After a dramatic summer of political resignations and leadership battles, the autumn has brought with it a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet, including Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP as the Secretary of State for Transport. This is a fresh opportunity for the new Cabinet, Trevelyan in particular, to renew the government’s focus and look towards making the UK’s transport networks more accessible for disabled people. But how should they do that? Transport for All’s Policy and Research Officer, Madeleine Stewart, looks at 4 key areas that should be at the top of the to-do list for the incoming Transport Secretary – the thirteenth to take post since 2000.
1. Rail station staffing
As Anne-Marie Trevelyan sits down to her first week as Secretary of State for Transport, high on the list for things to tackle will be the ongoing rail station staffing dispute inherited from predecessor, Grant Shapps.
Travelling by rail for disabled people currently is fraught with issues: from the absence of reliable and accurate information about station accessibility, to the total lack of step-free access at 75% of train stations across the UK, to issues with poor signage, wayfinding, audio announcements, tactile paving, and more. Bold action is needed to create a more accessible rail network.
The William-Shapps Plan for Rail outlined grand plans for overhauling the railways, including far reaching reforms in ticketing and staffing with the aim to “modernise” the system. More recently we have seen widespread press attention and industrial action in response to proposed plans to close rail ticket offices and reduce staff at stations. And more strikes could be on the horizon now that Transport for London (TfL) have agreed to the Government’s funding deal, accepting the condition that it must “develop the evidence required to make a strong case for investment in driverless trains on the London Underground.”
We know just how critical properly staffed stations – and trains – are for disabled passengers (see our #NotJustTheTicket campaign, backed by 15 organisations). Both the agreed and proposed plans to cut rail staff pose a very real threat to the accessibility of our railways, and risk locking disabled people out from travelling by rail altogether. Staff at ticket offices are the first point of contact for Deaf, disabled, and older people arriving at stations who require assistance; these staff provide information, assist with purchasing tickets, unlock station facilities, and have a profound impact on safety and security.
We hear time and time again examples from our members of failed assists at train stations, of people who don’t get met with a ramp when their train pulls in at a station, people who are unable to contact any staff member for help due to Help Point requests going unanswered, and of distress when people are unable to find information about their journeys at the station, with no one to turn to for help. Without a commitment to ensuring the staffing levels of train stations, these barriers will continue and worsen, making rail travel impossible for so many people.
Those of us campaigning against the planned ticket office closures may hope that the change in Prime Minister and Secretary of State provides opportunity for a new and different approach. The RMT have already written to the new Transport Secretary on the matter, and it is encouraging to read that Anne-Marie Trevelyan has a record of speaking out against ticket office closures in her constituency– we hope that her tenure will see a continuation of this commitment.
In looking to improve Britain’s railways, staffing needs to be front and centre of policy changes. The new Secretary of State should listen to the individuals and organisations that are providing information on the necessity of staff at train stations, and commit to maintaining a minimum level. This is especially important in light of the Department for Transport’s own second key priority: to “build confidence in the transport network as the country recovers from COVID-19 and improve transport users’ experience, ensuring that the network is safe, reliable, and inclusive”.
2. Confronting the lack of progress on the Inclusive Transport Strategy
In 2018, the government launched the Inclusive Transport Strategy (ITS), a series of actions that seek to equalise transport access for disabled people by 2030. The government has now published a scorecard detailing how well the transport strategy is coming along- and this year, they are not doing well. In 2022, the government’s own metrics on the ITS showed that transport has become less accessible since the implementation of the strategy:
- Disabled people continued to take fewer trips on average than non-disabled people – in 2020-2021, disabled people aged 16 to 59 took 77% of the number of trips taken by non-disabled people, compared to 83% in 2019-2020.
- The percentage of bus passenger complaints that were accessibility-related increased from 5% to 7%.
- The percentage of taxis that were wheelchair accessible decreased from 57% to 54%.
- The number of private hire vehicles that were wheelchair accessible remained at 2%, down from 2.2% in 2016-2017.
By the government’s own metrics, the ITS has failed to have an impact on transport accessibility and it appears as though transport in is, in fact, regressing. It is imperative that one of the top priorities of the new Secretary of State for Transport is to assess where the Department for Transport is failing in this regard, and to take action. Though the ITS has had some success- most notably an increase in the number of audio and visual announcements on local bus routes and a decrease in accessibility related rail complaints- there has been a concerning lack of progress across almost all other areas. Our new Transport Secretary should see this as a critical opportunity to investigate why these failings are occurring, to let the public know why disabled people are continuing to be let down by government strategies, and to ensure action is taken.
The new Cabinet presents a great opportunity for a new working culture around disability and accessibility to be embedded into the Department for Transport. One incredibly important way of doing this is through co-production. When we talk about co-production at Transport for All, we mean involving disabled people at every stage of the policy process, from initial consultations to the structural designs. This must be treated as a key part of the design process when it comes to any changes in transport policy, including changes to train station staffing levels, the Inclusive Transport Strategy, bus cuts, and more.
We know that disabled people often feel as though consultation is nothing more than a tick box exercise, and that people feel as though they are tokenised but not actually listened to.
With the advent of massive new projects such as Great British Rail coming up, there has never been a better time for the Department for Transport to embed the principles of co-production into their work. We would encourage Secretary of State Trevelyan to review the current model of disabled people’s input (I.e., the closed door, purely advisory role of DPTAC), and to truly embed lived experience into transport policy processes. With this point coming on the back of the ITS stalling, Anne-Marie Trevelyan has a wide-open opportunity to consult with and listen to disabled people – provided they are paid of course!
Finally, it goes without saying that none of this is possible without funding. The three priorities above will not be able to be acted upon without dedicated, ringfenced budgets. The granting of £2.5million towards accessible transport which is going towards the support of the 13 Mobility Centres across the UK is a good start. Yet with the economy threatened by rising inflation, the pressure will be on to make spending cuts, so funding for accessible public transport must be at the top of the Secretary of State’s agenda.
Disabled people deserve to travel like everyone else: let’s hope that a new Cabinet = new priorities.
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