The government has given the transport industry permission to breach disability access laws for the second time in a month.
A letter sent to rail companies last week by the Department for Transport (DfT) will allow them to continue using inaccessible rail replacement vehicles.
The deadline for providers to stop using older vehicles that do not comply with the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000 (PSVAR) falls at the end of this month.
Accessible transport experts have criticised the industry for failing to prepare for the deadline, despite having 20 years to do so.
But they also say that rail companies have been ignoring their legal duties to provide accessible rail replacement vehicles for years.
Now DfT has written to the rail industry to provide a one-month exemption from PSVAR for buses and coaches used as rail replacement services when train companies need to scrap services because of engineering works or other disruption.
It says in the letter: “We have become aware that there is a significant shortage of PSVAR-compliant vehicles for [train operating companies] to procure in order to provide rail replacement services currently, or from 1st January 2020 onwards.
“In order to address this issue, the Department has decided to offer all operators of public service vehicles for the purposes of carrying out rail replacement services, whether due to planned or unplanned disruption, a temporary exemption from PSVAR.”
The companies will still have to provide accessible and “readily available” alternative transport, such as taxis, if they have to take advantage of the exemption, to “avoid unnecessary and extended waiting periods for passengers who require such alternative accessible transport”.
Campaigners have pointed out previously that offering an accessible taxi is often not an appropriate alternative because of their shortage in most parts of the country.
It is the second time DfT has granted an exemption from PSVAR to the transport industry in less than a month.
During the general election campaign, ministers gave permission to providers of home-to-school services to continue running inaccessible buses and coaches for at least two years, and possibly up to four.
The rail replacement concerns were highlighted earlier this year by accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley (pictured), who forced the rail regulator to take legal advice on whether rail replacement vehicles had to be accessible to disabled people.
That advice 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.
But Paulley said he doubted if there would be enough accessible buses or coaches for rail companies to hire, which would put them at risk of prosecution.
He said this week: “I have been made aware by several small public transport operators of this decision by the DfT.
“The DfT didn’t see fit to tell me, even though it was through me pursuing the issue of accessibility of rail replacement buses that it has come to a head, and even though I have been in active dialogue with the DfT on it over the last several weeks.
“It seems to me extraordinary and utterly unacceptable that they have made the decision in such a manner.
“Rail replacement services should be accessible to everybody. The law is clear that rail replacement services are covered by the regulations; but even if it wasn’t, it is an obvious moral, social model obligation to make services accessible to disabled people – as backed up by statutory guidance specifically requiring the industry work towards such.
“It is a scandal that the industry has been caught with its pants down in this regard, and is now facing a massive scramble to avoid being punished for failure to prepare for this criminal law duty.
“It is even more scandalous that the DfT are bending over backwards to allow this to happen.
“I am concerned what other measures the DfT may be considering, given that the exemption only lasts for one month.
“I am in active conversation with my legal advisors on the issue, considering what actions to take to combat this shameful failure to uphold disabled people’s legal and moral right to the same miserable rail disruption experiences as every other passenger.”
DfT was not able to comment by 1pm today (Thursday).
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