Staffing levels on a section of the rail network are “completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway”, according to a report by the government’s own accessible transport advisers.
The Rail Workforce Reform report by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) found that tens of millions of pounds of investment in lifts, ramps and accessible toilets, and billions of pounds spent on accessible trains and carriages, were being “undermined” by staff-related barriers to access.
The draft report for the Department for Transport says the lack of staff at many of the stations on the route and the running of trains with no staff apart from a driver is “perpetuating the exclusion of many disabled people from a vital public service”.
It says: “It is clear that the current staffing levels on this route are completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway, and to ensure disabled people can use train services on the same terms as other passengers.”
But it also makes clear that the case study is a “microcosm” of the wider rail network, which is seeing moves towards greater use of technology in the industry, “reducing the need for many staff roles involved in station and train operation”.
The report (PDF) – obtained by The Association of British Commuters (ABC) through a freedom of information request – examines the 20 stations on the Thameslink service from London Blackfriars to Sutton in south London.
Of the 20 stations, 10 have no step-free access from the street to any platform, and two more only have step-free access in one direction, and of the other eight, only five have step-free access from street to platform to modern standards (using lifts).
Just two of four platforms at one station provide level access between the platform and the train, while all the other stations where there is access to platforms need a ramp – and therefore staff assistance – for passengers using wheelchairs to enter or leave the train.
All the trains that run on the route, as well as those run by Southern and Southeastern, operate without on-train staff, so all assistance depends on station-based staff, says the report.
But DPTAC found that, of the 20 stations, only eight are supposed to be fully staffed, while six are staffed part-time and six have no staff.
The report concludes that assistance for disabled passengers “cannot routinely be provided at all times trains are running”, even if booked in advance, at 14 of the 20 stations and “certainly not on a ‘turn up and go’ basis”.
The lack of staff means there will be problems providing assistance for station navigation, boarding and alighting trains, providing customer information, ensuring passenger safety, and offering face-to-face ticket sales.
The report says that ensuring there are staff at stations who can provide assistance is “the only effective way of mitigating the continued partial physical inaccessibility of many of the stations on the loop, which will take many years to address fully”.
This means, in the longer-term, the government and industry will need to invest in street-to-platform step-free access, and platform-to-train level access.
The report also argues that cutting staff potentially undermines the case for future investment in access improvements, if these improvements depend on having staff present, because “their benefit reduces as staffing reduces”.
The report concludes: “As things stand, the toxic combination of Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains and unstaffed stations means many disabled people are excluded from using the route to access employment, services, leisure and health facilities.
“It is clear that major improvement is needed, and DfT needs a change of strategic approach, if the route is to be made accessible to all people.”
The draft report, which was completed in February, added that “until radical improvements in physical accessibility can be implemented, staff will remain the key way of ensuring that accessibility is maximised”.
Emily Yates, co-founder of ABC, which has been campaigning for guaranteed “turn up and go” travel since 2016, said: “The Rail Workforce Reform report puts forward a whole new economic argument for railway staffing.
“It concludes that the provision of guaranteed ‘turn up and go’ assistance brings exponential benefits: increasing passenger numbers, as well as protecting the value of public investments.
“The report also highlights significant dangers to the long-term accessibility of the railway.
“It warns that de-staffing has created ‘perverse incentives’ for management, discouraging further investment in station accessibility and step-free access.
“DPTAC has been warning the government about the ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’ combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations since 2016.”
She said that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned that the denial of disabled people’s “fundamental” right to “spontaneous travel” breaches the Equality Act 2010 and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
But she said the government “continues to ignore both economic and ethical arguments, pushing on with their secret cost-cutting and anti-trade union projects while treating the rollback of accessibility as collateral damage.
“Given the scale of the cuts they are trying to implement, this should be considered a state of emergency for rail accessibility.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) refused to answer questions about the DPTAC report.
But it said that moving staff out of underused ticket offices and into stations would mean they could provide help where it was most needed, while it was for train operators to decide how stations are staffed.
A DfT spokesperson said: “We are working closely with stakeholders and industry to build a railway that meets the needs of all passengers, having committed £383 million for accessibility improvements, delivering 100 step-free routes and other enhancements.
“As part of our work to improve accessibility, we are currently undertaking an accessibility audit at over 2,500 stations, including those in Sutton and Merton.”
Picture: Office of Rail and Road
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