Transport secretary Mark Harper has dismissed concerns that plans to close hundreds of ticket offices across England will have a negative impact on disabled people’s right to “turn up and go” rail travel.
Even though the proposals are set to lead to more than 2,300 redundancies among rail staff, Harper insisted that the closures would improve disabled people’s access to rail travel.
His comments came as two disabled campaigners applied for a judicial review of consultations on the plans to close nearly 1,000 ticket offices across England, which they believe could leave many disabled people unable to use the rail network.
Sarah Leadbetter and Doug Paulley say the consultations were unlawful and unfair as they did not give people – particularly disabled people – the opportunity to respond “meaningfully” to the proposals.
They are challenging “multiple, serious flaws” in the consultations carried out by four publicly-owned train operating companies: London North Eastern Railway, Northern Trains, South East Trains – which trades as Southeastern – and TransPennine Trains.
Leadbetter and Paulley want any decision to close ticket offices based on the results of these consultations to be quashed.
Meanwhile, Harper (pictured, left) was speaking this week at a fringe event organised by the Rail Industry Association at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
Disability News Service (DNS) had asked him what his level of commitment was to “turn up and go” rail travel for disabled passengers and why the government had not done more to protect that right through the closure proposals.
But Harper said he was “not sure that’s got anything to do with ticket offices at all”, before adding: “In fact, I’d say quite the opposite.”
He said he and rail minister Huw Merriman “want to see people moved out of ticket offices into the station so they are better able to help customers that require assistance, like disabled people, the more vulnerable customers”.
DNS reported two months ago that a template drawn up by Harper’s department as part of the consultation process failed to ask the train companies in its access section how they would preserve the right of disabled people to turn up and go assistance that does not need to be booked in advance.
DNS has also reported how campaigners have warned that disabled people’s right to enjoy spontaneous travel on the rail network is under “serious threat” because of the planned closures.
But Harper dismissed any concerns that the closures would have a negative impact on disabled people’s right to turn up and go travel.
He said that, for any proposed closures that come to him for a final decision – if the passenger bodies and train operating companies cannot reach agreement – “one of the things that will be important to me when I make a decision on this is about the impact on disabled and vulnerable passengers”.
He said: “I want to make sure that disabled people are able to use our rail network at least as well as they can at the moment.”
And he said train operating companies had had to carry out equality impact assessments as part of their proposals.
Harper, a former minister for disabled people, said: “I take my responsibilities to improve [disabled people’s] opportunities and life chances very seriously indeed.”
In answer to a question from Ben Clatworthy, transport correspondent for The Times, he also repeated the pledge made by Merriman that “those stations that are currently staffed, the expectation is that they should not become unstaffed as a result of any of the proposals from the train operating companies”.
He said that was “one of the things that we will use to test proposals if any proposals come before me when I am making decisions about them”.
Analysis by disabled campaigners and DNS of the consultation documents issued by the train companies showed that at least three of them were planning to move some stations from being staffed part-time to relying on mobile teams that cover a group of local stations.
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