HomePeopleIs Britain’s rail network meeting the needs of disabled passengers?

Is Britain’s rail network meeting the needs of disabled passengers?

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In preparation for the arrival of its brand new fleet, Greater Anglia flew a number of disabled passengers out to Switzerland to see how features on board its new trains will help them get around the network.

The group, which included, a wheelchair user, a blind person and a visually impaired man with a guide dog, helped test the prototype ramps and retractable gap fillers which are being designed by manufacturer Stadler.

The aim of these sessions is to generate practical feedback that the train’s designers can look to incorporate before full production begins. In the case of Greater Anglia’s new fleet, the majority of feedback has been taken onboard and will physically change the interior design of the vehicles, including the addition of low-level emergency buttons and installation of modesty screens in the disabled sections.

MTR Crossrail is doing something similar ahead of the launch of the new service. The operator has been inviting people with disabilities to ride the line and suggest areas for improvement. Autistic children have also been invited to ride in the cab to learn about the trains and what it is like to be a driver.

These kinds of consultations are common during the design of new stations, structures and rolling stock, but much of the existing infrastructure is still playing catch up. With an ageing population and the number of passengers with reduced mobility potentially set to rise, the government’s goal is to make Britain’s transport network fully accessible by 2030, but is that achievable and what does it mean in practice?

Photo: Stadler/Greater Anglia.
Photo: Stadler/Greater Anglia.

Inclusive Transport Strategy

In July, the Department for Transport (DfT) outlined its Inclusive Transport Strategy, boosting investment to improve accessibility across various transport modes. The strategy includes up to £300 million of extra funding to extend the Access for All programme for Britain’s stations. Another measure will be to produce accessibility league tables, naming and shaming the worst performing operators.

The disability charity Scope said that 40 per cent of disabled passengers experience problems using the rail network. Welcoming the new strategy, chief executive Mark Atkinson said there were too many “horror stories of disabled people let down by poor infrastructure, bad service, or being treated as an afterthought”.

Transport Accessibility Minister Nusrat Ghani said the country needed to have a “genuinely inclusive transport network”.

“We’ve moved on an awful lot,” said Mike Hewitson, head of policy at Transport Focus, giving his thoughts on the network’s current standard of accessibility.

Accessibility is listed as one of Transport Focus’ key issues and the passenger watchdog hosts a regular Accessibility Forum to consider the experiences of disabled users.

Although there are many issues still to overcome, Mike felt that things have improved overall. “I’m reluctant to say it’s good… but if you look back 10 years and look back now, it’s certainly got better,” said Mike.

“The funding has kept coming. The recognition of it being something important that needs to be addressed and the sense that the whole railway wants to make it better rather than being pushed reluctantly into it.”


Disabled passengers face challenges from the moment they book their tickets. Train operators ask passengers who may need additional assistance to let them know in advance, normally requiring at least 24 hours warning. Research carried out by the ORR showed that in many instances this system works perfectly but, on the relatively small number of occasions where staff aren’t there to help, disabled passengers are left stranded.

The ORR found that 12 per cent of disabled people hadn’t received the assistance they had booked through the Passenger Assist system. Launching the Inclusive Transport Strategy, Nusrat Ghani said train operators must compensate passengers where booked assistance isn’t provided.

Mike believes technology and data is an area where the industry can deliver some of the most significant improvements but that it first needs to get better at sharing important service information with disabled passengers.

While staff training has improved and there are lots of examples of “really good people doing some really good things”, Mike believes that Passenger Assist in particular needs to become more reliable.

Back in June, the RSSB published a list of seven winners for its Rail Accessibility Competition – the intention of which was to identify technological innovations which could improve access for disabled passengers. Many of the winning solutions involved smartphone applications that would in some way improve the flow of information between operators and passengers.

One of the winning projects was Rail4All: an app which will help disabled passengers book assistance with confidence. 3Squared, which is developing Rail4All, has worked with Paralympic gold medallist Sophie Christiansen to refine the app and plans to trial it with several operators.

In a video announcing her support for the project, Sophie said: “I really wanted to be involved in this project because train travel is something really close to my heart. As well as being a Paralympic athlete, I also work two days a week in London, so have to commute rather a lot. Now I’ve always thought that I would live a relatively independent life but train travel really, really takes the independence away from me. For example, I have to book 24 hours in advance for most journeys.

“Now in some cases this really isn’t possible and, quite frankly, why do I have to plan my journey when able-bodied passengers don’t have to do the same? When I go to work I sometimes never know when I’m going to finish up at the office and so how can I possibly give the staff at the station forewarning? I do understand that to arrange the amount of staff to get the ramp ready requires planning but I really don’t think 24 hours is necessary.”

Sophie said she regularly feels a sense of fear towards the end of her journey that there may not be anyone there to help her get off.

She added: “I honestly don’t know if I’m going to get off at my home station or if I’m going to end up in Portsmouth. My desire is to eliminate this fear factor to make travelling by train a more comfortable and secure method of transport for every disabled person across the country.”

Photo: Stadler/Greater Anglia.
Photo: Stadler/Greater Anglia.

2020 deadline

The difficulties for disabled passengers continue when on board – a lack of wheelchair spaces and availability of disabled toilet facilities are common issues.

With the introduction of new rolling stock, Mike said he felt confident that a fully accessible national train fleet is achievable. For existing rolling stock, there are several pieces of legislation which set out the accessibility requirements they will need to meet in the near future.

The PRM-TSI and RVAR regulations will require all mainline rail vehicles to be accessible by 2020, something that operators and vehicle owners have been working towards for some time, but the government has admitted that not all trains will be compliant by the deadline. There is a long list on the DfT’s website of vehicles that have already received exemptions from the legislation either because the modifications aren’t cost effective, practical or may actually be prohibitive.

Mike supports a common sense approach to these accessibility modifications. While the objective is for operators to be able to offer a turn-up-and-go service for all passengers, he believes the most important aim is to deliver full journey mobility for passengers and there will always be a need for staff to be part of this.

“It’s a bit like smart ticketing, it’s got to work across train companies because people travel across train companies,” said Mike, explaining why it is important for train operators to approach rail accessibility in a joined up way.

It’s not just train operators. All transport modes will need to work much more closely to be able to deliver a fully accessible public transport network by 2030. “That’s when it gets really difficult,” said Mike.

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