Southern Rail’s Equality of Access Crisis – Ann Bates OBE speaks out (Part Two)

After campaigning for months on the crisis of Equality of Access on Southern Rail, ABC believes that this issue can be ignored no longer. Extensive work is underway with witnesses who have experienced the failings of Southern Rail’s system, and we are soon to take the government to court in a precedent-setting case for disability access. Today, in Part Two of our blog series, we bring you the expert analysis of former DfT and Govia advisor Ann Bates, who was granted an OBE for her contributions to the field.

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Statement from Ann Bates, OBE:

“I was Chair of the Rail Group at the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (at the Department for Transport) for nine years and have worked with government, train companies, statutory agencies and other parties to ensure the full accessibility of the rail network for all passengers with the whole range of disabilities – not just wheelchair users, most of whom rely on staffing either on the train or the station for assistance.

The parties involved in the present dispute have not provided any robust solution to the ‘unstaffed train calling at an unstaffed station’ problem.  Various solutions have been proposed, all of which depend on a slick communication level that has been proven absent throughout the dispute, or negative experiences offered such as long distance taxi rides (mostly not available on the coast and many unable to fit a larger wheelchair inside), waiting on an unstaffed platform in all weathers trying to use an information point (impossible with a hearing loss), or being forced to change at another station to ‘await a staffed service’.

None of these options meet the test of ‘reasonableness’ required by the law as we will be delayed (sometimes by hours) and treated far worse than other passengers who can take trains straight through to their destination.

I have campaigned for the ‘level playing field’ concept where we get no positive discrimination, but the current plans will leave me in a more uncomfortable, more uncertain and more delayed situation than I was in travelling in the guards van all those years ago. Twenty years ago I was in the guards van, now I’m not even on the train!”

Upon discussion with Ann, we have highlighted the following issues:

  1. There are still no robust plans for problem of unmanned trains arriving at unmanned stations. Southern Rail have been notoriously bad at ‘communication’ in the past, which has led to instances of failure even in cases where disabled passengers have pre-booked assistance.
  2. There appear to be no plans on how to collect and act on performance data to learn from problems, let alone ‘trigger points’ for reviews of the policy.
  3. The principle of equalities law is that passengers are disabled by the environment in which they find themselves.  To try to separate passengers with ‘obvious’ disabilities from others shows a lack of understanding of disability.  Passengers with sight loss, mobility problems and cognitive issues all have problems with large uneven gaps from train to platform, especially at unfamiliar stations and require staff assistance.
  4. Taxi travel is rarely a ‘reasonable adjustment’, especially in rural areas where wheelchair-ready taxis can be very hard (or impossible) to get hold of. The delays caused to journeys by waiting for the right taxi to be available can be considerable and the taxi ride may cause travel sickness, which might be a reason for choosing rail travel in the first place.
  5. The list of ‘exceptional circumstances’ in the ASLEF document is even wider than previously, can Southern still believe in (or prove) their previous 0.06% claim?

To conclude – we are aware that there is a long way to go before ‘turn up and go’ travel becomes a reality all over our rail system. But rolling back the progress that had been made, when previously 33 stations on Southern Rail guaranteed this, is a significant step backwards for equality of access rights. The ever-increasing list of ‘exceptional circumstances’ in which trains will run without a second member of staff is a cause of grave concern for all those who feel they need extra support when using rail.

Disabled people have jobs, social lives, and the right to spontaneously travel without anxiety. Southern Rail cannot continue to ride roughshod over disabled peoples’ rights and their own responsibilities according to equalities law.

For Part One of our series on Equality of Access, click here.

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

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