Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Planet Practice (TYP 43)

  Those who prepare or review a 10 Year Transport Plan ask themselves many important questions. Some carry more weight than others. The need for clarity of purpose and openness and truth is obvious but for how many people is compassion part of management?

  How high on the list of priorities are the real needs of wheelchair users? How do we avoid token gestures to wheelchair users or cyclists that ignore real need or condone exclusion?

  Why is there a mindset that so rarely grasps the reality that a public transport system that fully includes wheelchair users is a transport system that is easier and better for the non wheelchair using public as well?

  Since the Government White Paper in 1998, controls, regulations and outside direction on train and track operators have multiplied; the first Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority has come and gone. Meanwhile, maintenance contractors and manufacturers have seen their profitability grow rapidly as the country at last begins to catch up on the backlog of repairs and renewals after 60 years of short term fixes and under investment.

  It is hoped that within the examples below whether of good practice or missed opportunities, details illustrate a wider picture. Technical excellence contrasted elsewhere with a blinkered view that comes close to the borders of cultural and institutionalised prejudice against the real needs of wheelchair users or cyclists.


  In 1998 the communities of Oban, Tobermory and Coll contemplated the recent dislocations of their transport network.

  If the 10 Year Transport Plan is to be anything real, such strategic and social links between the Inner Hebrides islands of Mull and Coll will be re-established without delay.

  Proposals for a summer service between Mull and Coll in 2002 are still in the process of being finalised. Sustainable rural communities, like communities everywhere, also need winter transport links.

  It is fair to say that the transport needs for those on the margins is equally important in inner cities. They await the re-establishment of urban transport systems that link together rather than marginalizing. This imperative includes the car-less, the wheelchair user and, most important, entices and persuades the car owner to leave the car behind in order to walk or to travel, for example, in pollution reducing trams instead.

  Manchester, Croydon, Nottingham and others places get on with construction and operation of modern trams that take traffic out of city streets while letting prosperity in. Why is it that other cities, like Bath and Bristol are still floundering around apparently ignorant of effective independent advice which helps make things happen in other European cities?


  Early this summer, plans to connect Exmoor National Park to the main rail network were well advanced. Exmoor remains one of the few National Parks that cannot easily be reached by rail. The proposals to upgrade the link from the West Somerset Railway to the West of England Main Line via Bishops Lydeard, Norton Fitzwarren, Silk Mills and Taunton were long overdue and had wide local authority, National Park, local and regional support. A new bridge, wide enough to accommodate the upgraded links, was to replace a major road level crossing on the main line, which badly hampers both road and rail use in the area. These proposals are now delayed.

  How many similar elements of the rail network, which are vital to local regional economies, have at best been put on hold or, at worst, will be short-sightedly scrapped by advisors, from outside the region, who appear to those in the transport or rail industry to be out of sympathy with the philosophy of a railway network that is inclusive of people and places?

  The "Beeching cuts" were not well advised on strategic or land use or social grounds. A decade or more later, we were spared even worse when the Serpell Report was dismissed. It was this report that had suggested that the London to Bristol route did not need the extra loop via Chippenham and Bath. Some now share the fear that another attempt at Serpell-like rationalisation, driven by a faith in buses, may threaten both such routes and also meaningful accessible transport systems flexible enough to include cyclists and wheelchair users as passengers.

  When British Railways were given permission to close the railway to Minehead, buses were put on instead. Children going to Taunton for further education could do coursework or read and study on the train; buses made them sick. Wheelchair users who visited and enjoyed Minehead's promenades were disenfranchised, when the mainline railway link closed. "Bustitution" is not good news for wheelchair users or cyclists.

  Inner city areas, just as much as places like Exmoor, need links that are environmentally sound and accessible. The West Somerset Railway has special carriages each capable of accommodating 10-12 wheelchair users. Quite large groups of cyclists can also be welcomed. It shows just what can rightly be expected and delivered by a "not for profit" well run railway provided there is direct accountability to the shareholders determined to do what it takes to ensure that their railway exists and prospers in the community. In many ways such railways are inspirational. Sir Peter Baldwin, as chairman of Diptac, officially commissioned the first such carriage on the West Somerset Railway while Eurostar was scarcely past the concept stage.

  The economy and environment of West Somerset and Exmoor will benefit greatly if the 10 Year Plan makes it clear that such local schemes and partnerships will be properly funded as "priority pilot projects"


  Between King's Cross platform 9 and Cambridge, brilliant new trains run, that provide as near excellent universal wheelchair access as any non specially built rail vehicle. There is no reason why all rail carriages used in Britain and Europe should not meet or exceed the standards they set. Wide central aisles, with pairs of seats on either side and decent leg room, mean that, as well as welcoming significant numbers of wheelchair users to travel on the same train, if they wish to do so, these trains are easier for all other passengers to get on and off. Those whose job it is to work in the trains confirm repeatedly that passenger circulation, ticket inspections and sales from the trolley are all much better, and easier, than in other rolling stock. These and other less obvious benefits have flowed from taking greater notice of the needs of people using wheelchairs.

  The trains, described above, are known as Low Density Networker Class 365 and, it is understood, were the last product of the old British Railways Board.


  It is an un-explained and more than slightly strange lost opportunity that the same British Railways Board did not recommend to the Department of Transport and the Department of Transport Mobility and Inclusion Unit and the European partners in the project for the channel tunnel link that the same guiding principals that inspired the Cambridge to King's Cross train should be used for fitting out or re-fitting out all future Eurostars.

  If Eurostars had been fitted out following the "universal access principles" to be found on the King's Cross to Cambridge Low-Density Networker Class 365, many of the obstacles to group wheelchair travel could be more easily addressed and overcome. Had they been so built Disabled Veteran Associations visiting European Memorial services, people needing to use wheelchairs participating in sports events, cyclists of all ages and groups from Cheshire Homes, the Sue Ryder Foundation, L'Arche Communities and others would begin to enjoy by rail the fruits of a more united Europe. It is simply so sad that because of these oversights and the embarrassment that these have subsequently caused that for the moment the channel tunnel remains a hollow sham for many of the 800,000 people in the UK who use Wheelchairs.

  It was announced on 19 December 2000 that the British built and funded "Nightstar" carriages that would have most economically have provided universal wheelchair accessible access to the UK from the Continent, via the channel tunnel, were being sold to Canada.

  Eurostar "inter regional" sets designed to bring much needed tourists from the regions of Europe to the regions of the UK are instead trundling up and down between London and York.

  The 10 Year Plan must make it a Priority to forbid any monopoly any where from preventing, obstructing, frustrating, or in any other way, discouraging the planning and operation of inter-regional and cross channel tunnel train services that are accessible to wheelchair users travelling in groups together.


  "Making it easier for passengers" must ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to prevent the scandal of last minute platform announcements and change of platform announcements that are frequently scarcely audible and make travel a nightmare for those disabled by injury or those with different abilities, the elderly or families with children. It's not much fun if you're fit with good hearing, it is sometimes impossible and dangerous if you are elderly.

  Railway industry staff who owned shares in their business and were committed to the future have not in recent weeks heard much about how their loyalty will be rewarded. Shareholders such as them are, from time to time, portrayed by some as greedy money seekers. Any one of them who put in £700 or so into railway shares in railtrack, because they believed the long term endorsements by government and others confirming the central part their industry and business played in the role of the nation, have despite the headline dominating sound-bites, only received back some £230 of that money as dividend. The railway industry still has the use and benefit of the rest of the money for nothing at least for the time being. Many in the industry have lost much more, and not just money and savings; they have lost faith; their "new deal" of being investors in the nation's capital has been described and ridiculed by a small number as nothing better than the rough deserts of a gang of get rich quick merchants.

  This is only a part of the true price that has been paid by the railways for the divorcing of themselves from well-intentioned private investment by supporters and people in the railway industry everywhere. Why has their trust been betrayed? What damage will have been done to labour relations? Is it not true that the railways depend on a trust and commitment of staff and thousands who build their livelihoods around them? The 10 Year Plan must recognise this and effect a reconciliation.


  It is a crucial time. The radical changes to the climate in which the railway industry must operate have thrown into confusion initiatives that still have an important role to play. Real hopes have been and are still being dashed. Real injury in many places must be healed.

  Why was the Glasnost and Perestroika that many expected under the imaginative leadership of the now retired chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority denied them?

  Whatever the details of the 10 Year Plan, there must be confirmation that routes won't close, that services will not be cut, that simpler cheaper access to tickets will be developed to ensure that the passenger and travel operator recognise that they are partners in the same endeavour.

  It is not entirely different for trams, or the new rural buses that have reduced reliance on the car in some areas, and the measures that should encourage and woo our population to shop and to go to work without the car. These too require trust and a willingness to listen and learn on all sides. Above all, do not anyone be hoodwinked into creating a "better more efficient railway" that is in fact a more efficient reduced service.

  Mixed housing development, such as the Poundbury extension to Dorchester, is intrinsically attractive. "Journey and place are part of the same endeavour." Poundbury provides safe walking and reliable dependable public transport. It is accessible socially, financially as well as being physically inclusive to the wheelchair user. It will help our nation rediscover that it is possible to live more peacefully, to travel less but travel better, to travel more safely, to travel more cheaply, when we wish to, not just because we have no choice. Such an approach can soften and even make attractive the changes to our country's landscape that are necessary to accommodate the changing way in which we live and travel.

Mark Blathwayt

7 January 2002

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