The Department for Transport (DfT) is falling “a very long way short” with its plans to ease the “toxic” impact on disabled people of running driver-only trains through unstaffed stations, according to the government’s own accessible transport advisers.
A letter from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), obtained by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) through a freedom of information request, has revealed DPTAC’s deep concerns about how the government’s rail policies will affect disabled passengers.
DPTAC – most of whose members are disabled people – wrote to two transport ministers after reading a report by consultants Steer, and associated guidance produced by DfT, on how different methods of operating trains affect disabled people.
In the letter (PDF), sent on 9 April, DPTAC chair Keith Richards expresses repeated concerns about the Steer research, and warns that its conclusions should be used only “with extreme caution”.
It warns that the “mitigation” suggested by DfT – based on the research – for situations where there are no rail staff available to assist disabled passengers is “wholly inadequate”.
And the letter reminds the two ministers – Nusrat Ghani and Andrew Jones – of DPTAC’s “frequently-stated concern over staffing levels and, in particular, the potentially toxic combination of driver-only operated [DOO] trains and unstaffed stations”.
The DPTAC letter says the mitigations suggested in DfT’s guidance fall “a very long way short” of the objective of allowing “disabled people to use the rail network on a non-discriminatory basis”.
But the letter does say that the Steer report shows there are “only very limited opportunities” to provide such mitigation if staff are not available either on board the train or at stations to assist disabled passengers.
DPTAC says that the “availability of staff to provide assistance is crucial to the ability of many disabled passengers (and indeed older passengers more generally) to make rail journeys”.
It also warns DfT that it should take legal advice on whether forcing disabled passengers to travel on DOO trains to unstaffed stations would breach the Equality Act and other laws and regulations.
And it calls for a “fundamental review” by DfT to ensure that disabled passengers “are able to use the rail network on a non discriminatory basis”.
Almost 12 months ago, ABC published letters, minutes of meetings and responses to public consultations – again obtained through the Freedom of Information Act – which showed the government had repeatedly ignored warnings from DPTAC about the “toxic combination” of running trains through unstaffed stations without a member of customer service staff on board.
Ann Bates, a leading transport access consultant and former rail chair of DPTAC, told Disability News Service: “I was delighted that DPTAC seem so alert to the dangers reducing staff would have to the frequently and rightly stated aim that disabled passengers should have an equal right to travel as other passengers.
“DPTAC’s letter to the ministers dated 9 April 2019 is entirely correct in stating that, especially in the toxic situation of DOO trains travelling to staffless stations, there would appear to be no easily implemented mitigation available.
“This confirms work that ABC and others have been researching for years in that running trains with well trained staff would be the most pragmatic and reliable way of ensuring access for the full range of passengers with both visible and invisible disabilities.”
ABC’s Emily Yates said: “After three years of rail strikes we’ve had enough of the government’s charade.
“Train operating companies must guarantee the second safety critical member of staff on trains and the Department for Transport must provide the full details of their secret policy [to allow more DOO trains].
“If they fail to do this, both will be complicit in breaching the Equality Act and excluding disabled people from the right to spontaneous travel.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT rail union, said: “RMT has fought the government and the train operating companies tooth and nail to defend a second safety critical member of staff on our trains and we’ve stepped up the campaign to put more staff back in our stations.
“The new rail minister must publish this report, put an end to this disgraceful exercise and put staff back at the heart of a fully accessible railway.”
A DfT spokesperson had refused by noon today (Thursday) to say if the department accepted and understood the concerns about the combination of DOO and unstaffed stations raised by DPTAC, and if it accepted DPTAC’s recommendations to take legal advice on potential breaches of the Equality Act and to carry out a review.
But he said in a statement: “Disabled passengers should have the same opportunities to travel as everyone else, which is why we expect all train operators to have clear plans in place for how they will help passengers who need it.
“We continue to work with DPTAC on this issue and will look to publish the [Steer] report in due course.”
Meanwhile, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published new guidance for the rail industry aimed at improving access to Britain’s railway for older and disabled people.
The new guidance, which follows two public consultations, tells train and station operators what they “must” include in their own Accessible Travel Policies – which are replacing Disabled Persons’ Protection Policies – as well as setting out recommended good practice that those policies “may” also feature.
ORR says operators must set out in their Accessible Travel Policies how they will ensure they spend enough on assisting disabled passengers through the Passenger Assist service.
And it describes how the notice that disabled passengers must give to book assistance in advance must gradually be cut until the minimum is just two hours from 1 April 2022.
ORR says train operators must set out a policy on carrying mobility scooters and “make the reasoning behind their policy clear”, while any policy that excludes some or all scooters or mobility aids “must only be as a result of an evidenced safety or physical restriction”.
And it says train and station operators “must operate a regular forum of disabled passengers, to include users of assisted travel, with whom they consult on accessibility issues”.
They must also ensure that the information on step-free access, assisted travel and the availability of staff help that is included on the station pages of the National Rail Enquiries website is “up to date and accurate”.
The new guidance should make it easier for disabled passengers to receive compensation if the assistance they book in advance fails to be provided, and it should also lead to improved staff training.
Some of the guidance featured in recommendations made by ORR to the Williams Rail Review earlier this month.
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