OPINION: Network Rail has obligation to wheelchair users

Cllr Susan van de Ven and Steve Hawkins, chair of Meldreth Parish Council, with campaigners at Meldr

Cllr Susan van de Ven and Steve Hawkins, chair of Meldreth Parish Council, with campaigners at Meldreth Railway Station - Credit: Archant

I was just thinking...about equality of access to services.

This musing was occasioned by last week’s article on the campaign to persuade the powers-that-be to do something about physical access to Meldreth station, nominated as being one of the ‘least accessible’ in Cambridgeshire. Over the county border in Hertfordshire it has a number of rivals for that dubious distinction. To my certain knowledge Ashwell and Morden, Arlesey and Baldock stations suffer from the same access problems. Bizzarely, Hitchin station is accessible to wheelchair users travelling north only. The bright lights of Peterborough and Leeds beckon though, of course, they would be marooned for ever on the southbound platform on their return. But no London jaunts for them. Currently, and almost unbelievably, both Letchworth Garden City and Stevenage are without lifts for a sizeable chunk of time. So, for a wheelchair user, if you live anywhere in the North Herts area you are restricted to travelling from Royston, distant Welwyn or over yet another county border in exotic Sandy.

The Network Rail spokesperson quoted in the article did a fine job at flannelling and passing the buck of responsibility to the Department of Transport. Something about stations being selected for improvement on the basis on the heaviness of usage and geographical proportionality.

Unless the law has changed since I last was confronted with it, the Disability Discrimination Act [DDA] has a requirement that ‘reasonable’ provision must be made to encourage access in a variety of areas. I looked up the detail surrounding the provision of improved physical access to station platforms. Interestingly, the DDA doesn’t appear to cover it. What it does cover is railway carriages stating that “The Secretary of State may make regulations for the purpose of securing that it is possible for disabled persons in wheelchairs to get on to and off such vehicles in safety and without unreasonable difficulty while remaining in their wheelchairs, and to be carried in such vehicles in safety and in reasonable comfort.”

Surely, the lack of detail for provision about the stations that disabled passengers must endure before entering their compliant carriages doesn’t mean that there is an exemption in their case. Now call me naïve but in order for the impact of accessible carriages to be truly felt don’t the stations from which these carriages are accessed need to be accessible themselves?

There can be only one sensible answer to the question. Wheelchair-using residents of Cottered, say, cannot be expected to have to travel miles simply to find a platform that will accommodate them. Reasonable provision must be made by law. There will, of course, be much hand-wringing, shoulder-shrugging justification on the grounds of expense in these times of continuing austerity, about investment in the track itself being a priority, about further expenditure on rolling stock and about other conflicting financial priorities. None of which should preclude those people who are charge of the station infrastructure from addressing the issue immediately.

It is the word ‘reasonable’ that seems to be the get-out. Of course, the law can’t insist on provision being made that would bankrupt some organisations, but the interpretation of the word is inevitably arbitrary. Once man’s reasonableness is another’s impossibility. But we are not dealing with a small-time, under-resourced industry here. A quick look at Network Rail’s accounts for 2013 show them making a surplus of £669 million after tax. It is true this must be set against a background of an underlying total debt of a staggering £30,358 million. But the figures can’t be used as a reason to get out of their responsibilities. The company has an obligation to its shareholders, but the law is a law. Can we expect any changes soon? I wouldn’t hold your breath.