The equality watchdog has taken action under the Equality Act against both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the rail regulator over concerns that cuts and reforms to train services are making the network ever more inaccessible.
So far, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has only written a letter to DfT and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), but it has warned them both that it “will not hesitate” to use its “other regulatory tools such as our enforcement powers” if necessary.
EHRC is seeking a meeting with DfT and ORR to discuss its concerns.
The commission’s actions were revealed in its response to separate letters it received in August and November.
Both those letters raised concerns about rail destaffing, the closure of ticket offices, and the potential impact of these policies on disabled people’s access to the rail network.
The first letter was sent by the Association of British Commuters (ABC), supported by other activists and allies, including Disabled People Against Cuts, National Federation of the Blind of the UK, National Pensioners Convention, and Professor Philip Alston, the former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
They called on the equality watchdog to take “urgent action” to prevent an “escalating human rights crisis” for disabled passengers, caused by staffing issues on Britain’s rail system.
And they said that reports that the government was planning mass ticket office closures meant this could be the last chance to act on rail accessibility, which they warned was in a “state of national emergency”.
The letter reminded EHRC that it had warned the government and train companies in 2019 that the move towards running more trains without a member of staff on board able to provide assistance, and an increase in unstaffed stations, as well as the need for many disabled passengers to book assistance before their journeys, could be breaching the Equality Act.
The second letter was sent to EHRC by Labour MP Ian Mearns and nearly 40 other MPs and peers, and raised similar concerns, pointing out that the government’s accessible transport advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, had warned the government on numerous occasions about the impact of the “toxic combination” of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations.
In response to the ABC letter, Baroness Falkner, EHRC’s chair, said the commission had written to DfT and ORR “to remind them of their responsibilities under the public sector equality duty.
“These include thinking about the equality implications of decisions, monitoring impact and taking action to ensure that rail services are accessible for everyone.
“We have asked for a meeting with them, and we will not hesitate to use our enforcement powers, if necessary, to ensure their compliance with the law.”
And she told Mearns that the commission shared his concerns “that changes to how some rail services operate are making rail travel more inaccessible.
“We have received a number of reports about changes in staffing arrangements at stations and on trains, and allegations that operators are unable to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled travellers, as required by the Equality Act 2010.”
Emily Yates, co-founder of ABC, told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “The EHRC has spent almost six months looking at the evidence on rail staffing discrimination and it now seems ready to make a move.
“However, given the emergency around destaffing and a transport committee inquiry asking if it is fit for purpose, a more assertive action is overdue.
“The EHRC must urgently make a proper public statement about its concerns. And the use of its full enforcement powers can’t come soon enough.”
Doug Paulley, a prominent disabled campaigner on accessible transport, said: “Destaffing the railways is such a massive issue, which is why I am so in support of [rail unions] RMT and ASLEF [in their current disputes] and have been on the picket lines.
“I support them for all sorts of reasons, including the massive impact on disabled people of shutting ticket offices and destaffing the railways, and driver-only operated trains.
“It’s good that the EHRC are not afraid to use enforcement powers – all pressure to make sure that the railway stays as accessible as possible has got to be welcome – but I do not like or respect the EHRC’s intent or competence.”
He added: “The work that ABC has been doing in attempting to get EHRC to do its job for disabled people seems tireless and amazing as ever.”
A DfT spokesperson had not responded by noon today to the concerns raised by EHRC in its letter, and the threat of enforcement action.
But she said in a statement: “Everyone should be able to travel with confidence and the safety of passengers will always be our top priority.
“We want to modernise the railway by moving staff from ticket offices to provide more face-to-face assistance around stations and our Passenger Assist app is ensuring those with disabilities receive assistance quicker than ever.”
ORR said it was “committed to empowering confident use of the railway for all rail users, including disabled passengers, whether those journeys are made independently or with assistance”, had fulfilled its public sector equality duty when developing guidance, and held all operators to account through their accessible travel policies where necessary.
An ORR spokesperson said the regulator continued “to remind operators about the importance of compliance with their regulatory obligations”.
But he said ORR was “not responsible for determining reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act”.
He said: “In agreeing an accessible travel policy with an operator, ORR would expect to see evidence that the operator has broadly anticipated the requirements of disabled people and reflected these in their policies, practices and procedures in accordance with part three of the Equality Act 2010.”
But he claimed that the “onus is on the operator to ensure that they comply with the Equality Act 2010”.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton, a wheelchair-user, told a government minister in the Lords yesterday that “at least once a week, the person I am expecting to get me off my train at my home station has not been alerted by the station I departed from.
“Without a conductor on the train, I have to go on to the next station, or even the one after that, and then try to get a train back – assuming I can.”
Baroness Vere, a transport minister, said she was “appalled” by what she had heard, and added: “The system is in place but clearly is not working, and that is what we have to fix.
“We have to go through every element of our railway system, modernise it, and make it more accessible, reliable, punctual and affordable.”
Picture by ORR
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