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Commuting with a disability: A review of rail accessibility in 2020

There are two sets of regulations in the UK that said all rail vehicles were to be fully accessible by the first of January 2020.

They’re called the Railways (Interoperability) Regulations 2011, and the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2010 (RVAR).

And, surprise surprise, many train operators in the UK have missed these deadlines, with the government granting exemptions and extensions to allow them to continue using trains that don’t meet regulations almost immediately after the 2019 election.

Rail operators and the government are failing disabled passengers

Those exempt include many lines on the London Underground, Northern Rail, and more – a total of 1,200 carriages over 10 operators. Northern Rail were a major offender – despite pledges to banish old Pacers from the route back in 2014, over 150 trains remained in use when Arriva was stripped of its franchise. There’s not been much progress even with the company in public ownership for the time being – and the process is off to a rocky start. 

The London Underground has particular issues with disabled access for passengers – levels of step-free access were at 28% in 2018, and the plan is to increase this to 38% by 2024. It’s a mammoth task, yes – but the rate of progress is still glacial. On top of this, the trains on some lines have RVAR exemptions for up to 2021 or 2024.

RVAR improvement deadlines were delayed to between April and December, but there’s not been much mention of it since, particularly with Covid-19 dominating the news.

While changes to the railways have become a cornerstone of Labour policy, with a recent white paper from the party putting access and the viewpoints of disabled people at its core, it seems low on the government policy priority list. 

Accessibility campaigners are pressing the government to invest in rail infrastructure, but the focus remains squarely on HS2. Disability access in general is being forgotten by the current government – a £500 million green transport scheme back in February featured no wheelchair accessible vehicles at all. 

Individual stories provide a snapshot

While there are occasional bright spots in the news when it comes to accessibility, with Northern Rail working to ensure access for mobility scooters on trains, and new accessible trains being tested in Merseyside and planned in Tyne and Wear, we still see stories of disabled passengers left on the platform when there’s too much luggage on a train.

If things weren’t bad enough at the beginning of 2020, the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown has created further stresses for disabled rail passengers, with stories of key workers with disabilities being denied access support such as ramps – something that could be provided while still maintaining social distancing.

What will the knock-on effect of Covid-19 be on disabled access?

It’s impossible to say where all of this will leave us. The treasury’s response to Covid-19 has shown us that funding can be made available when it’s important enough, potentially banishing the argument that we can’t afford disabled access improvements – if campaigners can persuade the government and wider public opinion that the rights of disabled people are actually important. And we all know what a struggle that can be.

Of course, Covid-19 is playing havoc with the global economy – will we instead go in the opposite direction and see it be used as an excuse to return to austerity policies? Improvements to rail access are likely to be low on the list of priorities once again.

Where can disabled commuters turn?

Ideally we’d have a public transport network that works for everyone – but the sad fact is that it doesn’t. Cartwright Mobility are here to help however we can in the meantime.

We know it’s not practical for everyone, but there are transport options for disabled commuters outside of public transport – take a look at your options for financing a wheelchair accessible vehicle through Access to Work and Motability.

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