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House of Lords Hansard
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Southern Rail: Disabled Passengers
20 July 2016
Volume 774

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Southern Rail regarding disabled passengers, in the light of the company’s plans to change the role of conductors.

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My Lords, each train operator is required to participate in the passenger assist system, run by the Association of Train Operating Companies, which allows disabled passengers to book staff assistance when required, and in a disabled persons’ protection policy, enforced by the Office of Rail and Road, setting out the level of services and facilities that disabled passengers can expect, how to get staff assistance and how to get help. This will not change.

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My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the shocking daily chaos that is Southern Rail. Passengers are at breaking point, and there is no support from the company or the Government, but all those cuts, cancellations and overcrowding problems are compounded for those with disabilities, for whom railway travel is becoming more difficult and, for some, inaccessible. Could the Minister confirm reports of a wheelchair user being told recently that their wheelchair was too heavy for the bus replacement service and that on the new driver-operated trains disabled passengers would have to phone the station at least 24 hours in advance? Is it really the Government’s view that a driver viewing 12 carriage doors on a screen the size of an iPad can guarantee the safety of all passengers?

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First, if the noble Baroness provides me with the details of the wheelchair issue in the case that she raised specifically, I shall follow that up and come back with a direct answer. On some of the other issues that she raised, she is of course quite right—and I agree, as I have previously from the Dispatch Box—that the situation with Southern is unacceptable. I assure noble Lords that the new Secretary of State has made this issue and its resolution a priority. Indeed, the new Rail Minister is in front of the Transport Select Committee today, so there is a real baptism by fire for my colleague. It is a priority for the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister; the issue needs resolution.

On the issue of driver-only operated trains, as the noble Baroness is aware, it is not about making conductors redundant. It is about making them into train supervisors; they will continue to have a role in working with the driver of these trains, ensuring primarily the safety of all passengers.

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Will the Minister bear in mind that the removal of safety responsibilities from the conductor makes it ever more likely that trains will be dispatched in the absence of the conductor on a driver-only basis? After the point that my noble friend Lady Smith made, could the Minister imagine the situation in which a train driven in such circumstances, perfectly legally as it so happens, stops at a de-manned station where somebody with a disability wishes to board or alight? There is no provision for any assistance in such circumstances.

There is one other point that the Minister should bear in mind about driver-only operations and trains stopping at de-manned stations without a supervisor on board. It is extremely uncomfortable for passengers travelling alone at night in such circumstances, particularly for women. There is surely enough evidence for the Government to intervene to ensure that our trains and our stations are properly staffed.

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As I have already said, on the particular issue with Southern, driver-only operated trains will have supervisors. On disabled passengers, I fully recognise the issues and genuine concerns that have been raised. As noble Lords will be aware, for longer journeys or long-term planned journeys, disabled passengers can ring 24 hours in advance of their journey, but I fully accept that disabled passengers, like any of us, wish to turn up at a particular station at a particular time, board the train and then disembark from the train. The concerns the noble Lord has raised are part of the discussions we will continue to have. Let me assure noble Lords that I have put in place a proposal which I will be discussing with all noble Lords who have represented their concern, and the concerns of people they speak to or represent, that this issue cannot go on too long and that it is important for the Government to communicate regularly with your Lordships’ House on this important issue.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that London buses used to have their ramps broken by electric buggies that were far too heavy for them? At that time, there was a great campaign to ensure that buggy manufacturers would make them at a weight that could be tolerated by the buses. Does he know whether anything similar is issued by the railways to make clear the tolerance limits?

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My noble friend makes an important point. London is a very good example of how industry providers, suppliers and operators have worked together. On the rail industry, there are good examples, which need to be replicated across the whole network.

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My Lords, there is a real problem for disabled Southern passengers at the moment with the overcrowding, not least for those in wheelchairs who are unable to get on to trains and for ambulant passengers who may need access to the priority seats but cannot get there. What are the Government doing to ensure that Southern is making sure that all passengers are aware that passengers with disabilities may need particular help on overcrowded trains?

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I agree with the noble Baroness. Southern needs to improve its communications and consultations and is not doing enough in that regard. If there are specific issues and cases, I am happy to take them up directly in the discussions my honourable friend is having. There is a wider issue. The company running the franchise needs to look at the services it is providing not just for disabled passengers. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, brought to my attention the appalling situation which arose in Brighton yesterday. Frankly, no Government or no train operator wishes to see it. We have to get on and try to fix it, and that is the intention. I hope that the franchise company and the unions can come together and resolve the issue which is impacting the service.

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My Lords, would the Minister be surprised to know that, with regard to Southern, the Department for Transport director Pete Wilkinson at a recent public meeting, talking about trade union members on Southern, said:

“We have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place”?

He went on to say that he wanted to drive trade unions “out of my industry”.

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That may well be the view of that official. I do not know. I shall certainly look into that quote. Let me assure the House that the resolution of this problem requires everyone, all stakeholders—the company, the Government and the unions—to come together to resolve this issue. This has gone on for far too long. Such statements do not help in providing a solution to this long-running problem.

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My Lords, conductors normally get out of the train to make certain it is safe to close the doors before the train goes on. Will drivers be getting out of the train to perform that task?

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I repeat to my noble friend what I have already said: the new driver-only operated trains do not mean that there will be staff redundancies. Those conductors will now become train supervisors and will continue to have a role not only in ensuring that passengers leave and embark on the train safely but in ensuring passenger safety across the whole train.