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House of Commons Hansard
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Railway Stations: Accessibility
27 March 2019
Volume 657

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered accessibility at railway stations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I am looking around as I have constituents who intend to sit in the Public Gallery to hear what I say this morning.

Trains have been and continue to be one of the most important modes of travel in the United Kingdom. According to the Office of Rail and Road, in the past financial year 4,679,220 train journeys were completed every single day. However, even with such a large number of people using the rail network, many stations still lack the facilities to cater for the disabled, the elderly and those struggling with heavy luggage or pushchairs. As Members are aware, to address the issues faced by disabled passengers and passengers with mobility restraints when using railway stations, the Access for All programme was launched in 2006 with £360 million to fund accessible routes from the station entrance to the platform. It was extended in 2014 with a further £163 million. More than 150 stations have been completed and another 68 projects are in various stages of construction or development.

In April 2011 the Government launched a new Access for All mid-tier programme for station access projects. Although funding was originally £17 million, the large number of very strong bids for train station improvements meant that it was increased to £37.5 million and the scheme ran until 2014. According to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), Access for All has delivered step-free accessible routes at more than 200 stations since it was launched in 2006 and small access improvements at more than 1,500 stations.

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One of the projects was at Goring station in my constituency. We managed to get lifts to make disabled access possible, but it was quite a bureaucratic process. Does he find that that is the case in other stations?

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As someone who has walked not only the Thames path but the Ridgeway, I have experience of Goring station. I have found the system quite difficult and bureaucratic. It is a lengthy process and people often ask, just like with Brexit, “Why don’t you just get on with it?” As I get further into my speech, I will discuss my experience of the Hendon constituency.

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Kirkby-in-Ashfield and Langley Mill stations, used by my constituents, are a big problem for wheelchair users and mums or dads pushing prams. Making train stations step-free should be a priority in this day and age. Most colleagues here are from towns. Does the hon. Gentleman have any information or can the Minister say whether our towns are being neglected? Or are stations in towns more likely to be step-free than those in our cities?

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Although I went to university in Nottingham, I cannot say I know the hon. Lady’s constituency very well, so I will allow the Minister to respond to that point when she sums up.

It is obvious that more can and should be done. In April 2017, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report about how disabled people fare in in their day-to-day lives in the UK. On transport, the report stated,

“Transport options for disabled people are very limited because of the need to use only transport forms that are accessible, and these tend to be expensive.”

A few months later, in November 2017, the Department for Transport published the results of its research into disabled people’s travel patterns and attitudes to travel. It found that although being disabled does not always lead to less frequent use of train services, it does lead to problems with trains:

“It is well-established that people with disabilities travel less and for different purposes compared with people without disabilities”.

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I have been campaigning on this for six years in my constituency, in Morley. People get on the train on one side to go into Leeds, but they cannot go back because there are steps. Does my hon. Friend agree that disabled people rely heavily on public services and that it is vital they can access them to ensure good quality of life? The Department for Transport should invest heavily in that area.

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My hon. Friend illustrates a point that I will come on to in my speech. My constituents who are here today feel very strongly about that.

Leonard Cheshire, the UK charity for disabled people, highlights the issues facing many disabled people when trying to access train station platforms. Its research and analysis, based on data provided by the Office of Rail and Road and the National Rail website, shows that more than 40% of railway stations across England do not have step-free access, leaving many disabled people unable to travel by train. Research with more than 1,600 disabled adults shows that 35% of working-age disabled people have experienced problems using trains in the past year as a result of their disability.

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Staveley station in my constituency, the first station in the Lake District national park, is accessible only by a 41-step staircase. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems is having to bid for access funding to provide ramps and lifts? We expect the operator to make a bid, and the operator, in my case Northern, which has not covered itself in glory in recent times, has been reluctant to do so. We should have a top-down approach where perhaps the Minister helps to deliver solutions to, for example, Staveley’s lack of access, directly.

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Having lived in Carlisle for several years, I am also aware of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and his station. Like my station in Mill Hill, his was constructed at a time when disabled and step-free access was not a top priority. Similarly, Govia Thameslink and Network Rail were not aware of my constituents’ need and desire to have step-free access at Mill Hill Broadway station, so I sympathise with his point of view.

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Like my hon. Friend, I have a London constituency. As he knows, I am bidding to make Upminster station step-free. I can make the Access for All bid only because the station is operated by c2c rather than Transport for London, and the Mayor has said there is no priority for other stations in my constituency. Will he join me in encouraging the Mayor to invest more of his sizable budget in this area and to look carefully at my request to open up his new £6 million TfL drivers’ toilets to disabled travellers with RADAR keys? It would make a big difference to the quality of their journey if they were able to access facilities.

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As a London MP, I certainly agree with that and I urge the Mayor to allow it to happen. Indeed, I urge the Minister to make representations to the Mayor to allow it to happen. It seems not only a sensible solution to a particular problem, but something that could be rectified easily, so I certainly agree.

Not only disabled people suffer from a lack of step-free access in stations. A Department for Transport study showed that two thirds of disabled people are over the age of 65, and demographic trends predict an increase in the proportion of older people in society. According to the NHS, in the UK falls are the most common cause of injury-related deaths in people over the age of 75. The need for reliable, ever-present step-free access is imperative to ensure such injuries or fatalities do not occur in train stations. The Government’s generous funding commitment to improve station facilities is welcomed by Members present today, but I am sure we all agree that the previously mentioned statistics are of significant concern.

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The issue is not just about people with disabilities. Obviously, we want to improve access for them, but it is also about a range of people. I am the father of a 15-month-old child and we would struggle to use many of our local stations, particularly Langton station in my constituency, where, I am pleased to say, we have an Access for All funding bid in at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to improve accessibility at stations not only for people with disabilities, but for everybody?

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I certainly agree. In my constituency, the Thameslink line serves Gatwick and Luton airports. People, including myself, use those trains either very late at night or very early in the morning, and often struggle with heavy bags, as I have recently.

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I returned to Westminster from maternity leave this week with my six-month-old baby boy in a pram, and I found using the trains incredibly difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) made a valid point about towns. We have an accessible lift in Halifax, but it has been my nemesis since I became an MP, as it is regularly locked and regularly broken. However, further to the points that have been made, using the tube in London with a pram was incredibly difficult. We can do so much more on that, so we really have to focus those efforts.

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The hon. Lady’s contribution and those of others have illustrated the problems that many people face, not just those who are disabled. Some 60% of disabled people have no car in their household, but many other people also do not have one, particularly in London. People who, like the hon. Lady, visit London as part of their work will probably not have access to a car when pushing their baby in a buggy. Step-free access is therefore about not just disabled people, but parents, travellers and people who have general mobility problems.

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My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument, and this is an important debate. Does he agree that there is also a problem with different station operators? One of my constituents, who is partially sighted, got on a train at York station, which is run by London North Eastern Railway, and went on that train to Manchester Victoria, which is operated by Northern. The two station operators did not talk to one another, and my constituent was ultimately left on the train—it was a through-station—and carried on past her stop. That is a real problem, and station operators really need to start talking to one another.

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I am grateful for that intervention, because I had a constituent who reported the same problem; he had problems with his vision and had great difficulty in accessing the train service. I understand that point, and agree that train operator companies should talk to one another—whether it is c2c, Transport for London, GTR, Southern or any of the ones that my hon. Friend mentions. I hope that the Minister hears that plea. It should be not only a requirement for train operators but a requirement under disability regulation. I certainly agree with that point.

I have two mainline stations in my constituency: Hendon and Mill Hill Broadway, both of which are on the Thameslink line, which connects Bedford with Brighton and includes stops at St Pancras International, London Bridge, Blackfriars, and Elephant and Castle. Both stations serve the two London airports that I mentioned: Luton and Gatwick. Neither station has adequate step-free access, but I believe that it is true to say that the problem at Mill Hill Broadway is particularly acute.

Mill Hill Broadway is an important interchange for a large number of passengers connecting with buses, the M1 and other modes of transport. The quality of access and subsequent movement around the station is not commensurate with a station catering for about 2.7 million passengers per annum—a figure that will increase significantly in future years as a result of the thousands of new homes being built in the area. We all know that London needs new homes, and Hendon is certainly playing its part, but infrastructure and other public services need to keep up with that redevelopment.

There is no step-free access from the lower concourse where cars and buses arrive at Mill Hill Broadway, so 39 steps must be climbed to access the station. Furthermore, the subway that connects the two platforms is narrow, which raises concerns about congestion and safety at peak times. There is no question that the lack of a lift prevents some of my constituents from using the station. That is a key issue for the disabled, parents with small children, those with suitcases and the area’s growing older population. Such passengers are advised to use Elstree and Borehamwood station or West Hampstead station, which, following past upgrades, now have step-free access throughout. I believe something is fundamentally wrong when a passenger has to travel to a station that is not their most local to access our railway network.

I first raised the lack of step-free access at Mill Hill Broadway station five years ago in a question to the then right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, now Lord Lansley. In January 2015, I had the pleasure of inviting the then right hon. Member for Richmond and a former Minister for the Disabled, now Lord Hague, to visit Mill Hill Broadway and understand the concerns that many people had about the lack of access to the station. While we were there, we witnessed a mother struggling to get her buggy up and down the steps from the platform to the ticket office—a prime example of why step-free access will benefit local residents and visitors to Mill Hill.

In 2015, I facilitated a series of meetings of representatives of Barnet Council, Network Rail, Govia Thameslink and Transport for London, and John Gillett of the Mill Hill neighbourhood forum. That resulted in a £60,000 feasibility study to look into the options for step-free access at Mill Hill Broadway. In 2017, I met with the then Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and I raised the matter again in 2018. I believe that that demonstrates the seriousness with which local people, local stakeholders and I view the matter.

Very sadly, the lack of step-free access resulted in the untimely and tragic death of one of my constituents, Mrs Priscilla Tropp. Mrs Tropp tripped on the steps at the end of last year; her widower, Michael, and her daughters, Sara and Deborah, are in the Gallery. I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone in the Chamber when I express my condolences for their loss. As a Member of Parliament, losing a constituent is one of the hardest things to have to go through as an elected representative.

Priscilla was travelling to London up to five days a week for leukaemia treatment. She did not want to be a burden on the NHS, so she decided to make her own way independently, and not to use a taxi or other facilities provided by the NHS. However, she was not well. She was also recovering from a fall that she had sustained at the station earlier in the year—a fall that it appears was not recorded by station staff. She and her husband took all reasonable precautions to avoid a further accident, such as waiting for other passengers to go ahead of them so that they could use the handrail beside the steps and not be an obstacle to other people, but that was not enough. Priscilla tripped and fell, and, due to the general access to and from the platforms, passengers alighting from subsequent trains in what was by then the rush hour were forced to step over and around her.

The defibrillator could not be located, but even if it had been it is likely that space constraints would have meant that use of the equipment would have been restricted. Sadly, as I said, Priscilla died; she did not survive the fall. That tragedy would have been wholly avoided had there been a lift at Mill Hill Broadway. As I have said previously, falls are the most common cause of injury-related deaths in people over the age of 75. Priscilla was 76.

Such statistics are not acceptable, nor is the advice to go to another station several miles away. Our hospitals encourage—even require—patients to make their own way to hospital, but only 44% of London stations offer step-free access, and public transport is often the only means of travel for those who need to visit hospitals. As the NHS has more centres of excellence, people requiring treatment need to use public transport. It must be adequate for those who are less able.

The Government are currently considering bids for the next round of funding under the Access for All programme. As we have heard, the Minister will be looking at many valid representations and applications, but I hope that I have demonstrated the urgent need at Mill Hill Broadway. It is a shared ambition not only of mine and of my constituents, but of Govia Thameslink, Network Rail, TfL and the London Borough of Barnet for long-overdue step-free access, or, in other words, lifts.

I say to the Minister, please, not only to hear my representations and those of other Members, but to make it possible for many of my constituents to access the Thameslink train line for a variety of reasons, including access to public services, hospitals, employment and education. We need a lift, and we need one now. I ask the Minister to consider that.

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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing the debate, which allows the House the opportunity to discuss the important subject of accessibility to the railway network. I also congratulate him on making such powerful representations on behalf of his constituents.

I recognise how important it is for my hon. Friend’s constituents to have access to the railway in order to go to and from work, see family and friends, and go about living their lives. Before I go further, let me say that I would be grateful if my hon. Friend passed on my condolences to the family of his constituent. I understand that the incident has been investigated by the Office of Rail and Road after it was approached by the family. A safety report has been prepared for the inquest, which I believe is due to take place in May. I have not seen the report, and I hope hon. Members understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment further at this stage.

Delivering a transport system that is truly accessible to all is of great importance to me. Hon. Members will have seen the Department for Transport inclusive transport strategy, which we published last July and which underlines the Government’s commitment to taking action to safeguard and promote the rights of all disabled passengers. We do not deny that our strategy is ambitious, but we are determined to deliver it. By 2030, we want disabled people to have the same access to transport as everyone else, and if physical infrastructure remains a barrier, assistance will play a role in guaranteeing those rights.

Many of our stations are Victorian. Their architectural worth is there for all to see, but their infrastructure is simply not fit for today, which has left us with the huge task of opening up the railway network to disabled passengers. We have a little bit of good news—75% of journeys are already made through step-free stations—but only a fifth of stations have proper step-free access from outside, and to and between platforms. We have therefore continued with the Access for All programme, a key part of the inclusive transport strategy, and committed an additional £300 million of funding from the public purse.

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Like the local station of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), Hillside station in my constituency is a problem for the disabled people and older people who use it. Given the age demographic in my constituency, it is more important than ever for our Access for All bid to be successful. That would give disabled people and older people the accessibility that they so desperately need.

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My hon. Friend has made repeated and powerful representations on behalf of his constituency and his local railway stations, and I know he has worked incredibly hard with his local authority and his transport operating company. I cannot make any statements here today, but he has put forward a very substantial case for consideration. Let me set out the timetable for hon. Members: I know that some were concerned that it would take as long as Brexit, but the decision will be out in April.

As I have made clear, we have £300 million to spend on Access for All. We will start on all 27 projects deferred by the 2016 Hendy review of Network Rail delivery, but we will include far more stations. We asked the industry to nominate stations for new funding by 16 November 2018, and received more than 300 nominations. Most came through the train operating companies, but it was not a top-down exercise and involved train operating companies, Members of Parliament, local authorities and councillors working together, because we wanted to ensure that it reflected local need. Nominated stations will be selected on the basis of annual footfall and will be weighted by the incidence of disability in the area.

We are taking local factors into account. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) talked about towns being excluded, but we are doing what we can to ensure a good spread up and down the country by looking not only at footfall, but at proximity to hospitals, availability of third-party funding and, crucially, other impacts of accessibility to the station. It is not just about disability, but about other needs—we are thinking about mums with buggies and other accessibility issues that have been mentioned.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon knows, Mill Hill Broadway station and Hendon station in his constituency have both been nominated for Access for All funding. I hope he will understand that I cannot guarantee the inclusion of any single station until we make a formal announcement, but I am happy to tell him that Mill Hill Broadway in particular was a strong candidate when considered alongside other stations across the country.

As the funding application bids closed only last year, I hope hon. Members will agree that it has been a swift process. I intend to announce the selected stations in April, so I hope that those hoping for good news will be kind enough to be patient for just a little longer.

So far, we have installed accessible step-free routes at more than 200 stations, and approximately 1,500 stations have benefited from smaller-scale, but equally important, access improvements. We continue to press the industry to comply with its legal obligations so that work at all stations on the network meets current accessibility standards, and to ensure that the Office of Rail and Road enforces those standards effectively. That applies not only on flagship projects such as Crossrail or the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street, which are delivering significant accessibility improvements, but as part of the “business as usual” work of renewal programmes, such as ensuring that any replacement bridges have lifts or ramps.

It is important for the industry to meet its obligations to anyone who needs assistance, whether they have booked ahead of time or not. Every passenger should expect the best possible help to use the rail network, particularly at stations that do not have fully accessible facilities. As part of its licence to operate services, each operator is required to have a disabled people’s protection policy that sets out the services that disabled passengers can expect and what it will do if things go wrong—for example, providing an accessible taxi free of charge to anyone unable to access a particular station. The Office of Rail and Road recently consulted on revised guidance for disabled people’s protection policies, and I have encouraged it to take enforcement action against train and station operators that are found not to be meeting their DPPP obligations.

Every disabled passenger should be confident that the assistance that they have booked will be provided. The Department has worked with the Rail Delivery Group to create the new Passenger Assist application, which will make it easier for disabled passengers to book assistance. We also support the Office of Rail and Road proposal to introduce a handover protocol as part of the revised disabled people’s protection policy guidance.

We can do more to make the rail network more accessible. We will be introducing a new set of accessibility requirements, such as the introduction and delivery of enhanced disability awareness training for all train operating company staff, regardless of role or seniority. We have also supported the industry’s establishment of an independent rail ombudsman with powers to deal with unresolved passenger complaints.

As a councillor, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) managed transport in and out of his area. I completely agree with him that we need to look at the issues not just for people with disabilities, but for elderly people and mothers with pushchairs. That is why we have the £300 million in place.

Once again, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) made a very powerful bid on behalf of her constituency. I hope the Mayor of London is listening. I know he is very ambitious, so I hope he can be ambitious for disabled passengers on the rail network too.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), I hope the Passenger Assist application, which is coming soon with real-time information, will provide the support needed so that there is no gap for people taking multiple journeys on public transport.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I hope the bureaucratic process will not be as tough as it was previously. The funding bids closed last year for the money that will be available, and the announcement will be made in April. I hope we can make the process as swift as possible.

In reply to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), this was not a top-down process. We wanted to ensure that the train operating companies put forward their priorities, but we have also had fantastic representations from Members of Parliament, councils and charitable organisations. I hope our announcement will reflect both geographical spread and actual need up and down the railway lines of our country.

I fear that I am running out of time, so I will conclude by saying that I hope I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to improving access at stations for disabled passengers, both through specific projects such as Access for All and through improvements delivered as part of our wider commitment to improving the rail network. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and all colleagues for contributing to the debate. The Government remain committed to investment, and we want people to continue to benefit from record levels of funding, including the £300 million Access for All funding that will be so beneficial to so many people.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.