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Session 2007 - 08
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Interoperable Rail System) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Robert Key
Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Hexham) (Con)
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury) (Con)
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Harris, Mr. Tom (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
McCartney, Mr. Ian (Makerfield) (Lab)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Sarah Hartwell-Naguib, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 30 June 2008

[Robert Key in the Chair]

Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Interoperable Rail System) Regulations 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 (Interoperable Rail System) Regulations 2008.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. This is the first time that I have been in Committee with you since those happy, carefree days on the Science and Technology Committee.
The provision of an accessible public transport system on which people with reduced mobility can have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society is a key driver in improving their life chances and promoting social inclusion. Without accessible transport, people with reduced mobility are limited in their ability to access work, visit friends and family, participate in leisure activities or access health care and educational facilities. That is why we have taken strong action to ensure that public transport services are more accessible to the growing number of people who have previously faced difficulties when trying to use them.
Our record in such matters speaks for itself. We have introduced regulations requiring all new rail vehicles, buses and coaches to be accessible. About 4,700 accessible rail vehicles in service are already covered by the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998, widely referred to as RVAR. We should also remember that many thousands of older rail vehicles have been made more accessible through the process of refurbishment, including some projects in which almost complete compliance has been achieved, such as the Mallard InterCity trains on the east coast main line and Sheffield’s trams.
The United Kingdom’s leadership in the area has now been recognised at a European level, and the Commission has come forward with new standards for the accessibility of trains. They are based mainly on RVAR and demonstrate how far in advance of mainland Europe we are in such matters. The new standards will apply to trains operated for passenger services on the UK mainline railway system. RVAR will remain as the accessibility standard for light rail, tram, metro and underground systems. Analysis of the new European standards shows that the majority of their technical requirements are equivalent or superior to RVAR. Indeed, much that was previously considered only as best practice under RVAR is now mandated under the new standards.
It must also be remembered that the new standards represent a step change in the accessibility of trains on mainland Europe. We intend to work with the European Union to raise standards over time. The need to integrate the new European standards within our existing domestic regime is the reason that we are in Committee today.
The regulations are required to prevent the application of dual regulatory regimes—European and domestic—as the new standards will come into force automatically tomorrow, through the Railways (Interoperability) Regulations 2006, while the domestic standards have been in place via RVAR for almost 10 years. The rail industry has been clear that it wishes to avoid that possibility when the new standards come into force. It would be extremely confusing to subject operators to two accessibility regimes—domestic and European—with slightly different requirements, differing enforcement regimes and so on. That would be a true case of poor regulation.
Since, on introduction tomorrow, the new European standards will take precedence, the draft regulations will remove those trains that will be subject to them from the scope of RVAR. That will clarify the standard to which trains should be built or refurbished in future. The measure was recognised as sensible, and was supported by all stakeholders during recent consultation.
However, simply disapplying RVAR would leave those 4,700 trains that were previously subject to it completely unregulated—until they triggered the new European standards by being refurbished. During that period, which could be several years, it would not be possible to enforce accessibility requirements. That is unacceptable, so the draft regulations ensure that there is an obligation on the train operating companies to continue to operate the trains in an accessible manner, until they trigger the new standards. In drafting the new provisions, we have been careful to ensure that other aspects of the interoperability regime, such as the requirement to produce a technical file for each vehicle, will not be applied prematurely.
Despite the Government’s introduction of RVAR almost a decade ago, we know that people with reduced mobility, and disabled people in particular, are still being denied the same opportunities to travel that other members of society take for granted. A major reason for that is the availability of accessible public transport vehicles. Given that rail vehicles have life spans of between 30 and 35 years, without intervention it could take until at least 2033 before all older trains are replaced by accessible models.
In the 21st century, it is appropriate to push ahead, in partnership with the rail industry and those who have difficulty using train services, in an ambitious bid to make the national rail fleet accessible well ahead of 2033. That is why we have also taken the opportunity, through the regulations, to deliver our commitment to legislate to ensure that all passenger trains on the mainline rail network are accessible by 1 January 2020. I am sure that hon. Members will recall that that commitment received wide cross-party support during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
We intend to deliver the end date through careful targeting of rectification work, particularly through future franchise specifications aimed at those parts of older trains that represent the biggest barriers to travel for disabled people and others. That pragmatic approach has been widely supported as striking the right balance between the legitimate frustration of people with reduced mobility and the operating realities of the railway industry.
At the time of the 2005 Act, we estimated that the cost of a 2020 end date would be approximately £170 million, expressed as increased leasing charges for the remaining life of the trains in question and reflected in turn by the subsidy required from, or premium paid to, the Government by franchised train operators. Much of the work envisaged then has already taken place as owners have upgraded their trains to meet the expectations of all passengers. Alongside our policy of targeted compliance, we believe that, overall, the remaining costs of 2020 will be less than estimated previously, despite a recognised rise in engineering costs since then.
We know that parts of the rail industry have concerns regarding the legality of setting an end date. However, we are satisfied that it is permissible and that it will not disadvantage UK operators. In reality, constructive working relationships are already delivering significant access improvements. I call on the whole of the rail industry to join Parliament in embracing the benefits that the end date will bring—both to society and train operators, as accessible vehicles will help to deliver further increases in patronage.
In due course, we intend to propose similar provisions that set an end date for other rail vehicles that will remain subject to RVAR—those used on light rail, tram, metro and underground systems. All those measures will ensure that the UK remains a world leader when it comes to rail vehicle accessibility and will complement the £370 million that we have ring-fenced via the access for all programme for improved access at stations, with more than 700 sites already selected for work.
Hon. Members will wish to note that, while not a matter addressed by these regulations alone, enforcement of the new European standards will be the responsibility of the Office of Rail Regulation. Inspectors have at their disposal the various enforcement powers under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The regime enables improvement notices to be issued, identifying breaches and providing time limits for compliance, with a right of appeal but with the availability of criminal proceedings in case of persistent and wilful breaches. The ORR already enforces safety issues across the rail network and its involvement has been welcomed by all stakeholders as a move towards greater consistency of enforcement across the industry.
The regulations have already undergone scrutiny and been agreed in the other place. Concerns were expressed during those discussions that exemptions under the new European regimes will be dealt with administratively rather than by statutory instrument. However, it was explained at the time that that is to ensure consistency with the way that exemptions are dealt with in relation to other European standards that apply to mainline rail. There are no grounds to allow new trains to be introduced into service without being fully compliant, in contrast to RVAR. The powers are limited and will only be used to provide exemptions for the oldest vehicles that were built before access standards were in place.
The involvement of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, and others, in this process will ensure that the needs of people with reduced mobility are not taken lightly. In addition, we have given a commitment to provide details about the Secretary of State’s use of the powers in an annual report to Parliament. I pay tribute to all Members of this House and the other place who have consistently demonstrated a strong interest in, and support for, measures that improve the accessibility of our railways.
Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I have tried not to intervene on the Minister, but in the end my feelings got the better of me. I suggest that “deliver the end date” is an infelicitous phrase. I hope that he will consult with his officials and if he can, avoid using it in future. It has been ringing in my ears in an unhappy way.
Mr. Harris: As my hon. Friend knows, I am the last person to make anyone unhappy and I apologise if he has experienced some ringing in his ears. If he wants to suggest an alternative phrase to me, I shall of course pass that on to my officials.
The main reason for the regulations is that they will help secure significant improvements for all passengers, not just people with reduced mobility, and the rail industry has already been working to similar standards for a decade. The facts are that the UK is required to comply with the new European standards; removing trains that will be subject to them from domestic requirements is supported by all stakeholders; there will be no reduction in current levels of accessibility; and a long-standing commitment to set an end date will be delivered. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
4.42 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I join the Minister in saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Key? When we headed across from our shared office a minute or two apart, I did not realise that we were coming to the same Committee. I shall have to be rather careful with my speech as we have on the Committee an ex-columnist for The Daily Telegraph checking the appropriateness of our use of English.
The Conservative party has long recognised that the ability to travel on public transport is particularly important for disabled people. A number of disabled people are totally reliant on public transport—probably a higher proportion than among able-bodied people—to get from their homes to their place of work, the shops, places of leisure, family, friends, health care, schooling and so on. Having public transport that is fully accessible and safe for those with disabilities must be an essential part of transport policy, whether national, regional or local. All members of the Committee agree on that.
The Minister has already confirmed the end date, if I may use that phrase, but it would be nice to know what path he anticipates to that date and whether there are any interim plans. There are particular circumstances in which rail vehicles can be granted an exemption from meeting the minimum accessibility standards. Earlier this year, such an exemption was given to the docklands light railway because despite being one of the most accessible transport networks in the world, the DLR opened before rail accessibility legislation was introduced, so its new trains cannot meet some aspects of the regulations.
In addition to the provisions of the Disability and Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2005, new European regulations deal with accessibility standards for public transport, as the Minister told us. The draft regulations will apply European regulations on certain rail lines within the UK in place of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. I was glad to hear the Minister confirm that the old deadline of 1 January 2020 will still apply. That is important. Without that provision, the removal of the old disability preventions would have withdrawn that deadline, and keeping it is a good thing. It not only gives the industry some certainty, but the deadline chosen by the Government is the same as the previous one, thus minimising disruption. The rail industry was already aware of the need to work towards the implementation of RVAR, and an earlier date, however desirable, would have been unwise.
The Opposition support the premise behind the draft regulations. They will prevent the heavy rail industry from having to live with co-existent regulatory regimes, enable the industry to be clear about which technical standards are applicable in which circumstances, and will give a defined time scale for implementation—the same as the present one.
I would like to explore one or two issues further. In essence, rail vehicle manufacturers and operators are being told that although their vehicles must still be fully accessible for the disabled by 2020, the goalposts have shifted slightly because the regulations with which they must comply are European regulations, not those under the DDA. The questions will be about what differences there are between the two sets of measures and what extra features carriages must include to be compliant with the new regulations. Another relevant question is whether any elements that were required under the DDA regime will no longer be required under European regulations.
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