Equality of Access Crisis on Southern Rail – Rail Industry take heed! (Part One)

The news of a potential resolution to the Aslef dispute has created a new level of stress and worry for disabled passengers. Documents leaked yesterday show that the list of agreed ‘exceptional circumstances’, where a train will run in driver-only mode, have actually increased since earlier discussions. To this day, there has been no meaningful effort by Southern Rail to address the concerns of disabled passengers, and we simply cannot allow this to continue.

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ABC has received an abundance of witness reports of the failings of Southern Rail’s system for access – far too many to fit into one blog. Thus, we now commence a series – bringing you in-depth comments from some of the sharpest minds on this issue; many of whom have also suffered at the hands of Southern Rail. Today’s Part One presents a background to the problem and the investigations we have conducted so far.

Part One: a background to the problem

ABC’s application for a judicial review of the Department for Transport was annouced last week, which aims to set a legal precedent for Equality of Access on public transport, as well as questioning the lawfulness of the DfT’s overall handling of the Southern Rail management contract.

The precedent we are concerned with is simple – just who is responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010 regarding the right to access public transport? The Secretary of State for Transport has denied to our lawyers that this is his department’s duty, and a train operating company is on record as saying “ultimately, we’ll be tested in the courts won’t we?”

This controversial issue was the subject of a recent conference on rail hosted by Transport for All, where ABC and others went head to head with the Rail Delivery Group – attempting to seek a clear answer on a very simple question: “just who is responsible for ensuring the right to equality of access on transport?” Fuller coverage of the issue, and what happened at the conference, can be found in an excellent report by John Pring of the Disability News Service.

We believe that this problem is well-acknowledged by the rail industry as a whole and suspect they must be very embarrassed by Southern Rail’s conduct, which is a further source of shame for UK rail. We would venture to suggest, however, that it is the situation with Southern Rail specifically that is the source of this shame. Elsewhere in rail, steady progress is being made through efforts such as the Department for Transport’s Access for All program, and the Persons with Reduced Mobility regulations, which require all vehicles to be fully accessible by January 2020. In other words, the renegade Southern Rail seems to be going against the grain of the rail industry itself (the target of fully accessible vehicles means very little when there is no assurance of adequate staffing or communications).

The changes made by Southern Rail have been quietly revealed through new maps requiring advance booking at every station on the network. ‘Turn up and go’ travel was previously guaranteed at 33 stations on Southern Rail, and there is no way of defending this move as anything but a step back for accessibility. Charles Horton, CEO of Southern Rail, has defended it nonetheless and has simply written off the news of this very troubling revelation as: ‘profoundly misleading’. His letter in the Guardian last month received several shocked responses from members of our campaign, and he has yet to engage with our concerns in any meaningful way whatsoever.

Equality of Access: voices from the industry

The issue of the industry’s confusion on equality of access gained landmark coverage in November’s Modern Railways magazine, which included a number of contradictory statements from TOC managers. An unnamed company, when asked how it would provide assistance in the case of trains being run in driver-only mode, said:

‘The good thing would be that all of the regular passengers would still be carried, it would only be the wheelchair users who wouldn’t be able to travel’.

The article continues:

But what if that wheelchair user had booked ahead for an important event? And it’s not just wheelchairs that need the ramp down. What about those who can walk, but only with support such as a stick or frame? And so on. The grey area demands more rigorous thinking on the part of the industry. One train operating company (TOC) Managing Director told us: ‘Societal expectations are rising all the time; ultimately we’ll be tested in the courts won’t we?’

There are echoes of the same sentiment in an article from this month’s Rail Magazine, where we see Southern Rail’s head of customer experience, Kerri Ricketts, making a highly controversial division between people with different ‘types’ of disabilities, again calling on the sentiment that it will ‘only’ be wheelchair users who are disadvantaged by the absence of onboard staff:

“…when an OBS is not available most disabled users benefit from the train continuing to run with just the driver, rather than cancelling the service and forcing all passengers to cram onto a following train. [Ricketts] said that only wheelchair users would gain from transferring onto the next service. Passengers with other disabilities – for example, those less physically impaired, blind, deaf, or mentally imparied – would be best served by continuing to travel.”

Ricketts also said that on average 1 in 1,750 trains would operate under these circumstances – fewer than one train per day. We at ABC feel that this statistic is to be taken with more than a grain of salt – if these are really the odds we are looking at, why has one local wheelchair user been left behind (and abandoned for up to two hours) on platforms three times in January alone?

It is vital that we raise this issue now and compel Southern Rail, the Department for Transport, the Rail Delivery Group and others to start playing a meaningful part in this discussion. They cannot continue to deny the reality of a problem that is so very clear and urgent to lawyers, access experts and disabled users.

We feel that the needs of the less mobile must be conceived of much more widely, and take into account the intersection of disabilities that is, most controversially, ignored by the comments quoted above. The European model uses a concept of PRM (Persons with Reduced Mobility) and includes mothers with children, pregant women and all disabilities in its scope. This is surely a much more progressive way to address this issue, than the callous division of disabilities into categories whereby, it is ‘only wheelchair users’ who will suffer. If the rail industry is truly seeking to modernise, it needs to urgently get with the times – the comments above make abundantly clear that Southern Rail has no concern for the realities of discrimination law.

Parts Two and Three of our series brings together contributions from experts, including members of the ABCD (Association of British Commuters Disabled Passengers), and we will be publishing these throughout the week. In every case, we will forward our publications to Southern Rail, the Rail Delivery Group and others, and ask them for an urgent and transparent response to our concerns.

If you have been personally affected by the problem of access on Southern Rail, please write to us at contact@associationofbritishcommuters.com

 

 

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