A government minister has allowed the transport industry its fourth temporary exemption from access laws, allowing it to continue to use inaccessible vehicles for rail replacement services for another nine months.
The concession came in a letter from transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris to the rail industry, released by the government on 30 December.
It will mean train operating companies (TOCs) will still be allowed to use older buses and coaches for rail replacement purposes until the end of September, even if those vehicles do not comply with the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) 2000.
All such vehicles were supposed to comply with the regulations by 31 December 2019, more than a year ago.
The concerns were first raised in 2019 by disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, who forced the rail regulator to take legal advice on whether rail replacement vehicles had to be accessible to disabled people.
The resulting advice from the Office of Rail and Road stated that, with a few minor exceptions, all rail replacement vehicles must be accessible, and the train companies, and their bus or coach providers, were at risk of criminal prosecution if they were not.
If TOCs are unable to source an accessible rail replacement vehicle, and have a “special authorisation” from a transport minister to use an older bus or coach through the temporary exemption, disabled passengers must still be offered an “appropriate alternative”, such as an accessible taxi.
But Paulley has previously pointed out that such alternatives are not as attractive as they seem as they “aren’t spontaneous, reliable, comfortable or sometimes even safe, and their segregated provision is problematic”.
He said this week that he was “unsurprised” by the latest exemption, but also concerned.
He said the rail industry had refused the government permission to release to his lawyers a report showing how many inaccessible rail replacement vehicles were still being used under the exemption.
And he said he viewed the latest announcement of an exemption with “a sort of weary fatalism”.
He added: “This is an unnecessarily long delay. I frankly don’t think that this eight-month exemption is necessary or proportionate.”
Kirsty Hoyle, chief executive of Transport for All, said: “This latest extension only prolongs the stress and anxiety faced by deaf and disabled people when services are inaccessible.
“The further delay is particularly disappointing given that TOCs were meant to transition to accessible vehicles by December 2019.
“How many more extensions are going to be granted?”
She added: “While the rest of the country is ‘building back better’, disabled people deserve more than indefinite extended deadlines and a longer ‘non-accessible period’.
“We must prioritise creating a legacy of accessibility so that disabled people can travel freely and with independence.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport as everyone else, enabling them to travel confidently, easily and without extra cost.
“While progress has been made over the last year, we remain disappointed that fully accessible vehicles cannot yet always be provided for all passengers.
“We have reluctantly agreed that coach and bus operators can apply for another short period of special authorisations to allow services to continue to run during the pandemic whilst we continue to work with the industry on developing longer term solutions.”
Picture by ORR
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