Accessible transport campaigners have broadly welcomed a series of recommendations for improvements to the accessibility of the rail system.
Among the 17 recommendations made by the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), is a call for a drastic reduction in the notice that disabled passengers need to provide to book assistance for a rail journey.
If ORR’s recommendations are accepted, the current maximum of 24 hours’ notice will be cut by April next year to 10pm the day before travel, with further reductions introduced until only two hours’ notice will be needed by April 2022.
ORR also wants to see the government review funding for accessibility improvements, currently delivered through the Access for All fund, warning that current levels of investment “may fall short of the improvements to accessibility in rail aspired to in the government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy”.
And it wants to see, within the next six years, a review of the standards for accessibility of rail vehicles.
ORR is also calling for significant improvements to the reliability of assistance, and to staff training, as well as a requirement that compensation is paid to disabled passengers when their booked assistance fails because of a train or station operator’s actions.
Only last week, Disability News Service reported that two-thirds of disabled passengers experience at least one problem when travelling by rail, according to research commissioned by the government.
The ORR report says that only three-quarters (76 per cent) of users received all the assistance they booked in advance in 2018-19, while one in 10 (11 per cent) received none of it.
ORR also wants to see the same branding for assistance introduced across the network of rail companies, and improvements to the quality of access information provided to disabled passengers.
In the longer term, ORR wants to see a new system that will allow passengers to buy tickets and book assistance at the same time, and a “coherent national strategy” to promote assisted travel.
ORR made the recommendations as part of its submission to the Williams Rail Review, a “root and branch review” of Britain’s railway system.
The review’s findings and recommendations will be published in a government white paper in the autumn.
Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All, the user-led charity which campaigns on accessible transport in London, “broadly” welcomed the ORR’s recommendations.
He said: “Everyone, including government and the industry, agrees that the current situation on Britain’s railway is simply not good enough.
“For decades, disabled people have been pushing for change. This response to the Williams review shows that the ORR has been listening and it should be broadly welcomed.
“There are many common-sense steps, such as compensation for failed assistance and better training, which could really overhaul the service that we receive.
“Being able to buy tickets and arrange assistance at the same time has the potential to really make a difference, providing the process is easy and convenient.”
But Benson said TfA believed the recommendations did not go far enough.
He said: “Putting consistent branding on an assistance service won’t prevent the let downs that are all too common and the ORR is still not advocating our right to turn up and travel just like everyone else.
“Even the reduction in notice from 24 hours to two hours is not proposed until 2022. This is simply not good enough.
“The direction of travel in this report is good, but the industry needs to show even more aspiration.
“We hope that the Williams review will be bold in its recommendations and lead to disabled people having truly equal access when using the UK rail network.”
Accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley also broadly welcomed ORR’s recommendations.
He said he particularly welcomed ORR’s “new” and “important” challenge to the government’s “miserly and woefully inadequate funding” for improving access.
But he said he did not believe that the shortened timescales for pre-booking assistance would have much impact because making such bookings often failed to produce the assistance requested, while it “misses the point that we should be able to ‘turn up and go’ like anybody else”.
He said much of the ORR report was “rehashed” from what the industry or ORR had already made clear, adding: “We know access information is lamentably inaccurate and the database for administering it is utterly broken.
“We know that assisted travel reliability is poor and must be improved.
“We know that a national framework for promoting Passenger Assist should be in place, but only once they’ve got a reliable system that works, otherwise they’re setting new disabled travellers up for a fall.”
Paulley said ORR’s recommendations for the review were important, but its delayed new guidance for train operating companies, expected in the autumn following a consultation, “will have a much more direct impact on disabled passengers’ experience than their input into the Williams review, though of course it is positive that they have responded to the review as well”.
The ORR proposals were welcomed by Keith Williams, the review’s chair and a former chief executive of British Airways.
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