The UK’s largest rail operator has admitted that it has been breaching access laws for more than 10 years across large parts of its rail network, a leaked document has revealed.
The Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) document shows the company* has been breaching the Equality Act since 2010 because of insufficient staffing levels across its Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail franchise in England.
This relates to its policy of operating driver-only operated (DOO) trains to unstaffed stations, which prevents many disabled people enjoying “turn up and go” travel on an equal basis with non-disabled passengers.
It is the latest document to be obtained by the Association of British Commuters (ABC), which has repeatedly exposed the failures of the government and the rail industry to provide an accessible rail system.
The document, which probably dates from February 2021, is a copy of a communications and marketing plan drawn up by GTR to promote its 2021-22 Accessible Travel Policy, and now leaked to ABC.
GTR admits in the leaked document that its current approach of offering to pay for a taxi to take disabled passengers to the nearest accessible station if there are no staff on hand to help them access the train they wanted to catch “is frequently not a good option”.
This is because the taxi journey usually takes longer than the train, it is “generally less comfortable and there’s no toilet”, and “it’s quite often difficult to find an accessible taxi at short notice, especially in rural areas”.
The plan highlights how the company planned instead to introduce a “mobile staffing” service across 41 Great Northern, Southern and Thameslink stations that could not currently offer assistance with boarding and exiting trains at all times.
The service would send a staff member – probably by car – to the station, with a target response time of 20 minutes, to assist the disabled passenger with boarding the next train.
But GTR then warns in the document that promoting this new service would imply that the 41 stations are “currently not accessible”, and it adds: “…we have been in breach of our legal requirements since 2010”.
ABC believes that even this new service is still not a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, while scores of other stations will remain inaccessible to “turn up and go passengers” because of DOO trains running through unstaffed stations.
The leaked document also reveals GTR’s concerns about some of the public relations risks of its strategy, which it said included the campaigning activity of ABC and disabled activists such as Sam Jennings.
Jennings successfully sued Southern after she was left stranded on trains and station platforms more than 30 times.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday): “I am furious that we still have to fight for the basics in 2022, 12 years after the Equality Act allegedly tightened up the (1995) Disability Discrimination Act.
“I became a wheelchair-user in 2018 and should never have faced any of this.
“My wheelchair gives me freedom – but this also comes at a cost at being routinely disabled by inaccessibility.
“Public transport should be accessible for everyone, it is outrageous that seemingly no one is enforcing this from within government or regulatory bodies.
“I had hoped that after my legal challenge things would be fixed, but honestly the only improvement I have seen really is at Clapham Junction where they have now installed a dedicated assistance team as part of our agreement – something people were campaigning for for decades before I even became a wheelchair-user.
“I’m sick of it all. They shouldn’t be allowed to operate an inaccessible service. It’s meant to be unlawful to do so.”
In July, ABC published a draft report by the government’s accessible transport advisers, which examined the 20 stations on the Thameslink service from London Blackfriars to Sutton in south London and found that the current staffing levels on the route were “completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway, and to ensure disabled people can use train services on the same terms as other passengers”.
And last month, campaigners wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to call for it take “urgent action” to prevent an “escalating human rights crisis” for disabled passengers, caused by staffing issues on Britain’s rail system.
They said reports that the government planned mass ticket office closures meant this could be the last chance to act on rail accessibility, which they believed was in a “state of national emergency”.
EHRC warned three years ago that the move towards running DOO trains, and an increase in unstaffed stations, as well as the need for many disabled rail passengers to book assistance before their journeys, could be breaching the Equality Act.
An EHRC spokesperson said yesterday that the commission was still considering the letter sent last month, and that it would examine the leaked document.
GTR claimed this week that the extract from the leaked document – which DNS has seen –does not correctly represent its position.
It argued that offering disabled passengers a free accessible taxi to the nearest accessible station meant it had not been breaching the Equality Act, even though the leaked document makes it clear that this is “frequently not a good option”.
It said that 27 stations were currently part of its mobile staffing service across the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchise.
But GTR declined to say how many stations will still be breaching the Equality Act, even after the service is available across the 41 stations mentioned in the leaked document.
A GTR spokesperson said in a statement: “This extract taken from an internal working document unfortunately does not represent our position correctly.
“We do comply with our reasonable adjustment duty under the Equality Act.
“For example, we offer passengers alternative transport to their nearest accessible station and we have launched mobile assistance teams.
“We remain firmly committed to making the railway more accessible to all.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) had not said by noon today (Thursday) if it accepted that GTR had been in breach of the Equality Act since 2010, or what action it would take to end the repeated breaches.
But a DfT spokesperson said: “Train operating companies have a duty to make railways accessible and effectively reduce the barriers for disabled passengers.”
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which is responsible for approving rail companies’ Accessible Travel Policies, had failed by noon today to explain why it appears to have condoned unlawful GTR policies for more than a decade.
Although it occasionally reminds train operating companies that they are subject to the Equality Act, it suggested this week that it was not responsible for enforcing compliance with the act.
This is despite EHRC stating clearly in its response to an ORR consultation in 2019 that public bodies have “obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010” and that regulators such as ORR have “a particular responsibility to help ensure that their sectors meet these obligations”.
An ORR spokesperson said: “We pay particular attention to plans for providing assistance at unstaffed or part-staffed stations that may be serviced by trains where there will be no second member of staff on board.
“We engage with GTR on a regular basis to monitor the provision of accessible travel for their passengers.
“We hold them to account against the commitments set out in their Accessible Travel Policy, including their commitment to strengthen the existing provision at unstaffed or part-staffed stations through a trial to extend the use of mobile assistance teams.
“The trial is ongoing, and we will continue to monitor GTR’s rollout to further stations, the training they provide for staff and their approach to assessing the trial’s effectiveness.”
*GTR was formed in 2014, but the companies that became GTR were operating rail services in these areas before then
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