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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Gatwick Express Class 458 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2006




 
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Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

Miss Anne Begg

Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)
†Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
†Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
†Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab)
†Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
†Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
†Hammond, Stephen (Wimbledon) (Con)
†Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
†Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
†Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert (Medway) (Lab)
†Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab)
†Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
†Roy, Mr. Frank (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab)
†Twigg, Derek (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Wills, Mr. Michael (North Swindon) (Lab)
Mark Egan, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee



The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):

Hall, Patrick (Bedford) (Lab)

 
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Monday 13 March 2006

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Gatwick Express Class 458 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2006

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Gatwick Express Class 458 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2006.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg.

The provision of an accessible public transport system in which disabled people can have the same opportunity to travel as other members of society is a key plank in our policy to improve the lives of disabled people. We are fully aware that, without accessible transport, disabled people will be limited in their ability to access work, visit friends and family, and participate in leisure activities or access health care facilities. That is why we have taken action to ensure that public transport services are increasingly accessible to disabled people. Our record in that area speaks for itself.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Secretary of State for Transport introduced accessibility regulations for rail vehicles, buses and coaches. About 4,400 rail vehicles are already in service, both on the mainline and on local tram services. They are covered by the rail vehicle accessibility regulations. During the next 10 years, that number will increase significantly. We must not forget that many thousands of older vehicles have been made more accessible during refurbishment.

Trains covered by the rail vehicle accessibility regulations operate on services throughout the country. It is significant that RVAR trains have now replaced a large fleet of slam-door trains, which relegated wheelchair users to the guard’s van and were difficult for disabled people to use. Provisions under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 will build on the achievements so far. The Act provided that regulations must be introduced to ensure, that by no later than 1 January 2020, all rail vehicles will be subject to RVAR. The Act also provides for those regulations to be applied to all rail vehicles when they are refurbished.

The effect of the two new provisions will be to ensure that we have an increasingly accessible fleet of rail services throughout the network. Indeed, the DDA 2005 also provides for a certification process to be established and for the creation of an effective enforcement regime that will ensure that breaches of the accessibility regulations will be dealt with
 
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effectively. We shall be consulting on the package of measures shortly. Of course, the matter is not all about the physical accessibility of the rolling stock. We have already made regulations to lift, either in full or in part, the exemption under part 3 of the DDA as it applies to the operators of public transport vehicles.

The regulations come into force on 4 December this year and will provide a legal enforcement mechanism to ensure that operators do not unreasonably discriminate against disabled people in the manner in which they provide their transport services. Another consequence of the Act is the greater scrutiny of applications for exemptions from parts of the RVAR and that is, of course, why we are here now. In this case, that Gatwick Express wishes to sub-lease two trains from South West Trains to provide back-up for when it has problems with its vehicles.

Gatwick Express does not expect to use the trains for more than 70 days each year. The specification of the vehicles is similar to those currently used by Gatwick Express, which is why it makes sense from an operational point of view to use that stock. Disabled passengers would not be disadvantaged in any way by travelling on those trains compared with using one of the Gatwick Express’s regular services. The vehicles to which the order applies entered service with South West trains with a number of exemptions from the RVAR. The exemptions were considered necessary because the vehicles were in build when the RVAR were introduced. Since then, their owner, Porterbrook, has carried out some work to improve accessibility and it understands that the fleet must be brought up to full compliance when they come off lease with SWT.

In general, when trains move between operators any exemption that has been granted simply transfers to the new operator. However, it is a peculiarity of the exemptions that apply to the particular trains that we are discussing that the exemptions cease if the vehicles are operated by any operator other than South West Trains. That was a condition imposed by the Secretary of State to prevent the entire fleet of 30 trains from being moved to another operator without improvement.

I wish to point out that, in general, the exemptions relate to relatively minor non-compliances. For example, the handrails at the external doors are 480 mm long instead of 500 mm long, and the internal door controls are not illuminated. Some could be considered more significant but, because the Gatwick Express service is fully staffed, its impact is greatly reduced and would in no way prevent disabled people from using the trains.

I am sure that members of the Committee appreciate that it would make no economic sense to require that two of the trains should be made fully compliant ahead of the refurbishment of the entire fleet, simply because they are being sub-leased to another operator to provide a back-up service. To do so would mean that the unit costs of the refurbishment would fall disproportionately on those first two trains rather than being spread across the fleet. Porterbrook is already committed to ensuring that the two trains are made
 
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fully compliant at the same time as the remainder of the fleet before they can enter service with any other operator.

In the meantime, we need to remember that those trains are no less compliant than those Gatwick Express already use—indeed, in some respects, they are more accessible. By joining the two sets of rail vehicles together to form a train of eight carriages, four wheelchair spaces will be available, compared with only two on an equivalent Gatwick Express train.

I should stress that we are not discussing granting exemptions for any new items in relation to the vehicles. We are simply concerned with the transfer of existing exemptions to a different operator and bringing the periods of the exemptions into line with those that apply to the existing fleet operated by Gatwick Express.

In accordance with the DDA, we consulted the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the Government’s statutory advisory body on transport and disability issues. It recognises that moving the two trains to Gatwick Express would deliver benefits to disabled people. The trains that were previously used as back-up were built in the 1970s and consequently had very poor provision for disabled passengers. It therefore supports the making of the exemption order.

In this particular case the facts are as follows: no new non-compliances are being introduced; the trains in question will be used only as back-up; the owner of the trains intends to bring the entire fleet up to full compliance before they operate on a new lease elsewhere; and, not least, the DPTAC sees this sub-lease arrangement as a pragmatic solution that will not disadvantage disabled travellers. The Government believe that this is a reasonable application.

4.36 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am pleased to take part in this Committee. The draft order is essentially non-controversial. As the Minister said, Gatwick Express seeks an exemption from certain requirements of the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations of 1998. That situation results purely from a number of the certain specified rail vehicles that were built for South West Trains being sub-leased to Gatwick Express. The vehicles already had the exemptions, so we are not considering any extension to them.

The parent Act is designed to ensure that all the rail vehicles first brought into use after a certain date are designed to allow accessibility for disabled persons and to improve it. This afternoon, we should explore in small detail whether the Government have consulted the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and whether the appropriate reassurances have been given. As the Minister said, the view that disabled people should be able to travel, and that they should have the accessibility to do so in comfort and safety, is shared throughout the House of Commons.

As I understand it, the specifications of the exemptions are such that the Secretary of State has powers to exempt specified vehicles from particular requirements in two circumstances. The first is where
 
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he is satisfied that it is not possible for those vehicles to comply fully with the regulations. I am grateful to the Minister for answering a number of the questions that I might have put to him this afternoon. I wanted to know why the vehicles failed to comply, how many more might follow and what the original exemptions were. He answered almost all of those questions, but there was one exception. Given that the exemption is being granted until 2011, will he tell us, in terms of the cost of the fleet refurbishment, to which he referred, whether the new sub-lessees of the vehicles might be able to do some things to comply fully in a faster way? Will he reassure us on that point?

The second area where the Secretary of State has powers to grant exemptions is to ensure that things will not seriously compromise the ability of disabled people to travel in the vehicles. The Minister pointed out that the DPTAC made a recommendation to him that as far as it is able to ascertain the proposals will not affect disabled travel on the line—indeed, they might enhance it in some cases.

Again, I wanted to raise several issues with the Minister, but he has pre-empted those, as we might expect in the context of this non-controversial measure. I would be grateful if he would come back to us on a couple of things. He talked about the entire fleet being refurbished, and said that these particular vehicles may be refurbished at that stage. Can he give us some reassurances as to the time scale for that? He also mentioned that the Department had had discussions with Gatwick Express in respect of the fact that these vehicles were proposed to be used only as back-up, or, in extremis, for only 70 days a year as front-line services. Can he reassure us as to how we intend to ensure that Gatwick Express is made compliant with those wishes?

Otherwise, having heard a number of reassurances from the Minister—particularly from his consultations with the DPTAC—we will not press any further.

4.41 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Like the previous speaker, I welcome the Minister’s statement; it reassures us on a number of points that have been made with regard to the operation of these vehicles. When I initially read the report, I was concerned about the level of work that might be outstanding in respect of the accessibility of these vehicles, and also about why no attempts had been made to carry out some of that work. However, having now read the explanatory notes and listened to the Minister, I am satisfied that he has consulted the appropriate disabled groups and that these vehicles will be an improvement on the back-up that is currently available.

I wish to make only one point. The explanatory notes mention that some refurbishment work—on luggage racks, for instance—will be carried out before these vehicles are brought into service. Would it not be possible for some of the minor amendments that are needed—such as, perhaps, the lighting on the door accesses—to be carried out at the same time? However,
 
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I accept the assurance that, in terms of accessibility for wheelchairs, what is proposed will be an improvement on what is currently available on the Gatwick Express.

4.42 pm

Derek Twigg: I mentioned the DPTAC, as did the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). It was consulted on this issue, and it supports making the exemptions.

On whether more can be done to make trains compliant within the time scale, I made it clear that the economics of making the changes to these vehicles ahead of the work on the full fleet does not really stack up; it is unlikely that they will be improved ahead of the work on the entire fleet. The important point is that there will be increased space for wheelchair users in these vehicles. Porterbrook has responsibility for this as they are its trains; it can decide whether to make improvements when trains move to a different franchise or part of the railway system. However, it would probably not be economically useful to make
 
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these changes now, because of the scale of the improvements that need to be made; to do that would cost much more than to tackle the entire fleet in one go.

Stephen Hammond: For clarification, can the Minister say when the whole fleet is due for refurbishment?

Derek Twigg: That is when the trains are no longer used where they currently are—in the South West Trains area. However, it is important to remember that significant improvements have been made to the overall rolling stock; almost 4,500 new vehicles are now compliant, and that is a significant proportion of the current rolling stock. The Government are keen for there to be further improvements. The hon. Gentleman may also be aware of the Access for All announcement that we made; we will be making improvements around railway stations that will improve disability access. That is also a significant contribution.

Question put and agreed to

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Gatwick Express Class 458 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2006.

Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Five o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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