Draft Rail Vehicle Accessibility (Interoperable Rail System) Regulations 2008

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Mr. Simon: I was not intending to intervene—I was wryly remarking to myself how often explanatory memorandums seem to lack explanation.
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. With that in mind, it strikes me as surprising that the Government believe that the switch to the new European standards will not impose any significant new costs, as the impact assessment document clearly states. Either there is a material change—as the document hints but does not explain—or there is not. If there is a material change involving a larger category of people, there will clearly be extra costs. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain whether operating and rolling stock companies will have to incur greater expense to meet the new regulations?
What representations have been received from train operating companies and rolling stock companies on the impact, if any, that the new regulations will have on their businesses? I wonder what impact such measures will have on the Government’s capacity improvement plans. We all know that the key challenge facing our railway network is the capacity squeeze—the Government have acknowledged that many times. They have promised new carriages although it remains to be seen when and where we will see carriages that are not just repeats of earlier announcements on the tracks. What will be the impact on the Government’s calculation if more space is required for the luggage, prams and so on that are hinted at by the phrase to which I referred earlier? Will that mean fewer seats?
The draft regulation will apply to rail vehicles that are used on the trans-European network in Great Britain which is, I understand, approximately 70 per cent. of our network. Have the Government considered, for the sake of simplicity and consistency, applying the new rules to the entire network? I ask that merely as a probing question, to see whether it is something that the Department has thought about; there may be good reasons for not doing so, but it would be interesting to know what the position is.
A further aspect of this order relates to enforcement. Curiously, as the Minister implicitly said in his speech, the explanatory memorandum does not tell us anything about enforcement, but he tells us that the ORR will enforce the order. The ORR will not only be in the driving seat, but will have criminal sanctions. Perhaps he will say a little more about that in his concluding remarks.
Clearly the most important thing is that a proper consultation has taken place and that proper attention has been given to any points arising. I therefore welcome the fact that the Government have issued a consultation document on this topic, even if it was reduced in time, and I note that 42 responses were received.
Have the Government consulted the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee about these issues? It was, after all, set up specifically to advise the Government on issues pertaining to access to public transport for the disabled. I imagine that it must have been at the top of the queue for consultation, but might we have confirmation of that?
This draft order is an uncontroversial one, and pending the response of the Minister to the questions I have raised, it is not my intention to detain the Committee further.
4.51 pm
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to have the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Key? Along with the hon. Member for Canterbury, I broadly welcome the statutory instrument and what it seeks to achieve. It seems to me right and proper that the rail network and the vehicles in question are not subject to two differing sets of regulation—the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 and the EU technical specification for interoperability for persons with reduced mobility, or PRMTSI, as I shall now refer to it. It is important that we are prepared appropriately for the new EU regulations coming into force in July of this year and having rail vehicles subject to two levels of regulations would confuse the matter, both for the train companies and, perhaps more importantly, for train users, who need to know exactly what facilities and standards to expect before they travel. I also welcome the introduction of an end date into the EU regulations to ensure that rail vehicles meet accessibility standards.
I believe that we all agree that ensuring that transport is accessible for all is important. Not only is access to public transport a right that all people should share, it allows better access to jobs, vital health and education services, family, friends, and leisure, which should be taken as axiomatic. People who are less mobile should be able to access those services the same as others, and as we know, disabled people often travel with carers or friends and would therefore more than repay the cost of creating fully accessible carriages over time. That does not include some of the other groups that would have easier access to trains, especially under the new EU regulations, and the hon. Member for Canterbury referred earlier to families with young children and elderly people who spring to mind in that regard. Millions more people would be able to take advantage of our national rail network, especially as the age demographic of our population seems to be increasing inexorably.
The explanatory memorandum cited a 2002 estimate that showed that disabled people travelled up to a third less often than society as a whole. Will the Minister confirm whether he has any more up-to-date estimates for the number of journeys undertaken by disabled people, and whether that trend has increased over the past six years?
Like the hon. Member for Canterbury, I, too, have some concerns about the regulations, which I would briefly like to explore with the Minister. Perhaps he could comment on them when he replies to the debate. In the explanatory notes, there is mention that the technical requirements of the PRMTSI are equivalent or superior to the RVAR, but they say that there are a
“small number of areas where the PRMTSI standards are less onerous that those of the RVAR.”
Will the Minister spell out precisely what those areas of difference are? Does he believe that there are significant consequences to changing those requirements, and have the Government given any consideration to adding those to the PRMTSI regulations?
I understand that the Government are considering making similar regulations apply to light rail, underground and metro systems. The Minister referred to that very issue in his opening remarks. I am still unclear as to whether the new regulations, which the Minister said would be introduced “in due course”, would be along the lines of the RVAR or the PRMTSI. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that. I also invite him to be a little more specific about what he means by “in due course”. Are we talking about the lifetime of the current Parliament or some date much further in the future?
May I say that I welcome the inclusion in the regulations of a completion deadline for accessibility? It is very important that the train operating companies know that we are serious about making trains more accessible. I believe that introducing the end date will do just that. We need to ensure that the end date is precisely what the term suggests. Having too many exemptions, or too many ill-advised exemptions, would negate the whole purpose of having an end date. During the debate in the other place on the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, it was reported that the Disability Charities Consortium stated that since 1998 more than 50 per cent. of carriages have had some sort of exemption. Having looked at the up-to-date exemptions on the Department for Transport website, I notice that the number of exemptions is still increasing. Will the Minister comment on that trend?
I think that we all agree that we should use exemptions only when they are really necessary, and not bail out train operating companies that have not managed to make their vehicles accessible. I seek an assurance from the Minister that exemptions will not be used after 2020 except for genuine special cases, such as heritage railways where, self-evidently, changes would alter the vehicles’ authenticity.
During the parliamentary debate on the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, many MPs and Lords were concerned about the 2020 time limit, believing that the deadline for all trains to fulfil EU standards should be even earlier. I would like to ask a couple more questions about the end date as proposed under the new regulations.
I understand that there is a compromise to be made between accessible access and the cost of renewing or upgrading rolling stock before the life span of the vehicle has run out, and we all want to ensure that the right compromise has been made. For that decision to be made, we need to ensure that we are using accurate and up-to-date information. If many more vehicles than were expected in 2005 are already compliant—I think that that is the Government’s case—the cost of replacing the remaining trains should make an earlier end date more achievable.
In the 2005 debate, the then Minister stated that 3,800 rail vehicles were accessible, and an additional 700 would follow in 2006. He then stated that a quarter of the fleet was already fully compliant with accessibility standards. Will the Minister give us his latest estimate of how many trains are now accessible and say whether the number becoming fully accessible has increased beyond the expectations assumed under the 2005 Act?
I conclude by restating how much I welcome the introduction of the new regulations because they widen the definition of accessibility to include others with reduced mobility. I also welcome the further commitment to an end date for ensuring full accessibility. Elderly and disabled travellers, in particular, have been treated as second-class citizens by many rail companies for far too long, and it is about time that facilities appropriate to the 21st century are delivered to all.
We now need to ensure that firm progress is made towards that definitive end date and that more rail vehicles become fully accessible as soon as possible. Even in the run-up to the 2020 deadline, exemptions should be given only to renewed or upgraded vehicles when absolutely necessary because, without strong enforcement, the regulations will not be able to make a real difference to the lives of people who face so many challenges when attempting to use our public transport system—the objective agreed by both sides of the House.
5.1 pm
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak for the first time in a Committee chaired by you, Mr. Key. I want to raise a small matter with the Minister, a neighbour of mine from across the firm. I apologise for not giving notice of it.
On page 10 of the impact assessment for the regulations, the Government rightly refer to the number of individuals who fall into the category of benefiting from the regulations, their purchasing power in respect of economic advantage, and the potential disadvantage if the regulations are not complied with. The document also notes how the regulations should be considered in conjunction with the investment under the access for all programme. That is important because to gain access to rolling stock, one must first gain access to the station.
If my hon. Friend cannot reply to my question today, I am happy to wait for the debate on the Greater Manchester transport innovation fund bid in Westminster Hall tomorrow, to which the Minister of State, Department for Transport will respond. The TIF bid concerns a substantial resource for the refurbishment of existing stations. Wigan is to be the co-location of two mainline stations and, in some instances, new stations will be provided such as in Golborne in my constituency. That programme is to be completed by 2013. If the programme under discussion is to be completed by 2020, will the time scale for investment in the access for all programme be considered together with the TIF bid to ensure that stations are not refurbished in advance of that? By that time, we will have compliant rolling stock, but we will have spent, say in Greater Manchester, substantial sums on the refurbishment of the current or increased station network, without taking into account improvements to ensure better accessibility both for those with disabilities and for the carers and others who are required to be with them to gain access to that rolling stock.
I am not trying to be awkward, but it is important to make sure that those dates of investment—2013 and 2020—are aligned for practical reasons. We should not have one part of the rail network invested in under these regulations—rightly so—while another part is subject to a programme that should be completed by 2013. If it is not completed, what will happen thereafter with regard to poor access to stations, because even if there are trains that have had greater investment, there are people who might not be able to get through the stations to use them?
5.4 pm
Mr. Harris: We have had a useful and positive, though short, debate, for which I express gratitude to all members of the Committee. I shall try to respond to all the points that have been made. If inspiration does not descend from various quarters during my remarks, I promise to write to colleagues who have raised issues on which I might not be able to respond directly this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Canterbury asked about interim milestones between now and 2020. I can tell him that none are planned, certainly not in regulations, but it is up to individual manufacturers if they wish to impose their own time scale. I welcome his support for the regulations and that of his party and the Liberal Democrats. This is one of those few areas where it is important to have cross-party consensus, even if we disagree on occasion about some of the detail.
The hon. Gentleman asked for clarification on the definition of “persons with reduced mobility” and I apologise that that was not explicitly set out in the accompanying documents. As he rightly pointed out, it refers to parents with pushchairs and the elderly—anyone who finds it physically difficult to access vehicles. He asked about the costs that such a definition might impose on manufacturers, but the vast majority of improvements needed to help people in that category are already being undertaken by train manufacturers and operating companies. Although I do not say that there will be no difference at all, we do not anticipate a significant increase in costs as a direct result of the measures.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 70 per cent. of the network that is currently defined as part of the trans-European network. The European Commission has already ruled that the regulations will apply to all passenger vehicles that operate on the main line, so in practice it will apply to 100 per cent. of our overground rail network. He asked what representations had been received from the industry and whether the regulations will result in a loss of capacity.
First, we are satisfied that no seats will be lost due to the measures, and I want to reiterate in the Committee our plans for 1,300 new carriages. The hon. Member for Canterbury was rather ungenerous when he referred to those carriages as if they were a repeated announcement—they are 1,300 new carriages. I will mention that as often as possible, but I do not expect anyone to think that I am trying to re-announce or add on the figures. Of course, when the figures were first announced in February 2007 by the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), it was only 1,000 carriages. The number has gone up between then and the announcement last July and the specification is now 1,300. As I am sure the hon. Member for Canterbury is about to remind the Committee, those are 1,300 brand-new, net additional carriages to the network. They do not replace existing carriages.
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