The new chair of the committee that advises the government on accessible transport must stand up to ministers over their rail reforms and plans to close ticket offices and cut staff, say disabled campaigners.
The Department for Transport (DfT) announced this week that it had appointed Matthew Campbell-Hill – a technology and media consultant and retired international wheelchair fencer – as the new chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC).
He is not well-known in the accessible transport community and does not appear to have experience in the rail sector.
This is likely to worry some disabled campaigners because of ongoing concerns about the government’s controversial rail reforms, and its plans to close ticket offices and cut staff across the network.
Only this week, campaigners from across the country converged on Downing Street to warn the prime minister that his government’s “extremely dangerous” rail reforms would cause “mass exclusion” for disabled people (see separate story).
Following Campbell-Hill’s appointment, a series of campaigners called on him to stand up to the government over its rail reforms.
Emma Vogelmann, policy and public affairs manager for the disabled-led accessible transport campaign group Transport for All, said: “It is really encouraging that the new chair of DPTAC is a disabled person.
“We know that centring disabled people’s voices and lived experience is absolutely paramount to making an accessible transport network, and the new chair of DPTAC is ideally situated to help bring this vision about.
“But in order for real change to happen for our community, DPTAC must stand up to this government.
“The planned closure of 1,000 ticket offices across the country, the de-staffing of stations, and the movement towards driver-only operations on rail will be catastrophic for disabled people.
“Travelling by train will become inaccessible and unsafe for millions, shutting many of us out of the rail network completely.
“Now more than ever, as the government pushes ahead with these backwards ‘reforms’, we need a vocal and independent body to hold them to account.”
Disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, who has played a key role in holding the industry and ministers to account over their accessible transport failures, said: “It is great to see a new disabled chair at DPTAC.
“I hope the chair pressurises the Department for Transport even more on the substantial issues for disabled people in the current rail reform proposals, especially destaffing.
“The government must be stopped in its goal of shutting every ticket office in Britain, which would have a disastrous and disproportionate impact on disabled people – closing toilets and heated waiting rooms, making staff assistance unavailable and affecting our safety.
“The chair is in a prime position to challenge this, and I hope he does so, with the improved transparency and co-working promised by his predecessor.”
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and co-founder of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said: “Certainly the new DPTAC chair has to be held to account and be a voice for disabled people and pressure DfT and Great British Railways [the new over-arching body that will run the rail system] to take accessibility and inclusion seriously and to deliver the funding and investment required to deliver a railway that’s fit for our purpose and works for everyone.”
He also welcomed the decision to appoint a disabled person as the new DPTAC chair, as he said the committee “needs to be led by disabled people”.
Last October, Matthew Smith, a key member of the committee, quit his role after accusing ministers of backing policies on de-staffing the rail network that discriminate against disabled rail passengers, and ignoring DPTAC’s advice.
Smith told ministers then that the government’s already discriminatory staffing policies looked set to get “drastically worse” if it went ahead with plans for mass ticket office closures.
In his resignation letter, he said DPTAC had repeatedly warned DfT about the “toxic combination of driver-only trains and unstaffed stations” and urged it to secure legal advice.
Emily Yates, co-founder of The Association of British Commuters (ABC), said the new chair had vital issues to address, particularly around rail reform and the committee’s own need for change.
She said: “DPTAC is badly in need of reform to ensure it is independent, transparent, and properly resourced.
“The use of non-disclosure agreements for some members, and failure to publish documents deemed too ‘political’, cannot continue.
“It is very concerning that DPTAC has made no official publications on its concerns about destaffing, despite years of freedom of information requests proving the existence of these formal warnings to the DfT.
“The new chair will inherit these issues and should treat them with the highest possible priority.
“The problem, as seen by the recent protest resignation of a key DPTAC member, is that when such an important committee chooses to stay silent, that silence serves to legitimise government plans.
“DPTAC members have historically been known to have had a huge amount of expertise on public transport, especially rail, and this knowledge would be invaluable if the committee became fully empowered and transparent.”
Campbell-Hill currently serves as a non-executive director at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, a DfT agency, where he chairs the health, safety and wellness committee and leads on advice on self-driving vehicles.
He previously held a non-executive director position at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
He said in a statement this week: “As a seasoned traveller with lived experience of disability, I am looking forward to working with the excellent team in place to help them continue to share their expertise with the government.
“The transport landscape has rapidly evolved in recent years, and I am passionate about leveraging this momentum to improve accessibility and inclusiveness across the UK’s transport network.
“I would like to thank Keith Richards [who chaired the committee for more than eight years before announcing his resignation last year] for his tireless efforts ensuring that all disabled people and their carers have had representation at the highest political levels.”
When DNS asked for an interview with the new chair, a DfT spokesperson said: “Thanks for your interest.
“Matthew is currently getting stuck into the role but we’ll certainly consider yourself for interviews in the near future.”
Richard Holden, the transport minister with responsibility for accessibility, said in a statement: “Everyone deserves the right to get from A-to-B with ease and DPTAC plays a vital role helping us ensure equal access to travel in the UK.
“I’m delighted to welcome Matthew as the new chair. His background speaks for itself in his breadth of experience and I look forward to working closely with him in the coming months.”
Meanwhile, disabled television presenter Sophie Morgan has launched a campaign to demand new powers for the Civil Aviation Authority to fine airlines and other organisations if they fail to look after disabled passengers and their equipment.
The Loose Women star, a wheelchair-user and frequent international traveller, has launched the Rights on Flights campaign with Disability Rights UK and Marion Fellows, the SNP’s disability spokesperson in Westminster.
Morgan recently had her wheelchair and other mobility equipment badly damaged on a flight between Los Angeles and London.
The #RightsOnFlights campaign is calling for airlines and other organisations to be held accountable for damage to wheelchairs and other essential mobility devices, and when they leave disabled passengers on flights for a prolonged period after the flight has landed, and when they fail to provide adequate assistance despite being told in advance of the passenger’s needs.
Picture: Matthew Campbell-Hill (right) talks to transport accessibility minister Richard Holden
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