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Transport accessibility: how do we make public transport open to all?

Lianna Etkind's picture
Two older women in bright coats stand outside Chelmsford Station

The Government recently consulted on its draft Accessibility Action Plan, aimed at making the public transport network easier to use for disabled people.

Transport is the quintessential public space, the place where different people come together. It's no accident that perhaps the best known moment of the American Civil Rights Movement was Rosa Parks' famous refusal to give up her seat for a white person, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

So progress to make transport accessible to disabled people is at the core of ending disability discrimination. Over the last twenty years, millions of pounds have been invested into making more workplaces, schools and businesses more accessible. But unless disabled people can get to these places, disabled people will continue to face barriers in accessing employment and participating in public life.

The Government is currently receiving consultation responses to the draft Accessibility Action Plan (you can find the response that Campaign for Better Transport submitted here). Last year, Paul Maynard (himself a disabled person) became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rail, Accessibility and HS2 - the first time that accessibility had been part of the ministerial job title. And progress is being made. Twenty five years ago, disabled campaigners locked themselves onto buses in protest at the lack of bus access. As of the beginning of 2017, every single decker and double decker bus must be accessible to wheelchair users by law. And following a long-running campaign led by Guidedogs, the Government has agreed that by 2020, all new buses will have to have audio-visual information, so hard-of-hearing and visually impaired people will be able to use them. 

There's some good stuff in the draft Accessibility Action Plan. The Government's stated intention to 'seek to extend' the Access for All programme, which funds station access improvements such as lifts, is very welcome, although we will have to wait to see how much money has been allocated. The Access for All programme has funded step-free access at 192 stations, but 1056 stations remain with no step-free access at all (around 41 percent of all stations). At present rates of change, it'll be over 200 years until the UK's rail has universal step-free access. There’s also a need for investment in making stations accessible to visually impaired people. The Netherlands recently achieved tactile edging at 100 percent of their stations, but the UK lags far behind this.

It's also good to see a commitment to allocate funding to provide more accessible toilets at stations. Many people (including some too reticent to ever mention it), limit the journeys they make because of the paucity of toilets, as well as the anxiety which goes along with that. The commitment to push the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) to monitor and enforce whether bus operators are complying with the legislation on bus access is good news: legislation without enforcement means very little.

However, we would like to see much more emphasis on monitoring and enforcement across the transport sector. At the moment, failures of assistance on rail are routine. The ORR recently found that one in five of those who asked for assistance with boarding and alighting from a train did not receive this. Similarly, seven out of ten people with sight loss have missed their stop when a driver has failed to let them know where they were on their journey. Among wheelchair users, being refused onto a bus is routine.

It’s worth emphasising that these examples of discrimination are not just poor customer service, but unlawful. For more than twenty years it has been unlawful under the Equality Act (previously the Disability Discrimination Act) for a transport provider to fail to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people; to refuse service to a disabled person because of their disability; or to offer service at a lower standard or on different terms to a person because of their disability. However, taking a case is exceedingly difficult, and complaints usually only result in an apology.

What can be done? Here are three actions which could make a real difference to disabled people.

1.      Protect buses

More and more disabled and older people are finding themselves in the situation of holding a bus pass, but with no bus to use it on. Since 2010, local authority funding for buses has been cut by about a third and around 2,400 routes reduced or withdrawn altogether.

Disabled people are twice as likely as the general population to have no car available to their household, according to the Papworth Trust. In the last four years, around 50,000 disabled people have had their adapted car taken from them as a result of welfare reforms; and many others are not able to hold a licence due to their impairment. This means that having access to public transport is even more essential to many disabled people. When buses are cut, disabled people are more likely than most to end up trapped in their homes, isolated and unable to access shops, friends, healthcare and jobs.

2.      Where a station is staffed, guarantee Turn-Up-And-Go assistance for disabled passengers

At present, train companies are obliged to “provide assistance to disabled passengers who arrive at a station and require assistance to allow them to travel, but assistance has not been arranged in advance, where reasonably practicable.” In practice however, staff often imply that disabled people need to book assistance 24 hours in advance of their journey. Disabled people requesting assistance at a station are often asked “Have you booked?” in what may seem like an accusing tone. The challenge of accessing Turn-Up-And-Go assistance is even harder for the many people with an invisible impairment, people who don’t “look disabled”.

Booking to get on a train 24 hours in advance, especially for commuters, is incompatible with work or having a life. The Government should work with the rail industry to bring all rail operators into line with the best practice already happening in some parts of the country: guaranteeing Turn-Up-And-Go assistance at staffed stations, offering assistance booked an hour in advance for unstaffed stations.

3.      Mandate train companies to tell disabled people that if they can’t use a train station because it’s inaccessible, the train company must pay for alternative transport
Every train company is obliged to pay for alternative transport to the nearest step-free station for a disabled passenger. (see page 20) However, this is the biggest secret in rail travel, usually hidden in the small print of the train operators’ Disabled Person’s Protection Policy (DPPP). A poster campaign informing disabled people of this right would enable so many more people to use rail.

These actions, together with ensuring quality Disability Equality Training for transport staff and setting binding targets for the proportion of accessible taxis and minicabs, would go a long way to ensuring disabled people are able to access public transport with the same freedom and independence as everyone else.