The rail minister has delivered a blunt warning to the industry that it needs to start acting on its legal commitments to disabled passengers under the Equality Act.
Chris Heaton-Harris, who is also responsible for transport accessibility issues, said it was “bizarre” that there were still trains on the rail network that were not accessible to disabled people.
Speaking to a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on disability on Tuesday, Heaton-Harris (pictured) said: “Lots of the transport industry seems to think that disability acts or equality acts didn’t necessarily mean that they had to do anything, which is one of the bizarre reasons that we still have trains on our network that are unsuitable.”
He said that he had had to grant exemptions to transport providers to allow them to continue to use such trains on the network, but he warned that he would stop doing this “very, very soon”.
He added: “I am trying to give the message to all of those in transport that the law applies to them too and they really do need to be better.”
His comments appear to be a reference to temporary exemptions he granted in late 2019 that allowed train operating companies to continue to use about 1,200 inaccessible rail carriages, roughly eight or nine per cent of the national fleet.
The rail industry had been set a legal deadline to provide accessible trains for every passenger and every journey by 31 December 2019.
But in a letter to the industry in December 2019, Heaton-Harris said he had “reluctantly” agreed to issue the temporary exemptions because if “all non-compliant trains [were] removed from service there would be a disproportionately negative effect on the provision of services for passengers”.
The industry was put on notice as long ago as 1995 that it would need to ensure its services were accessible to disabled people, through the first Disability Discrimination Act.
Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All, the user-led charity which campaigns on accessible transport in London, said in January 2020 that the extensions were “outrageous and convey the message to disabled people that their rights to travel are not a priority”.
And accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley said then that the exemptions were “shocking” and that it was “a disgrace” and “an insult to disabled people” that the rail industry had missed the deadline.
He said the blame was shared between train operating companies, the government, Network Rail, train manufacturers and rolling-stock companies.
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