Senior figures in the rail industry have been unable to point to a single train company that is even close to “getting it right” when it comes to providing an accessible service to disabled passengers.
Iain Stewart, the Conservative chair of the Commons transport committee, told three senior representatives of the industry yesterday (Wednesday) that he and his colleagues had heard “quite alarming stories” about the difficulties disabled people face when using the railways.
And he said that this situation “seems to be getting worse since the pandemic”.
Jacqueline Starr, chief executive of Rail Delivery Group – which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways – said she recognised there were “inconsistencies across the network” but she “would not support the statement that it is in absolute deterioration”.
She claimed there was evidence from the industry’s Passenger Assist mobile phone app – which has been heavily criticised by disabled campaigners – of “increased satisfaction from customers”.
But she added: “I do acknowledge that there are still way too many cases and instances where disabled customers experience difficulties when they’re traveling with us.”
Stephanie Tobyn, director of strategy, policy and reform at the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the rail regulator, said the examples of access failures previously provided to the committee were “very alarming” and “very difficult to watch”.
She said ORR’s research showed that “the majority of people do have a positive experience”, but when just one step of the process does not go to plan “then effectively the whole system collapses for that passenger” although “for the wide variety of passengers, when it goes well, it goes extremely well”.
Asked if there was a single operator that had “got it right” or was close to “getting it right”, Starr was unable to provide an example, and said there were “good and bad examples across all operators”.
Tobyn was also unable to suggest an example and said it would be “very difficult to highlight one particular operator”.
Alison Smith, accessibility and inclusion lead for Network Rail, also failed to provide an example of a rail operator in Britain that was getting it right on access, but she said there were “some really good examples of best practice”, although she did not name them.
Members of the committee were hearing evidence on the industry’s legal obligations on accessible transport as part of an ongoing inquiry.
The SNP’s Gavin Newlands challenged Tobyn on criticisms from the disabled people’s organisation Transport for All about ORR’s failure to take action when there were assistance failures by train operators, and its tendency to rely on an “informal” approach to dealing with such issues.
Tobyn said that most people don’t see “the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes [at ORR] and the amount of things that we do change where we intervene and change behaviour and we don’t necessarily shout about it”.
She said ORR was currently taking a “deep dive” into areas such as the transfer of information about disabled passengers between rail operators, lift reliability, and how easy it is for disabled passengers to complain.
But she admitted that ORR had only issued one health and safety improvement notice to a train operator, because taking such action was “a last resort”.
Smith was asked by one MP why her organisation was “still building new, inaccessible infrastructure”, such as footbridges.
Disability News Service revealed in September that Network Rail had been forced into admitting it had no idea how many inaccessible footbridges it was building across Britain, while claiming it was too time-consuming and expensive to find out.
The public body, which owns and runs most of the country’s rail infrastructure, has admitted building at least 17 inaccessible footbridges across England, Scotland and Wales in 2022, 2023 and 2024, but the real figure is likely to be far higher than this.
Smith told the committee that it would be “very rare” for Network Rail to install an inaccessible footbridge in a station, but for other locations it had to “think very carefully and balance what can be quite often a set of competing needs”.
She said these bridges were often in locations that could not provide power for a lift, and that ramps “can be very substantial bits of infrastructure not always supported by the community”, so Network Rail makes decisions that are “in the best interests of the taxpayer”.
Labour’s Grahame Morris asked Starr about the concerns from campaigners that train companies saw the demands of disabled passengers for “turn up and go” access to the railways as a customer services matter rather than a “fundamental issue of human rights”.
Starr claimed there was a “huge appetite across operators to deliver against the needs of disabled customers, and they hear loud and clear what they’re calling for in relation to turn up and go”.
But she added: “Are there some challenges in terms of people really recognizing that and showing appropriate empathy? Yes.
“Are we doing something about that? Yes.
“So we’re undergoing significant training to help people better understand.”
Picture: (From left to right) Jacqueline Starr, Stephanie Tobyn and Alison Smith
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