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Rail Services (Access)

Volume 494: debated on Friday 19 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

It is a great pleasure to devote this Adjournment debate to a subject close to my heart—access to the railway system, not just by disabled people, but by all who have difficulty accessing stations and train services.

It was also my great pleasure last year to open a new lift, jointly with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), at Balham station, which is on the boundary of our two constituencies. The lift was entirely paid for by the Government’s access for all scheme. We paid two visits, the first while the lift was being built and then again when it was opened. What struck me the first time as we watched the lift being built was just how many people had to struggle with the busy stairs between platforms 2 and 3: mothers with toddlers in double buggies, a skier with a broken leg hobbling up with a stick, a couple who had been out shopping and bought a chair and had to carry it up, cyclists having to take their bikes up and an elderly gentleman walking with a stick.

What struck me most the second time, when we took the scissors and snipped the tape, was just how large a section of the community among the population are able to access station platforms only once a lift has been built—most obviously, people in wheelchairs, but also those with emphysema, heart complaints or just very elderly people. There are also those for whom access may not be impossible, but it is certainly difficult, especially without assistance—the parents of young children in prams or buggies, people with heavy luggage or lots of shopping, people carrying bicycles and so forth. All those categories were, I am sure, grateful for the installation of the Balham lift.

The Government deserve enormous credit for having pushed ahead with their access for all scheme, which is providing lifts for more than 100 stations. The historic moment is coming soon when the first lifts will start to operate at Clapham Junction station, where nine lifts are being installed under that scheme. The station has been there for 146 years, but this will be the first time that many people have been able to access any of the 17 platforms in this station. I have constituents living next to the station who have to take a taxi to Victoria in order to get on a train that will stop six minutes later within a few yards of their home at Clapham Junction.

Let me start by paying tribute to Ministers who have pushed this scheme through. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) was the responsible Minister at the time we opened Balham, but there will have been other Ministers before him. I also pay tribute to the managers at Network Rail, particularly Gary Tordoff and Peter Maynard who have driven the programme forward, but many others have been carrying it through. I also want to thank all the people working for contractors at Clapham Junction, Balham and elsewhere for installing these lifts.

The Minister of State has another connection with this subject, as he was chair of the access to railways stakeholder group, to which I also hope to invite the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) in his new capacity. It brings together the railway industry and disability organisations to speak to MPs and Ministers about access to the railways. I had the honour of succeeding my right hon. Friend in the chair when he became a Minister. I pay tribute in particular to Roger Turner of the National Federation of Royal Mail and BT Pensioners, who started the organisation, and to Laura Blake of Connect Public Affairs, who runs the committee. I thank David Sindall of the Association of Train Operating Companies, Nicholas Russell of Guide Dogs for the Blind and others who helped me to prepare for the debate.

It was a great pleasure last year to see those lifts installed, but I want to address my remarks to the programme’s future. In my mind, I divide the issue into three parts: first, access from the station to the platform, which is the bulk of what access for all is about; secondly, access from the platform to the train, which is possibly an even more difficult subject; and thirdly, what happens once a person gets on the train. There is also the need to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to information about trains as everyone else.

Most small stations do not have the problem of access to platforms, with level access to both platforms, but Clapham Junction is the classic case: 17 platforms and no disabled access to any of them. The access for all scheme has made a huge difference there. The final target of the £370 million given to access for all is that 125 stations will be converted by 2014. The Minister may have more up-to-date figures on that.

There has been discussion about the choice of stations, which is based on the top 500 stations for footfall, but cross-checked with areas that have the most disabled people. I am glad that Clapham Junction and Balham were picked out. Many other stations in London are getting the treatment, and I encourage the Minister to stick with the idea of where most people will benefit.

Equally, London Underground is making many of its stations step-free. I think that 56 are currently step-free, and the target is 25 per cent. of stations by 2010. It is introducing tactile strips on platforms and contrasting handrails, which are valuable to some groups. It is also introducing wide-aisle ticket gates, which are important for people in wheelchairs.

There has been criticism of the time that it has taken for the access for all scheme to reach its targets. Certainly, both stations in my constituency have slipped a bit on the expected time completion, partly because they are old, Victorian stations and it is always unpredictable what will be found once lift shafts are sunk. I do not blame any particular scheme for delays, but it is clear that some people think that the project management has not been fully up to speed. At some stations—Twickenham, for example—the issue has been whether the installation of lifts is worth while in terms of the benefit that is available. Sometimes the cost of installation may be excessive.

Train operating companies are keen to take on the management and delivery of some projects, although I am certain not all of them. I am sure that the Minister will consider whether, to keep up to speed on the project, it would be useful to devolve some of the smaller schemes to train operating companies. They already have responsibility for the small schemes programme, which has benefited more than 1,000 stations so far.

Access from the platform to the train is not the subject of the access for all programme. It is a far more complicated problem and the stakeholder group has often debated it. Remarkably few stations have level access from the platform to the carriage floor. The docklands light railway stations have that, as do those of the Heathrow Express and the London underground, of course. Some suburban stations in Liverpool have it, too. Those stations have been specifically built for the trains that provide the service. It is extraordinary, however, that we still have this problem, which is a huge obstacle for many disabled people.

There are various ways in which the problem can be tackled. There is the “hump” trial, which reduces the stepping gap between the platform and the train. That has been tried at some stations, including Harrington and St. Albans Abbey. There are also ramps that can be wheeled on to the platform and winched up, so that a disabled person can board a train. Using them increases dwell times, however, which can be an issue on busy commuter lines, and it is therefore often resisted by railway operators. There are also ramps that fold down from trains. Germany and Holland have them, but they pose a risk to the people on the platform if they are not pulled up before the train departs.

The long-term solution is for as many platforms as possible to be at the same level as the carriage floor. I appreciate that achieving that is technically very difficult, partly because different lines have grown up with different traditions, and different rolling stock have different carriage-floor heights. There is also the problem of the curvature of the track. There are, however, standard acceptable widths for the gaps between the platform and the step, which is about 10 inches, and between the step and the carriage floor, which is about 11 inches, although where there is a curved platform the gap will be greater at certain points.

It will take a generation for any standard set now to become the norm, let alone universal, but I want the Department to think about whether for the future we ought at least to set the same standard height for platforms and carriage floors, so that we can work towards achieving this when new lines are built, new rolling stock is designed and new stations are extended. Most of the railways were built at a time when it was assumed that if somebody had a disability, they would be excluded from the railway system for ever; that was considered to be inevitable. Nowadays, however, we do not consider it to be inevitable. On the contrary, we consider it to be something we should fight against. Now is the time to establish these standards, therefore. They will probably have to be the same across Europe, but that should not be seen as an argument against trying.

There is a problem with the senior citizen’s railcard. Its cost of £26 is a disincentive to some pensioners. However, because the conditions are exactly the same as those for concessionary bus travel, it could be given free to senior citizens. They would still pay for their tickets, but they would get the senior citizen’s railcard for free, which would encourage a lot more of them to use the railways, especially those who use them only occasionally and for whom the £26 would be a fairly large expense.

There are various problems with the trains themselves, particularly for the partially sighted. There may be priority seating, but locating it can be a problem for them. Also, the aisles are often too narrow to give access for wheelchairs. It is also very important to make full use of audible, as well as visual, information systems and to use contrasting colours, because many partially sighted people can distinguish those and that is their only chance of being able to find their way around without assistance inside a train.

Possibly the most important thing for the visually impaired is having tactile edges on platforms. They have been installed as part of the access for all programme, but only on a case-by-case basis. It would be hugely expensive to install them overnight on every platform in the country, but it is important that we maintain the momentum in working towards that aim. There have been times when partially sighted people have been lost over the edge of a platform when that may have been prevented by the installation of a tactile edge.

So many rail issues affect not only disabled people, but many others. I should add a word on the ticketing systems. The following may sound like obvious points, but they are clearly important to people with visual impairment. If there is no audible facility on a touch-screen they cannot be used by visually impaired people—such screens could easily be adapted in that way. The text size is often not sufficiently large for partially sighted people to read, so the screens need to be adapted to increase the text size in places where that has not already been done.

Another problem relates to unstaffed railway stations. There is supposed to be an information line whereby people can get information about how to get on a train at an unstaffed station. I heard recently of a case where somebody phoned up and was told that there were no facilities at an unstaffed station to allow them to get on the trains, but when they travelled 22 miles by taxi to catch a train, they discovered that there were actually facilities at the station. It is one thing to provide the facilities, but it is equally important to ensure that the information is available to the people who need it—that applies in respect of all trips, not just pre-planned ones. Many people are totally dependent on getting the information quickly before they travel. The assisted travel management system certainly needs a good deal of improvement, which should include low call and freephone telephone services specifically for disabled passengers.

Printed timetables often have small print, which cannot be read by partially sighted people, and they may not be available in large print, Braille or audio—those formats are equally important. It is also important for train staff to have disability awareness and for that to be standardised across the whole system. Often the difference between different train companies can be very confusing for people. Most importantly of all, disability training should be provided. There is no doubt that a lot of training is required in order for people to know how to handle the problems of disabled passengers, and it is very important that the person who is on duty in the station is aware of these issues.

I have probably given the Minister a shopping list that he will consider to be almost too long. When one starts to go into the details of the problems that people have in making use of the train system, one finds that the list keeps expanding. I know that he will share my vision of a railway system that is fully usable by everybody in this country, regardless of whether they have a disability. This subject requires vision, dedication and planning, and I hope to invite him to meet the stakeholder group at some point in the near future, so that we can carry on the very fruitful discussions that we have had with his predecessors in the Department for Transport on how we can make the railways accessible for all.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) for securing this debate on this important matter and for his eloquent summary of the issues. I hope to deal with all his questions, although not necessarily in the order in which he put them to me.

The provision of an accessible public transport system in which disabled people can have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society is a key plank in our policy to improve the life chances of disabled people and to promote social inclusion. We are fully aware that, without accessible transport, disabled people are limited in their ability to access work, visit friends and family, participate in leisure activities or access health care and education facilities. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, that is why we have taken strong action to ensure that public transport services are increasingly accessible to the estimated 11 million disabled people who live in Great Britain. I believe that our record in this area speaks for itself.

We have introduced regulations, the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998—more commonly known as the RVAR—which ensured that all new rail vehicles introduced since 31 December 1998 had to be accessible. The RVAR considerably improve accessibility by specifying features such as larger and easier access to priority seats for disabled passengers; use of tonal contrast in liveries and finishes; a minimum number of spaces for wheelchair users; boarding devices to facilitate wheelchair access; provision of handrails and handholds; and provision of audible and visual passenger information.

Almost 5,000 accessible rail vehicles are already in service and all rail vehicles must be accessible by no later than 1 January 2020. That end date dovetails with similar provisions in place for buses and coaches, ensuring an accessible transport chain and giving disabled people certainty that they will be able to access all public transport vehicles in future.

We are currently consulting on further improvements to the RVAR to reflect the progress made and lessons learned during the last decade. These include amendments to the technical accessibility standards they contain, the mandatory application of accessibility requirements to refurbishment projects within the scope of works, and measures for strengthening the enforcement regime. They will also for the first time bring other, previously unregulated, rail vehicles into scope, such as the people mover at Gatwick airport.

Our ultimate aim in revising the regulations is to ensure that the RVAR continue to meet the legitimate aspirations of disabled people for the next decade. We want the new provisions to be in place as soon as possible and, preferably, by the end of this year. We should also remember that, although they may not have been built to modern accessibility standards, many thousands of older rail vehicles have already been made more accessible through refurbishment. That includes fleets of older trains built in the 1980s that serve my hon. Friend’s constituency and have recently been refurbished with passenger information systems, wheelchair spaces, priority seats and colour contrast.

Our leadership in the area of rail vehicle accessibility has now been recognised at European level. When considering the development of new technical accessibility standards for trains, the European Commission based those largely on the RVAR. That is a clear demonstration of how far ahead of mainland Europe we are in that respect. The new pan-European standards were introduced last year and will represent a step change—pun not intended—in accessibility for disabled travellers on the continent. Those standards are more inclusive than in the past, in that they make provision for older people, pregnant women and people with small children, in addition to people with disabilities. We welcome that expansion of provision.

We also recognised that services provided on rail, and other public transport vehicles were not covered by part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Those provisions place obligations on service providers to ensure that their services are not “impossible or unreasonably difficult”" for disabled people to access. The exclusion of transport services meant that a disabled person could have lawfully been refused access to a public transport vehicle which was otherwise accessible to them solely because they were disabled. That was completely unacceptable so we took action to close that loophole in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Part III was then applied to transport services from December 2006. That has also given disabled people the power to challenge transport providers to improve the accessibility of all aspects of their services.

We must do more. We recognise that progress in improving the accessibility of rail vehicles must be accompanied by improvements to the accessibility of stations and stops. Accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience, not only for people with reduced mobility, but for those carrying heavy luggage or pushing unwieldy pushchairs, and we remain committed to making further improvements.

In March 2006, we published our railways for all strategy, which set out what the rail industry as a whole is doing to improve access to rail services, particularly for people with disabilities. I am pleased to report that the access for all programme described in the strategy is rolling out across the network, with accessible routes already installed at 25 stations and a further 11 in progress. By the end of the current financial year, we expect a total of 40 stations to have been completed.

My hon. Friend asked whether we were disappointed with the progress that has been made. We would like to have seen a few more stations delivered by this stage, but earlier this year Network Rail carried out a full review of the programme, and the programme delivery is now gaining momentum. Additionally, I would like him to recognise that the option selection and design element of the programme was front-loaded and has now been completed for the majority of stations. I hope that things will progress more quickly from here on in.

In addition, the small schemes programme is now providing almost £25 million of match funding towards investment of almost £100 million in total, supporting improvements that meet local needs at over 1,000 stations by spring 2010. Bids for further works to be completed in 2010-11 have also just been invited.

The access for all programme exists in addition to commitments made in franchises and other programmed major station improvements. It also builds on the raising of standards over recent years including the requirement on train operating companies to take account of accessibility standards in the code of practice on train and station standards for disabled people. The accessibility of booking facilities, for example, and the provision of access for disabled passengers has also significantly improved.

My hon. Friend asked about accessibility in London. He will recognise that much of the underground system is difficult for disabled people to access because of the era in which it was constructed. The constraints caused by the original design of stations can make the installation of facilities such as lifts very difficult. London Underground is committed to a core network of step-free stations and although there are currently some 43 step-free stations, with plans for 25 per cent. of the network to be step-free by 2010, I am sure that he will be pleased to hear that further provision is expected with the introduction of new facilities to support the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012. New lines, such as the Jubilee line extension, are fully accessible, of course.

There is still much to do, however, and I do not think that anybody would underestimate the scale of the challenge or believe that the railways for all strategy represents the end of our task. Together, these provisions will deliver consistent access standards for vehicles and stations across the whole rail network for the first time. Having made so much progress in improving train and station accessibility, we also recognise that other areas of the end-to-end journey require improvement. For example, we acknowledge that the gap between the platform and the train can represent a significant barrier to many disabled people. I am aware of the particular problems in that respect at Clapham Junction station in my hon. Friend’s constituency, where our Victorian forefathers have bequeathed us sharply curved platforms and the resultant large gaps.

Unfortunately, because of the need to provide clearance for fast through trains and freight, boarding ramps will remain necessary at most stations. However, where possible, new routes with new, dedicated trains will be built to provide level access. Such access is already in place in the modern tram systems and in many light rail systems, such as the docklands light railway and the London underground Jubilee line extension. The central London core of Crossrail will also have level access.

Elsewhere, as my hon. Friend noted, we are supporting novel solutions to the problem of the gap between the train and the platform. A recent development is the possibility of retrofitting “humps” at stations with traditionally very low platforms where usage means that rectification work might not be a priority. My hon. Friend is clearly aware of the successful trial in Harrington in Cumbria. Similar platform humps are planned for the central London section of Thameslink, and have already been provided on some London underground Victoria line stations in preparation for the new trains that will be introduced there later this year. Where physically possible, those humps will provide level access at least to the doors that wheelchair users use.

The need to improve access to the railway network does not stop with physical accessibility to stations and vehicles. Barriers such as lack of confidence, poor travel information and the attitudes of staff all affect disabled people’s ability to use public transport. I should just mention the staff disability awareness training DVD, which was funded through the access for all small schemes fund. I hope that that will address some of the concerns that my hon. Friend raised.

As my hon. Friend noted, as trains and stations are made accessible for disabled people, the facilities that they offer greatly benefit other passengers. We have already achieved a great deal in that area, but we are far from complacent, and will continue to work with the industry, organisations—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).