A “smoking gun” government memo suggests that Network Rail withdrew from a high-profile public inquiry to protect its plans to build more inaccessible footbridges across Britain.
In late November, the public body withdrew plans to build an inaccessible bridge at Copmanthorpe, near York, weeks after the end of inquiry hearings that had wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, including more than £400,000 by Network Rail itself.
The plans would have seen a dangerous level crossing replaced by a footbridge that could only be reached by steps, rather than ramps.
Network Rail said at the time that it would now take the opportunity to “evaluate solutions” and look again at “the benefits of all options”.
But access campaigner Doug Paulley, who played a key role in opposing the plans, has now obtained a Department for Transport (DfT) memo through the Freedom of Information Act, and it suggests Network Rail was in fact concerned that the inquiry’s report could create a damaging precedent that could halt its plans to build more inaccessible footbridges.
The DfT memo was prepared for rail minister Huw Merriman and transport secretary Mark Harper.
It stated that Network Rail was concerned that if its application was rejected by the inquiry, and the inquiry report linked that decision to its public sector equality duty (PSED), it could be forced to make other future footbridges accessible to disabled people.
The memo also stated that Network Rail felt “there is a risk that a high benchmark could be set for compliance with PSED of structures crossing the railway, resulting in requirement for step-free access elsewhere, even where this is not practicable.
“This carries network-wide cost implications, orders of magnitude larger than this individual case.”
The DfT civil servant who drafted the memo pointed out that withdrawing the application risked “reputational damage” for Network Rail, because of the public money it had already spent on the case, but it would at least ensure the report was not published “and the risk of precedent-setting is mitigated”.
Paulley said the memo was a “smoking gun” which showed that Network Rail had not “seen the light” and realised the importance of accessibility after all.
Instead, he said, it showed that Network Rail was only concerned that the inquiry inspector would rule against it, which would limit its ability to install new, inaccessible infrastructure across the country.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “It was always clear to me that Network Rail’s claimed reasons for withdrawing their application were untrue.
“They wouldn’t have withdrawn their application six weeks after the end of the public inquiry hearing due to their supposed commitment to accessibility.
“In 2015, Network Rail was thwarted in their attempt to put in the same stepped footbridge because people objected to its inaccessibility, so they did nothing.
“Over the next eight years, two people died on the crossing, and there were numerous near misses. Now, they have shelved the same plan again.
“It is thus entirely clear to me that Network Rail would rather risk further deaths on the crossing, waste hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a pointless public inquiry, jeopardise the future of the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) project and weather adverse press reaction, than risk being prevented from continuing to build new inaccessible infrastructure, such as footbridges.”
He also said Network Rail had told him it had not shared any information with DfT that explained its decision to withdraw its application, when the DfT memo suggested otherwise.
DNS revealed last autumn that Network Rail had been forced to admit it had no idea how many inaccessible footbridges it was planning to build across Britain, although it had confirmed plans to start at least 17 between 2022 and 2024.
Network Rail refused to comment this week on the waste of hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on the inquiry, or to say if it would now pledge to scrap all future plans to build inaccessible infrastructure.
But a Network Rail spokesperson confirmed that it had “outlined several potential scenarios relating to wider programme and industry implications” to DfT before withdrawing its application.
He said: “There were passionate and reasoned objections heard at the public inquiry and we made the choice to withdraw our application to provide a further opportunity to evaluate solutions which may be viable and re-assess the benefits of all options.
“Any alternative design proposal would be subject to consultation and Network Rail progressing with new planning consents.
“We have held a number of meetings with interested parties in the local community before Christmas and also this week and seek to continue this engagement to discuss next steps and we look forward to a constructive dialogue in the future.
“Enhancing accessibility is a fundamental improvement that the TRU will offer to passengers travelling between Manchester and York.
“As part of our major upgrades, the majority of stations along the route will benefit from accessibility improvements, including the installation of lifts, access ramps and designated drop-off points.”
DfT did not say whether it would ask Network Rail to scrap all plans to build further inaccessible infrastructure.
But a DfT spokesperson said: “The decision to withdraw this application is a matter for Network Rail, and whilst we wouldn’t comment on individual legal inquiries, we are clear in our commitment to improving accessibility across our transport network.
“We have already funded step-free access at over 230 stations through our Access for All programme and have committed a further £350 million extra funding through Network North to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations.”
Picture: Doug Paulley at the current Copmanthorpe crossing
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