Campaigners have questioned why Conservative ministers and MPs rejected a proposal that would have forced the government to take “reasonable steps” towards making all rail stations in England accessible to disabled people.
The proposed amendment to the government’s levelling-up and regeneration bill would have placed a new duty on the transport secretary to ensure that railway stations meet national accessibility standards.
But the move, proposed by former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron during the bill’s committee stage, was rejected after eight Conservative MPs outvoted Farron and Labour members of the committee.
Farron has been campaigning for access improvements to train stations in his rural Cumbria constituency.
The government’s decision to reject the amendment came after it emerged that the new Elizabeth Line station at Bond Street in the heart of London’s shopping district opened this week after a reported overspend of £570 million.
That overspend is nearly £200 million more than the government is going to spend nationally on its Access for All rail accessibility programme over five years (2019-2024).
Transport access campaigner Tony Jennings, who lives in Cumbria, said the overspend “puts in perspective” the government’s commitment to accessible rail travel.
He believes that £500 million of that overspend would have paid for 125 rail stations to have been made accessible, based on an average £4 million to install two lifts and pay for other access work at a station.
He said this failure would result in “social exclusion for disabled people for decades to come”.
Jennings said: “The amendment, if passed, would have given disabled people hope.
“As it is, I now have no confidence that the barriers will be removed in a reasonable timescale to deliver an inclusive accessible railway that is fit for purpose.”
He added: “The next generation will suffer the consequences of the government not taking accessibility seriously and refusing to invest in equal access.”
“It is outrageous that this issue is being left out of both ‘levelling up’ legislation as well as the government’s plans for rail reform.
“It is a further insult that the government has still not proposed an alternative for the ‘Access for All’ fund, a competitive and non-transparent process that lacks any strategic long-term plan.
“Legislation is the only solution, and this must include compulsory deadlines for station accessibility, an approach that has already been proven successful in making all trains accessible by 2020.
“It’s vital that this is supported by proper investment as part of a strategic plan for the entire network.
“Yet the government continues to evade this issue and oppose progress, despite its obvious failure to advance equality of opportunity in rail travel.
“How can it possibly be justified that disabled people have to wait 100 years for what could easily be done in 10?”
Farron called for the Access for All fund to be “quadrupled in size”, and he told the bill committee: “I am deeply concerned that there are stations throughout our country, but particularly in my community, that are not just slightly inaccessible but totally inaccessible.”
One of the stations he referred to was Staveley in the Lake District, which has 41 steps up to station and so has “zero accessibility”, which he said was “outrageous”.
He said his amendment would prevent “the kind of bidding game that we will always lose because the station is too small”, and he added: “I have no confidence that the government will tackle this issue in a way that reaches small stations that are totally inaccessible.”
Lee Rowley, the housing and planning minister, told him that the government’s rail reforms “seek to transform the railway industry’s understanding of the approach to accessibility”.
He said that, during the 17 years Farron had been an MP – dating back to the Labour government of 2005 – the Department for Transport has spent about £400 million on Access for All funding, delivering step-free routes at more than 200 stations, and smaller-scale access improvements at more than 1,500 stations.
He said he accepted Farron’s point, but he asked him to withdraw his amendment to the bill, and he added: “While recognising that we have much progress to make, I hope we can make further progress in the coming years.”
He and his Conservative colleagues then defeated the proposed amendment to the levelling-up and regeneration bill by eight votes to six.
Picture: Tim Farron speaking to a disabled constituent outside Staveley rail station
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