The government has refused to promise to accelerate the long-delayed installation of tactile paving on railway platforms across the country, despite an inquest finding that the lack of safety markings played a part in a disabled man’s death.
The government has promised only to instal tactile markings on all rail platforms by 2029, even though an inquest jury found this week that the lack of tactile paving caused or contributed to the death of 53-year-old Cleveland Gervais, at Eden Park station, south-east London, in February 2020.
The jury concluded that if there had been tactile paving, Gervais would have been aware of how close he was to the edge of the platform.
And they found that the failure of rail operator Southeastern to take any steps to mitigate the absence of tactile paving, such as providing audio warnings, also caused or contributed to his death.
The government’s new National Disability Strategy – since declared unlawful by the high court – included a pledge last year to “develop proposals for the accelerated upgrade of rail station platforms with tactile paving”.
But the Department for Transport – which refused to comment on the inquest findings this week – admitted last year that it had set a deadline of 2029 to instal tactile safety markings on every rail platform in Britain.
Network Rail said last year that all its regions had plans to complete the work by March 2029, but this was subject to the government providing the funding.
A Rail Accident Report into Gervais’s death, published last year, found that only about three-fifths of British mainline station platforms were fitted with tactile surfaces.
Gervais, who was blind, with just six per cent vision in one eye, had been waiting for a train to arrive and moved closer to the track because he was unaware of where the platform edge was.
He had then walked along the platform but fell into the path of the train as it arrived.
The jury found there had then been an avoidable delay of at least 10 minutes in confirming the power to the track had been switched off, which caused or contributed to his death.
He was pronounced dead from his injuries about half an hour after ambulance staff were finally allowed onto the track.
But it has now emerged that a similar incident involving a blind rail passenger – who survived his fall – had taken place at New Eltham, a Southeastern station just a few miles from Eden Park, eight years earlier.
Software architect Artur Ortega said his first thought when he heard of Gervais’s death had been: “This could have been me – hit by an oncoming train at a Southeastern station because of missing tactile pavings on the platform edge – like Cleveland – just eight years earlier.”
He had been on his morning commute to work with his guide dog on 30 August 2012.
He was walking parallel to the platform edge but did not realise how close he was because of the lack of tactile markings.
Ortega slipped and fell onto the track, and although he avoided serious injury, his assistance dog was left badly bruised and “screaming” in pain on the track.
They were both helped from the track by commuters, and his assistance dog eventually recovered, but Ortega says that tactile markings were still not installed at New Eltham until another blind passenger lodged a complaint several years later.
He told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday) that he was convinced tactile markings would have prevented his own accident.
And he said he “firmly” believed that Gervais’s death could have been avoided if Southeastern, Network Rail and the Department for Transport had taken the necessary action after his own accident.
Instead, he said, it had been ignored.
Ortega said it was “incomprehensible” that it was taking so long to instal tactile markings on all rail platforms, even though national guidance had been in place since 1998.
He said: “It only shows that the rail industry doesn’t care enough about the
health and safety of disabled passengers or accessibility in general.”
A Southeastern manager told rail accident investigators examining the circumstances of Gervais’s death that she had been unaware in 2019 of any previous such accidents, but Ortega said that Southeastern must have known about his 2012 incident.
Gervais was described this week by his partner, Sekha Hall, as a “kind, generous and loving family man who had incredible determination” and “was always helping other people and had a great sense of humour”.
He said: “We were together for over 19 years and we loved each other very much. He was my rock and I am lost without him.
“I am grateful for the jury’s careful deliberations and welcome their findings that the lack of tactile paving, or any other adjustments for blind and visually impaired people, caused Cleveland’s death.
“Cleveland’s death was a huge blow to me and all that knew him. I hope that from his death lessons will be learned and that rail stations will become… safer places for those with visual impairments.”
Kate Egerton, from solicitors Leigh Day, who represented Hall at the inquest, said: “It was concerning to hear that despite national guidance on tactile paving being in place since 1998, that Network Rail do not consider that they have any legal duties to instal it across the network.
“While we understand that plans for installing tactile paving across the rail network have been accelerated following Cleveland’s death, it is unacceptable that platforms are not consistently safe for passengers with disabilities.”
The Department for Transport yesterday (Wednesday) refused to comment or answer questions about the inquest, the Artur Ortega incident, and its failure to ensure tactile markings are installed on all rail platforms.
Southeastern refused to answer questions about its failings or its current plans.
But Steve Lewis, head of safety and environment for Southeastern, said in a statement: “We extend our sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Gervais.
“Safety and accessibility are hugely important to our railway, which is why we’ve worked closely with Network Rail to accelerate the tactile paving works at our stations.”
Network Rail also refused to answer questions about the rail industry’s failings and what they showed about the importance it placed on the safety of disabled passengers.
But Allan Spence, Network Rail’s director of regulator liaison, said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Gervais, and we know that whatever we do to make the railway better after his death can’t change the pain they feel.
“At the time of the accident, we were already fitting tactile paving strips on station platforms in that area, and now the whole of south-east London and Kent are fitted.
“We have around 5,500 station platforms across the country, over 60 per cent of which are fitted with tactile strips.
“We have now secured the extra funding needed to fit them all.
“Every passenger is valuable to us and we want everyone to have a safe and comfortable journey on our railway.
“We’re making progress in making our railway more accessible for everyone, but we know there is a lot more to do.”
Picture: Artur Ortega (left), Eden Park station, and Cleveland Gervais
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