Campaigners have warned transport secretary Mark Harper that “discriminatory” plans to remove guards from trains, cut staff and close ticket offices will prevent many disabled passengers travelling on the rail network and put lives at risk.
The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFBUK) issued the warning to Harper – a former minister for disabled people – as it delivered a petition now backed by more than 90 organisations to his constituency office in Cinderford, Gloucestershire.
Reports have suggested that the government’s rail reforms are likely to see about four-fifths of ticket offices closing, while campaigners led by The Association of British Commuters (ABC) have called on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to take “urgent action” on railway staffing.
NFBUK said the government’s proposals were “unacceptable, unsafe and unworkable”.
Organisations backing the petition include disabled and older people’s organisations, access groups and organisations representing blind and visually-impaired people.
One of Harper’s constituents, Bill Waddell, who helped deliver the petition, said he wanted Harper to “leave the guards on the trains and leave the ticket offices in the stations”.
He said: “The ticket offices are important because I can’t use a computer and I can’t use a ticket machine.”
NFBUK’s petition calls for all ticket offices to remain open; all staffed stations to maintain a safe level of staffing at all times; all trains to have guards; and all unstaffed stations to become staffed at all times.
Kevin Greenan, from Middleton, an NFBUK member, was filmed on Boxing Day at Mills Hill station in Greater Manchester, highlighting the safety dangers of removing guards from trains.
He said that Harper’s plans were “absolutely disgraceful and despicable”, and he added: “How dare you decide who can and who cannot travel.
“The guards on the trains, I’ve said over and over again, are vital.”
Greenan can currently use Mills Hill, but if guards were removed from trains he would be unable to do so.
He said: “I wouldn’t know where the train was coming from or going to and sometimes the station announcements aren’t very clear because they are automated.
“And also with it being an unmanned station, there is nobody here I can ask, so it’s imperative for me that guards are available on trains at all times, otherwise this station would become virtually inaccessible for me.”
He said that a guard-free train and an unstaffed station would also put him “at the mercy of the gap” between the platform and the train.
He added: “If I was to miss my step then I am afraid it could be curtains. That’s how important the guard’s duty is and the guard’s necessity is.
“We must have guards at all times.”
Sarah Leadbetter, NFBUK’s national campaigns officer, said lives would be at risk if the government went ahead with its plans.
Only a few days ago, a blind friend of hers was left badly bruised when she slipped between a train and the platform at an unstaffed station and had to be grabbed by another passenger before she fell onto the tracks.
Leadbetter said she was “very concerned” that there would be fatal accidents on station platforms if the government’s cuts and reforms went ahead.
She said the “disgusting and disgraceful” plans to remove guards from trains and shut ticket offices were aimed at cutting costs and would mean disabled and older people and others who need assistance would “just totally and utterly disappear”.
She said: “If there are no staff at ticket offices and no guards on trains, how am I supposed to travel safely without ramps to get on and off the train safely, with no guidance to seats and with no assistance to ensure I make my train connections?
“I simply would not be able to travel on the trains anymore. I do not think anybody has really thought through the implications these proposed cuts will have on any passengers needing assistance to travel.”
NFBUK says in the petition: “All trains need guards, all stations need ticket offices, and all stations need to be staffed.
“Safety, security and accessibility have to underpin all train travel in the UK and we will accept no compromise on these issues.”
The petition adds: “Removing staff from manned stations and removing guards from trains will make train journeys unsafe and very stressful for blind, visually impaired, disabled and vulnerable train passengers.
“Your proposals to remove guards, close ticket offices down and reduce staffing are not safe and they are inherently discriminatory in nature, preventing those people who need face to face customer services and assistance to get on and off trains from travelling on trains.”
A DfT spokesperson said in a statement: “The safety and security of all rail passengers will always be top priority on our railways.
“We are working with industry to improve and modernise the passenger experience by moving staff out from behind ticket offices and onto stations to provide more face-to-face help and assistance.
“While driver only operation trains have run safely for many years – and are approved by the Office of Rail and Road – our proposed reforms will bolster safety, giving operators greater flexibility to deploy staff to assist those who need it the most.”
Disabled people, accessibility experts and campaigners have repeatedly warned of the “escalating human rights crisis” for disabled passengers caused by staffing issues across the rail network.
A leading expert on accessible transport quit his role as a government adviser in October after accusing ministers of backing policies on de-staffing the rail network that discriminate against disabled rail passengers.
Matthew Smith, a key member of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), told the government that its already discriminatory staffing policies looked set to get “drastically worse” if it went ahead with secret plans for mass ticket office closures.
He said in his resignation letter that DPTAC had repeatedly warned the Department for Transport about the “toxic combination of driver-only trains and unstaffed stations” and urged it to secure legal advice.
Research published by ABC in November showed that six train companies were discriminating against disabled passengers at nearly 300 rail stations across the south-east of England.
The research showed that c2c (which runs between London and Southend), Chiltern Railways, Greater Anglia, Govia Thameslink Railway, Great Western Railway and Southeastern were all regularly denying “turn up and go” services to those who needed boarding assistance.
Picture: Bill Waddell and Sarah Leadbetter about to deliver the petition to Mark Harper’s constituency office
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…