There are 2,552 passenger stations in the UK, according to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). In many of these stations, commercial outlets – from coffee shops to book stores – operate on a daily basis. The stream of people passing through represent a valuable resource; creatures of habit (think early morning commuters), or tourists on the latest leg of their journey.

Making these spaces available to all who wish to use them – and therefore expanding the internal and external commercial benefits – has long been a hot topic, particularly since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (which has since been replaced by the Equality Act 2010) came into power.

An accessible station, according to Network Rail’s Inclusive Design Strategy, “allows disabled passengers, and people with luggage or buggies, to spend more leisure time in the shops or restaurants before boarding their train”.

“There has been a very significant improvement, particularly in the last decade, [and a] change in attitude, too” says Matthew Smith, director at Rail Accessibility, who since 2003 has specialised in accessibility issues. As might be expected, change hasn’t always taken place at the speed people would have liked, he adds.

As of 2014, approximately 450 stations had step-free access via lifts or ramps. Therefore, there are still “great swathes of the network that are inaccessible for disabled and older disabled people”, says Faryal Velmi, director of the Transport for All group.

A changing environment

Velmi’s assertion is backed up by government figures, which show that around a fifth of disabled people report having difficulties related to their impairment or disability when accessing transport. According to the Papworth Trust, almost 1 in 5 people in the UK have a disability, while 44.3% of working age disabled people are economically inactive, with transport the second most common barrier to accessing work and opportunities. In an era where rail is experiencing a renaissance, it’s safe to assume that a large proportion would use the rail network for work purposes if it were more accessible. Their economic inactivity would start to become a thing of the past.

“There has been a very significant improvement, particularly in the last decade.”

What is changing? The Department for Transport (DfT) has an accessible railway stations design standard that supports train operators when carrying out rail infrastructure improvements. They are also obliged to abide by station design standards outlined in European Persons of Reduced Mobility Technical Specification for Interoperability (PRM TSI). In addition, operating licences require a disabled people’s protection policy, approved by the ORR, to be in place.

The big change for rolling stock is that all rail vehicles must be accessible by no later than 1 January 2020, meeting either the government’s Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2010 (RVAR 2010) – which replaced the RVAR 1998 – or PRM TSI. The DfT believes that some exemptions will be necessary, as and when appropriate.

Non-mainline rail vehicles such as London Underground trains and trams are also covered by RVAR. “More and more rail vehicles have modern accessibility standards such as information, colour contrast, accessible toilets, and so on,” explains Smith, who has carried out accessibility audits on approximately 1,000 stations.

Access for All funding: questions to be asked

The general public will be more familiar with the DfT’s Access for All programme (launched in 2006) and Transport for London’s (TfL) ‘turn up and go’ service. Access for All has delivered step-free routes at nearly 150 stations around the country. A further 1,100 have also benefited from “smaller-scale improvements”, says a DfT spokesperson.

“We are determined to make journeys better for all rail passengers, and ensuring that stations are accessible is a vital part of that. That’s why the government has committed more than £500m since 2006 for accessibility improvements,” the spokesperson added.

However, people are worried about the future. Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, has released a report containing recommendations on the re-planning of the body’s investment programme for 2014-19.

In April, the Disability News Service reported that one option was for Access for All funding to be cut, from £102m to £55m, or for projects to be deferred. When this was put to the DfT, the spokesperson said: “Sir Peter Hendy’s re-plan means that some rail upgrade projects will be delivered later than originally planned, but we remain committed to delivering the Access for All programme in full.” It was also emphasised that no final decisions have been made.

It has caused quite a stir, nonetheless. “To have a ring-fenced pot of money that is available to change the infrastructure of stations, I would say that has been a real benefit,” says Velmi, adding “it’s vital that we keep this pot of money to tackle the issues we come across”.

“We are vehemently against it. At Transport for All we will be lobbying over this.”

‘Turn up and go’ and Crossrail U-turn

There’s also the small schemes fund, which, as the name suggests, has been used for minor improvements, such as installing dual-height hand rails. The DfT has confirmed funding for this was discontinued from the end of the 2015-16 financial year, although there are commitments in all franchise agreements for operators to spend some of their annual minor works budget on accessibility upgrades at stations.

Meanwhile, Network Rail’s inclusive design strategy is pretty much what it says on the tin. It also highlights how, by 2020, more than 50% of the UK’s population will be over 50. With that comes an increased level of disability. Future-proofing infrastructure is now more important than ever.

Over at TfL, the organisation’s 2016/17 budget includes a commitment to double the station accessibility fund from £75m to £150m, in an attempt to meet the Mayor’s target of 50% of rail and Tube stations being step-free by 2018. Currently 66 Tube stations and 56 on the London Overground meet this criteria, while all Docklands Light Railway stations are step-free.

Note, however, that step-free does not always mean level access from platform to train. In many cases a ramp is still required for wheelchair users. “Step-free access is by far the biggest issue,” says Smith. “It affects so many.”

The ‘turn up and go’ initiative, broadly welcomed by campaigners and passengers, has helped to remove the necessity of booking 24 hours in advance; perhaps the most evident divide between able-bodied and disabled passengers.

Crossrail, running from east to west across London, was forced to make a U-turn after it emerged that some stations would not be fully accessible. Transport for All played a significant role in campaigning to get an extra £14m for step free access at Langley, Taplow and Iver stations. Velmi notes: “It was crucial we won this, not just for Crossrail but also for it to be an example for the future.”

Time to embrace technology

Predicting how the rail environment will change is difficult, and Velmi is cautious: “It all depends on the political will and resources.” Smith agrees, arguing for “some creative thinking to keep the momentum of change”.

There’s also broad acknowledgement that technology must be embraced. Much of Access for All’s work has been structural, but what about digital developments? “Technology is absolutely critical,” says Joe Manock, national sales manager at Shaw Trust Accessibility Services. “Having an accessible website and mobile apps for instance, is hugely important because it makes services fully inclusive for all.”

“There is now greater expectation from disabled travellers.”

Improving the quality of visual displays and audio messages could be “two quick wins” for operators, he adds.

One tech success story is Wayfindr. This uses beacon technology to help vision impaired people navigate urban environments and has been trialled on the London Underground. Signals are read by a smartphone app and then translated into audio messages that provide simple directional aids. Courtney Nugent, a participant in the trial, told Future Rail last year: “It told you how many steps they were, where to walk for the escalators, and even to the point of what platform to use.”

Andrea Kennedy, a digital accessibility architect, believes that we have to understand what technology means in relation to travel. “It’s not only the website you booked your ticket on but how news and information is delivered to you while on your journey … it relates to the information boards, ticket kiosks, fire alarms and so on.”

There is now greater expectation from disabled travellers, that’s for sure. Better information, step-free access and clearer signage are just some of the things that are expected to be commonplace. Their political clout is also rising, says Smith.

Accessibility works both ways, however. “Companies with inaccessible products will be missing out on [the commercial benefits],” says Manock. “Being accessible for everyone makes good business sense.”