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How are government rail plans impacting disabled commuters?

Overcrowding, cancellations and delays have plagued commuters this summer, with reports that 114 passengers a day were unable to board some Northern services. With trains running at total capacity, unreliable departure times and no sign of an end to the commuter chaos, where does this leave disabled passengers?

Promising a better rail network

The idea of a faster, more efficient rail network excited the nation. Despite concerns of environmental damage, the disruption to wildlife and the high price tag for such an endeavour, HS2 seemed like it could be the ticket to solving commuter woes.

But nine years on, the highly controversial HS2 project is in disarray. Estimated completion dates vary but the entire project is expected to continue until 2040. It’s already £22 billion over budget – and this month, its chief operating officer resigned after just a year at the helm.

Breakdowns and disorganised timetables take their toll. In the meantime, passengers continue to struggle with overcrowding, delays, unreliable services and strikes – many of which are related to driver-only operated trains.

Deep concerns regarding rail accessibility

Despite pledging £20 million in funds to improve rail accessibility this summer, the government are yet to address “deep concerns” about the impact that driver-operated trains and unstaffed stations will have on disabled commuters.

The rail industry has been invited to nominate stations that would benefit from upgrades to improve accessibility for disabled passengers. If selected, these stations would be eligible for small-scale upgrades such as tactile paving, handrails and Harrington Humps, which increase the height of a platform.

But these improvements are overshadowed by the growing unease around “the potentially toxic combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations“. While some consider these options to be efficient and cost-effective, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) have expressed concerns.

Limiting access to rail travel

In a letter to the Department for Transport, DPTAC strongly advises against the introduction of unstaffed stations and driver-only operated trains, warning that this move could “deter many from making rail journeys at all“. Disabled commuters may be forced to pre-book assistance to enter and exit their train, and for some, book an accessible taxi to reach a staffed station where boarding assistance can be provided.

And while many modern trains are built with accessibility in mind, there are still some in use that make commuting that much more stressful for disabled passengers.

The standards set by the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR) must apply to all UK trains by 2020 – but while National Railway Museum attractions are being put on hold because promised exhibition trains are still in service, it seems unlikely that this deadline will be met. On the surface, the support seems to be there – but in practice, and for those using the services, it’s obviously not going far enough.

Alternative public transport for disabled commuters

The government-funded Access to Work scheme offers disabled people extra support in getting to and from work. You may be eligible for a grant to help towards the costs of vehicle adaptations, special equipment or software, taxi fares to work and so on.

Some licensed taxi ranks are legally required to offer wheelchair accessible vehicles – but this generally applies to larger cities and your grant may not cover the full cost of your fares.

If you have a disability, you may be eligible for a free bus pass – though this is only valid from 9.30am on weekdays. If you are travelling to work, you may need to ask for reasonable adjustments to your working hours – so, again, the support on offer doesn’t go far enough. Still, you can apply for a bus pass here.

Buses and coaches are now built with wheelchair accessibility in mind and drivers are required by law to give reasonable assistance when entering and exiting the vehicle. Bus companies are also required to give people in wheelchairs priority in using the designated space and can only leave the wheelchair user behind if there’s reasonable cause – for example, if the bus is full and passengers in the wheelchair space have no other place to stand.

Public transport may seem to offer a variety of options and support to disabled passengers, whether you can access these services depends heavily on where you live and how flexible your employer can be. The reality for many people disabled people is that bus and rail travel can be physically and emotionally demanding. Public transport has far to go before being truly accessible to everyone.

Access to Work funding for vehicle conversions

If you’re considering commuting to work by car but need to make modifications to your vehicle, there are schemes to help you fund your adaptations.

The Access to Work grant can also help to fund adaptations to your vehicle to better enable you to commute to work. These adaptations could include the installation of pedal extensions, steering aids and keypad controls for disabled drivers. The grant can also help you modify your vehicle to allow wheelchair access and storage.

Find out whether vehicle adaptations are right for you in our previous blog on choosing a wheelchair accessible vehicle or adaptation – or read more on the government’s Access to Work scheme.

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