The rail regulator is investigating why an industry body appears to have tried to ensure all assisted travel bookings for disabled passengers were cancelled during Storm Eunice in February.
Even though many rail services continued through the storm on 18 February, many disabled people were told they would not be able to travel because the assistance they had booked had been cancelled, while others were told they could not make new bookings.
Accessible transport campaigners Doug Paulley and Sam Jennings were among those who were unable to travel on Southern services because of its decision to cancel bookings and refuse to take new bookings for assisted travel.
Paulley was told on the afternoon of 18 February that he could not book assistance for a train that evening, while Jennings had her booking cancelled, even though the rail services they had been hoping to use were still running.
Southern’s decision to scrap assisted travel meant Jennings missed a hospital appointment.
Paulley’s train ended up arriving at its destination just a few minutes late.
He later put in a series of freedom of information requests to rail companies after he saw the head of public affairs for Southern’s owner GTR tell the rail regulator on Twitter that train operating companies – and the regulator – had agreed to cancel bookings by passengers who needed assistance to travel by train on 18 February.
Now Paulley has proved – through responses to his freedom of information requests – that there was no such agreement to cancel assisted travel by train companies.
He has also shown that the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), did not approve the move, but merely acknowledged an email sent by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways.
That email on 17 February came from RDG’s accessibility and inclusion manager, Dominic Lund-Conlon, and information obtained by Paulley shows that he misled ORR about the actions taken by the train companies.
Lund-Conlon told ORR that “all train operators are undertaking proactive contact with customers who are booked to travel on Friday to rearrange their planned journeys” and that they “will be not accepting any new booking requests from customers for Friday”.
The emails secured by Paulley show this was not correct.
Some of the rail companies, including LNER (London North Eastern Railway), continued providing assistance and taking bookings.
LNER told Paulley – in a freedom of information response – that it “did not endorse” the email sent by Lund-Conlon to ORR.
Northern, another company that continued to honour assisted travel bookings for 18 February, told Paulley that it “did not cancel the bookings of services scheduled to run and provided alternative transportation when there was further disruption on the day” and that it “did not refuse to take new bookings”.
Network Rail told Paulley that all the stations it manages that deliver passenger assistance “continued to deliver both booked and unbooked passenger assistance during Storm Eunice” and that it “did not cancel or refuse any assistance bookings or requests and all normal processes were followed”.
Paulley has now written to the chair of the transport select committee, Conservative MP Huw Merriman, and rail minister Wendy Morton about what happened.
ORR confirmed this week that it was investigating what had happened and that it would examine the emails obtained by Paulley.
It also confirmed that it was informed on 17 February that the rail industry would proactively contact all passengers who had booked assistance on journeys due to take place on 18 and 19 February, to cancel and rearrange those bookings.
An ORR spokesperson said: “ORR is aware of concerns and we have sought assurances that all requirements of ORR’s Accessible Travel Policy Guidance were followed by operators according to methods outlined in their own policies.
“To ensure lessons are learnt, we are now working closely with the rail industry to better understand the decisions that were taken, including how information was communicated to passengers during Storm Eunice.”
Paulley said: “To me, and to many accessibility professionals in the industry, it is ridiculous, offensive and nonsensical to cancel assistance bookings for trains that are still running.
“Standard practice during disruption is to contact customers to rearrange if their train is cancelled, or to re-plan on the fly if cancellations occur at short notice.
“That’s what LNER, Southeastern, Northern did.
“In addition, in the context of a red weather warning, it seems sensible to warn customers in advance (as LNER and Southeastern did) that there may be disruption and to offer to re-book.
“But to unilaterally decide to cancel and refuse all assistance bookings is disgraceful.”
Jennings said: “Blanket cancellation of all pre-booked assistance when trains were still running was obviously discriminatory from the second they decided it.
“The RDG appear to delight in adding extra barriers to travel for disabled people from the next-to-pointless passenger assistance app to the Storm Eunice fiasco.
“Doug’s freedom of information requests were very good indeed and I’d like to say I am shocked by what they uncovered, but after dealing with this constant discrimination and the ongoing contempt I’ve been treated with since becoming a wheelchair-user in 2018, sadly I’m not surprised at all.”
She said the rail industry appeared to think it was “above the law”, but she did not know whether that was due to incompetence, indifference or something else.
Jennings said she had experienced well over 50 “access fails” when using rail services since she started using a wheelchair in 2018.
RDG has so far been unable to explain why Lund-Conlon told ORR that all train operators were contacting customers to cancel their assisted travel bookings for 18 February, and would be accepting no new bookings for that day.
But an RDG spokesperson said: “We don’t comment on individual members of staff, however it is a factual inaccuracy based on partial and incomplete information to allege that the Rail Delivery Group acted unilaterally in making decisions around Passenger Assist during Storm Eunice.
“The priority of train companies was to keep all passengers and staff safe in what were the strongest storms in over 10 years.
“Difficult decisions around how the railway needed to operate in order to assure that safety was paramount were made by individual train companies, who issued a Do Not Travel notice due to the severity of the situation.
“RDG’s role was to represent those decisions to relevant stakeholders, including the ORR, and support the industry in communicating them to customers so that they could make alternative plans where necessary.”
A GTR spokesperson said the company would be reviewing how it responded to Storm Eunice.
He said: “We strive to provide quality assistance to remove the barriers to independent travel.
“On 17 February we gave the same advice ‘not to travel’ to all passengers, because of a rare Met Office red alert warning.
“We did not refuse to provide assistance to anyone who chose to travel against the advice but we were unable to commit to give booked assistance – we could not guarantee what trains would be running and if customers would be able to safely complete their journeys there and back.
“We contacted everyone who had booked with us to explain and offer to rebook on a different day.
“We continued to provide un-booked assistance as best we could.
“We will ensure that all customer feedback is included in the reviews we complete.
“The forecast and predictions proved correct. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we dealt with around 270 incidents across the GTR network with over 50 trees felled and widespread damaged infrastructure.
“The storms forecast to strike the network posed a significant threat. Aside from a blanket safety speed limit which forced us to reduce the service by around a third, we knew still more trains would be cancelled and routes closed with no notice.
“On the Friday, a further 45 per cent of our trains failed to run in addition to those already pre-cancelled and in some cases, people had to be evacuated from stranded trains.”
He said earlier: “You asked why we provided ‘inaccurate information on Twitter’.
“This was a tweet from a personal account of a colleague that did not represent the views of GTR.
“It was a response sent to the ORR so they could check in with colleagues as a tweet they had posted indicated they were not aware of conversations that had taken place.”
Paulley said that the advice not to travel was just that: advice.
He said: “This supposed decision [to cancel all bookings for assistance], had it been actually carried out, would not only have been a breach of the operators’ licenses, it would have resulted in bookings being cancelled across the whole country, even in areas such as the north-east or Scotland that were not anywhere near as badly affected as the south-east.
“[RDG] say that these were ‘the strongest storms in over 10 years’. Possibly, in some areas; but I’ve been using assisted travel for at least 22 years, so in previous stronger storms, and this is the first time that the rail industry has unilaterally cancelled assistance bookings en masse.
“Why was it supposedly proportionate, reasonable or necessary now, when it wasn’t done previously?”
He added: “The RDG are an unaccountable, non-public body, not regulated by anybody in the industry, and this latest massive faux pas is yet another example amongst many in which they overstep their boundaries, assume powers they don’t have and once again fail disabled people.
“I hope that the ORR conducts a thorough, no-holds-barred and public investigation into how this situation happened, and publishes its results for all to see.
“This whole thing stinks and is such a massive mess.”
Picture: Office of Rail and Road
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