On the evening of 5 April, in the midst of rush hour, a 50-strong group of wheelchair users and disability rights campaigners coalesced at London Bridge station.
They specifically chose the time of the day in which commuters bustle and barge through ticket barriers – and occasionally show the worst sides to human behaviour – to highlight the common problems disabled travellers face in attempting to board trains.
The object of the protest’s ire was Southern Rail which earlier this year said there was no “cast-iron guarantee” that assistance for disabled passengers would be available at the network’s stations.
Prior to the announcement, all 33 stations on the network included a support service, meaning passengers could turn up without booking ahead and be guaranteed assistance, if needed.
More than six months later, Southern Rail – the beleaguered network owned by Govia Thameslink Railway – is yet to offer satisfactory clarification. As the headline ran on a Guardian editorial written by Lucy Webster, a freelance journalist and wheelchair user: “Memo to Southern Rail: Disabled people have lives too.”
Aside from the new barriers now in place for disabled commuters, what makes Southern’s flip-flop so unfortunate is that it flies in the face of some of the improvements made by the UK rail sector in recent years to accommodate passengers with limited mobility.
Come a long way since the ‘80s
Michael Woods, principal operations specialist at the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), believes awareness and accommodation around wheelchair users has come a long way since the darks days of the 1980s, when he was an area manager with British Rail in Dartford.
“Back then,” he says, “all the stations had no lifts and no ramps. There were only footbridges and trains with slammed doors. The only way you could get a person in wheelchair onboard was for someone to lift them into the guard’s van.
“Today, we have, for the most part, modern trains with special facilities. The trains that haven’t are either being modernised or scrapped. Every station, where people book accessibility in advance, has ramps. Station car parks have disabled spaces.”
Do mobility scooter users have the same rights as wheelchair users?
But there is a caveat. For the list of improvements, “it is still nowhere near enough,” claims Woods. The despair some wheelchair users have long grown accustomed to on Britain’s rail platforms and trains is now also shared by mobility scooter users.
In December 2017, RSSB published a new study on improving accessibility and safety for mobility scooter users travelling by rail.
The research – which began in 2015 and was conducted by Integrated Transport Planning – revealed a confusion on the part of both scooter users and front-line rail staff on the range of restrictions on rail-scooter use.
While the safety risk to scooter users was deemed “negligible,” operators had failed to make clear their mobility scooter policies to the public. The root of this problem is the Equality Act 2010 legislation’s lack of clarity on whether mobility scooters qualify for the same privileges as wheelchair users when it comes to disabled-only spaces onboard trains.
“Unlike the wheelchair user community, there isn’t really any kind of affinity group for mobility scooter users,” says Woods.
“It’s a much more recent mobility aid than wheelchairs and when they started appearing – especially the larger ones that are more akin to road vehicles – they didn’t fit into some of the older trains. But confusion over the rights of mobility scooters is as much as general societal problem as it is a rail problem.”
Yet, since the research began in 2015, the RRSB has scored a big victory in this area, reveals Woods.
Clarifications, in response to project queries, have led regulator Office of Rail and Road and the Department for Transport to now interpret legislation to mean that both aids can reasonably be interpreted to be ‘wheelchairs’.
This means a wheelchair user does not take precedence over a passenger travelling with a mobility scooter, unless they have pre-booked the onboard wheelchair space for a journey.
“And it also applies the other way,” adds Woods. “If a mobility scooter user has booked in advance and a wheelchair user turns up on spec – the former still gets the booking.”
Evidence the industry is listening, but challenges remain
According to Woods, it is RSSB’s “most successful piece of research to date in terms of response”. A country-wide web, postal and telephone survey of mobility scooters yielded 606 responses, while ten in-depth interviews were held with senior managers at Network Rail and Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
In order to assist in the better promotion of mobility scooters, the RDG, in direct response to the research, is set to coordinate an information guide on behalf of the UK rail industry, via National Rail Enquiries and Disabled Persons Railcard websites, as well as printed literature.
Other recommendations of the report are airline-style scooter sizing boxes available on accessible station platforms and concourses, and ‘Try a Train’ days, to be offered by train operating companies, aimed at encouraging infrequent rail users with disabilities to take trips.
Some problems still feel surmountable, however. For instance, access for wheelchair and mobility scooter users at backwater rural stations is non-existent, and isn’t going to change anytime soon.
“Ideally, we will one day live in a society when access will be provided at rural stations, but I can’t see that coming very quickly,” Woods says.
“The industry is not equipped or funded to provide level access for people in wheelchairs and mobility scooters in small stations, with very low numbers, no staff, and footbridges. Unfortunately, it’s just not cost-effective.”
Rail staff could also to do with more training. According to RSSB’s 2014 study into improving the methods used to provide access to and from trains for wheelchair users, 80% of injuries recorded were attributable to railway staff, due to a lack of competence, misjudgement and physical inability.
Woods is right in what he says: the UK rail sector has made undeniable progress over the last 30 years or so. Unfortunately, it has been inconsistent and somewhat piecemeal.
And with the country’s ageing population, more of us are likely to experience mobility difficulties at some point and require an aid, whether that is a wheelchair, scooter or other form of support. Railway companies, such as Southern Rail, would do well to engage with the rising numbers of sidelined commuters now and prepare for a safer, more inclusive model for the years to come.