An influential disability accessibility group which advises the government has described the current staffing on some south London rail stations as ‘completely inadequate’.
By our transport correspondent, JEREMY CLACKSON
A confidential report on workforce “reforms” on the railways from government advisors says that reduced staffing, along the lines proposed by Tory Transport Minister Grant Shapps, risks undermining billions of pounds of public investment in making the rail network more accessible.
The report also finds that de-staffing policies are creating “perverse incentives” for train operators and jeopardising further investment in station accessibility and step-free access.
The report was drafted earlier this year by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, or DPTAC, who are statutory advisors on accessibility to the Department for Transport.
DPTAC has been warning the government about the “toxic combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations” since 2016, insisting that railway destaffing breaches multiple areas of equality law.
DfT has not published DPTAC’s report, although the Association of British Commuters has obtained a copy and put it into the public domain.
The report uses the “Sutton loop” in south London as a case study to “provide real-world examples of the consequences of policy options”, as well as analysing the “current and future impact of staff roles and availability”.
ABC says that the report’s “groundbreaking conclusions on financial impact represent a whole new economic argument for the full staffing of Britain’s railways”.
The railway network has been subject to a series of strikes this summer in which the workers’ unions have been calling for wage rises in line with soaring inflation. But the strikes have also involved negotiations to protect jobs and working conditions as various rail operators attempt to close down ticket offices, remove some guards and platform staff jobs and, on London’s Tube network, demand the introduction of driver-less trains.
The Rail Workforce Reform Case Study – Sutton Loop assessed 20 stations served by the Thameslink service from Blackfriars to Sutton. Eleven of these stations also have regular services on other routes, provided by Southern, South Western and Southeastern. Except for South Western, all the services are driver-only operated, making boarding assistance is entirely dependent on station-based staff. The report described the current staffing provision at these sample stations as “completely inadequate”.
The report says: “Assistance and/or auxiliary aids cannot routinely be provided at all times trains are running, at 14 of 20 stations on the Study Route, even if requested in advance – and certainly not on a ‘turn up and go’ basis….
“It is clear that the current staffing levels on this route are completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway, and to ensure disabled people can use train services on the same terms as other passengers…”.
Of the 20 stations on the route studied, 10 have no step-free access from street to platform. Only five have step-free access to modern standards (consistent with the national situation). And just one of the 20 stations – Blackfriars – has level access between the train and platform, meaning that wheelchair users are forced to rely on a staff member for boarding assistance at every other station on the route.
DPTAC concludes that: “As things stand, the toxic combination of Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains and unstaffed stations means many disabled people are excluded from using the route to access employment, services, leisure and health facilities.”
The Thameslink network, of which the Sutton loop is part, has received more than £6billion in public investment since 2009. DPTAC argues that railway destaffing has devalued these accessibility investments.
“A current lack of adequate staffing renders much of the Study Route inaccessible to many disabled people for much of the time, significantly undermining the investment in accessibility already made, depriving rail of an important market, and perpetuating the exclusion of many disabled people from a vital public service to the detriment of both their lives and the wider economy.
“It is impossible to divorce consideration of operating costs from the return on investment in station infrastructure… any reduction in staffing then has the potential to undermine the business case for future investment in accessible facilities, where these are dependent on staff presence – as by definition their benefit reduces as staffing reduces.
“It may also undermine the willingness of rail management to seek accessibility improvements.”
DPTAC suggests that further investment in station accessibility is already being jeopardised due to this conflict of interest and recommends that the priority is to ensure there are no “perverse incentives” for train operators that would discourage the development of step-free access schemes.
“Poor staffing levels are likely to suppress demand at a time when the success of the rail network depends on attracting more customers,” the report says.
“Any reductions in current staffing levels will result in the Study Route becoming even less accessible with both direct (eg. the provision of assistance) and indirect (eg. the opening times of waiting rooms) impacts on accessibility.
“Such reductions in accessibility will undermine (and in some cases virtually eliminate) the benefit of both previous and potential future investment in the physical accessibility of stations and rail vehicles, and of connecting accessible transport modes…
“Until radical improvements in physical accessibility can be implemented, staff will remain the key way of ensuring that accessibility is maximised.”
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At about 11pm on 15 October 2019, friends were seeing me off at Blackfriars – I was on my way to East Croydon. I turned to get on the train but didn’t notice the large gap between platform and train. There was no marking on the platform or loudspeaker message ‘mind the gap’. I missed my footing, my leg slipped under the train and my foot got stuck. I tried to get it out but couldn’t (I have MS). I looked right and left along the platform for any sign of staff – there weren’t any! So I screamed and half a dozen passengers jumped out of the carriage and pulled me out. I think they saved my life! Later I emailed Blackfriars and heard back from a manager who hoped I was now fine (I wasn’t and am still not). He explained that trains arriving on that platform varied in width which seemed to be his excuse for no warning signs or loudspeaker messages. I’ve not used Blackfriars since. I just don’t think they care.