There are 11 million people who are deaf or have hearing loss in Britain, according to government figures, which equates to around one in six people – many of whom travel by rail and inevitably face difficulty in hearing announcements at train stations.
However, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) has been taking active steps to make rail travel increasingly accessible for people with disabilities like impaired hearing, and in April 2019 announced a new investment of £300m into new solutions to help meet this objective.
Transport Minister Nusrat Ghani said that over the next five years “journeys will be opened up across Britain as upgrades, including footbridges and lifts, make it easier for disabled people to travel on the UK’s rail network”.
“[Around] 1,500 stations have [already] received smaller scale improvements such as accessible toilets, platform humps to reduce stepping distances and improvements to help those with a visual or hearing impairment,” Ghani added.
Transport for London (TfL) even pledged to install hearing aid induction loops by 2020 across all underground stations to help passengers with a hearing impairment hear announcements clearly. However, while the government is clearly trying to improve travel for deaf people, the lack of trained staff can be an additional challenge.
In September 2019, London Overground concessionaire Arriva Rail London (ARL) launched a rail-specific deaf awareness training course for its workers developed based on deaf people’s commuting past experience. The programme will equip staff with the tools required to aid passengers suffering from impaired hearing navigate through the train stations easily.
ARL’s customer experience director Stella Rogers details about the scope of the initiative and how the rail company aims to make rail more accessible.
Varsha Saraogi (VS): What made Arriva Rail launch this initiative?
Stella Rogers (SR): We are continuously striving to improve the passenger experience for everyone travelling across the capital on the London Overground. Everyone has the right to safe, comfortable and seamless journeys and work alongside our stakeholders to broaden accessibility, making each journey as easy as possible.
A key policy within the Mayor’s Transport Strategy is ‘London’s streets and public transport network must enable disabled and older people travel more easily, spontaneously and independently’.
So when the opportunity arose to bid for Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) funding to support customers with hidden disabilities, we jumped at the chance because we could see great potential to improve the experience of our passengers.
We want our customers to have the confidence to make safe journeys across the London Overground in the knowledge that they can access support from our trained staff when they need it. As part of the course, employees are given training to identify customers who require additional assistance, and the techniques to break down communication barriers.
VS: What does the training entail?
SR: The training covers a range of topics from deaf culture and identity, to degrees of deafness, communication barriers, lip reading, fingerspelling and techniques for assisting and communicating with customers who are deaf or have a hearing loss.
Delivered by a deaf trainer, the training programme has been inspired and shaped by deaf people and those with a hearing loss, as well as station teams who assist passengers every day who are deaf or have a hearing loss; their shared experiences have been vital in creating an inclusive programme that will ensure everyone feels safe and secure whilst travelling on the London Overground.
We developed the training programme alongside Signly, Deafax and DCAL, University College London’s Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre.
VS: What are the reasons for having a deaf trainer train the staff?
SR: A deaf trainer brings real-life experience and knowledge to the training programme. They are able to answer questions from a deaf person’s perspective and share information that can directly be applied by the attendees on the course.
VS: When is the training due to begin?
SR: Training has already begun, and in total, 350 ARL employees have embarked on a specially designed deaf awareness programme. [At the time of writing] 121 employees have been trained up. The one-day course will bolster the current disability awareness training, as part of the customer service employee induction.
VS: What role does technology have in the initiative?
SR: Technology is a key enabler to make travel easier and more convenient for all of our passengers. Through our innovation programme with TfL, we are always seeking new ways to improve the passenger and employee experience.
VS: What other accessibility initiatives is Arriva planning to implement in the future?
SR: We are also about to begin running training courses with the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) to increase the knowledge and skills of our frontline staff when dealing with customers that have a visual impairment.
Three apps for hearing-impaired railway passengers
InterpreterNow: ScotRail’s British Sign Language app
In May 2019, ScotRail teamed up with InterpreterNow to introduce a British Sign Language (BSL) app for deaf passengers travelling via Scotland’s Railway, enabling them to communicate with staff.
InterpreterNow is a service that delivers immediate access to online interpreting for deaf BSL users, allowing deaf and hearing-impaired people to communicate with each other.
Using its technology, the BSL app was able to aid those with a hearing impairment at “any part of their journey” – from information on disruption times to customer queries at stations or ticket offices.
Once installed on the user’s smartphone, the app directly connects someone travelling on ScotRail trains or at the platform to an interpreter through a video call. The interpreter then passes on the query to a ScotRail employee and signs the answer back.
Passenger Assist App: Travel assistance booking app by West Midlands Railway
Having launched the trial version in March 2019, the Passenger Assist App aims to help disabled passengers – especially those with a hearing disability – access assisted travel services.
Booking travel assistance currently takes at least 40 minutes either through a phone call or in person, according to West Midlands Railway, but this could be cut to less than a few minutes through the app.
Once rolled out, disabled passengers who require help when travelling on the West Midlands Railway will be able to book, change and cancel assistance quickly as well as create a user profile, specifying their personal details and the type of assistance they need.
Staff will receive real-time information, including key details about the customer such as their location, so that they can anticipate and deliver the required assistance services.
Signly: Network Rail’s AR app for sign language users
In October 2016, Network Rail announced the launch of the Signly Network Rail app which gives deaf people access to essential written travel and safety notices by delivering signed content directly to their smartphone or tablet.
In simple words, the app works much like QR-code software where smartphone users can point their device camera over leaflets or posters, but instead of a QR-code it is programmed to recognise an image. The app inserts a smart layer of signed digital information onto the screen of the user’s device. Users just need to open the app, point their device at the Signly-enabled information and a sign language translator appears on their screen.
The app has been officially recognised by the UK Government and was one of seven other projects awarded a share of £600,000 by DfT in June 2018.