Watchdogs’ comments boost hopes for rail access improvements

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Powerful warnings from two watchdogs about the barriers faced by disabled passengers have been welcomed as a “wonderful step in re-instating access to rail for all” by a leading accessible transport expert.

One of the two watchdogs, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), warned the government and train operating companies that two major elements of the rail system could be discriminating against disabled passengers.

In a letter to MPs on the Commons transport select committee, EHRC chair David Isaac says the commission is concerned about the impact of “ongoing transport policies”, particularly the move towards running more trains without a member of customer services staff on board – driver-only operated (DOO) trains – and an increase in unstaffed stations.

EHRC also says that the need for many disabled rail passengers to book assistance up to 24 hours before their journeys means they cannot “turn up and go” like non-disabled people.

Both of these could be a breach of the Equality Act, he says.

Isaac says in the letter that EHRC is so concerned by these and other barriers to public transport that face disabled people that it is likely to include access to transport as one of its priorities in its new strategic plan.

He adds: “If, as seems likely, that priority is taken forward, we will be looking at a range of activities to clarify, enhance and further the protections available for disabled people across all transport modes, including utilising our unique enforcement powers to drive change.”

His letter was a response to questions from Lilian Greenwood, the Labour chair of the committee, who had also raised similar concerns with the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

ORR’s chair, Declan Collier, said in his response to Greenwood that it was clear that train and station operators “could do more to improve accessibility of the rail network”.

He said they needed to do more to “consider the normal operating conditions across their network and to assess where passengers are most likely to not be able to receive the required assistance”.

He added: “They need to have clear measures in place to ensure that passengers who have not booked assistance in advance can still receive it.”

He said ORR had set up an advisory group, including industry, government and disability groups, to help improve rail passenger assistance.

The two letters have been welcomed by transport campaigners.

Ann Bates, a leading transport access consultant and former rail chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), said the comments by EHRC and ORR followed years of campaigning by her and others, including the Association of British Commuters, on the risks posed by DOO.

She said: “ABC and myself have continued to lobby with the ORR and EHRC and others over the years for a confirmation of our sincerely held belief that no DOO trains should call at unstaffed stations, thus denying safe travel to anyone who requires assistance in and out of the train. 

“We have since discovered that DPTAC, the government’s statutory advisers on the transport needs of disabled people, have also been lobbying within the department and seemingly being ignored.

“Following the enquiry from the transport select committee and its chair about the subject, the two replies dated 5February (EHRC) and 6 February (ORR) both contain many of the points that we have been lobbying with, such as reference to the Equality Act, the decrease in staffed stations, the failures and restrictions of the Passenger Assist scheme, etc.”

She said she was “particularly heartened” by the change in tone on the need for disabled passengers to have the right to “turn up and go” and enjoy “spontaneous travel”. 

She added: “This is a wonderful step in re-instating access to rail for all, and thus building back confidence in travel for both business and pleasure in the larger population.”

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