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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (B2007 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Hammond, Stephen (Wimbledon) (Con)
Harris, Mr. Tom (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
Keen, Alan (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
David Slater, Martin Gaunt, Committee Clerk s
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 10 March 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (B2007 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2008

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (B2007 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2008.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I think that I speak for the whole Committee when I say that.
The provision of an accessible public transport system in which disabled people can have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society is a key plank of our policy to improve the life chances of disabled people and promote social inclusion. We are fully aware that without accessible transport, disabled people are limited in their ability to access work, visit friends and family, participate in leisure activities and access health care and education facilities. That is why we have taken action to ensure that public transport services are increasingly accessible to the estimated 11 million disabled people in the United Kingdom.
Our record on the issue speaks for itself. We have already introduced regulations requiring all new rail vehicles, buses and coaches to be accessible.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Of course, it is important that disabled people have access to railway vehicles, and that is all well and good, but what about ensuring that railway station platforms are also disabled-friendly?
Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and the order refers to the platforms on the docklands light railway. He will know that the Government have committed £370 million of access for all funding over 10 years to deal with such issues. So far, more than 100 stations in England and Wales have been identified where step-free access can be created. I cannot confirm whether the station in his constituency has received money, but the fund has been widely welcomed by several stakeholders, including him.
About 4,700 accessible rail vehicles are already in service on mainline and light rail services, and more than half the national bus fleet is accessible. We have built on our achievements by strengthening existing provisions through the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 so that all rail vehicles must be accessible by no later than 1 January 2020. Another consequence of the Act is the greater scrutiny of applications for exemptions from parts of the rail vehicle accessibility regulations, which is why we are here today.
Indeed, it is because the DLR has taken accessibility seriously since its inception that the order has been requested. The DLR is one of the most accessible transport networks in the country: every station has lifts or ramps that allow step-free access to the platform and there is level access between the platform and the train. However, the DLR opened before we introduced rail accessibility legislation, so its new trains cannot meet some aspects of the regulations.
The DLR is also expanding. Passenger numbers have been rising steadily and are expected to reach 79 million a year by 2009. Two extensions are being built: the first will go to Woolwich Arsenal next year and the second will go to Stratford international in 2010. That will add another five stations to the network. The new vehicles that we are considering will allow the DLR to serve those extensions and accommodate passenger growth on its existing network, in addition to playing a key role during the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
I should say a little about the unique way in which the DLR operates. Its trains do not have a driver in the traditional sense, but are controlled by a central computer that monitors every train’s position and keeps trains a safe distance apart. However, a member of staff called a passenger service agent is present on every train. They do not drive the train, so they are free to help passengers, check tickets and operate the doors. Every passenger service agent receives disability awareness training each year.
The new trains are the first on the DLR to be covered by accessibility legislation. They will run in addition to the existing vehicles, which were designed before the regulations took effect. Although the older trains were built with accessibility in mind, they do not fully meet every aspect of the regulations. That is mainly because of constraints imposed by the automatic control system, which apply also to the new vehicles.
One such factor is the warning given when the doors are about to close. It starts as the doors begin to close rather than three seconds beforehand, as required by the regulations. The DLR has taken specialist advice, and it has been found that the extra three seconds of warning would reduce the number of trains that could be run. In effect, every train would have to wait at least three seconds longer at each station. The Committee may be surprised to hear that those three seconds should be so significant, but I assure Members that the cumulative effect on a frequent metro service such as the DLR would be dramatic, especially because of the way in which the trains have to cross in front of one another at junctions. It would make even the existing level of service unsustainable.
Allowing the DLR to continue using the existing door closure warnings will enable it to obtain the maximum value for its investment in new trains by providing the greatest possible capacity. The existing timings have been in use for 20 years without disadvantaging disabled people.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Am I right in thinking that what we are discussing this afternoon is basically the result of someone saying to the Minister, “We have a bit of a problem”, and that the DLR kit, although good for disabled people, does not comply with the regulations as it was built before they were introduced? Does the order simply exempt the DLR?
Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is correct. I hope to elicit such exemptions from the Committee this afternoon.
We believe that having the same warning system in all DLR trains will give the added benefit of consistency throughout the network. Disabled people can be confident about what the warning means.
The limitations of the train control system also mean that the next stop cannot be announced at every station, as the regulations require. Instead, the system instructs each train to give that information while in transit from one station to the next. Once again, the DLR has taken specialist advice, which suggests that making the announcement while at the station might risk overloading passengers with information. Stops on the DLR are not far apart, so in the vast majority of cases the consequences of getting on the wrong train would not be significant.
The third exemption concerns the gap between the platform and the train. That may be relevant, given what my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley said earlier. All DLR stations have level access, but at some stations the gap is slightly bigger than that allowed by the regulations, which could theoretically have an impact on the ability of wheelchair users to board trains independently. However, no gap is more than 1 cm wider than permitted, and disabled people have been using the DLR safely for 20 years. The DLR is developing a package of measures that will reduce this gap so that it meets the regulations, but still allows trains to run safely. The exemption gives the DLR time to consult safety regulators on which measure is most appropriate at each station, and to put it in place without preventing its new trains from entering service.
When exemptions are specific to the way in which the DLR operates, we believe that they should lapse in the unlikely event that these vehicles move to another system, and we have placed a condition to that effect in the order. We recognise that rail accessibility legislation needs to keep pace with changing needs. We do not want to stifle improvements simply because they were not foreseen nearly a decade ago, when the regulations were introduced. The new vehicles include three such measures, which reflect the experience of operators and passengers since the regulations were introduced. We plan to include them in the regulations when they are next revised.
First, when the passenger service agent closes the doors, they stand at one of the open doorways using special crew-only door controls. The door closure warning can be loud and repetitive. Understandably, that can be annoying for staff if they have to listen to it throughout their seven-hour shift. The DLR proposes automatically switching off the warning at the doorway where the crew-only controls are being used. As the passenger service agent is present and can warn passengers attempting to board that the door is closing—or even hold the door open until the passenger is safely aboard—it seems a common-sense solution.
Secondly, the regulations require hand-holds to be fitted on the backs of the seats next to the passenger gangway, so that passengers have something to hold on to as they pass through the train. However, on DLR vehicles there is a small gap between some of the seats and the draught-screen, which has a handrail attached. However, seats flex as people sit down, and if a hand-hold were to be fitted at that point, those using it might find their fingers trapped against the draught-screen. Adding hand-holds to those seats would serve no useful purpose and could reduce safety.
Finally, the DLR wants to include a small handrail at waist height in the wheelchair space. Although that is currently not permitted by the regulations, the DLR has used a similar handrail on its older trains, and it has been well received by disabled people. It would seem perverse to remove something that disabled people find useful purely because it does not meet the letter of the regulations, especially as we intend to introduce amendments that will allow it in the near future.
In addition to DPTAC, we have consulted Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate for its views on the safety implications. HMRI is content for these exemptions to be granted and will work with the DLR to ensure that an appropriate solution is found to the platform gap issue.
In summary, the DLR is already one of the most accessible rail services in the country. The new trains will be no less accessible than those already in service. There will be consistency between older and newer train fleets, which gives disabled people confidence when they travel. This is the first exemption order for two years. Not the least of these facts is that DPTAC sees this as a sensible exemption that will not disadvantage disabled travellers. We believe that this is a reasonable application of the measure, and I commend the order to the Committee.
4.41 pm
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, for what I believe will be relatively short consideration in Committee.
The Conservative party recognises that the ability to travel on public transport is particularly important for the disabled. Indeed, a number of disabled people are entirely reliant on public transport to get from their homes to places of work, shops, places of leisure, friends and family, and so on. A public transport system that is fully accessible and safe for those with disabilities must be an essential part of transport policy, be it national, regional or local. Therefore, the power to set minimum accessibility standards for rail vehicles, buses and coaches was granted to the Secretary of State for Transport as part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
The specific directives for rail vehicles were introduced in 1998 and became applicable to all vehicles brought into use after 31 December of that year. As the Minister pointed out, additional provision was made in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 to ensure that the entire national fleet of buses will meet accessibility standards by 2017; for trains, it will be 2020. The Minister of State, Department for Transport has reported that 58 per cent. of buses nationally and more than 40 per cent. of trains already meet the standards that will be required of them more than 10 years hence. That is of course welcome.
In particular circumstances, rail vehicles can be granted an exemption from meeting the minimum accessibility standards. We are considering today whether these 55 vehicles are acceptable for exemption. As I understand it, the Secretary of State has, under the 2005 Act, the power to exempt specified vehicles for two reasons, the first of which is where they are satisfied that it is not possible for those vehicles to comply fully with the regulations because of technical difficulties. Secondly, the power to grant exemptions can be used to ensure that the ability of disabled people to travel in the vehicles is not compromised. This order allows 55 rail vehicles to be used for passenger service on the docklands light railway despite not conforming to the requirements.
The Minister talked about the development of the docklands light railway to the east as part of the Thames Gateway initiative, in conjunction with the successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, so it will be one of the more important transport arteries through London. In recognition of that, the construction of enhancements is either under way or under discussion. A number of those extensions and enhancements, including the routes to Woolwich Arsenal and Stratford international, should open before the Olympics—I am looking particularly at 2010. I understand that station upgrades are planned between Bank and Lewisham to allow the operation of three-car trains to increase capacity.
The improvements on the docklands light railway are to be welcomed, but it is essential that those benefits can be enjoyed by all, including people who have disabilities. Having read the exemption list, I see that six exemptions are being asked for. First, audio and visual warnings will not begin three seconds before the doors start to close. Secondly, in-vehicle announcements at stations will not include the name of the destination of the next stop. Thirdly, at some stations the gap between the platform and the train will be too large—I think that some 28 stations will fail to comply. Fourthly, new vehicles are to be fitted with waist-high handrails. Fifthly, there is a small gap between the top of some seats and the draught-screen. Sixthly, the door-closure warning systems need to be switched off for the doorway at which the passenger service agent is standing. I note that the Government intend to modify the regulations regarding the last three exemptions later this year, so that vehicles would not then be in breach of those items. In reality, we need to examine only the first three rationales for exemption.
Implicit in the order is either that the Secretary of State is satisfied that the vehicles do not meet the specific regulatory requirements because of the technical impossibility of doing so, or that non-compliance will not hinder enjoyment, accessibility and usability for disabled passengers. I note that the Minister said that there is already an inability to operate the door-closing warnings three seconds prior to the doors closing on the docklands light railway. That has been a consistent feature since the beginning of operations on the docklands light railway and does not appear to have had an adverse impact, so it should not be a problem regarding the new vehicles, and the first exemption should be supported.
I am sure, Mr. Bercow, that you and the Committee will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to discuss the technical details of each exemption. [ Interruption. ] I am pleased to hear that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton thinks that my speech is excellent; it will probably benefit from being shorter. I will not go through the technical details of the exemptions mainly because the Minister has already done so in exhaustive detail. It also seems that none of the six exemptions that the Committee is being asked to support will seriously hinder safety or accessibility for disabled passengers.
Clearly, it is important that the there has been a proper consultation on the order and that proper attention has been given to any points arising. With that in mind, I welcome the fact that the Government have consulted the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee about these issues. As the Minister said, it assented to the necessary exemptions; however, I would like to ask him three specific questions. On the exemption from article 4(3)(b)—the three-second rule—DPTAC recommended that the exemption be granted only if a member of staff is present in each of the units at all times. Has the DLR given the Department for Transport an assurance that it will comply will that suggestion?
DPTAC also recommended that the exemption should apply only while rolling stock is in the service described by the exemption application. Will the Minister confirm whether a new exemption will be required if these vehicles were used for any other service? I will be interested in what the Department has to say about that. I also note that Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate was consulted about the various safety aspects of the exemptions. Will the Minister tell us exactly what it said about the safety issues?
Like the Minister, I think that the order is essentially uncontroversial, and pending his response to my questions, I do not intend to detain the Committee for long.
4.49 pm
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I do not intend to delay the Committee for long. The order is neither controversial nor long, so I am happy to put our support for it on the record. However, I would like to make a couple of brief points and to seek clarification from the Minister.
Later this year, the Department for Transport is due to introduce regulations setting an end date by which all rail vehicles must comply with accessibility regulations. Do the Government envisage its being before the 1 January 2020 deadline? Has any assessment been made of the cost to the rail industry? Also, is the Minister confident that the industry will be able to comply within the established time scale?
Some of the B2007 vehicle designs are not currently permitted under the rail vehicle accessibility regulations, but they will be incorporated in changes to the RVAR later this year. Are there any other changes being requested by the industry or by passenger groups that the Government will not be introducing later this year? On that note, I give our support for the exemption order.
4.50 pm
Mr. Harris: I am grateful for the comments of the hon. Members for Wimbledon and for Manchester, Withington.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon asked about the three-second rule. Specifically, he asked if the DLR had given the Department for Transport an assurance that a member of staff would be present and the answer is yes. He also asked about the position of vehicles if they are removed. He can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that his question was this: if a vehicle were moved from the DLR to another metro system, how would that affect these exemptions? My understanding is that the exemption that we are asking for today applies only to the DLR and if a new exemption were needed, a new order would have to be moved. He also asked about the safety concerns, if any, of Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate and I can confirm to the Committee that HMRI have no safety concerns about the implications of this exemption.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asked about the end date of the exemptions that we are considering. In fact, all the exemptions that we are asking for will end a number of years before 2020. For example, the three-second door closure warning exemption will last until 2016. The exemption regarding the next-stop announcement being made on board the train, rather than before it leaves, will last until 2014. The waist-level handrail exemption that I mentioned applies until the end of 2009, because it will simply await the redrafting of the regulations themselves. The same applies to the seat-back hand-holds to which I referred. Similarly, the exemption regarding the door closure warning in the doorway where the passenger service agent operates controls will expire in 2016.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the cost to the industry of meeting the compliance date of 2020. I do not have a lot of information on that subject. Obviously, the DLR itself has calculated that it can afford the cost, as have other operators. However, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will write to him and to other members of the Committee with any more information that I might be able to obtain on that subject.
I am grateful for the attention of the Committee and for the support of both Opposition Members and members of my own party. This is a very straightforward application for derogation in these circumstances. There will be major benefits for the travelling public—not only for people who are disabled, but for people carrying luggage or who have children in prams with them. It is a measure that the Committee can unite around.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (B2007 Vehicles) Exemption Order 2008.
Committee rose at six minutes to Five o’clock.

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