The government’s independent advisers on accessible transport have called for billions more pounds to be invested in removing the “deeply-rooted barriers” disabled people face across the rail system.
The report by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) calls for accessibility to be “embedded into the core of what the railway does in the same way that safety is currently”.
Its recommendations are described by its members as “very ambitious, aspirational, and crucially, we believe, deliverable”.
It warns that the rail network remains “substantially inaccessible for many disabled people”, and although it is upbeat about progress on the accessibility of trains, it concludes that rail stations “remain a very considerable distance from anything even approaching full accessibility”.
An initial draft of the Working Towards A Fully Accessible Railway report appears to have been completed in late 2020, but the final report was not handed to the Department for Transport (DfT) until late last year, and it was published quietly this week.
DPTAC says the report was made available to the government as it was drawing up last summer’s much-criticised National Disability Strategy.
Keith Richards, DPTAC’s chair, told Disability News Service (DNS) that the paper was available to DfT “throughout the process of developing the government’s National Disability Strategy and associated funding bids that arose during that period”.
Despite the report’s recommendations, the strategy – which last month was declared to be unlawful by a high court judge – announced only a nationwide accessibility audit of mainline rail stations, rather than substantial new funding.
The paper was also published 10 days after the closure of a government call for evidence on its Whole Industry Strategic Plan for Rail (WISP), which closed on 4 February, and was supposed to “help shape the Strategic Plan and the future of the railway”.
Two other DPTAC reports that called for urgent action on accessibility were also released this week.
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 also a leading accessible transport campaigner, praised DPTAC for its “utterly excellent” report.
But he said it was “very worrying and disappointing that the government has treated disabled people’s needs with complete contempt, particularly when it requires any investment”.
The DPTAC paper reveals that its members had been arguing for two years that accessibility “needs to be seen as a fundamental requirement of a successful railway”, and that the “current culture, structure and regulatory/commercial framework” of the rail industry were “unlikely to deliver” a “fully accessible railway”.
It describes the access barriers facing disabled rail passengers, with only one in five stations providing step-free access between street and platforms to “new-build standards”, fewer than two per cent of stations having level access between train and platform, only 35 per cent of stations having accessible toilets, and just 64 per cent having handrails on both sides of all stairs and ramps.
The report estimates that it would cost about £6 billion to upgrade all stations to “new-build standards of step-free access”.
At current rates of investment, it would take about 100 years for this to be achieved, and it concludes that there is “no escaping the simple fact that significantly more investment is required”.
It suggests an initial 2040 deadline to upgrade all stations to a “reasonable level of step-free access”, with a second phase deadline of 2060 for upgrading most stations to new-build standards of step-free access.
Other issues, such as the gap between trains and platforms, and the lack of accessible toilets and heated waiting-rooms, could be addressed in a long-term strategy.
The DTAC paper also calls for “turn up and go” assistance to be available at “virtually all stations”.
DPTAC says there must be “transformational change” in the culture of the rail industry, with recommendations including improvements to disability equality training and relationships between the industry and disabled people, and for more disabled people to be employed within the rail sector.
It also calls for a single body to be responsible for enforcing a new regulatory code on accessibility, replacing the “current fragmented approach”, and collecting and publishing data that showed progress towards a “fully accessible railway”.
Richards said yesterday: “Things have been moving very fast in the rail reform arena, although slowed by the impacts of the pandemic, so we have kept our focus on what changes are most likely to actually deliver better access to disabled people in their daily lives in the short, medium and longer terms.”
In response to questions from DNS on why it had taken so long for the report to be published, when the date at the end of the report was November 2020, he said the paper was “a long-evolving position statement that DPTAC has been developing over the last few years as part of its input to the Williams Rail Review which began in 2018.
“DPTAC’s role is to advise DfT on access to transport, and as the document went through a number of iterations, it was shared widely with the Williams Rail Review team and DfT officials at all levels and benefitted from extensive engagement”.
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and a disability rights campaigner and member of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said the paper demonstrated the continuing access problems within the rail industry.
Jennings, himself a mobility scooter-user, said: “It’s not like the industry hasn’t been told this re funding and taking accessibility seriously and setting reasonable access timescales countless times, and DfT offers crumbs in reply.
“Disabled people don’t need another toothless, unfunded rail access strategy from the government that changes nothing and doesn’t explain how they’re going to achieve an inclusive accessible railway that is safer and enables independent travel and benefits everyone.
“We need cross-party agreement and long-term funding to deliver level boarding and accessible stations in a reasonable timescale, else we’ll be having the same conversation in 20 years’ time.
“Accessibility needs to be taken seriously.”
Alan Benson, another leading campaigner on accessible transport, and chair of Transport for All (TfA), although speaking personally and not for TfA, said the DPTAC paper “captures much of the failings of our railways for disabled people, and proposes some concrete and workable solutions.
“These will need commitment across the industry and most challenging from current and future governments.
“We know past targets have been missed but aspiration is key.”
He said it was “regrettable” that the report was published after the WISP consultation ended, as “many people would have found this useful in preparing their responses”.
The government also published two other DPTAC reports this week, both of which were critical of progress on improving accessibility of the rail network.
In the report, DPTAC says it was “very surprised” that ORR’s open letter “did not contain a single specific reference to accessibility”, despite the “crucial importance of providing targeted funding to address the inaccessibility of much of the station estate”.
The other DPTAC report responds to a review of rail “interoperability” regulations – designed to ensure trains and rail infrastructure are compatible.
In its report, DPTAC again refers to the need for “significantly more investment” to make rail stations accessible.
It warns that the current design standards code of practice on accessible rail stations “has not proved to be effective at ensuring that station rebuilds/upgrades and new-builds comply with the required design standards”, which it blames on ORR being “not sufficiently well-resourced to monitor and enforce compliance”.
It also highlights how the complexity of the system makes it “difficult for disabled people and their representative bodies to hold the rail industry and specific organisations within it to account” on accessibility.
A DfT spokesperson said: “More than 75 per cent of passenger journeys are now through stations with step free access compared with less than 50 per cent in 2005.
“This is in conjunction with over £400 million of investment to the Access for All programme, delivering step free routes at over 100 more stations with tactile platform edges at every station in Great Britain over the next three years.
“We have also started the first comprehensive access audit of every station in the country, as we look to greatly improve passenger information and assistance booking.”
Picture by Office of Rail and Road
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