New rules published by the rail regulator could push the industry to take the need to provide accessible rail replacement vehicles more seriously, but they have been branded “too little, too late” by a leading disabled campaigner.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published the updated rules yesterday, the latest stage in the industry’s response to a legal action brought by accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley.
His judicial review forced ORR last year to take legal advice on whether alternative vehicles provided for rail passengers during disruption such as engineering work had to be accessible to disabled people.
That advice stated that, with a few minor exceptions, all rail replacement vehicles must be accessible, and the train companies, and their bus or coach providers, were at risk of criminal prosecution if they were not.
Now, in response to that advice, and following a public consultation, ORR has produce an updated version of the rules it sets for train and station operators.
They will now have to ensure they take “appropriate steps” to secure accessible vehicles from bus and coach companies, particularly during planned engineering work on the rail network.
They will also have to improve passenger information during rail disruption to ensure “passengers know where and when accessible buses and coaches will be operated”; and make it clearer that, if needed, passengers must be offered an “appropriate alternative” to an inaccessible bus or coach, such as an accessible taxi.
If there is a planned disruption to the rail network, ORR now says that waiting times for rail replacement services should be similar for disabled people using taxis or other alternatives, compared with non-disabled people using inaccessible buses or coaches.
But the new rules will not solve the shortage of accessible buses and coaches available to the rail industry.
Because of this shortage, ministers have twice been forced to extend an industry exemption from access laws which allows rail companies – by applying for a “special authorisation” from a transport minister – to continue to use older buses and coaches even if they do not comply with the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) 2000.
The latest exemption stretches until the end of this year.
The new ORR rules highlight the legal requirement for rail replacement bus and coach services to comply with PSVAR unless a special authorisation is obtained from the minister. Failure to comply with PSVAR is a criminal offence.
Paulley said the new rules were “a step forward” and “broadly positive” but were “too little, too late”, and he said there was still a shortage of accessible buses and coaches available to be used as rail replacement vehicles.
He said: “It is very clear that my legal threat last year has caused immense work and turmoil throughout the industry and regulators, which is a good thing because they are finally having to take it seriously.”
But he added: “Is it going to deliver what we deserve and need now and what the law says we are entitled to, which is fully accessible rail replacement vehicles now?
“Or is it going to deliver that in the near future? I don’t think so.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t solve the problem, and it’s a difficult problem, and we are where we are, but we shouldn’t be where we are, and the industry has let disabled people down and I would include the ORR in that and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency [the PSVAR enforcement body for buses and coaches].”
He said he also wished that ORR had been even stricter and made it so that any operator running an inaccessible rail replacement vehicle, except with a special authorisation from a minister, would be breaching the terms of their operating license.
Paulley said it would now be up to the Department for Transport (DfT) to decide at the end of this year whether it would extend the special authorisations for a third time.
But he said the new ORR rules had not solved the “panic” within the industry over the shortage of accessible vehicles, caused by years of failing to address its legal requirements.
He added: “Ultimately it comes down to the DfT and what they are going to do.”
Stephanie Tobyn, ORR’s deputy director, consumers, said the new rules made it clear that “train companies are responsible for obtaining accessible vehicles during rail disruption, and for providing passengers with useful information on where and when accessible vehicles will be used.
“In all circumstances, whether the vehicle used is a bus, coach or taxi, waiting times for passengers should be similar.
“We have also written to the rail industry setting out a range of additional proposals and suggestions for further improvements from respondents to our public consultation, as well as our proposal for an industry forum to help identify and better manage the availability and use of PSVAR-compliant vehicles at times of high demand.”
Picture by ORR
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