Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)
I welcome the opportunity to raise my concerns and those of my constituents about the decision taken by Southeastern not to proceed with plans to create step-free access at Crayford station in my constituency.
Southeastern was presented with a simple, cost-effective scheme that could have been implemented quickly and would have made a real difference to commuters and others. Its decision not to proceed, motivated purely by money and fare revenue, will cause continued inconvenience to rail travellers with mobility problems, particularly the elderly and families with pushchairs. I am really disappointed that Southeastern is letting down so many vulnerable customers.
By way of background, I shall explain that Crayford station is one of four stations located in my constituency, the others being Bexleyheath, Barnehurst and Slade Green. There are eight others located around the borough that Bexley residents also use. Each of those stations is operated by Southeastern as part of the integrated Kent franchise.
Crayford is a zone 6 station used for about 1.3 million journeys every year, serving London Charing Cross and London Cannon Street. Although 40,000 fewer people used Crayford station last year due to the recession, many more people—some 300,000—are using the station than did so in 2003-04. That is partly due to new developments and investment in Crayford town, which has been transformed over the past 20 years. With new housing developments such as Braeburn Park and regeneration projects such as the retail park and the greyhound stadium, more people are living and working in the town. There are further developments under way, such as those at the back of Crayford town hall, the plans for the former Samas Roneo factory site in Maiden lane, and the new Crayford academy, which is currently under construction in Iron Mill lane. That will increase the number of people who live in the area and who have the opportunity to commute or travel from Crayford station, and it is great news for the town, which is a historic and distinct town that is growing and improving. As part of the London borough of Bexley, it is a desirable place to live and work.
To be fair, the station has been partially upgraded, but with a relatively small further improvement, it could transform the opportunities for, and the ability of, those with mobility difficulties to use public transport. The Minister will know that following a successful campaign to have step-free access installed at Barnehurst station, I was contacted by many of my constituents, particularly Mrs Barbara Gray, as well as by local councillors Melvin Seymour, Howard Marriner and Eileen Pallen, who like me are concerned about the lack of step-free access at Crayford station.
The London-bound platform at Crayford is step free, but the Kent-bound platform 2 is accessible only via a footbridge back to platform 1 over the railway line. With Crayford growing and attracting new firms and residents, the existing provisions are not satisfactory. At peak times, there is a vast queue to get over the bridge, which causes further problems, and means that those with mobility problems must wait still longer.
Crayford line commuters are therefore undoubtedly at a disadvantage when it comes to step-free access. Of the stations in and around Bexley that trains on that line call at, Crayford is not fully step free, nor is Bexley, which is the next station up, and nor is Albany Park. The first step-free station towards London is Sidcup. On the Bexleyheath line, however, Barnehurst, Bexleyheath and Welling stations are all step free, and only Falconwood is not. There is therefore a great disadvantage for vulnerable travellers on the Crayford line, many of whom are my constituents, although some are resident in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is indeed my long-time and good friend, and who I am pleased to see in the Chamber this evening.
My hon. Friend feels particularly strongly about this issue and is a passionate supporter of transport links into Crayford, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that the priority for Southeastern must be to ensure that passengers are able properly to use the facilities at Crayford station, and that in particular, we need Southeastern to show respect to those passengers who have mobility difficulties?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he has taken the opportunity tonight to make that point, as I have, and I hope the Minister will be sympathetic. Southeastern must address those issues for the benefit of those who are less mobile, so that they can use public transport, which we want.
Government funding is, I understand, available for step-free access. The Department for Transport website states:
“The Access for All Programme is part of the Railways for All Strategy, launched in 2006 to address the issues faced by disabled passengers using railway stations in Great Britain. Central to the Strategy is the ring-fencing of”
a certain amount of money
“until 2015, for provision of an obstacle free, accessible route to and between platforms at priority stations.”
As you would expect me to say, Mr Speaker, I think that Crayford is a priority station. I also understand that Access for All small schemes funding is available for smaller work programmes such as the one that I propose for Crayford. That is worth up to £250,000 a project, and is a contribution of 50% towards the total cost of the works.
On funding, our constituents who use the Southeastern trains service have particularly high expectations, and investment in the service is quite justified, because for reasons that I do not fully understand, Southeastern was singled out by the previous Government for RPI plus three rather than RPI plus one increases.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, on which I will elaborate later in my speech.
I contacted Southeastern about the issue of step-free access at Crayford in May 2009. I was told that Crayford was not included in its works programme for step-free access. Instead, I was offered a telephone number for constituents to call if they wanted help at the station or to get a taxi from the nearest fully accessible station. Helping commuters off the train with a ramp is obviously a good thing, but I do not know whether someone would actually carry a wheelchair over the footbridge to get it to the other side. That is a considerable number of steps, and certainly I have not had any experience of my constituents being offered that service. This means that rail users with mobility problems travelling in Kent would have to go to Dartford station to catch or get off a train. That is not always convenient as it is two miles away from Crayford station.
I was also concerned that I had not seen advertised the telephone number that Southeastern gave me for people with mobility problems to use. So I vigorously pursued the matter, met Mark Gibson of Southeastern at the station and highlighted the problem in person, so that he could see it first hand. I also showed him that there was already step-free access at the side of platform 2, because there was a footpath and a gate that had been used in the past. This gate had been locked to commuters for some time and, regrettably, the footpath had been allowed to deteriorate into a state of disrepair. In my opinion, unlocking the gate and resurfacing the footpath could solve the issue of step-free access quickly, effectively and cheaply. As we all know, money is tight these days and public expenditure tough, but very little money would be needed to open up that opportunity.
It came to light through subsequent correspondence in June and July 2009 with Bexley council that the land that this access point would be on was now owned by Sainsbury’s, whose store is near the station, and that the council was exploring options to achieve access over the land. I met a representative of Sainsbury’s later in the year, Ben Littman, who was very positive about the scheme. I was advised that the land over which access was necessary would be transferred to Bexley council’s ownership as part of an agreement relating to Sainsbury’s planning application to extend its store, subject to the necessary surveys and permission. I also learned from the council, not the train company, that £55,000 had been allocated to Southeastern from the national station improvement programme for the scheme, so at this stage—as the Minister will appreciate—things looked positive.
Southeastern had been provided with a simple, cost-effective proposal, supported by me, Sainsbury’s, constituents and local councillors; permission for access over the land required for the scheme; a gate already in place; the basis of a footpath; and funding from Network Rail to deliver step-free access. It should have been so simple. Unfortunately, I heard nothing further from Southeastern about the project for some time. What I discovered later was that due to its concerns about lost revenue, it had already decided not to proceed with the scheme. Despite having been allocated £55,000, it was concerned that it would have to spend money on automatic barriers and an Oyster reader system, which would have cost more than the £55,000 allocated, and employ an additional member of staff. But not to worry, it provided me with the same telephone number for constituents that it had given me more than a year before. I am appalled by the lack of concern for passengers that this attitude displays.
The justification offered by Southeastern for its decision not to proceed does not stand up to scrutiny, and that is why I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues in this Adjournment debate. I believe that the continued lack of step-free access at Crayford station, which Southeastern had the opportunity to rectify and failed to do so, is a disgrace of which it should be ashamed.
Southeastern claims that automated barriers are required in order to protect fare revenue. It has not provided any estimates as to how much this lost fare revenue is worth and alludes only to its studies. However, I pointed out that when it installed step-free access at Barnehurst station a couple of miles up the road on a different line, following my successful campaign, it did not put in automatic barriers. I also noted that an uncontrolled access gate to Crayford station’s platform 1 was routinely left open for people to walk in and out. So it was all right on one side, but not on the other side of the station, which I thought was very strange. It could not justify to me why the situations were different. I have learned that, since I have been commenting on this issue, it has now quite cynically stopped leaving open the uncontrolled access to platform 1—it has now been locked as well. That is very strange, is it not?
Fare revenue is obviously important to Southeastern, and it claims that the cost of installing automatic barriers would have been prohibitive. I asked how much it would cost over and above the £55,000 it has already been allocated, but I did not get a direct answer other than, “It would probably cost about £12,000”. It could not provide an accurate estimate of the cost of installing an automatic barrier with the appropriate cabling, although it thought it would be up to about £100,000. I do not believe the barrier is necessary. In my opinion, it is another red herring. Last year, the Southeastern parent group took over about £1.5 billion in rail revenues, and its operating profit is quite considerable as well. Given the public subsidy, the consistent growth in fare revenue—I note that passenger revenues rose considerably in 2008 and 2009—and the fact that it is making an operating profit in a difficult economic climate, I find it hard to believe that it could not find the small amount of money that would allow it to transform the opportunities for people with disabilities to travel on its trains.
Another reason Southeastern highlighted was that the barriers were necessary to prevent antisocial behaviour and vandalism at the station, but that did not apply in Barnehurst station, where it said that it did not matter at all. I think its reasoning is inconsistent and that it is holding a negative view of Crayford residents—one that I totally disagree with and think is an insult to the people of Crayford. That said, of course, communication is definitely not Southeastern’s strong point. I found out about the funding—or the lack of it—and its cancellation from Bexley council, not from Southeastern.
Why would Southeastern not tell me that it was cancelling the project, unless it was afraid of being held to account for its decision? I am advised that the money that Southeastern was given for step-free access is to be delivered to other stations, but it would not tell me which ones. Bromley has been mentioned as a possibility, but a quick look on the Access for All website shows that it was due to get money for that project anyway, so I am still at a loss to know what has happened to the money originally promised to Crayford. I also understand that Crayford was awarded £51,000 in 2007, under the Access for All small grant scheme, to provide level access from the road to the downside platform by resurfacing the disused station approach and installing lighting. So the money was there, but Southeastern chose not to use it, which again is disappointing.
I must mention as a sideline that Southeastern has shown a similarly poor attitude to helping vulnerable commuters at Slade Green station, which is also in my constituency. That is a different station with a different problem. It has step-free access to each platform, but because of the layout of the surrounding area, it is difficult to make the journey from one side of the platform via the road to the other platform. Earlier this year, I met the representatives of the Bexley association for disabled people, who are concerned about access for the disabled at this station. Some of the things there are also simple to resolve. There are no ramps on to the pavement from the set-down area, and there are steps from the bus stop to the set-down area meaning that those with mobility problems have a difficult problem as well. The footbridge is also a problem because it is sloped like a ramp, and it is quite difficult for disabled people to go up and down it.
Again, the response from Southeastern was not encouraging. I was given information that I already knew and was advised that there was an Access for All scheme, but again larger stations got priority. I got the same information about the telephone numbers, so I now have it printed indelibly in my memory. I appreciate that money is an issue for Southeastern, but I think that investment in passengers and the benefit of passengers should be its top priority.
I would like to briefly mention the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) about how fares have gone up dramatically and how it was under the last Labour Government that Southeastern was given a derogation to increase fares considerably above the rate of inflation, which has meant that commuters from Crayford and Slade Green have paid considerably more for the same journey. Yet they have not been accommodated when it comes to step-free access or helping people with disabilities to use the station facilities. Now that we know the July rate of the retail prices index, I am naturally concerned as to what the rate increase will be in January for commuters travelling from my constituency. I want to put on record that the Labour Government’s allowing huge rises on top of inflation was totally unacceptable and unfair to people in my area.
As I have highlighted at some length, this is an important issue for me and for the people who live in Crayford. I cannot understand why we have been unable to get such a simple improvement, which would transform the opportunities for those with mobility problems. They should not have to have extra help, or travel to another station. They should be able to get on and off the trains at their own station, and to commute up to London or out into Kent as they wish. Step-free access would transform the situation, especially at a time when we are encouraging more people to use public transport. It is essential that we give people the opportunity to get on and off the platforms, so that they can use public transport. I urge Southeastern to look again at its decision. Others—the council, businesses and other organisations—are investing in the future of Crayford, and I believe that Southeastern should do the same. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me, and that he will use his considerable influence to help us to get step-free access for my constituents at Crayford station.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) on securing this debate on this important issue for his constituents. I also welcome the supportive comments made by the hon. Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). In response, I would like to set out the measures that the Government are putting in place to improve access to rail travel for people with reduced mobility. While I have this opportunity, I also want to explain the particular circumstances which, unfortunately, have so far prevented enhancement plans for Crayford from being achieved.
The provision of a modern, accessible public transport system in which disabled people have the same opportunities to travel as other members of society is key to improving the life chances of disabled people, promoting social inclusion and making it easier for older people to work or volunteer. We are fully aware that, without accessible transport, disabled people are limited in their ability to access work, to visit friends and family, to participate in leisure activities or to use essential services such as health care and education facilities. That is why successive Governments have taken strong action to ensure that public transport services are increasingly accessible to the large population of disabled people who live in Great Britain, and I believe that the UK’s record in this area speaks for itself. I might also add that these issues affect not only disabled people: when I first became a father, the need to carry the buggy brought home to me just how many steps there were in railway stations.
When the railways first arrived in Crayford in the 1860s, they symbolised the future of transport. They were fast, reasonably comfortable and cheap to use. Unfortunately, 19th century railways were not built with the needs of 21st century travellers in mind, and it is only in recent years that serious attention has been paid to making stations more accessible. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the previous Government published the Railways for All strategy in 2006, which set out what the rail industry as a whole was doing to improve access to rail services, particularly for disabled people.
The coalition Government understand the importance of rail stations to passengers’ overall journeys and place the highest value on promoting equality and fairness. We realise that accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience, and we remain committed to making further improvements. To date, 148 stations across England, Wales and Scotland have been targeted to receive main scheme funding for an accessible route to and between their platforms. 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 42 stations, which are now complete, and good progress being made on the programme nationally. By the end of the current financial year, we expect a total of 65 stations to have been completed.
The busiest stations have been prioritised, as improving these will benefit the largest number of people. The stations have been chosen on the basis of Office of Rail Regulation station usage statistics, weighted by the incidence of disability in the local area based on the 2001 census. As a result, the investment is being targeted at the busier stations in areas with a higher proportion of disabled people. A proportion of the stations were also selected to ensure a fair geographical spread across the country.
As my hon. Friend will know, however, Crayford station was not selected in the main scheme programme. However, since 2006, small schemes funding has also been made available, for which local authorities, train operating companies and other interested groups can bid, to make smaller scale or locally focused access improvements to stations. In total, the small schemes programme has provided almost £25 million of match funding towards investment of almost £100 million supporting improvements to meet local needs at more than 1,000 stations.
As my hon. Friend says, Crayford station already has a level access route to the upside platform. We believe, as he does, that a step-free route could be provided relatively easily to the downside platform as well by resurfacing and making good the disused station approach road. As he knows, in 2007 Southeastern successfully applied for £51,000 of departmental funding towards a project estimated at £102,000 to make this a reality. I am very sorry to say that in March 2008 Southeastern withdrew the application, citing land ownership issues, particularly the fact that the disused right of way belonged to J Sainsbury plc.
We understand, however—my hon. Friend touched on this in his introduction—that an agreement has been reached between Bexley council and Sainsbury’s to transfer the ownership of the land to the council and that this will be finalised shortly. This will remove Southeastern’s original reason for dropping the scheme and I am therefore disappointed that it is now citing the need to install revenue protection gates as the reason for not providing the required access.
I should add, of course, that the Government support gating as a means to protect revenue and increase security at stations, and the entrance to the London-bound platform at Crayford is already gated, but this should not be at the expense of providing access. The Department has recently commissioned research showing that providing level access to platforms can deliver increased journeys and therefore increased revenues for train operators, so I would like to encourage Southeastern seriously to look at this issue again and to give full consideration to the operational arrangements that would be required to enable access via gates to a new entrance on the other platform. Even if gates are not staffed, there are other examples, such as at Luton, of remote control of gates to entrances where passengers with tickets that cannot operate the gates place their ticket on a screen which is viewed by the operator before the gates are opened.
Small schemes funding was made available again later in 2008 for work taking place during the 2009-10 financial year. I have to report to the House that the Department received no further applications for work at Crayford. Following this debate, I will ask my officials to ensure that my comments as well as my hon. Friend’s are drawn to the attention of Southeastern’s managing director, Charles Horton.
I should make it clear that the Access for All programme is 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. For example, the accessibility of booking facilities and the provision of assistance for disabled passengers have also significantly improved.
We have also recently updated the code of practice setting out the access standards for infrastructure work at stations to align it with new European standards, and these have complemented significant advances in rail vehicle accessibility over the past decade. In addition, we are working with the industry to update the way in which disabled people’s protection policies, which set out how the train operators will meet the needs of their disabled customers, are written.
There is no room for complacency, however. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber would underestimate the scale of the challenge or believe that the Railways for All strategy represents the end of our task. We recognise that progress in improving the accessibility of stations and stops must be accompanied by improvements to the accessibility of rail vehicles.
Under the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998—more commonly known as RVAR—introduced under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, all new rail vehicles introduced since 31 December 1998 have had features making them significantly more accessible to disabled people, such as larger and easier access to priority seats for disabled passengers; the 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. More than 6,200 accessible rail vehicles are already in service and all rail vehicles must be accessible by no later than 1 January 2020. Together with the code of practice, these provisions will deliver consistent access standards for vehicles and stations across the whole rail network for the first time.
My hon. Friend might say that there is not much point in making train vehicles accessible if the stations to access them are not accessible as well. That is also a point that I hope Southeastern might take on board. The 2020 “end date” dovetails with similar provisions for buses and coaches, ensuring the existence of an accessible transport chain and giving disabled people certainty that they will be able to access all public transport vehicles in future.
We should bear it in mind that, although they may not have been built to modern accessibility standards, many thousands of older rail vehicles have already been made more accessible by refurbishment. That includes fleets of older trains such as those serving my hon. Friend’s constituency, which, as he will know, have recently received accessibility improvements.
However, the need to improve access to the railway does not stop with stations and vehicles. On occasion, barriers such as a lack of confidence, poor travel information and the attitudes of staff may affect disabled people’s ability, confidence and desire to use public transport. That is why we have supported the production by the Association of Train Operating Companies of a staff disability awareness training DVD through the Access for All small schemes fund and its full access audits of every station in the country, which will allow a better focus in the targeting of future improvements.
As rail vehicles and stations are made accessible to disabled people, the facilities that they offer greatly benefit other passengers such as pregnant women, parents with pushchairs and those carrying heavy luggage. Indeed, all of us at one time or another in our lives will be grateful that those provisions have been put in place. A great deal has been achieved, but the railway industry is far from complacent, and will continue to work with the organisations representing disabled people—and, most important, with disabled people themselves—to improve services further. It is clearly regrettable that the access at Crayford station remains below modern acceptable standards, and I share my hon. Friend’s concern about that.
Services on rail are covered by the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which is soon to be replaced by the Equality Act 2010. It is the duty of Southeastern to make reasonable adjustments to the way it provides its services so that disabled customers do not find them impossible or unreasonably difficult to use. It might make physical adjustments, or it might make the service available by an alternative means such as the provision of an accessible taxi to the next level access station; but that is a much less satisfactory—
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).