Train companies could face court over inaccessible rail replacement buses

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Train companies are facing possible legal action over their failure to ensure that replacement bus services are accessible to wheelchair-users and other rail passengers with mobility impairments.

A leading disabled campaigner believes that access and equality laws mean most rail replacement buses – used when companies scrap train services because of engineering works or other disruption – should be accessible to disabled passengers.

But he says that a significant proportion of rail replacement services are completely inaccessible.

He also says that the rail industry is failing to publish information about the accessibility of rail replacement services.

In a year in which the rail network has repeatedly been hit by disruption to services, the need for accessible rail replacement buses has been overlooked by most campaigners, despite the substantial extra barriers faced by disabled passengers when their journeys are disrupted.

But accessible public transport campaigner and wheelchair-user Doug Paulley (pictured), from Yorkshire, is now considering launching a legal action against a rail company, after accusing the industry of repeated breaches of the Equality Act.

He argues that disabled people face even greater hardship and aggravation than other passengers during timetable disruption.

He said: “It always feels that accessible provision is treated by many rail industry managers as a ‘nice to do’ rather than a basic obligation, and as an extra logistical headache.

“So when disruption occurs, disabled people’s needs go out of the window.

“This means disabled people experience shocking, frightening and damaging treatment and journeys that simply are not acceptable.

“I’m fed up with the lack of action to combat such, and the lazy acceptance of inaccessible rail replacement vehicles, and the assumption against all evidence that taxis are an acceptable (or even preferable) alternative, is profoundly offensive.”

Paulley has even been warned by rail staff not to raise the issue publicly because they say that – if it was found that running inaccessible replacement services was illegal – train operating companies would not be able to source enough accessible buses and coaches to meet the industry’s needs.

But he believes the issue must be raised to force improvements.

He has particularly focused on services provided by Northern Rail, but he believes other companies are also failing to address the issue.

Part of the reason is the use by companies like Northern of inaccessible buses, because of the shortage of accessible vehicles, but Paulley says there is also a scarcity of accessible taxis, particularly in many rural areas.

The industry also fails to ensure that information about the accessibility of rail replacement buses is published online, while booking assistance when services are being disrupted is even more hit-and-miss than usual, he says.

He has been told by one rail company that Network Rail’s IT system does not allow information about the accessibility of rail replacement buses to be published online.

Paulley also says that train operating companies frequently fail to alert disabled passengers who have pre-booked assistance when a service is re-routed unexpectedly, often leaving them stranded.

Despite travelling on scores of services that have been disrupted – and booking assistance in advance every time – he says he has never been contacted by staff in the assistance booking centre to amend his support and ensure he gets to his destination safely.

The Office of Road and Rail (ORR) said it was “aware of a number of issues” with Northern failing to warn disabled passengers in advance about the accessibility of replacement buses and was “talking to them about how they will address these concerns”.

A spokesman for the regulator said: “Train operators must provide up-to-date information about the accessibility of facilities and services at stations and on their trains.

“Where passengers have booked assistance on trains that cannot be provided due to disruption, train operators are obliged to contact the passenger to inform them and make alternative travel arrangements.”

He said there was no current requirement under companies’ disabled people’s protection policies [DPPPs, which describe the assistance provided to disabled passengers by train companies] for rail replacement buses to be accessible.

But he said that train operators do have to provide – without extra charge – “an appropriate alternative accessible service to take disabled passengers to the nearest or most convenient accessible station from where they can continue their journey” in certain circumstances.

This duty applies if the station is inaccessible; if “substitute transport” to replace a rail service – such as a rail replacement bus – is inaccessible; or if there is disruption to services at short notice that makes those services inaccessible to disabled passengers.

He said: “We are considering what further steps train operators might need to take in this area as part of our review of the DPPP guidance.”

Paulley said he hoped the new version of ORR’s DPPP guidance would make it clear that offering a taxi was – in most cases – not an “appropriate alternative accessible service”, because of their shortage in most parts of the country.

Northern insisted that it “will always ensure that customer needs are at the forefront of any decisions we make around alternative accessible transport”. 

A spokesman said: “Where we can, we will work with local bus, tram and taxi operators to deliver the best service possible to our customers travelling with a disability.”

One example where this worked well, he said, was with the Preston to Blackpool North electrification upgrade works, where nearly all its replacement bus services were operated by Blackpool Transport, “who have a relatively young fleet of busses that are fully accessible, helping us to deliver a consistent service to customers”. 

But he also admitted that “accessible transport remains a concern for Northern where we continue to work with local bus operators to find the best solution for our customers”.

On the failure to provide information about the accessibility of replacement services, he said: “Northern uploads information to the National Rail website which all train operating companies draw from. 

“When uploading information to the National Rail website, there is currently only one option to denote rail replacement services which places a bus symbol on the website and it is not possible to identify whether the service is accessible.”

And on concerns about information provided when services are re-routed, he said: “We do everything possible to alert passengers when a service is re-routed, but this can happen unexpectedly during a journey.

“We would never knowingly leave any passenger stranded – disabled or otherwise.”

He said that, “during times of disruption and planned engineering works”, Northern’s customer experience team “will pull off all passenger assistance requests, contact the customer, and arrange alternative travel”.

Paulley said his experience was that this rarely or never happens.

The Department for Transport had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday).

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