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Disabled Access (Train Stations)

Volume 565: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2013

It is a great pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is an extraordinary testimony to the interest in disabled access that there is such a large turnout from all parties for this debate. I want to speak briefly to allow other hon. Members to intervene.

If we are looking for a distinctive British contribution to the world since the second world war, we could do a lot worse than looking at what has happened with disabled rights. Britain has genuinely been in the lead on disabled rights, and that has involved all parties. In 1970, Alf Morris introduced the first disability legislation in the world; he was the first Minister for the disabled. In 1995, the Conservative Government introduced the first disability discrimination legislation, and it was a Lib Dem and Conservative coalition that brought in the equalities legislation. That is something of which all parties should be proud.

The issue of disabled rights reflects two important moral insights: one is the contribution that disabled people make to our society, which we wish to celebrate, support and encourage, and another is the important issue of rights or equality—in other words, the fact that disabled people, along with all the other groups who have been focused on since the second world war, deserve equal dignity and respect.

I very much feel that fact personally. My younger sister is disabled, and over the past 20 years I have been struck by how generous and imaginative Governments have been in supporting her in education and transport, and now in providing her with mentoring in the workplace. Governments have done that in hospitals, and they have worked well in libraries and community halls. They need to do so, because there are 12 million disabled people in this country.

The great remaining challenge to Britain—the final frontier—is in transport. Sadly, transport has not quite reached the level that has been achieved in other public service provision. The rights for disabled people that were originally laid out in 1970 have not been fully realised in the field of transport, and that is becoming increasingly important. For example, the number of disabled people using trains has gone up by 55% or more in the past five years. About 77 million individual trips a year are now taken by disabled people.

Huge progress has been made in the constituencies of some hon. Members, and people have been in touch to congratulate the Government on the work already done on specific train stations. Nevertheless, it remains a challenge, particularly for smaller and more rural train stations. There are a number of reasons for that.

That matter relates not just to regional stations. Goring station is in my constituency, which is a centre for disabled access, as it turns out. People travelling from that station have to go a huge distance beyond it or to fall short of it by a huge distance if they wish to cross platforms, because they have to do that at stations that have lifts to allow them to cross platforms and get a train going the other way.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because that is true. At a time when we are about to spend an enormous sum on High Speed 2, partly to accelerate people’s journey times, disabled people up and down the country face much longer journey times because of the necessity of travelling on—for example, from Goring to another station—to get from one platform to another. One of my constituents who is unable to get off the train at Penrith has to travel to Carlisle and wait for a train coming south, which adds approximately 50 minutes to her journey every time she travels.

I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. Another example is at Menston station in my constituency, which has two platforms. People have to go from one platform and come back to the other—they have to use both. There are many car parking spaces for disabled people, but only a massive footbridge between the platforms. Whereas disabled people can park there, they cannot actually get from one platform to the other. Does he agree that that situation cries out for Access for All funding from the Department for Transport to make the station fully accessible for disabled people?

Absolutely. That is an exact example of the importance of the Access for All funding provided by the Department. I am sure that the Minister will discuss that at greater length. Of course, it is not quite as generous as we would like. There is not yet a legal obligation on the Government to provide Access for All funding, so it is unlikely to be able to provide for more than a minority of the cases represented by hon. Members in the Chamber.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s campaign, which is supported by Northumberland and the Tyne Valley Line rail users group. Does he agree that the campaign to rebuild Gilsland station—it starts in my constituency, but ends in his—would be the perfect place to have a station with proper disabled access?

It is very difficult for me to disagree with my hon. Friend.

I have a more serious and general point that is worth raising with the Minister, who is kindly giving us his time today. One of the challenges for Gilsland and smaller remote stations is one of metrics and measurement, and about how the Government assess which stations to prioritise. Understandably, they tend to focus on footfall as a way of prioritising stations, but that misses many things. It misses the fact that a remote rural station suffers from general transport issues, such as fuel poverty and a lack of bus services.

Remote rural areas tend to have issues relating to an ageing population—demographic issues—that are not necessarily captured by the Government’s form of measurement. For example, the absolute number of people getting off at Penrith station is not that dramatic, but the number of people aged over 65 in my constituency will double in the next 10 years, so that the majority of people in my constituency will be over 65 in 10 years’ time. They may not have disabled cards, but to come down 45 steps with a 35 kg suitcase and get up the other side is not necessarily a problem simply for the disabled.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter before the House. The reason why everyone is here is that we can all relate to this issue.

In a previous life in Northern Ireland, I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which decided to introduce a strategy to address the issue. Every train and almost every station in Northern Ireland now has disabled access. Some £18 million was set aside last year for that purpose, and there are only two stations left to do in Northern Ireland. Is not the real issue that the Government have to set aside money to meet the equality legislation, as we decided to do to meet the needs of disabled people across the whole of Northern Ireland? We have two stations to do—almost there.

That is a wonderful example. The argument is about learning not just from Northern Ireland, but from the symbolic benefit. At a time when the public are increasingly frustrated and perplexed by what politicians are up to and about what our job is, such projects are highly visible—people can relate to them and see them—and they generate employment. They are exactly the kind of highly visible infrastructure projects that this Government are promising and that I believe we ought to be able to deliver.

I am reluctant to interrupt my hon. Friend’s eloquent exposition. If I might be forgiven the pun, he is making a very good set of points. In particular, he makes a good point about how this country has reached out to the disabled community. Anyone who watched the Paralympics last year would be disabused of any remaining notion that disabled people are not able to rise to the challenge.

Does my hon. Friend agree that disability access is often access for others as well? At rural stations in my constituency, investment in disability facilities benefits bike users, mums with prams and others who are less able to get around. Does he agree that stations in rural areas, with rural broadband and infrastructure, are often the hub of a vibrant rural economy? In my constituency, Wymondham station is the model. I was recently lobbied by some constituents, led by Joy Batley. They have to get off at the southbound platform and get a taxi back to the other side to cross the track.

My hon. Friend makes a very eloquent statement. It strikes me that that point—that we should not focus simply on footfall or on disability numbers—is absolutely essential to make to the Minister. My hon. Friend’s argument is crucial: we are of course talking not just about people over 65 or those with prams, but about the usual requirements of tourists, for example. Many of us may represent constituencies that have a high number of tourists, who by their very nature tend to travel with large suitcases and bags.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is absolutely on the right track—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Even as I said it, colleagues. May I welcome his debate today, and wish him luck with his campaign locally? If he wants some inspiration, he could visit the great city of Winchester where Network Rail has just announced that it is to install a footbridge over the station with a lift either side, so that disabled elderly people and visitors can get around. At the moment, the situation is exactly as my hon. Friend has been describing—getting taxis to go round the one-way system just to cross the bridge. He is welcome to come to Winchester at any time, and I am happy to spread a bit of light into his debate.

My hon. Friend is very kind. The situation in Winchester is exactly what places such as Penrith would dearly love—a lift and a footbridge across the station. At the moment, if a seriously disabled person is in a wheelchair at Penrith station, unless they travel up to Carlisle, they have to make a formal request—there are 14 formal requests a day and scores more that are not formally made in advance—which involves them being pushed across the great west coast main line in the gaps between trains travelling at 125 mph. Those are not exactly the kind of conditions that we wish to encourage.

The hon. Gentleman is very generous with his time. Notwithstanding all the points that he has made, with which I agree, does he accept that there is a real issue about the disappearance of staff from many stations? However many adaptations we introduce, some people will always need extra help to get around. As well as needing that additional assistance, many people with disabilities have been subject to hate crime, and so may be deterred from travelling alone to places where there is not a staff presence.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She takes us back to the bigger strategic point that the Minister has had a grip on throughout this Administration, which is that we believe in rail and we believe in trains. We are investing an enormous amount of money in that idea. In doing so, we might as well get it right. The sums of money we are talking about to have the right kind of facilities available for disabled people are relatively trivial compared with this enormous bet that the Government are making and that the Opposition voted for on the future of rail travel. If we are spending £43 billion on a high-speed line so that people in my constituency can fly up to Lichfield and then on their trains fly up to Penrith, it would be a great pity if, at the other end, they were unable to get off the train at all.

Does my hon. Friend agree that using footfall as a measure is pretty unfair on a station such as Langley Mill, which has a steep and slippery staircase? It is hard for many passengers to use the train. Perhaps if we had stations that were fit for the modern world, we might get the footfall. It is especially hard to understand when several million pounds can be found to invest in a station a few miles down the line, but a few hundred thousand cannot be found to put disabled access into an existing station.

That is a vital point. It returns us to the general theme, which is that when we have made the big investment, the big bet, a relatively small amount of money would make all the difference in use. The fact that people in Penrith and the Border can get up to Cumbria in three hours and 15 minutes is the most extraordinary transformation—for tourism, for our economy, for small businesses, for people’s quality of life, for connections to other parts of the country, and for people’s ability to go abroad. All of that is being held back by what would probably be an investment of a few hundred thousand pounds to finish the job.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on choosing such an important subject for debate and on his eloquence. He referred earlier to legislation that has been passed by this House, and I am sure that as he continues his research he will find that in 1986 I was fortunate enough to pilot through the House the Disabled Persons (Services Consultation and Representation) Act 1986. The thematic support for the Act was based on advocacy, because not all disabled people can speak for themselves. Some, as we know, were placed in guards’ vans at that time and given very little help. Can I get the hon. Gentleman to agree that, in addition to what he is doing, which is excellent, he will support advocacy so that those who cannot speak for themselves will find that their views do not go unreported?

Absolutely. Indeed, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for the extraordinary work that he did in the 1980s. Yet again, at a time of cynicism about Parliament, cynicism about Back Benchers, and cynicism about what people can contribute, the contribution that he made as an Opposition Back Bencher at that crucial stage was really heart-warming.

My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous with his time. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is not just a matter of stations but a real lack of consistency between train operators on disabled access? A constituent of mine uses a mobility scooter, and I was told by Northern Rail that because it has 13 different types of train, most with ramps that are steeper than eight degrees and therefore in its eyes unsafe to use, she has to be accompanied by someone to fold and lift her scooter on to each individual train. In other parts of the country, train operating companies have come up with solutions to that. Does my hon. Friend agree that train operators should try to find a consistent common approach to the issue of access for people using mobility scooters? Perhaps the Minister could look at that as part of the franchise process.

My hon. Friend makes two important points. The first is about the inconsistency between operators, which is something that we have experienced very personally in Penrith. The apparently winning bidder for the west coast franchise committed to install a lift at Penrith station. When that franchise collapsed, having got a written commitment from the chief executive of that group, we ended up going back to Virgin and no such commitment is emerging. Virgin says that it has no interest in the work because it has only four or five years to run on its franchise. That has been a great disappointment for us and illustrates my hon. Friend’s point.

The second, bigger point, and the more important one, is that disabled access at the train station—in other words lifts—is only the beginning and not the end of the conversation. There are any number of other things to be considered. Some of them are to do with changes in technology available to disabled people, the increasing use of mobility scooters and the importance of being able to get them on and off trains and the height of the platforms—in many cases, the platforms are built at the wrong height for people to be able to get off the train. Those may be expensive interventions but they certainly need to be part of our objectives.

Another objective is access to disabled lavatories on board trains. Recently, one of my constituents was seated in the wrong carriage and was unable to access the disabled lavatory. No one was able to assist them to get from one carriage to another, and the result was really distressing.

To conclude, this is a matter of which Britain should be proud. All Back Benchers and all parties—all the way from Northern Ireland, through the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—have done an extraordinary amount to show what Britain means in terms of disabled rights and disabled access. This is also a Government who are proud of their infrastructure investments and their contribution to employment through infrastructure, particularly through railways. We must put those two things together. If we can do that, we can look forward to a day when all hon. Members will be able to access the wonderful conditions that are now available at Winchester station. All Members who have gathered today to talk about the problems of access in their own constituencies will be able to get to where we would like to be at Penrith, which is a world in which the millions of people using trains, including the 7.5 million tourists who go to the Lake district every year, will step off that train on to Penrith station and see a brand-new lift, and they will see it not just as an article of public convenience but a symbol of British civilisation.

We are now, metaphorically speaking, going to struggle with our suitcase over the footbridge from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the Minister’s response.

That is the most eccentric introduction that I have had for quite some time, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on his contribution. I warmly welcomed the way in which he presented his case and endorse his analysis entirely. Let me say for the record that there is a good turnout for this debate. To be honest, it is a pity that it is not a one-and-a-half-hour debate, but I congratulate him none the less on taking a record number of interventions in a half-hour Adjournment debate.

In recent years, expectations about accessibility have changed, both among disabled passengers and the railway industry, and that is a good thing. The success of our transport networks in providing accessible journeys during last year’s Olympics and Paralympics shows what can be achieved. Unfortunately, however, many of our mainline railway stations date from Victorian times, and those 19th century stations were not built with the needs of 21st century passengers in mind, which has left us with the huge task of opening up the rail network to disabled passengers, which is obviously what we want to do.

Clearly, accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience—not only people with reduced mobility, but those carrying heavy luggage or pushing unwieldy pushchairs. From a personal point of view, I had no idea how inaccessible the tube network was until I became a dad and had to start lumping prams up and down stairs.

The Government therefore remains committed to making further improvements in this area and has continued to support—indeed, to expand—the Access for All programme, which the previous Government launched in 2006. The main programme, which is worth £370 million in 2004-05 prices, will deliver accessible routes at more than 150 stations. To secure value for money, stations were selected based on their annual footfall—several hon. Members referred to footfall during the debate—weighted against the incidence of disability in the area on the basis of census data. Around a third of the stations selected were chosen to ensure a fair geographical spread across the country. We also took into account the views of train operators and proximity to facilities such as hospitals, schools for disabled children and military rehabilitation centres. I noted the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border made, so I will ask officials to consider whether the criteria should also take account of the nature of remote rural areas.

I thank the Minister for giving way and, indeed, for the inclusion of Chippenham railway station within the Access for All programme. However, it was more than four years ago when railway staff first told me that we were going to get lifts and disabled access at that station, but the scheme is still to receive planning permission from Wiltshire council. Does the Minister agree that a misguided sense of priorities is preventing us from having access for the 21st century on a Victorian railway? I am sure that the last thing that Brunel would have wanted was for such considerations to inhibit decent access to his railway at Chippenham.

On Chippenham station, I am advised that Network Rail had to go through the lengthy planning process to which my hon. Friend correctly referred, which of course also involves building consent. In addition, it has to co-ordinate its plans with other projects in and around the station. However, I am told that that has now happened and that a detailed design for the project is complete. Work is due to start in November this year and to be completed by July 2014. However, I have asked Network Rail to review its time lines to determine whether it can accelerate construction, given the delay that has already occurred.

Given the comments that have been made in the debate and the expectations on train operating companies to build in such facilities described by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), will the Minister consider giving some guidance on, or commenting about, the extent to which we could build these requirements into the franchising contract documentation and place obligations on the train operating companies to deliver those very facilities?

I want to come on to the various mechanisms through which improvements can be made, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in theory, franchise requirements can be designed to achieve them. However, other methods are perhaps more effective. If I may make some progress, I hope that I will be able to give him some comfort.

Some 104 of the projects under the Access for All programme have already been completed, which is good news, and we expect the majority of the rest of the projects to be completed by March next year, which will be a full year ahead of schedule. The work has included significant engineering work at stations such as Clapham Junction, which is the station with the most daily train services in Europe and is now fully accessible for the first time in its 150-year history.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for securing this debate. I just want to thank the Government for the Access for All programme on behalf of my constituents who use Worcester Shrub Hill station, another magnificent Isambard Kingdom Brunel station that will be getting new lifts under the Access for All programme this year.

I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend’s constituents will doubtless be aware of his involvement in pushing for that particular improvement.

To build on the success of the Access for All programme, last year’s high-level output statement included £100 million to extend the programme until 2019, despite the difficult economic circumstances. We have asked the rail industry to nominate stations for inclusion in the extended programme, using the criteria to which I referred, and hopefully taking on board the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border made about remote rural stations. We also want the industry to take account of factors such as improving inter-urban journeys and the availability of third-party match funding, which can be used to weight business cases for individual station projects. The views of local authorities are also important when considering these matters, so they will be taken into account.

We want to tie in access improvements with other projects to help to deliver efficiency savings by combining costs, including project management costs. For example, last November I opened a joint national stations improvement programme and Access for All project—two different funding streams—at Horsham station, which was worth more than £4 million of Government and local authority funding. This excellent project shows exactly what can be achieved when different stakeholders co-ordinate their plans to deliver a better experience for passengers. I would welcome more examples of such co-ordination in the future.

I would expect a number of stations that were close to being included in the current Access for All programme to be nominated again this time around. They include Penrith, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, where Network Rail has already been looking at options for providing step-free access. I know that the station is one of the few on the west coast main line without a proper accessible route, and that it is an important interchange with National Express coaches and bus services to other parts of the Lake district. All those factors will make Penrith a strong candidate for inclusion in the Access for All programme, although I obviously cannot guarantee that it will be included. Although Network Rail is busy considering the matter, I would expect Virgin, the train company involved, to be frankly a little more sympathetic than appears to have been the case to date. I expect the industry to complete the nomination process by the end of this year, which would enable us to be in a position to announce the successful stations by April 2014, the beginning of the next rail control period.

It is important to remember that improved access can often be achieved using relatively small amounts of funding, combined with innovative thinking by the industry, so the Access for All programme includes an annual small schemes fund of around £7 million a year. That money is allocated between the train operating companies, based on the number of stations they manage and how busy those stations are. Since 2006, more than £100 million of investment, including contributions from the train operators themselves and from local authorities, has seen projects delivered at more than 1,100 stations, which is almost half the total number of stations in this country.

A variety of projects have been supported, including: better provision of accessible toilets; customer information systems, which have now been installed at more than 80% of our national stations; blue badge parking spaces; and features such as induction loops at ticket offices to help those with hearing impairments. The work has removed barriers to travel for many disabled people, and these are real examples of projects that are delivered at a relatively low cost, but have high value.

In 2011, we released £37.5 million of Access for All mid-tier funding to help projects needing up to £1 million of Government support. A total of 42 projects were successful, ranging from the provision of step-free access—via lifts—at stations such as Alton, which serves Treloar college for physically disabled students, to a Changing Places disabled toilet at Paddington and easier access platform humps to reduce the stepping distance between the platform and train at several stations throughout the country. The first phase of those projects is now finishing, and the remainder of the projects are due to be completed by the end of this financial year.

I do not want to give the impression that that is all we are doing to improve access at stations, however. Access for All is over and above work delivered as part of other major investment programmes or work undertaken directly by train operators, which are each required to invest an average of £250,000 a year on improving stations under their minor works programmes as part of the franchise requirements. I understand that that money is now almost exclusively spent on access improvements. We heard mention of High Speed 2, and I want to make it clear that all new stations on the HS2 route or anywhere else—we are busy opening new stations under the new stations fund and the local sustainable transport fund—will be fully accessible.

We are determined to ensure that all rail vehicles are fully accessible, because there is no point in having accessible stations if people cannot get on the train. The latest figures show that more than 7,600 rail vehicles have been built or refurbished to modern access standards, which is 45% of all rail vehicles, including half of all trains—that is the difference between carriages and trains. More than 500 older rail vehicles have been fully refurbished to modern access standards, and contracts have been placed for work on hundreds more. Meanwhile, my officials, with assistance from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, continue to provide compliance guidance to the rail industry ahead of the 2020 deadline for all rail vehicles to be accessible. It is a firm commitment of the Government that all rail vehicles will be accessible by 2020, and we are determined to make sure that that is kept to. By the way, there are similar commitments on buses, which are equally important, if not more so, for people in rural areas, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border will no doubt accept.

In summary, I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Government is committed—note to Hansard: the Government “is” committed, not “are” committed—to improving access at stations for disabled passengers through specific projects such as Access for All, as well as under improvements delivered as part of our wider commitment to improving the rail network.

I am grateful to hon. Members who contributed to the debate. The evidence of the turnout of Members demonstrates the importance that parliamentarians attach to this issue, and that is matched by the importance that we in the Department for Transport attach to it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on securing the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.