New figures have revealed a huge increase in the number of times that staffing problems are causing lifts to be closed and step-free access suspended across London’s tube network.
The figures, secured by Disability News Service (DNS) through a freedom of information request, show that – even before the pandemic – the number of incidents where step-free access had to be suspended because of staff shortages was on a steep rise.
The numbers grew even more sharply through the pandemic.
But the latest figures suggest that, even though the pandemic has eased, suspension of step-free access caused by staffing issues is set to rise sharply again in 2022-23.
Disabled campaigners called this week for Transport for London (TfL) to review its staffing levels “urgently”, and they linked the concerns with reports of ticket office closures and staffing cuts across mainline rail stations (see separate story).
The TfL figures show just 20 suspensions of step-free access caused by staffing issues on London Underground in 2018-19, 88 the following year, 394 in 2020-21 – the first full year of the COVID-19 crisis – and 490 last year.
But in the first four-and-a-half months of 2022-23, there have already been 316 suspensions due to staffing problems.
The figures also suggest an increase in suspensions of step-free access caused by faulty lifts, with suspensions likely to reach 1,200 in 2022-23 if the current trend continues, compared with fewer than 1,000 in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, 578 in 2020-21 and 1,059 in 2021-22.
Katie Pennick, campaigns and communications manager for Transport for All, the disabled-led organisation that campaigns on accessible transport, said: “It is wholly unacceptable that step-free access is being suspended at stations due to a lack of staffing, and we are really concerned to see the upward trend in instances where this is happening.
“Step-free access across the London Underground is already insufficient, with only 91 out of the 272 tube stations having some degree of step-free access (and no current plans for further stations to become step free).
“There is a worrying push towards so-called modernisation, including reported plans to close ticket offices and reduce staff at mainline rail stations across the UK, as well as a clause in Transport for London’s funding deal committing them to pursue driverless trains.
“This situation makes clear the vital role that staff play in guaranteeing accessible travel.
“When staff are lacking, disabled people are locked out of the network.
“Technology and infrastructure cannot replace human interaction, especially when said infrastructure is old, unreliable, and inaccessible.
“Maintaining staffing levels is critical in order to support an accessible transport network.
“Staff provide assistance, provide information, unlock station facilities, and have a profound impact on safety and security.
“We would strongly encourage TfL to review their staffing levels urgently.”
In an email accompanying the figures, TfL suggested the increase in staff-related suspensions of step-free access was partly due to recruitment problems, pandemic-related staff sickness and annual leave taken over the summer.
TfL said: “We have unfortunately seen some recent station and lift closures in part due [to] staffing challenges with managing existing vacancies, coupled with ongoing higher absence levels as a result of the pandemic, as well as increased annual leave during the summer holiday period.
“This means that sometimes we have to close stations and/or suspend step-free access to keep other stations open.
“We place a priority on keeping step-free stations open as much as we can, but when we do not have the staffing numbers to safely do so, for example in the event of an emergency lift evacuation or for the deployment of a manual boarding ramp, we have to close the station or suspend step-free access to ensure safe operations.
“This is, of course, in addition to any mechanical fault which may mean a lift has to close.”*
TfL said that lifts receive a routine maintenance check every two weeks, a “full MOT” every six months and a partial refurbishment every five years, while they must be fully replaced every 10 to 20 years, depending on what type they are.
*TfL says that disabled passengers who need step-free access and arrive at a tube, Elizabeth line or overground station where the lift is unavailable, are helped to plan an alternative journey to their destination. If there is no reasonable alternative route, TfL will book a taxi (and pay for it) to take them to their destination or another step-free station from where they can continue their journey
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