The right of disabled people to enjoy spontaneous travel on the rail network is under “serious threat” because of the planned closure of nearly 1,000 ticket offices across England, campaigners warned this week.
One disabled activist warned that the time for direct action over the “outrageous” threat to disabled people’s independence – through their right to “turn up and go” assistance at rail stations – was “fast approaching”.
Research by disabled people has already shown how the government-backed closure plans will have a “disastrous” impact on disabled passengers, and lead to a significant fall in the number of staff available to support them.
But disabled activists have now told Disability News Service (DNS) that they believe their right to spontaneous travel through the turn up and go (TUAG) system is now under clear threat.
TUAG refers to the right of disabled passengers to secure immediate assistance with boarding a train without having to book in advance.
The Office of Rail and Road says that, under TUAG, disabled passengers can “turn up at any station that they have identified is accessible to them and request assistance on to a train”, although this “depends on conditions at the time of your travel, such as staff availability”.
But evidence that has emerged during the ongoing consultation on the closures is raising increasing concerns that the right to TUAG could effectively be ended at many stations if the closures are allowed to go ahead.
Calculations by disabled activist Doug Paulley have shown that Northern’s staffed station hours will decrease by three-fifths under its ticket office closure proposals, from 10,793 to 4,238 hours per week, with nearly all the cuts at weekends and evenings.
And figures produced by the RMT union show that more than 2,200 jobs will be cut due to the closures across England.
Paulley said: “Given the de-staffing, there’s no way they are going to be able to facilitate TUAG. There will just not be staff at the stations.
“Everybody else can turn up and travel and buy a ticket and travel on the spot. We should be able to, too.”
Sam Jennings, a wheelchair-user who campaigns for a more accessible rail network, said she also believed that disabled people’s right to spontaneous travel was under threat.
She said: “I’m terrified that that is what is going to end up being lost.
“That’s not an exaggeration at all. It’s under threat and I feel it in my bones.”
She pointed to the RMT figures, and said: “If this goes through, that is automatically over 2,000 people taken off the railway that disabled people could approach to say they need assistance to get from A to B, and that’s just in the first round of cuts.”
But she said she did not think the right to TUAG would vanish immediately.
She said: “The cuts will start coming in and then it will just decline so much that you will have to book the day before because you won’t be able to find the staff if you just turn up without booking.”
Katie Pennick, campaigns manager for the disabled-led campaigning organisation Transport for All (TfA), said research by TfA and others had made it clear that TUAG was “under threat”.
She said: “The level of de-staffing contained within the ticket office closure proposals is shocking.
“Should these plans go ahead, disabled passengers’ ability to turn up and go will be severely curtailed, and in many instances TUAG will be entirely impossible.”
She pointed to West Midlands Railway, which has announced plans for 78 stations to become completely unstaffed and rely instead on daily or weekly visits from mobile teams.
She said: “These operators claim that there will be ‘greater visibility of staff on concourses and platforms’, despite there being nobody at the station most of the time.”
She also pointed to LNR’s claim in its consultation document that its mobile teams will be stationed at selected stations a maximum of one hour from each other.
Pennick said it was “ludicrous” to suggest these staff were meaningfully available to disabled passengers when they could have to wait up to half an hour for the assistance they need to board a train.
She said: “Having to wait half an hour and beyond for a mobile team to reach you does not constitute turn up and go, which, crucially, is about receiving immediate assistance at the point in which you turn up at a station.
“We are particularly concerned for disabled people who require assistance to safely navigate through a station.
“We object to these plans in the strongest possible terms and will be fighting them to the end.”
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and co-founder of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said disabled people’s right to TUAG and “spontaneous and independent travel” would be under “serious threat” if the closures went ahead.
He said this was “outrageous” and “would impose significant barriers on disabled passengers and would require them to plan journeys well in advance and force them to book assistance, undermining the freedom and flexibility they currently enjoy”.
He said: “The time for direct action is fast approaching.”
He pointed to the government’s insistence that no staffed stations would be left unstaffed as a result of the closures, even though at least three train companies will move some stations from being staffed part-time to relying on mobile teams.
He also highlighted the RMT figures.
Paulley’s research showed that support at many Northern stations, including Ulverston and Hexham, will be drastically cut when the ticket offices close, in Ulverston’s case from more than 13 hours a day on weekdays at present to just two.
There will also be an end to any support on Sundays when it is currently available for more than 10 hours.
Jennings, a mobility scooter-user whose local station is Ulverston – served by Northern – pointed out that staff support at these two stations is particularly important for many disabled people because they include “barrow crossings”, crossing-points that allow passengers who cannot use steps to cross the tracks to move from one platform to another with the support of staff.
He said: “Northern’s proposal to leave barrow crossings unstaffed is deeply troubling, as it renders stations inaccessible for disabled people dependent on such crossings.
“The absence of staff assistance at these points may force disabled passengers to seek alternative, possibly hazardous routes, or in some instances deter them from using the railway altogether.
“Spontaneous travel and the legal right to TUAG would not be possible.”
He said the changes at Ulverston would “effectively make the station inaccessible and roving teams would have to be booked hours in advance so TUAG would be impossible”.
He added: “The nearest accessible station is 10 miles away and accessible wheelchair-accessible taxis are not readily available and again must be booked hours if not days in advance.”
Even before the proposals to close nearly 1,000 ticket offices were published, the right to TUAG was already under significant strain.
Last November, Disability News Service reported on research by the Association of British Commuters which found six train companies discriminating against disabled passengers at nearly 300 rail stations across the south-east of England by regularly denying TUAG services to those who needed assistance with boarding.
Matthew Smith, who resigned from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee last year, after accusing ministers of backing policies on de-staffing the rail network that discriminate against disabled rail passengers, said: “Turn up and go is definitely under threat, as this requires staff and the proposals not only de-staff many stations but also remove all regulatory safeguards for future staff presence.”
He added: “Any staffing ‘guarantees’ cannot be taken seriously in this context, and once the ticket office consultation process is complete, there will be no more requirement to consult on any future staffing changes.
“Furthermore, TUAG actually requires station staffing hours to be extended, not curtailed, not to mention massive investment to make the network itself accessible.
“It should never be forgotten that staff themselves are a reasonable adjustment for the inaccessible, ‘Victorian’ rail network, and the lack of progress on an integrated and time-bound programme for station accessibility, including for example level boarding, is completely unacceptable in the 21st century.”
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the rail regulator, declined to say this week if it believed that the TUAG principle was now at risk because of the planned closures.
But it has written to train companies (PDF) to ask how they will continue to comply with requirements under ORR’s accessible travel policy (ATP) guidance, particularly the provision of both booked and unbooked assistance, buying tickets, and providing information to passengers.
An ORR spokesperson said: “We are now engaging further with train companies where we have further questions or concerns, and we will continue to do so as their proposals are refined.
“In due course, any material changes to a train company’s ATP will require ORR approval.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) told DNS: “The ability to travel when and where you want is fundamental to the rights of disabled people in realising their right to independent living, under article 19 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“These rights and the needs of older and disabled passengers must be properly considered and addressed in any proposed rail ticket office closures.
“We are concerned about the potential impact these closures could have on disabled and older people.
“The EHRC wrote to the Department for Transport to remind them of their obligations under the Equality Act to ensure they carefully consider equality across their work, including when designing or changing services.
“We welcomed the recent decision to extend the consultation period, which will provide greater opportunity for those impacted by the proposals to respond.”
The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways – said: “The [industry-wide] commitment to 20 minutes turn up and go will be maintained.”
But a spokesperson had failed to explain exactly what this commitment means by noon today (Thursday).
Another RDG spokesperson said: “Train companies will continue to engage with accessibility and safety groups and take on board their views during the consultation period.
“You will still be able to book assistance two hours in advance of your journey either using the Passenger Assist app or via a dedicated phoneline available 24/7 and you will always be able to access help and advice from a trained representative.”
She claimed the ticket office “improvements” aimed to “provide an inclusive and barrier-free travel experience for everyone by bringing staff out from ticket offices and into ticket halls and concourses, where they give a much wider range of support to passengers, especially those with accessibility needs”.
She added: “We have undertaken comprehensive measures to improve accessibility across our services.
“In collaboration with stakeholders, we have implemented changes such as accessible ticket machines, clear signage, audio announcements and trained staff to provide personalised assistance through our Passenger Assist app.”
RDG said train operators had also carried out equality impact assessments on each affected station as part of the planned closures.
The Department for Transport declined to comment on the TUAG concerns or to make a commitment to maintaining the current level of TUAG availability.
But it said that rail minister Huw Merriman had continued to speak to accessibility groups, including at a meeting last week.
A DfT spokesperson said: “While this is a matter for the industry, it is right that train operators have listened to feedback and extended their consultations, following continued engagement with stakeholders, including accessibility groups.
“Following the consultations, independent passenger bodies will continue to play a vital role in assessing and shaping proposals.”
At the end of the consultation period, Transport Focus and London TravelWatch will have 35 days to examine the responses before deciding whether to object to any of the proposed closures.
If any of the train companies decide to ignore those objections, the disputes will be referred to transport secretary Mark Harper.
Picture: Tony Jennings supported by a member of rail staff as he uses the barrow crossing at Ulverston
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