Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Kathryn Burnett (DAT 12)

Summary

1. This evidence, based on my personal experience, is from someone who uses a tri-walker and is obviously a person of reduced mobility. During the past 35 years, there have been improvements in public transport accessibility. However, l encounter more problems than are acceptable even allowing for infrastructure issues. My comments here relate to train travel unless otherwise specified.

2. The evidence includes examples of the following problems:

(a)Even where stations or routes are normally accessible, there is limited consideration given to accessibility when carrying out engineering works or in the event of problems such as flooding.

(b)Evidence of implicit rationing of special assistance with some station information discouraging use of their facilities.

(c)Missed opportunities to improve access when refurbishing stations.

(d)Lack of information, particularly around operational issues, that have wasted my time and effort.

(e)Lack of staff awareness around their duty to provide accessible transport.

(f)Dilemmas around whether booking assistance will help or hinder my journey.

3. Based on these experiences, I think the following realistic improvements could be implemented:

(a)More information on trains about access issues en route eg station lifts out of order.

(b)Real time information about access issues on transport websites, trains and stations, eg position of accessible carriages would be useful before trains arrive for boarding.

(c)Access options on the Transport Direct and national rail website journey planners.

(d) A national assistance booking service, regardless of what train services are booked. This service should be accessible via phone, the internet and text, and could perhaps be achieved by extending http://railtravelmadeeasy.co.uk/which is a step towards this.

(e)Signs or information that suggest people of restricted mobility have to take circuitous routes to overcome the limitations should be replaced with contact information to discuss the best option for that particular traveller.

(f)One complaints procedure for the whole rail network. This should prevent similar problems happening in future.

4. Since the Equality Act 2010 became law, I have had a number of positive experiences of using trains, including:

(a)Travelling to the Para-Olympics, except for a minor issue.

(b)Some well-orchestrated alternative arrangements during engineering work.

(c)Using stations made accessible through well thought through improvement schemes.

(d)Unsolicited help from both transport staff and the general public.

(e)Access to helpful information, in particularly the Transport for London Journey Planner

Detailed Evidence

1. Introduction to submitter

1.1 I have Cerebral Palsy. My disability affects most activities but prevents me doing very little. I walk but I am very unsteady and nowadays usually use a walker when using public transport. With difficulty, I can use steps on some occasions but prefer to avoid them. I have a speech impediment and problems with dexterity, which add complexity to accessing travel information, or communicating with public transport staff. I am visibly a person with reduced mobility and, as such, both transport staff and the general public often offer unsolicited help which is usually useful. However, my walking is slow and deteriorates under pressure, so sometimes it is easier to do things under my own steam than have help.

1.2 I have used public transport unaccompanied for around 35 years, mainly for leisure purposes, now typically one return journey a week. Over this period, I have noticed improvements in public transport for people with reduced mobility. However, I still encounter more problems than I think are acceptable. Both the improvements and the problems have motivated me to submit this evidence. Please note, the examples used in this evidence have happened since the Equality Act 2010 and relate mainly to travelling by train starting in the Midlands.

2. Access and improvements

2.1 I have a general awareness that new vehicles (trains and buses etc.) should be made accessible when replaced or refurbished. I thought that when railway stations were refurbished, there was a general principle that everything practicable should be done to improve the access of that station. However this is evidently not the case, as access improvements come under the “access for all” scheme and it appears that things that could be done to improve access when doing general refurbishment get neglected. For instance, over £500,000 was spent on Stratford-upon-Avon Station in 2011 which involved building and using temporary steps while the “heritage” steps were renovated. As the station is at the end of the line, it seems strange that step-free independent access was not created beyond where the trains stop, instead of building temporary steps. I am not an engineer, so there may be a compelling reason why this was not feasible. However, they also renovated the toilets yet failed to create a toilet accessible to people in wheelchairs.

2.2 Yet I am very impressed with other renovations. Moor Street Station has good access: all platforms have step-free access. This includes lifts so anyone needing/wanting to avoid steps can do so without having to cover more ground than anyone else. There is also ramped access where necessary, so if the lifts are out of action, the station is still accessible. Equally, I visited Oxford station whilst the lifts were upgraded and was very impressed with alternatives provided for anyone who would normally have used the lifts.

2.3 I assume the refurbishment of Stratford-upon-Avon station did not contravene the Equality Act. Therefore this refurbishment illustrates flaws in the scope of the legislation.

2.4 Many rail routes that are normally accessible (eg Stratford-upon-Avon to Birmingham) do not have temporary accessible provision made during planned engineering works. For instance, replacement bus services where the buses have steps and/or go to stations that are not as accessible as the original station, eg using Henley in Arden instead of Stratford-upon-Avon Station.

2.5 Obviously, this is also an issue when rerouting is required due to emergencies such as flooding. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect the same standard of accessibility to be met in such cases. However disaster planning should seek to mitigate this.

2.6 In both circumstances, staff should be trained to consider the needs of people with reduced mobility and in particular, that they may need more time than other people, for instance, to make connections or cope with platform alterations. I have had some positive experiences of staff help in such circumstances, but this has not always been the case.

3. Information

3.1 Internet

3.1.1 The journey planner on the London Transport website is very useful, particularly the facility to set the access options, such as the need for step-free access. I use this when visiting London and have found the information given reliable, apart from operational issues such as lifts not working. The Transport Direct website which covers the whole of the UK is less useful because it does not have the same access options.

3.1.2 On the whole, I find the national rail website (http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/), easy to use, reasonably reliable and up to date. However as I have to use a computer to access this information, I cannot always check train schedules just before I travel. (Smart phones are too difficult for me to use and I avoid using National Rail enquires, as phoning people I do not know is stressful).

3.1.3 I also question some of the information on the above websites. I have taken the following information from the Alfreton Station page (30/12/12) (http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/alf/details.html):

3.1.3.1“The track crossing is no longer in use and customers should use the footbridge. As there are no lifts available and you are unable to use this bridge whilst travelling southbound please travel to Nottingham catch a train northbound this will stop at Alfreton on the opposite platform.”

3.1.3.2The same information was there in 2010 when I was staying in the area and was considering going to Sheffield for the day. It put me off going which I think is the object of the information. I queried this with East Midlands trains and received the following.

3.1.3.3“...Unfortunately, due to health and safety reasons, the track crossing at Alfreton station is no longer in use. As explained, on the National Rail Enquiries website, alternatively passengers who cannot use the footbridge, travelling southbound to Alfreton, may travel via Nottingham, or if they do require additional assistance my colleagues at our assisted travel team—available on 08457 125 678 and press 3 for “Assistance”—will also be able to discuss alternative routes/assistance that can be made available. Whilst, I can’t promise any immediate changes to the facilities available at Alfreton station, I will certainly pass your comments to my colleagues for their information and consideration in future developments...”.

3.1.3.4While the health and safety issue is understandable, I do not think the above alternative is reasonably suitable. I suspect and hope that if I attempted this journey and argued this point, some other alternative would be found. So this information seems to be on the website to discourage people with reduced mobility from using Alfreton station.

3.2 At stations

3.2.1 Usually, staff at railway stations endeavour to be helpful but their knowledge of access issues can be limited. For instance, I was returning to home from Moor Street in Birmingham and, due to over-running engineering works, the train was only going part way and then there was a bus replacement service, so I asked at the ticket office whether step-free access back to Stratford- upon-Avon could be guaranteed. The reply was “How am I supposed to know?” My response was “please can you find out?” and to be fair she did but it took a 10 minute phone call. In the end, step-free access could not be guaranteed, so a taxi was arranged to take me back to Stratford.

3.2.2 Information concerning train arrivals and departures has been steadily improving. However further information would be useful. Obviously, lifts break down but usually this is only apparent when I get to the lift as even if there are staff about, they often do not know about lift availability. This can result in wasted time and effort. For instance, when a platform lift at Birmingham New Street station is not working, I usually only find this out when reaching the lift. In such cases, I have to go to the other end of the platform to get to a subway (which technically is out of bounds), go to the next platform along, walk to the other end of that platform and hope the lift is working there. This is particularly problematic if I have a connection to catch or there is a platform alteration and time is limited.

3.2.3 It is rare that I know where the most accessible carriage on a train will be, before the train has arrived at the station.

3.2.4 Some signage at stations can be bizarre. For a couple of years, at the lift on platform 2, Birmingham Snow Hill, there was a sign that said something like “in the event of the lift not working please return to Moor Street”, when all the trains from that platform go in the opposite direction to Moor Street. Fortunately, this has now been replace and now ask that you contact a member of staff.

3.3 On Trains

3.3.1 General information on trains has greatly improved, for example with digital displays . However when there are problems, it can be hit and miss how informed passengers are about these problems.

3.3.2 Normally accessible stations can become inaccessible due to lift unavailability. This happened to me when returning to Warwick Parkway on a Sunday evening when it was unstaffed. I was unaware of this before I called the lift at the station. The information I should have had was to alight at Leamington and ask the staff there to arrange transport to Warwick Parkway.

3.4 Finding out who is responsible for what

3.4.1 Standard Note 601 states “The 1995 Act established a general right of access to railway stations from 1 October 2004, subject to a test of “reasonableness”. The structure of the rail industry is such, however, that specific responsibilities remain unclear”. So it is unsurprising that it is difficult for ordinary travellers to know to whom they should direct complaints or queries.

3.4.2 For instance, I had a problem with a train coming back from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon coming into a platform only accessible by a barrow crossing whereas usually it comes in where the access is easy. I complained to London Midland as they are the station operators. They told me that the reroute was necessary because of station improvements but that these were the responsibility of Network Rail.

4. Assistance

4.1 The majority of my train journeys are local and when everything is operating smoothly, I do not need assistance, and therefore do not book it. This gives me more freedom and does not create work for transport staff. However this can cause problems when things go wrong, such as when there are engineering works or, lift breakdowns. The staff at Stratford-upon-Avon Station usually check whether I need help, as they know me. However, getting such help at bigger stations can be more difficult.

4.2 When going anywhere different, I spend a lot of time planning journeys and rely on the journey planner websites for this. I do not like to be tied to using a particular train as this can put me under pressure if I am running late. This can make travel more expensive but my disabled person’s railcard compensates for this. In such cases, I cannot book assistance because it is necessary to be clear which service(s) I am going to use. Again this causes problems when things go wrong or the information from the internet is incorrect.

4.3 On the odd occasion, when I travel on specific services, I do book assistance. I prefer to do this by email but this is not always easy as it can be up to 5 days before they are answered. When I go to the station to commence my journey and say I have assistance booked I often get blank looks though the assistance is eventually forthcoming and whoever helps me usually rings ahead to check there is assistance the other end. However, I do not like the sense of not being in control when arriving at a destination. Friends who are reliant on assistance have had some horrendous experiences including being forgotten about and not able to get off trains. This does not encourage people to book assistance and this again could be seen as implicit rationing.

5. Experience of the Para Olympics

5.1 On 6 September 2012, I drove to Warwick Parkway railway station from Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite car park construction, I was able to park easily. I checked at the ticket office when buying my off peak ticket and was told the lift was working. However, the lift was temporarily unavailable due to maintenance work. After I negotiated with the relevant station staff, the lift was made temporarily available so I could get the next train. The station staff member then helped me on to the train and arranged for assistance at Marylebone.

5.2 At Marylebone, I was met on leaving the train and transported to the minibus provided for disabled travellers, and was dropped at St. Pancras where I met my companion. We boarded the Javelin to the Stratford (Olympic) station with ease as there was a ramp to board the carriage adapted for disabled passengers. The return journey to St Pancras was equally smooth.

January 2013

Prepared 13th September 2013