The rail industry has no awareness of just how badly it is failing disabled passengers every day, a leading access consultant has told MPs.
Christiane Link, a consultant and adviser on accessibility to the aviation and transport industry for more than 20 years, told a Commons committee yesterday (Wednesday) that rail companies had grown used to how frequently their assisted travel services failed disabled passengers.
She said: “The industry is used to these failed assists. There is no awareness anymore that this is not OK… it happens every single day. Staff members are used to it.”
She added: “We have to change the culture in the industry from the top down.
“The Department for Transport must give a clear message that this is not acceptable anymore and that there will be severe issues if this doesn’t stop.”
Link, a wheelchair-user, was one of four leading disabled campaigners who were taking part in the first oral evidence session of an inquiry by the transport select committee into accessible transport and the industry’s legal obligations.
She said she had previously considered herself to be “a bit unlucky” because of the number of times she was let down by the assisted travel service.
But she added: “When I joined the railway industry, my biggest surprise was how bad the situation really is.
“I always considered myself a bit unlucky… and then I saw really inside how bad the situation is.”
She said senior figures in train companies had a responsibility to say they would no longer accept “failed assists”, as disabled people have a right to travel.
Alan Benson, a disabled activist and campaigner, chair of Transport for All and founder member of the Campaign for Level Boarding, told the committee that he had been forced to pull the passenger alarm three times on trains in the last three months because of a failure of assistance.
He said: “For me, a journey is going to go wrong. I expect something to go wrong. It’s just how badly it goes wrong.”
Benson, also a wheelchair-user, said transport operators felt it was easier to “pay us compensation and get us to go away than to actually fix the issues”.
He said: “So many disabled people put up with appalling service because they just don’t know that they are entitled to more and they don’t know where to go to complain.
“Most disabled people don’t want money, they don’t want compensation, they want to get things fixed.”
He told the committee: “Until we treat accessibility like we treat health and safety, it’s not going to change.”
Link agreed and said she believed that “accessibility is a health and safety and rights issue which should be enforced”.
She said the rail industry was still buying trains that were the wrong size for the tracks, which meant there was a “massive step” between the train and the platform and “massive gaps”.
She said: “It affects so many disabled people. Blind people are falling into the gaps and so on. It’s a health and safety issue.
“There are constantly incidents. It’s an open secret in railway that there are accidents happening, that people injure themselves.”
All four of the witnesses spoke of the failure to enforce access and discrimination laws.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, a crossbench peer, wheelchair-user and accessible transport campaigner, said there was “a complete failure to enforce” laws on accessible travel.
She said: “We’re constantly told, ‘It will never happen again, it’s just you [this is happening to], we’re really sorry,’ and we’re expected to go away.”
She said the Disability Discrimination Act had promised accessible rail travel by 2020, but the government was now suggesting it would be 100 years before there was step-free access.
She said: “So in my lifetime I will not be able to get on a train without the permission or support of a non-disabled person.”
Both she and Link highlighted concerns that Network Rail was building new inaccessible footbridges.
Baroness Grey-Thompson said: “How can Network Rail build a footbridge that has steps, in this day and age? How did it get through?”
They also both highlighted the need to roll out new trains that provide level access from the platform to the carriage.
Accessibility campaigner Stephen Anderson said he has been refused service by private hire vehicles 43 times because he was travelling with his guide dog.
He said: “The problem is with these regulators there’s no teeth, there’s absolutely no teeth.
“Enough of this awareness stuff; we actually need something to happen and for it to be loud and clear from the highest echelons of government that this is totally unacceptable, we are not going to stand for it, and the sooner we can get to that position the better.”
He has successfully taken legal cases against 20 private hire drivers, with another 23 cases waiting to be heard, while he has settled five or six other cases across the transport sector.
Link said there needed to be a plan to make the country’s railway system accessible.
She said: “If you don’t have a plan how to make this country’s railway system accessible, you will never achieve that.”
Baroness-Grey-Thompson said the government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy was “just another strategy, and disabled people are slightly bored by strategies”.
She told the committee: “For me, the government needs to take equal access seriously. We need action and investment.”
Picture: (From left to right) Alan Benson, Stephen Anderson, Baroness Grey-Thompson and Christiane Link
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