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Rail Vehicle Accessibility Exemption Orders (Parliamentary Procedures) Regulations 2008

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2008

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Exemption Orders (Parliamentary Procedures) Regulations 2008.

The noble Lord said: Without accessible transport, disabled people are limited in their ability to lead a full and fulfilling life. Noble Lords have always demonstrated a keen interest in the accessibility of rail vehicles and that is why we are now debating these orders. At the express wish of the House, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 secured greater scrutiny of applications for exemptions from parts of the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations. Under the 2005 Act, exemption orders became subject to the draft affirmative resolution procedure. However, it was acknowledged that this would not be appropriate in every circumstance, and therefore the Act provided for the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations that set out the basis for making a decision on which parliamentary procedure to use when making exemption orders.

Such regulations form the first instrument before us today, the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Exemption Orders (Parliamentary Procedures) Regulations 2008. These set the criteria that the Secretary of State will use when deciding which parliamentary procedure should be followed and include, for example, the age of the vehicles and the length of time for which an exemption is requested. Parliament agreed that the Secretary of State should retain discretion to adopt a different procedure for a particular order having regard to representations from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the Government’s statutory advisers on the public passenger transport needs of disabled people.

The second order, the Rail Vehicle Accessibility (London Underground Victoria Line 09TS Vehicles) Exemption Order 2008 is fully supported by the DPTAC, Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate and London TravelWatch, which is the official organisation representing the interests of transport users in London. The order will allow LU to introduce new trains on the Victoria line that have features not currently permitted by RVAR but which provide benefits for disabled people. The order also allows LU to resolve some of the challenges that the regulations present in the short term to a deep level metro service with high frequencies, inaccessible stations and a mix of old and new vehicles. These new vehicles will be the first for London Underground to be subject to accessibility regulations.

The order contains four distinct provisions. First, it allows LU to use an audible door warning which is shorter than required under RVAR while the older vehicles are being phased out. This allows a consistent warning to be given on both the new vehicles and the older, unregulated fleet, to avoid confusion. Secondly, the order allows LU to vary, on a trial basis, the announcements made on the train while it is at a station. That allows them to determine whether other information, such as details about connections, would be more useful on a metro-style service than those mandated by RVAR.

Thirdly, the order allows LU to use a smaller text size on public information screens inside the new vehicles. The current requirement was based on larger vehicles. On the Victoria line no one will be more than three metres from a screen, and the reduced size will allow the screens to display appropriate pictures that are particularly useful for people with learning disabilities, while still following best practice on text height relative to reading distance from the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

Finally, the order will allow exemptions from the requirement for step-free access between the train and the platform at specific stations. The exemptions reduce as stations gain step-free access to the platforms, ensuring seamless travel. This allows London Underground to integrate the work required with its wider step-free access programme at stations. Not only will this reduce the disruption caused by the work, it will also reduce the risk of a wheelchair user being stranded on the platform at an inaccessible station.

These orders are supported by stakeholders and seem to us to be sensible in the circumstances. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Exemption Orders (Parliamentary Procedures) Regulations 2008. 28th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 31st Report from the Merits Committee.—(Lord Adonis.)

I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the purpose of his orders. This is the first debate I have had with him, but I have had a good report from my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton who says that he is very good to do business with, so I look forward to doing business with him over many years.

I debated a similar order with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, before the Summer Recess. At the time I said it was right that we have a relatively high hurdle of parliamentary procedures if it is desired to exempt or deviate certain vehicles from the requirements of the DDA, and I maintain that position. The parliamentary procedures regulations appear to have appropriate safeguards. They are not too widely drafted but the hurdle still remains, and in the unlikely event of disabled groups becoming aggrieved with any further orders, your Lordships still have a well-equipped parliamentary toolbox—and some of the tools are still quite sharp.

Fortunately, no person has found it necessary to brief me about these regulations and consequently I am happy to support them.

I, too, support the regulations. Perhaps, unlike the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I feel that they are very tightly drawn already, so it is inevitable that there will be continuous requests for exemption.

In addressing the issue of access for the disabled, we should first be concerned that disabled people travelling at present meet a lot of obstacles when using the railway. Even when travelling between well-staffed stations, messages about the means of getting on or off trains are often not transmitted by train operating companies or their staff, and disabled people find themselves marooned on trains. No matter what devices we have to tell them that they should get off the train, unless a ramp that enables them to do so is made available to them, the information that is displayed on the train is probably of little use.

I turn to the issue of the large number of obsolete vehicles now running on our railway. Some of them are not only unsuitable for disabled people, they are unsuitable for anyone. I look forward to the Minister being able to tell us when we are going to get new vehicles to replace our dreadful old ones. I was talking to someone today who had made the journey from Gloucester to Swindon in a Class 143 train that he described as “deplorable”. He also explained to me how difficult it is to maintain such stock.

My last point, which is covered not by these regulations but by very similar ones, concerns the design of stations. When a disabled person gets off a train, there is often a footbridge which can be difficult, or there is a tunnel. I was in Switzerland this year, where it is common practice for people, whether they are disabled, with pushchairs or just ordinary people, to walk across the track. There are lights to tell them that it is safe to do so, and it is a common practice. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the huge footbridges that have appeared in, for example, Moreton-in-Marsh and Llandrindod Wells are extremely expensive and probably militate against their provision at all. They may also explain the resentment that the people who have to provide them feel about the system.

The Minister should look again at the prospect of substantially simplifying the footbridge arrangements so that people can cross the track as they used to, except on very high speed lines. They could be protected easily by signalling, which is simple. It is not complicated stuff: when the light does not show, you do not cross, so if the light fails you do not cross. We want something much simpler.

Lastly, I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that I recently had a case of someone trying to open a railway line, but the cost of providing disabled facilities to the standards specified was so high that it was decided not to build the intermediate stations between the starting and finishing points. Therefore, not only do the disabled not get access to the railway, neither does anyone else. That seems to be a rather perverse decision. The department needs to look very closely at the present arrangements for accessibility at stations, so that people may enjoy the vehicles for which the regulations are designed, which I support.

The noble Lord referred to my speech and quoted me as saying “they are not too widely drafted”. Does he accept that I was referring to the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Exemption Orders (Parliamentary Procedures) Regulations rather than the Rail Vehicle Accessibility (London Underground Victoria Line 09TS Vehicles) Exemption Order?

I thank the noble Earl for his very kind opening remarks. I much look forward to working with him over the coming months, as I do to working with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. I have already had the pleasure of responding to one of his debates. Hardly a day passes without my signing off many Written Answers to him, which are immensely informative to me and to knowing what is going on in the industry that he has spent so much of his working life engaged with.

I shall deal with the general opening remark made by noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about the quality of the rail fleet and its accessibility to people with disabilities. Of course, I entirely share his objective, which is that we should see as much of the fleet as possible made available and open to disabled people as soon as possible. We entirely share that objective and I am sure that the noble Earl is also in agreement with that objective. We have led the way among our European partners by introducing regulations requiring all new rail vehicles, buses and coaches to be accessible to disabled people. There are already around 4,700 accessible rail vehicles in service, which have been introduced since the RVAR came into force in 1998. That is already more than one-third of the fleet.

We have set an end date of 1 January 2020, by which time all rail vehicles must be accessible. Many thousands of older rail vehicles have already been made more accessible through the process of refurbishment. While I accept that there is more to do, we have a good track record so far. As the noble Lord knows, we have the procurement process for the 1,300 new rail vehicles to be made available over the next six years, which will also significantly boost the accessibility of the railway to disabled people.

I shall simply have to note the remarks about footbridges. He was talking about the overground, which would not help in terms of the order about the Victoria line. Underground accessibility is often linked to lift access and to the ability to access platforms directly from ground level by means of lifts. A comprehensive programme of work is taking place on the Victoria line over the next five years to see that there is universal access to platforms from street level. At the moment on the Victoria line, Brixton and Tottenham Hale have lift access from street level directly down to the platforms. King’s Cross/St Pancras will have lift access from the end of 2009; Stockwell and Vauxhall from the end of 2011; Finsbury Park, Green Park and Highbury and Islington from the end of 2012 and Blackhorse Road, Euston, Oxford Circus, Seven Sisters, Victoria, Walthamstow Central and Warren Street from the end of 2013. That is a very expensive process of refurbishment of stations so that they can be fully accessible to disabled people. The work will be welcomed by those noble Lords here and more widely.

The noble Lord mentioned access to platforms on the overground. As he will be only too well aware, the safety authorities have to strike a balance between accessibility and safety. I understand that Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate is discussing with Network Rail and Passenger Focus whether we can make any changes, along the lines that he suggested, to increase accessibility for disabled people.

I hope that these deliberations will take account of the fact that Swiss railways have an enviable safety record and that there is very little evidence that the practice to which I drew the Minister’s attention has led to casualties. I therefore hope that his officials and those from Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, or whoever will do this, will apprise themselves of the practice of good railways to assure themselves that what I propose is safe.

I will draw the noble Lord’s remarks to the attention of those who are involved in these discussions.

The Minister talked about a very exciting programme of lift construction on the Victoria line. How much will it all cost?

It will cost a great deal of money, but I do not have the precise figures to hand because it is part of the wider refurbishment of the Victoria line. Actually, miraculously I do have the figures to hand. It will cost £800 million. As I said, it is part of a wider programme of Victoria line refurbishment, which will include the provision of these new lifts. It is an expensive business, but I think we would all agree that it is immensely worthwhile as it promotes access to the Underground for disabled people.

On Question, Motion agreed to.