The government’s advisers on accessible transport have told ministers they do not believe that their proposals for reforming the rail system will be enough to deliver an accessible railway.
The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) says in its response to a public consultation that it welcomes changes being planned under the government’s rail transformation programme.
But it also says in its response that the government’s plans will not be “sufficient to deliver cultural change or an accessible railway”.
Instead, there will have to be “real commitment to change” that “permeates” every level of Great British Railways (GBR), the new over-arching body that will run the rail system.
The Department for Transport (DfT) consultation on the changes in legislation needed to deliver the government’s rail reforms – which include setting up GBR – closes tonight (Thursday).
Among the planned changes will be a new national rail accessibility strategy; a new national accessible travel policy; and an accessibility duty for GBR that ensures accessibility is considered in everything it does.
But DPTAC says in its response: “We have long advocated that accessibility needs to be at the very core of what the rail industry does in the way that safety is currently.”
It offers about a dozen recommendations for how cultural change might be achieved.
They include linking the pay of GBR executives and board members to the “progressive delivery of an accessible railway”; putting in place a clear way of monitoring accessibility, and ensuring these results are made public; and ensuring more disabled people are employed at all levels of the rail industry.
DPTAC – more than half of whose members are disabled people – also wants to see the agenda of every GBR board meeting include a report on accessibility.
And it points out that funding of the railway system is “crucial”, both to ensure physical improvements to stations and carriages, but also in areas such as staffing.
Last week, Disability News Service reported how another DPTAC report – obtained by The Association of British Commuters (ABC) through a freedom of information request – showed that staffing levels on a section of the rail network were “completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway”.
In its response to the government consultation, DPTAC says: “The lack of a coherent, long-term strategy for improving the accessibility of the rail network defined and managed by a single guiding mind has been a major obstacle to delivering a more accessible railway.
“This has been exacerbated by an often uncoordinated or partially coordinated approach to the implementation of initiatives to improve accessibility, and a complex industry structure that has undermined and weakened the ability of disabled people and their representative organisations to hold the rail industry to account.
“As a result, the railway remains inaccessible to many disabled people, the approach to accessibility is inconsistent across the rail network and practices that are essentially discriminatory allowed to continue unchallenged.”
It concludes: “The scope of our response highlights the challenges that need to be overcome if a true culture of accessibility, akin to that for safety, is to be embedded in the rail industry.
“Change needs to be comprehensive and pervasive for it to be successful.”
DPTAC also says that it supports the plan to expand its role to also become a statutory adviser to GBR, but it calls for it to be able to set out on its website “how it would work in the future with government, GBR, the DfT and other stakeholders, including the extent to which it would make public its advice to these bodies”.
Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All, the disabled-led organisation that campaigns on accessible transport, welcomed the DPTAC response.
He said: “They have highlighted the need to embed accessibility at the heart of the new organisation and that this should form part of the performance metrics.
“If we are to achieve the necessary culture change and progress then there needs to be
“DPTAC have gone some way to suggesting how this could be achieved.
“Essential to improving access on the railway will be the involvement of disabled people and their stakeholders, for which the DPTAC response offers no comment.
“We believe involvement of disabled people will be essential and that this must take the form of proper co-production.”
He added: “The DPTAC response is particularly interesting in the light of their proposed statutory role in the new legislation.
“It offers hope that DPTAC will be able and willing to offer a strong challenge on behalf of
“We expect the transparency shown with the early publication of this response will continue and that DPTAC will have the necessary resource to fulfil their role.”
Emily Yates, co-founder of ABC, which first highlighted the DPTAC consultation response, welcomed its comments and praised its track record of advising DfT.
She said: “Under its outgoing chair Keith Richards, DPTAC has an unbroken record of advising the DfT with integrity and independence.
“For example, over six years of warning the government about ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’ policies of railway destaffing, they have never weakened their position.
“However, the DfT is currently choosing a new chair for DPTAC, as well as reforming the committee under Great British Railways.
“It is vital that this is accompanied by clear safeguards to ensure DPTAC’s independence, including: proper resourcing for it to function autonomously without reliance on the DfT secretariat; and a proactive publishing policy complying with freedom of information obligations.
“As DPTAC itself requests in its consultation response, the rules for publishing and transparency must be clearly set out.
“This is the only way to remove the potential for political pressure, allowing DPTAC to concentrate on its important work and be an effective adviser to Great British Railways.”
Accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley also welcomed DPTAC’s suggestions, but he said the impetus for achieving cultural change, and “full and equal unstressful and straightforward access for disabled people to the railway”, needed to come from the industry and its managers.
He also welcomed DPTAC’s decision to speak out publicly, but said he was “gloomy” about the prospects for genuine change as a result of the government’s reforms, pointing to the “pitifully small amounts of money supposedly devoted to improving stations”.
He said the reforms were being proposed at a time when unions have warned of proposed £2 billion in cuts to spending on the railways, redundancies, concerns over driver-only operation of trains and destaffing of stations.
Paulley said: “These are all issues that are hugely important for disabled travellers, and make me very concerned that we could well be going backwards in terms of accessibility experience.
“I think that the DPTAC commentary is well-timed, apposite and hits the nail on the head.
“Accessibility must not be seen as of secondary importance, and until there is cultural change in the industry, it will continue to be so.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “Improving journeys for disabled passengers and those with additional needs is at the heart of our Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail and we’re committed to building a railway for all.
“A nationwide accessibility audit of our stations is already underway to drive this transformation and we’ve invested £383 million [over five years from 2019 to 2024] into delivering step free routes at over 200 stations, as well as other enhancements at 1,500 stations through our Access for All programme.
“We welcome the feedback provided by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and will review all responses to the consultation in detail before responding fully in due course.”
DfT will consult further on its accessibility proposals.
It has already audited 1,500 of about 2,500 rail stations in Britain, with the findings set to form part of the development of the government’s national rail accessibility strategy.
Picture: Office of Rail and Road
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…