Exposed: Disabled access cover up at the Department for Transport

Our latest set of FOI requests to the DfT has exposed years of controversy within the Department itself. The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) has been protesting the roll out of driver only operation since April 2016, calling DOO policies ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’.

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Earlier today, the Department for Transport published their new “Inclusive Transport Strategy” – the outcome of the Accessibility Action Plan consultation that began in August 2017. The timing of this publication, on the day before the RMT strike on South Western Railway, speaks volumes about their intention to deflect from their own role in removing the guaranteed guard from the train; especially at a time when the disabled access argument has already been won in the eyes of the public.

But we’ve got news for the DfT – they’re not going to get away with it this time. After campaigning on this issue for two years, and releasing a number of leaked documents concerning disabled access cover ups around DOO, we finally have all we need to show that they have been willing to turn back the clock on disabled access in order to break the RMT union on the issue of the ‘Guard Guarantee’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’.

New documents prove that DPTAC has been protesting DOO since April 2016

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) advises the government on transport legislation, regulations and guidance and on the transport needs of disabled people, ensuring disabled people have the same access to transport as everyone else.

We are now able to share copies of the advice they have been giving to the DfT including: strong opposition to the use of DOO across muliple rail franchises; a warning letter about ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’ DOO policies sent to Peter Wilkinson in April 2016; DPTAC’s real thoughts about the AAP consultation; and the minutes of a meeting with Rail Minister Nusrat Ghani in May 2018, where she defends the government’s position on DOO.

Download the key documents relating to DOO and disabled access here:

  1. DPTAC’s response to the Accessibility Action Plan consultation
  2. DPTAC’s warning letter to Peter Wilkinson, April 2016
  3. DPTAC’s response to the SE Franchise consultation, May 2017
  4. DPTAC’s response to the GW Franchise consultation, Feb 2018
  5. DPTAC May 2018 meeting with Nus Ghani, Rail Minister
  6. Letter to ABC from Keith Richards Chair of DPTAC

We also include the minutes of all DPTAC meetings since 2016, which cover a wide range of discussion on accessibility issues:

DPTAC January 2016 meeting DPTAC July 2016 meeting DPTAC November 2016 meeting DPTAC February 2017 meeting DPTAC May 2017 meeting DPTAC November 2017 Induction Event DPTAC January 2018 meeting DPTAC May 2018 meeting

  1. DPTAC’s criticism of the draft Accessibility Action Plan (AAP)

The AAP formed the basis of today’s DfT “Inclusive Transport Strategy“, which omits any discussion of driver only operation and therefore has clearly ignored DPTAC’s advice on this issue. DPTAC’s response to the Accessibility Action Plan consultation protests the omission of driver only operation in relation to franchise contracts, while the minutes of the DPTAC January 2018 meeting establish that the consultation had generated 288 responses on the issue of DOO out of a total of 1000 (pg.7).  Despite expert advice and strong passenger sentiment, this topic is absent from the DfT’s strategy document today.

DPTAC’s response to the AAP

“The draft Accessibility Action Plan (AAP) pulls together a summary of DfT work on accessibility issues. There is something of a dichotomy between the aspirational and visionary tone and content of the Ministerial introduction which we very much welcome, and the rather less ambitious tone and content of the rest of the draft AAP.

Although the Ministerial introduction states: “This draft action plan sets out our proposed strategy to address the gaps in existing provision of transport services which serve as a barrier to people with disabilities”, the plan does not clearly set out a robust strategy for the short, medium and long term, nor does it articulate an appropriately structured and detailed gap analysis” (pg.2)

“One key issue that is missing from the AAP consultation concerns the level of staffing on the rail network and the role of the franchising (DfT) and licensing (ORR) processes in that….Our advice is that, trains without a member of customer service staff, combined with unstaffed stations make it impossible to reduce the need to pre-book, and create a ‘toxic’ combination for many disabled people that excludes them from using rail.” (pg.17)

2. DPTAC’s warning letter to Peter Wilkinson, April 2016

In the month that RMT industrial action began on Southern Rail, DPTAC wrote to Peter Wilkinson to warn him that any policy involving the running of unstaffed trains to unstaffed stations would be “illegal”:

“We question how older and disabled people, and particularly those who suffer from acute anxiety and mental health issues, can travel when there are effectively no customer service staff on the train or on the station. On this point we know that the toxic combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations fails to deliver a service that meets the needs of many disabled passengers. As a result DPTAC is seeking a guarantee that such policies cannot undermine the fundamental principle of accessibility – which would in any event be illegal.” (pg.2)

3. DPTAC’s response to the SE Franchise consultation, May 2017

“DPTAC believes that the franchise process can and must be used to ensure that the right level of staffing is provided by the train operator for all passengers, particularly for those who may need assistance. It is not sufficient for the process to ‘encourage bidders to suggest ways to increase the availability of staff’.  Accessibility can only be improved for users and non-users if the franchise agreement stipulates that adequate staff at station, and on train are available to meet customers’ needs at all points of the journey and at all times that the service is operating.

It is the combination of driver only trains (with no other on-board staff) and unstaffed stations that leads to an inconsistent and poor service to many disabled people, and serves to exclude many disabled people who do not currently uses rail services as they do not have the confidence to do so under the perception that their needs will fail to be met.

While it is well understood that it is a legal as well as social responsibility of Government and the train operator to deliver accessible services, it is unfortunate that under the important heading of ‘Social Responsibility’ the emphasis is on delivering ‘safe, secure and sustainable transport’ with no mention of accessibility and inclusion. Safety and accessibility are, in many respects one and the same, and both are underpinned by legal requirements that both requirements will be fulfilled. This franchise process should therefore require steps to be taken to deliver accessible services and not serve to legitimise the operation of services that combine trains with no staff available to assist passengers during a journey, and address the issue of how disabled customers’ needs will be addressed at unstaffed stations.” (pg.4)

4. DPTAC’s response to the GW Franchise consultation, Feb 2018

“In terms of journey times more generally, we caution against the excessive reduction of station dwell times, and would like to see sufficient time allowed for passengers to board and alight, including assisted passengers. For example, the Committed Obligation included in the recent South Western Franchise Agreement to reduce dwell times to 30 seconds at most stations would seem to work against extending journey opportunities for disabled passengers. This is not sufficient for the deployment of a platform-train ramp, and may not be sufficient for those passengers needing other assistance or who simply need a little more time – likely to become increasingly an issue due to an ageing population.” (pg. 4 – 5)

“We do not believe it is sufficient solely to expect the franchisee to develop proposals for improving accessibility at stations, given the substantial barriers to access for disabled passengers known to exist on this franchise. We would encourage DfT to specify within the Invitation to Tender and Franchise Agreement significant improvements to train and station services.

In particular, we suggest that it is made a Franchise Committed Obligation to provide staff either on stations, or on-board trains (but never neither) – to provide information, reassurance and assistance to passengers, including the provision of boarding and alighting assistance. We welcome the proposals to provide additional staff at 15 stations, but this does not address fully our concerns regarding staff availability.

At present, there are 29 GWR unstaffed / part-staffed stations which are nevertheless served by Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains with no regular on-board staff available. These include e.g.: Bedwyn, Henley-on-Thames, and Hungerford – all well-used stations with step-free access to all platforms, but no means for assisted passengers to board and alight unless a member of staff is sent to the station (which requires advance notice, and sufficient spare staff which may not be the case). This practice results arguably in substantial disadvantage for disabled passengers (as defined in the Equality Act 2020), and is wholly inconsistent with the proposed Franchise Objective of ‘an excellent and continually improving service for all passengers’. Without the capability to travel on a spontaneous basis, and on the same terms as other passengers, disabled people, and wider society, cannot benefit fully from the multi-billion pound investment currently being made across the franchise. Given the size of the investment, and the e.g. external health and employment benefits of an inclusive service, for some disabled people it may seem as if the ship is being sunk for a ha’penny worth of tar.

It is also relevant that the Elizabeth Line will be offering a ‘turn-up-and-go’ assistance service at all times trains are running. This will bring the inadequacy of GWR’s assistance capability sharply into focus, especially at e.g. Thames Valley branch lines feeding directly into the Elizabeth Line.

Going forward DPTAC would caution against any proposals to reduce the guaranteed presence of existing on-train staff – which may have a significant impact on the ability and confidence of disabled people to use GWR services.” (pg.6 – 7)

5. DPTAC May 2018 meeting with Nus Ghani, Rail Minister

“Matthew Smith asked (staffing on rail) “On the issue of Driver Only trains, operators cannot provide a reliable Assisted Travel service, or otherwise support many of the needs of disabled people, when running unstaffed trains to unstaffed stations. This is also relevant to many other passengers not within DPTAC’s remit, for example unaccompanied children. DPTAC’s concerns are part of wider passenger concerns about the availability of staff.

The ongoing staffing changes are being implemented by train operators in order to fulfil DfT Franchise Agreements which permit, encourage or mandate the extension of Driver Only operation. The origin of this is the McNulty report from 2011 (‘Realising the potential of rail in Great Britain’) which argued that the ‘default position’ should be DOO, and a second member of on-train staff should only be provided where there is a ‘commercial, technical or other imperative‘.

Does the Minister agree that the accessibility of the rail network to disabled people is that ‘other imperative‘, and that DfT should ensure that Franchise Agreements require on-train staff to be provided wherever trains run to unstaffed or part-staffed stations?

In response the Minister said –

  • DOO/DCO were not new and have operated without significant impact since the 1980s. She did not consider that DOO on more of the network, alongside other measures to improve access more generally, would have a significant impact.
  • The Minister noted DPTAC’s advice and its concerns and that this is an issue at which the Department’s view does not follow that of DPTAC’s concerns.

DPTAC noted that the impact of the combination of DOO and unstaffed stations has not been properly considered and that its advice to the Department is that such an evaluation is needed urgently.” (pg.3 – 4)

6. Letter to ABC from Keith Richards Chair of DPTAC

In response to our FOI requests on the issues of DOO, dwell times and staffing, the Chair of DPTAC sent a covering letter explaining DPTAC’s position on these matters:

“By way of a summary of DPTAC’s advice to the Department on these issues, it is that we are very concerned that the ability of train operating companies to provide assisted travel to disabled passengers is primarily influenced by staffing levels on board trains and on stations. We believe that the combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations fails to deliver a service that meets the needs of an increasing number of disabled passengers. As a result DPTAC has advised the DfT to urgently research this area to gather evidence of whether the way franchise holders operate their franchised services are delivering accessible rail services, or are delivering a lower level of service than other rail users receive, are excluding disabled people completely.”

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