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Our rail network is decades behind target in providing access to disabled people

3 min read

The Inclusive Transport Strategy must remove barriers which prevent many disabled people from travelling to work using affordable public transport.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act made some big promises to disabled people about train access by 1 January 2020. I sat on the National Disability Council which oversaw the implementation of the DDA and 2020 seemed like more than enough time to make it work. At that time I don’t think I knew what a derogation was, but now I do.

As 1 January came and went, disabled people showed their frustrations and I was told by someone in the industry that I needed to be ‘patient’. The disabilities rights charity Leonard Cheshire has suggested that without significant improvements, the UK’s rail network may not be fully accessible until 2070. The context that we are living in is that 38 per cent of stations nationally are not step-free and 1200 train carriages missed the accessibility deadline.

There are some excellent train operating company (TOC) panels that listen to disabled people and the significant expertise they bring. But often expertise is not valued or, even more importantly, remunerated. Providing a travel pass in return for knowledge is not acceptable and poor practice. So many disabled people become involved at great personal expense because they want to make a difference. This is not an issue for the rail industry alone but shows how lived experience of disability is disregarded and the voice of disabled people is often lost.

Disabled people should be treated as customers rather than an inconvenience

The government aim is to get a million more disabled people in work by 2027 (and a new strategy is expected shortly) so the Inclusive Transport Strategy must remove the barriers which prevent many disabled people from travelling to work using affordable public transport.

Planning (booking assistance) and being expected in most cases to be at a station more than 30 mins before a train departs, in my personal experience, can add up to 45 mins per train journey – in a usual year I can take between 140 and 160 journeys. And this is if you can use your nearest station. I asked a colleague and their additional time is 90 mins per train journey. In London there are 270 tube stations and only 81 of these are ‘step-free’. Half of these require manual boarding ramps.

Quite frankly, it can be exhausting to use public transport. Recently, a disabled woman, Sam Jennings, who was left stranded on trains and stations platforms more than 30 times by Southern Trains has been awarded compensation of £17,000. Legal action wasn’t Ms Jennings’ initial wish but how many meetings can you sit in where you are promised that they will do better and change doesn’t happen. This should send out a strong message to any TOC about how disabled people should be treated as customers, rather than an inconvenience, which is how we often feel. 

When budgets are tight, access is the first thing to be cut. Crossrail was originally planned to be level boarding; the compromise was level boarding in the core and step free access to other stations. HS2, a multi-billion pound project, currently won’t provide level boarding at either all the new stations or the existing network. 

I haven’t covered in detail issues of scooter users being excluded from travel in many places or that better/more spaces are needed on buses and planes. Better access mapping of the system is required for everyone as currently there isn’t a clear picture of where anyone can actually travel.


Baroness Grey-Thompson is a crossbench member of the House of Lords. 

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Grey-Thompson - Disabled people must be at the heart of decision making to deliver more accessible transport


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