2021 that the report should be published “in a couple of weeks” and “certainly” before the publication of the Williams Rail Review white paper, which was eventually released on 20 May 2021.
After that, there were apparently no further discussions about the DPTAC report – which remained officially unpublished – until it was mentioned in another exchange of emails in November and December.
The report was eventually published on 14 February 2022.
As well as the call for about £6 billion to upgrade all stations to “new-build standards of step-free access”, the DPTAC report said that only one in five stations provided step-free access between street and platform to new-build standards, and fewer than two per cent of stations had level access between train and platform.
At current rates of investment, upgrading all stations to new-build step-free access standards would take about 100 years, and the report concluded that there was “no escaping the simple fact that significantly more investment is required”.
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and a disability rights campaigner and member of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said: “Regrettably, the government intentionally delaying publication of the DPTAC report on Working Towards a Fully Accessible Railway displayed a lack of transparency and was a breach of trust.
“In future it is essential that culture changes under Great British Railways (GBR)**, enabling the value of partnership with disabled people to flourish, ensuring inclusion and accessibility sit at the heart of the decision-making process.”
He said the delayed publication of the DPTAC report meant that disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and train companies’ accessibility panels “did not have the opportunity to include the report’s findings in the National Disability Strategy or the WISP call for evidence”.
He said the DPTAC report “clearly demonstrated” that the methodology used by the government to award funding for rail infrastructure access improvements under its Access for All programme “isn’t fit for purpose and significant investment is required now”.
And he said that the report highlighted that “an inclusive, accessible railway is affordable and it is in the government’s gift if they take accessibility seriously”.
Richards said this week that an earlier version of the DPTAC report had already been released in November 2020 through a freedom of information request by The Association of British Commuters.
But although a blog about the release included a link to the report, the post focused solely on unstaffed stations and driver-only trains and made no reference to the report’s calls for billions of pounds in funding for access improvements.
Richards said that DPTAC’s “priority” had been to deliver advice “at the right time to the right people” within DfT rather than publishing the report.
He told DNS: “To this end we had developed our thoughts and set these out in the paper, which we shared with the review team quite early on in the Williams review process.
“As the rail reform discussions were moving at pace, the clear priority was then to focus our limited resources on engagement with the review team to make sure that the advice we were providing was being heard and hopefully listened to.”
He added: “Following-on from the review, our advice was shared widely with DfT officials (including the Cabinet Office during the development of the National Disability Strategy), ministers, our counterparts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and other stakeholders.
“Again, our priority was effective engagement in the context of our role as statutory advisors.
“From the perspective of someone outside of the department, it may well look as if the delay in publication of the report was deliberate and that, as a result, our advice to officials and ministers came too late to influence policy, but as we have highlighted above this was not the case.
“The length of time before final publication reflected DPTAC’s own choice to prioritise engagement over publication, including the original intention to publish in March 2021, which was overtaken by events; principally the publication of the railways’ white paper.”
But Doug Paulley, one of four disabled people who took a legal case against the government that led to the National Disability Strategy being declared unlawful, and a leading accessible transport campaigner, said he was sure that DPTAC was “being very forthright and forthcoming in their representations to government”.
But he said that Richards “seems to miss the point that the failure to publish the paper sooner means that it was not available to other organisations and people” to inform their responses to WISP and the government on accessibility.
He said: “Not only does this fail to empower others working towards the same cause, it fails to take an opportunity for DPTAC to amplify their own voice in the government by their report being quoted by others.”
Paulley, who has previously praised the “utterly excellent” report, said he believed DPTAC was “very direct, accurate and uncompromising in stating exactly what effect the government’s and rail industry’s approach is having on disabled passengers, and what needs to happen”.
But he said that, on this occasion, “they did other disabled transport rights campaigners and groups an active disservice in not publishing the report which could have been of great use to us all, particularly given the National Disability Strategy and industry review consultation”.
He added: “Everyone agrees that we’re not going to fix access on the railway overnight. All parties involved are going to have to work together to achieve it.”
He said that initiatives such as access panels set up by train operating companies and “open communication” from the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), were “starting to build this trust with disabled people”.
But he said that other stakeholders were “not showing the same commitment”.
He said: “Government is talking the talk, for example with the Inclusive Transport Strategy, but errors like this report undermine the good words.
“We have also repeatedly seen good ministers, in Nus Ghani and Chris Heaton-Harris, removed from their post just as they get to grips with the portfolio.
“These actions undermine that building of trust.
“If there’s going to be proper consultation and even co-production going forward, there needs to be a level playing-field.
“When government, or any other stakeholder, withholds information like this the balance of power changes, and not in favour of disabled people.”
*All the names in the emails were redacted
**GBR is the new state-owned public body that will oversee rail transport in Britain from 2023
Picture by ORR
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