A transport minister has announced £600,000 funding for seven digital projects to help disabled passengers access rail travel, days after her department confirmed another minister had rubber-stamped tens of millions of pounds in cuts to a separate rail access scheme.
Nusrat Ghani, the transport accessibility minister, said this week that the seven “innovative, high-tech schemes” to improve access to rail travel for disabled passengers would share the £600,000 funding.
The successful schemes include a mobile phone app to help station staff prioritise requests for support from disabled passengers; a website to help disabled passengers navigate transport interchanges; a study of how well frontline rail staff understand invisible impairments; and an app that aims to make rail travel easier for users of British Sign Language.
The seven schemes succeeded in a competition run by the Rail Safety and Standards Board.
Ghani said: “I am determined to make sure that our railways are accessible to everyone, and that we remove any barriers faced by people with a disability.”
But her announcement came only days after her own department finally confirmed to Disability News Service that it had rubber-stamped cuts of tens of millions of pounds to its Access for All rail station access improvement programme.
Two years ago, the chair of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy, published a report on “replanning” his organisation’s investment programme for 2014-19 across England and Wales.
He recommended that funding for the Access for All station improvement programme should be cut by nearly £50 million, from £102 million to £55 million (in addition to another £32 million carried over from uncompleted work in 2009-14).
The rest of the funding was to be carried over to 2019-24, but with no guarantee that it would not be used to disguise lower spending on access improvements in future years.
The government had been due to respond to a consultation on Hendy’s report, and last week the Department for Transport (DfT) finally confirmed that it had accepted his recommendations, including the huge cuts to the Access for All programme.
A DfT spokeswoman said: “On the consultation response, it looks like there wasn’t a response published.”
But she pointed to a brief note that has been added to the DfT web page, which says only that “responses to this consultation were considered in the decision to accept Sir Peter Hendy’s plans for re-profiling the rail enhancements portfolio”.
An internet archive website appears to show that this note was only added after 26 May 2018, two years after Hendy’s report was published.
A Network Rail spokesman said that not all its spending on accessibility comes from the Access for All fund.
He said the recent refurbishment of London Bridge station, which included significant access improvements, was funded from the Thameslink programme and not Access for All.
And he said that Network Rail had bid for its Access for All allocation to be higher than £102 million for the next five years. The settlement is due to be announced by DfT later this year.
He said: “Network Rail is committed to working with the Department for Transport and other key stakeholders to create a transport system that works for everyone.
“Improving accessibility in stations – many of which were built in the Victorian era – has been a key objective over recent years.
“But we know more can be done.”
A DfT spokeswoman refused to say how the £600,000 funding would replace the tens of millions of pounds cut from Access for All spending between 2014 and 2019, and how the minister reconciled her determination to “make sure that our railways are accessible to everyone” with those cuts.
But she said in a statement: “These innovative new projects will make a real difference to passengers with disabilities, and help more people travel independently and with confidence.”
She added: “Our Accessibility Action Plan consultation, which sought views on ways to improve travel for disabled people, received over 1,000 responses which we are carefully considering.
“We expect to publish our response – as well as our Inclusive Transport Strategy – later this year.”
Picture: Activists from the Transport for All campaign group with Labour MP Heidi Alexander at Hither Green station in London in 2017 to protest at the Access for All cuts