The government has repeatedly ignored concerns raised by its own accessible transport advisers about the “toxic” impact on disabled people of running trains without a member of customer service staff on board, official documents have revealed.
The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) has been warning the Department for Transport (DfT) of its concerns for more than two years, according to letters, minutes of meetings and responses to public consultations.
DPTAC’s warnings have only emerged because of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the rail users’ campaign group The Association of British Commuters.
DPTAC – most of whose members are disabled people – first wrote to a senior DfT civil servant in April 2016 to warn of the “toxic combination of driver-only operated (DOO) trains and unstaffed stations”.
It warned then that such a combination, if there were no customer service staff on the train, was unlawful under the Equality Act.
But DPTAC has continued to raise the issue with the government, with further warnings issued in a response to a consultation in February this year; in its response to the government’s draft transport accessibility action plan; and even – two months ago – in a face-to-face meeting with transport accessibility minister Nusrat Ghani.
Ghani dismissed those concerns in the meeting.
In its response to the draft action plan, DPTAC warned that “the increasing emphasis on technology and automation, and changes in passenger practices, are leading to a reduction in the levels of available customer services that all passengers, particularly disabled people, need and rely on”.
It added: “Our advice is that, trains without a member of customer service staff, combined with unstaffed stations make it impossible to reduce the need to pre-book, and create a ‘toxic’ combination for many disabled people that excludes them from using rail.”
DPTAC called on ministers to “urgently research” whether train operating companies were delivering accessible rail services or were excluding disabled people, and whether DfT’s policies were “acting in a way that undermines the fundamental principle of accessibility”.
But despite DPTAC’s pleas, the government’s new inclusive transport strategy, launched last week, included no measures to address the staffing issue.
In its response in February this year to a consultation on the new Great Western franchise, DPTAC said there were 29 Great Western Railway stations that were unstaffed or only staffed part-time and were served by driver-only operated trains with no regular onboard staff available.
In the meeting with Ghani in May, DPTAC’s Matthew Smith asked the minister if she agreed that rail franchise agreements should ensure there were on-board staff – in addition to the driver – whenever trains call at unstaffed or part-staffed stations.
The notes of the meeting make clear that Ghani did not consider that greater use of DOO trains, alongside other measures to improve access, would have a significant impact on disabled passengers, and that she believed that it was an issue in which DfT’s view “does not follow that of DPTAC’s concerns”.
DPTAC told the minister in response that it believed that “the impact of the combination of DOO and unstaffed stations has not been properly considered and that its advice to the department is that such an evaluation is needed urgently”.
DfT this week refused to answer a series of questions about the documents.
It refused to say whether it agreed with DPTAC that using DOO trains without a member of customer service staff, combined with unstaffed stations, created a “toxic” combination for many disabled people that excluded them from using rail services.
It also refused to say why Ghani dismissed those concerns in her meeting with DPTAC, and why the inclusive transport strategy included no measures to address the rail staffing issue.
DfT also refused to say if it agreed that unstaffed or part-staffed stations served by DOO trains with no regular on-board staff breached the Equality Act.
And it failed to explain why it ignored DPTAC’s call for research on whether this was excluding disabled people from rail travel, and whether its own policies were “acting in a way that undermines the fundamental principle of accessibility”.
Instead of answering the questions, a DfT spokesman issued the following statement: “Disabled passengers must have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society, and it is essential that the services they rely on are accessible and work for them.
“With modern trains the driver is responsible for operating the doors, leaving the second crew member free to spend more time helping passengers, including people who need assistance getting on and off the train.
“The transport secretary has been clear that with a growing railway we need more staff, not fewer.
“On Southern Rail – the only operator to introduce these changes since January 2017 – there are now more trains that run with a second crew member than before the changes were introduced.”
The DfT spokesman also said that train companies must comply with the Equality Act and have a legal obligation to provide equal access to disabled passengers.
And he said they must also publish a disabled people’s protection policy under the terms of their licence, which sets out their plans for disability access and must be approved by the rail regulator.
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