Pressure is mounting on Conservative ministers and train companies over their plans to close nearly 1,000 rail ticket offices, after the Scottish government’s advisers on accessible transport described the proposals as “entirely unacceptable”.
The equality and human rights watchdog is also facing increasing pressure to speak out, after it refused to express any concern about the impact of the proposals on disabled passengers.
And the rail minister is now claiming that stations can still be described as “staffed” if in future they rely on mobile teams of rail staff covering groups of local stations, even if they visit them as infrequently as once a week.
More than 100,000 people have already responded to a series of consultations on the planned closures, which ends on Wednesday.
The Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland (MACS) has told one of the train companies, LNER, that the proposals are “entirely unacceptable” and that all ticket office closures should be halted until all online sales and station ticket machines are accessible “for all disabled passengers”.
Disability News Service has seen the MACS response to LNER’s consultation, in which the committee objects to proposals to close most of the ticket offices on its Edinburgh to London route.
Simon Watkins, rail lead for MACS, told LNER its plan should be withdrawn until it has “fully assessed the level of usage of ticket offices by disabled passengers”.
He said the concerns apply equally to the consultations published by other train operating companies planning ticket office closures, including those that do not operate in Scotland.
MACS said there was “significant evidence to show that disabled passengers are more reliant on ticket offices than other passengers”.
The UK government’s equivalent body, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, has yet to comment on the closures.
Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has refused to express any concern over the proposals, despite being passed figures compiled by the Association of British Commuters that show the number of staffed stations, across just three Midlands railway companies, will fall from 116 to 22 if the closures go ahead.
It has also failed to comment on concerns about the accessibility of the consultation process.
Asked to comment by Disability News Service (DNS), it produced the same statement it issued on the day the consultations were launched, which failed to even mention the consultations.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and ABC have each written to the commission to ask it to speak publicly about the closures.
The DPAC letter asks the commission to explain why it is “failing so miserably in even attempting to enforce adherence to the Equality Act”.
Linda Burnip, DPAC’s co-founder, says in the letter that the ability to travel by rail “will seriously deteriorate for disabled, older people and lone women travellers and that all of these groups need face-to-face assistance located in one accessible place”.
The ABC figures show there will be “mass discrimination” across Midlands train stations if the closures go ahead.
Its research provides further evidence that rail minister Huw Merriman misled MPs when he claimed earlier this month that “no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed” as a result of the ticket office closures.
The ABC figures show that the number of staffed stations across West Midlands Railway, London Northwestern Railway and East Midlands Railway will fall from 116 to just 22.
DNS showed last week that at least three train companies would move some stations from being staffed part-time to relying on mobile teams that cover a group of local stations.
But the Department for Transport suggested yesterday (Wednesday) that the minister had not misled MPs because having mobile teams covering several otherwise unstaffed stations meant those stations could still be described as “staffed”, even if they are only visited once a week.
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways, refused to comment on the ABC figures, saying it could not “pre-judge the consultation”, even though the figures for proposed closures were published by its member companies.
Asked why RDG had not released figures showing the impact on total staffing hours across the country, and on opening hours for heated waiting rooms and toilets, a spokesperson said the documents released by the train companies were “just proposals and any information on those areas would not be accurate until final decisions are made on individual offices and facilities”.
Transport Focus and London TravelWatch said today (Thursday) that they have already received more than 100,000 responses to the consultations, which end on Wednesday (26 July).
Meanwhile, train companies are facing at least two legal actions over the planned closures (see separate story).
In one of them, disabled activists Doug Paulley and Sarah Leadbetter are calling for a new consultation process, and a halt to any decisions on ticket office closures, in a legal action they are taking against transport secretary Mark Harper and four train companies.
They believe the consultations are “a smokescreen” and that the government has already decided to close ticket offices.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, and four other Labour mayors, are preparing their own legal action against seven train companies over the closures.
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