The idea that our railway services are in chaos is hardly a radical statement. Anyone who lives in the Southern Rail area would not need to be persuaded of that argument, and this morning the Argus newspaper carries the story of the Association of British Commuters who are shortly to launch a legal process to demand a Judicial Review on the actions of the Government. However whilst this is a dominant story and it affects every single traveller on our network, there are more acute issues for smaller numbers of people whose travel experience can be a great deal more difficult than most of us can appreciate. In the same newspaper there is another story from Eastbourne resident Shirley McCall, a disability campaigner who points out that the travel arrangements for disabled passengers when the rail system is not running in a reliable manner effectively make travel impossible, not just very disrupted. As Shirley explains “For the disabled it simply means that we cannot plan ahead and, believe me, that can be very isolating. You can feel absolutely helpless. It makes you think twice about even travelling because there is that worry that you won’t make it, that you will get stuck at a venue and be unable to make it back home. It can be very distressing. It’s that gut feeling you might not reach where you want to go.”
The article goes on to explain that Ms McCall who relies on a wheelchair to move around normally alerts railway staff 48 hours in advance of making a journey so that workers on duty can provide a ramp to get her on or off the train. This sort of planning may not be an issue most of the time, but it completely prevents people like Shirley from being able to make plans on the same basis that many of us take for granted. The same article refers to a speech by Maria Caulfield who spoke last year in a session of womens and equalities questions: “The current level of disruption to rail services is having a major impact upon passengers across my constituency, impacting upon their lives, and the lives of their families. This disruption is felt even more harshly by passengers that are visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, and I therefore felt it necessary to ask how their needs are being met.”
There are a number of elements of this concern that I have written about before. The failure of rail operators to implement effective sound systems on trains and at stations is very frustrating to all of us, but becomes a much greater issue for people whose hearing is impaired. Although some railway stations do have hearing loops fitted their location is very limited and not well signposted. The issue of accessible toilets is also a major problem, especially on trains. The terrible story of Anne Wafula Strike who found herself on a train without a working accessible toilet was made public a few days ago. She attempted to get off the train at the next station but there was no one available to assist her with her wheelchair at the station. Although Anne only needed access to a working conventional accessible toilet, what we should be aiming for are changing places toilets on both stations and trains, particularly trains that run on inter city routes. If every toilet on a train was fully accessible this would have avoided the problems faced by Mrs Strike. Equally always having trains and platforms that are designed to make trains accessible or staff on a train or a station that can ensure wheelchair users can enter and leave a train would have resolved her difficulty.
We need a major breakthrough in our transport infrastructure, the idea of Network Rail being willing to consider new technology and new ways of specifying trains and stations is a complete joke. I recall a few years attempting to promote a better sound system on station platforms. After 18 months we had persuaded budget holders in Southern and one other train franchise operator to experiment with the ideas that had already been proven in Australia. Then we hit the solid slab of concrete that is Network Rail whose approach was that unless they invented the solution, they would not consider a new idea. We need a transport infrastructure that will ensure that all passengers have equal levels of access. The dispute with GTR and the rail unions may be grabbing the headlines at the moment but they are only a distraction from a much bigger set of challenges.