Plans by an under-fire rail company to change the way it staffs its trains will lead to “unacceptable” and repeated breaches of the Equality Act by denying disabled passengers the support they need to travel, it has been claimed.
Southern – which operates train services across parts of south London and southern England – is planning to replace conductors with “on board supervisors” (OBSs), whose job will not include stepping onto the platform at stations.
Campaigners fear that introducing these supervisors will mean that disabled passengers who need assistance on platforms at unstaffed stations could be left stranded and unable to board their train.
Southern is also planning to allow OBS trains to operate with only a driver in “exceptional circumstances” – which is likely to make travel even harder for disabled people – and has also admitted that two-fifths of its trains are already driver only operated (DOO).
Southern is embroiled in a long-running industrial action over its plans to replace guards with OBSs.
Ann Bates, a transport access consultant and former rail chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, said that “huge numbers” of disabled people rely on a guard for information, assistance and access across the Southern network because most of it consists of “poorly or unstaffed stations”.
But she said that the company had so far failed to suggest a solution that would provide a “reasonable adjustment” for disabled passengers when it introduces OBSs.
To provide evidence, Bates – herself a wheelchair-user – spent a day travelling on Southern services with an older passenger and a blind person.
She has passed the report they compiled on their experiences to Disability News Service (DNS).
The trio – who deliberately did not book any of their off-peak journeys – faced repeated access problems, such as platforms without portable ramps, a train with a locked help point, unstaffed stations, unhelpful call-centre staff, a broken lift, help-point staff who disconnected calls without providing any help, and unsafe ramps, although they also praised some of the support they received from staff.
They say in the report that the company had “made a commitment for trains to have an on-board supervisor on all trains except in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
“The concept of ‘exceptional circumstances’ is not one that would enable any disabled or older person to travel with confidence.
“It was very clear from our journeys that, at almost every stage, without the presence of staff we would have been unable to continue to complete a journey or would have been carried beyond our destinations.”
Bates said that it was unlawful to deny travel to disabled passengers who “turn up and go”, and that even pre-booking a journey does not guarantee a successful journey.
She and her two fellow passengers believe that running a driver-only train to an unstaffed station – if there was a passenger on board who could not exit without assistance – would be a clear breach of the Equality Act.
Their report concludes: “After 30 years of commitment, effort and public expenditure to ensure that disabled people can travel by train, as by other modes, with confidence, we risk taking a significant retrograde step that will effectively deny people those hard won rights. That is simply unacceptable.”
Bates is an independent consultant for Southern but contacted DNS because the problems were “too important” to ignore.
She said that every train needed to have a second member of staff who was able to step onto the platform in case there was a disabled passenger who needed assistance.
A Southern spokesman said the report had provided “useful and actionable insight” but “does really only reflect the current service offering without an understanding of what will be changing and improving… after the OBS role is introduced”.
He said: “As part of our franchise, in recognition of an ever-increasing demand for our services, it is vital that we modernise the way we work to improve the experience for our passengers.
“Meeting the needs of those with accessibility needs are fundamental to our plans, and we are absolutely determined to ensure that these plans continue to enable all passengers to access our network and travel with greater confidence on our services.”
He said Southern was planning to modernise some stations, ensure staffing throughout the working day at more stations, and ensure facilities open for longer, as well as making station access improvements and “introducing new trains which are more suited to the needs of disabled passengers”.
He said: “The report also references the view that the current assisted travel support is not always consistent.
“The OBS role provides us with the opportunity to improve the quality and consistency of support provided to disabled passengers; all staff will have dedicated accessibility training supported by new ways of working across teams involved in supporting our passenger to complete their journey.
“The report notes some current good practices and these will continue.
“Without the need to close the door, [the OBS] will have more time to assist all passengers, including disabled passengers and will also be able to deploy ramps as per Conductor operated services.”
He added: “Southern does not agree that running a driver-only train would be any breach, less still a clear breach, of the Equality Act.
“We believe that the actions which we will put in place will cause Southern to be compliant with Equality Act obligations.”
But he was not able to explain what those actions might be or how they would avoid leaving disabled passengers stranded on board or on the platforms of unstaffed stations.
He said: “In line with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, adjustments will be in place to ensure that should this scenario arise then any passenger requiring accessibility assistance to reach an unmanned/partially manned station will be supported in doing so without unreasonable delay or inconvenience.”
He claimed that passengers currently “widely travel without any difficulties using a variety of staffed, un-staffed and partially staffed stations” on the 40 per cent of Southern services that are DOO.