A train operator will this summer start running mainline rail services that wheelchair-users will not be able to access… with the apparent blessing of the government.
It is believed to be the first time for many years that a scheduled mainline train service will run without any provision for passengers who use wheelchairs.
And it comes just days after the Equality and Human Rights Commission was said to be considering legal action against the government over its failure to ensure an accessible rail service.
That threat emerged after rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway issued “grossly insulting” guidance to station staff that said they should not attempt to place “persons of reduced mobility (PRM)” on a train “if there is a possibility of delaying the service”.
Now train operator TransPennine Express (TPE) has decided to run services that will be out of bounds to wheelchair-users.
TPE is part of the transport giant FirstGroup, which in January 2017 was found by the Supreme Court to have breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act through its “first come, first served” policy on the use of wheelchair spaces on buses.
From July, TPE is to introduce two extra trains, each with four carriages, all of which will be inaccessible to wheelchair-users.
Leaked internal documents show that 12 of these services without wheelchair provision – six in each direction – will run every weekday between Liverpool and Scarborough via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield, Leeds and York, using old “Mark Three” coaches.
The documents say there will be “no space on the train for wheelchairs” and that “the trains will run without wheelchair or cycle provision”.
If a wheelchair-user wants to board a service that is using the old Mark Three coaches, they will be told to catch the next accessible train instead. If two consecutive trains are inaccessible, TPE will pay for a taxi to their destination.
Six of the 17 hourly trains that run all the way from Liverpool on the west coast to Scarborough on the east coast – and the same number on the return journey – will be using Mark Three coaches, and so will be inaccessible to wheelchair-users.
There will be a higher proportion of accessible services on other parts of the route, for example between Manchester and Leeds, and between Manchester and York.
The content of the leaked documents has been confirmed by TPE, which admitted to Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that the arrangement was “not ideal”.
It said that it had to introduce the inaccessible carriages because using the Mark Three coaches was part of its franchise agreement with the Department for Transport (DfT) and Rail North (which represents local transport authorities across the north of England).
A TPE spokeswoman said that it was “part of our franchise agreement to introduce these extra coaches into operation to provide additional capacity on the network ahead of the introduction of new trains”.
She later confirmed that TPE had “made DfT aware that the vehicles that we are going to operate will not be accessible”.
TPE admitted that because of the 12 inaccessible services, it will have to replace its disabled people’s protection policy – the policy currently states that wheelchairs “not exceeding 70cm wide and 120cm long with a combined weight of passenger and wheelchair of not more than 300kg can be carried on all our trains”.
Although one of the four coaches on each service – a first-class carriage – was designed with a wheelchair space, it is too narrow for all but the smallest wheelchairs, and the coach has no accessible toilet, so TPE has decided that it cannot allow any wheelchair-users to board those services, while it also warns that they “may prove more difficult to access” for some other disabled customers.
The company is using the Mark Three coaches to increase capacity in the short term, but disabled campaigners say this will be done at the expense of the rights of disabled passengers.
Doug Paulley, a leading rail access campaigner, who was told about the leaked documents and alerted DNS, said: “I am shocked and amazed that a company is intending to run trains that don’t have wheelchair access.
“I haven’t known such in the past 25 years; even in Connex South Eastern’s time there was access to a guard’s van.
“To run trains that don’t have any access for wheelchair-users is utterly unacceptable and an insult to disabled people, whether as a temporary stop-gap or not.”
A TransPennine Express spokeswoman said: “These trains are being used in passenger service on a limited and temporary basis to provide extra seats for customers and to support driver training ahead of the introduction of the first of our brand new Nova trains later this year.
“The carriages have previously been used by other train companies and feature doors that need to be manually opened and closed.
“The design and layout of these carriages means that unfortunately, in contrast to our current trains, they do not have adequate access for customers who use wheelchairs and may prove more difficult to access for some customers with reduced mobility or disabilities.
“We know this isn’t ideal; however, these will be the only two trains in our entire fleet that are unable to offer high levels of access and they are planned to be used on a small number of services for a limited period of time.
“Staff briefing is taking place and we will be providing additional information on our website, in leaflets at our stations and to all the assisted travel teams to enable customers to plan their journeys using our more accessible fleets.”
She said TPE had “explored the options to make these trains accessible” but had decided this was not possible because “the doors to the saloon are too narrow” and “the accessible toilets are of the British Rail standard, and could not be accessed by many wheelchair users, again due to the proportions”.
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokeswoman refused to answer a series of questions, including whether the government had known that the inaccessible coaches would be used, and if it had made their temporary use a condition of the franchise agreement.
She also refused to say whether DfT believed the introduction of the trains was a breach of the Equality Act, and whether the move suggested that the Equality and Human Rights Commission was right to be considering legal action against the government over its failure to ensure an accessible rail service.
But she said in a statement: “We expect all train companies to do everything possible to make travel easy for those with disabilities.
“It is vital that all passengers, including disabled passengers, can turn up and go when using public transport, and train companies have a legal obligation to provide the same access to the disabled.”
Picture: A TransPennine Express train. Picture by Alex Low, www.alexlow.uk