Network Rail has been forced to admit that it has plans to build 17 inaccessible footbridges across England, Scotland and Wales.
The plans have been described as “profoundly offensive” by one disabled campaigner, with another warning that the new bridges will “bake in” inaccessibility for another 100 years.
The public body, which owns and runs most of the country’s rail infrastructure, has blamed cost factors for its decision to continue building bridges that are likely to breach its legal duties under the Equality Act.
Network Rail has admitted to Disability News Service (DNS) that, in 2022, it built eight new footbridges that are not accessible to wheelchair-users and many others with mobility impairments, and 17 that it considers accessible.
This year, it plans to start work on five more inaccessible footbridges, as well as 14 that will be accessible.
And in 2024, it aims to build four more inaccessible footbridges, and another 14 that are accessible to wheelchair-users and others who cannot use steps.
It has taken three months to secure the information from Network Rail through a freedom of information request.
Network Rail has also admitted breaching its duties under the Freedom of Information Act – the figures should have been provided within 20 working days – and is investigating why it took so long to share the information.
DNS submitted the request earlier this year after reports emerged of Network Rail building inaccessible bridges as a cost-saving measure.
Doug Paulley, who has helped to highlight Network Rail’s plans to build new inaccessible footbridges, including one at Copmanthorpe (pictured), near York, said the figures obtained by DNS were “disturbing and terrible” and that Network Rail “must be stopped”.
He said the decision of Network Rail to build new, inaccessible infrastructure makes it “even more apparent that disabled access is not considered a core requirement but an expensive extra burden which cannot and should not be afforded, which I find profoundly offensive”.
Paulley, a wheelchair-user himself, dismissed the idea that Network Rail gives accessibility the priority disabled people deserve.
He said it appears instead to celebrate projects where it can find an excuse for not making a new structure accessible, rather than reluctantly accepting those “where access is genuinely too difficult”.
He pointed to Highways England’s guidelines for road footbridges, which state: “Access by stairs alone should only be evaluated in exceptional circumstances and with the agreement of local access and disability groups.”
He said: “I should imagine it is every bit, or more, expensive to put accessible footbridges over motorways or trunk roads.
“Yet on the railway, somehow they consider it okay to make their own minds up based on cost.”
Alan Benson, another influential campaigner on access to public transport, and a powerchair-user, said: “I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating.
“The argument is so often that the railway is 150 years old and this limits accessibility, but this shows inaccessibility will be baked in for another 100 years.
“The short-term funding decisions demonstrate how short-sighted this approach is, and show where accessibility falls in the hierarchy of priorities. It’s simply not good enough.”
Network Rail said in its freedom of information response that many of the inaccessible footbridges will be built in the north-west and central region, where electrification work is taking place due to the East West Rail, TransPennine upgrade and HS2 “enhancement” schemes.
It said many of the bridges are in rural locations with “low footfall and no established wheelchair access for persons with reduced mobility”, including cases where “it is simply not financially viable to build new accessible structures”.
It said: “It is not always possible to provide lifts (due to the service requirements) and the cost to include compliant ramps at these locations can add £2m to the project (and considerable environmental impact) when you take into consideration land purchase, additional design and steel fabrication.”
It claimed that all its decisions on building footbridges are informed by diversity impact assessments, and that there was the possibility of adding lifts in the future “should our position or legislation change”.
It also pointed to Department for Transport guidance that says upgraded stations with 1,000 passengers or less a day “are not required to have lifts or ramps where these would otherwise be necessary to provide a step-free route” if there is another station within 50 kilometres on the same route that provides a “fully compliant obstacle-free route”.
Network Rail’s plans emerged as the minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, launched the government’s new Disability Action Plan, which he claims will help to “transform the everyday lives of disabled people across the country” and make the country “the most accessible place in the world for disabled people to live, work and thrive”.
The action plan has already been dismissed as a “PR exercise”, and includes no new spending commitments or promised legislation.
The government is also facing legal action over plans to close hundreds of rail ticket offices across the country (see separate story), proposals which disabled campaigners have warned would have a “disastrous impact” on disabled passengers and “risk locking disabled people out of the rail network entirely”.
Picture: Network Rail
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