The government has promised to publish its first “robust” national strategy to improve the accessibility of the rail network.
The pledge came in its new white paper, which aims to “transform the railways in Great Britain”.
There was little or no publicity or further detail around the pledge, but the white paper – which the government is calling the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail – promises to make travelling by rail a “modern, convenient and accessible experience for passengers” with “more fully accessible trains and stations”.
At present, only about one in five stations have step-free access to all platforms, according to the white paper.
The plan promises that “realtime updates on station accessibility” will be rolled out at stations, on trains and directly to passengers through third-party providers, which will “help people know whether lifts are working, how busy a service may be and where the most accessible point of a platform is”.
Much of the government’s efforts to publicise the new rail white paper have focused on the plan to set up a new public body, Great British Railways (GBR), that will own the rail infrastructure, collect fare revenue, run and plan the network, and set most fares and timetables.
But the white paper also says that GBR will be given a statutory duty to improve the accessibility of the rail system.
There will be a “comprehensive audit” of the accessibility of the rail network, which the white paper says will provide “robust, consistent and detailed information” that will be made publicly available and will be regularly updated.
The white paper says the national accessibility strategy will provide “the first robust, joined up, system-wide approach to accessibility, including getting to, from and around stations and on and off trains”.
The need for this promise appears to be an admission of failure, three years after the publication of the government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy (PDF), which itself pledged to “make our transport system more inclusive, and to make travel easier for disabled people”.
The white paper says that the different sources of funding for improving access will be pooled into a single accessibility fund, which will “serve a new long-term investment programme that will allow investment to be prioritised where it is most needed, using data from the accessibility audit to enable the national accessibility strategy’s goals to be delivered”.
The white paper was published as the Department for Transport (DfT) re-launched It’s Everyone’s Journey, a campaign which aims to raise awareness about the needs of disabled people when using public transport, and to persuade other passengers to “create a more supportive travelling environment”.
The campaign was first launched in February 2020 but had to be put on hold because of the pandemic.
Its initial launch was met with a reminder that – although other passengers’ attitudes are important – the “fundamental barriers complained about by disabled people are inaccessible infrastructure (for example lack of level boarding), inadequate staffing and attitudinal issues by service providers”.
Doug Paulley, who has played a significant role in highlighting discrimination across the transport industry, repeated that warning this week, suggesting that the campaign “won’t make any difference on the ground and the DfT could do a lot more effective things if they wanted to”.
The campaign launch comes only two months after Disability News Service reported how a disabled woman who was left stranded on trains and station platforms more than 30 times by a rail company had been awarded £17,000 compensation.
Katie Pennick, campaigns lead at the user-led charity Transport For All, which campaigns for older and disabled people in London, said: “Transport for All welcomes any campaign that shines a spotlight on the many barriers disabled people face to accessing transport.
“In light of the devastating impact of COVID-19, we are pleased that there is additional focus on support for disabled people who have been disproportionately affected.”
But she said the government must continue its work on its Inclusive Transport Strategy “and the many vital infrastructure changes that are required”.
She said: “No amount of public goodwill and patience will increase access for disabled people for whom our network is physically inaccessible.”
Pennick added: “We recently worked with DfT to produce a series of Guidance for Frontline Staff documents, which we hope will support transport staff to provide a more accessible service as disabled passengers return to networks.
“We are looking for tangible commitments, actions, and direct outcomes such as these, which will have a meaningful impact on the daily experience of disabled people on transport across the UK.”
Meanwhile, the rail industry has finally launched its much-delayed Passenger Assistance mobile phone app, which it hopes will make it easier and quicker for disabled people to request assistance for their train journeys.
Although the app will offer passengers the choice to request assistance, update their own details and review their journeys, it has been criticised for failing to allow disabled passengers to book a ticket or a wheelchair space at the same time as they book assistance.
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