Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Planet Practice (RI 28)


  It is always difficult, but important nonetheless to keep under review ways in which provision for the wheelchair user on public transport can be kept up to date and moving forward.

  By looking at developments and events in recent months certain new issues have emerged and it is widely hoped that brief examination of some of these will be informative.

  Some of the questions raised may suggest new approaches, which shall secure answers that are quicker, clearer and more integrated than some of what has gone before.

  Some linked examples "criteria for opportunity" show how cross fertilisation of ideas can help other parts of the railway industry and, at the end of this memorandum three short appendices note how further improvement would be possible if the Strategic Rail Authority was able to guide more investment in the right direction.

  We are privileged that there are many significant windows of opportunity meaning that direction now, leadership now, investment now and in the future can radically improve the lives of significant minorities in ways that benefit the majority as well.

  The experience of the Cyclists Public Affairs Group, Planet Practice and others with specialist knowledge and expertise is that the railway industry and even parts of the government are inclined to view specialist needs in isolation.

  While it is true that the Disability Rights Commission and Radar communicate with other organisations dealing with disability, they do not always co-ordinate and appraise their needs in the company of other groups such as cyclists, or parents with twins and double Buggy pushchairs.

  In the past the British Railways Board too looked at special needs separately. At best this usually meant that modifications to help cyclists didn't help wheelchair users as well, or vice verse, when they might have done so.

  Users of wheelchairs and bicycles share the same common humanity with all other passengers and like them want to travel freely openly and universally and above all without fuss, by themselves or in groups according to choice.

  By looking at cyclists and wheelchair users separately as much harm and set back can be caused as by lumping their needs together as if they were identical.

  By insisting that these needs are highlighted as part of the Franchise process the Transport sub committee can help strengthen a national determination to have a fully inclusive railway system.

  The Strategic Rail Authority is in a singular position, by acts of omission to reinforce an unwitting structural and institutional discrimination, or by exercising discretion put universal access at the top of the Agenda when deciding on replacement of franchises.

Criteria for Opportunity

Example 1: The young girl in an electric wheelchair.

  The fuel crisis of late summer illustrated that countrywide demand for cycle space was much greater than supply. Will investment in provision for bicycle (including blind persons tandems) be something that the Strategic Rail Authority will be able to encourage among franchises, to secure sustainable integrated transport policies and investment?

  Will the committee encourage the Strategic Rail Authority to recognise and plan and secure investment from all franchise holders that will accommodate without fuss the autonomous person choosing to use the larger heavier high tech electric wheelchairs? Are the railways keeping up?

Criteria for Opportunity

Example 2:  The blind cyclist with a tandem.

  Discrimination against tandem bicycles can discriminate against blind cyclists who can only ride a tandem.

  When rail investment requires engineering works "bus substitution" can disadvantage or often immobilise the user of a bicycle, wheelchair or the person with a double pushchair.

  The Strategic Rail Authority has express powers but the Disability Discrimination Act has limited application to transport.

  The statutory Consultation for the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 and the Rail Vehicle (Exemption Applications) Regulations were heavy on detail but light and limited as a vision for the future.

  Even the existing "want here and now needs" of Rugby supporters in wheelchairs, paraplegic basket ball and sports teams, blind tandem riders were lumped together with other "unusual", "rare" or "niche" "unrepresentative groups" who all were given responses that seemed less than understanding, yet together they formed a large constituency. Some groups with 80 years experience or more, were not consulted although their experience is second to none and not to be found as readily elsewhere.

Criteria for Opportunity

Example 3:  The single wheelchair user finding "all spaces taken already."

  The Strategic Rail Authority should be asked to put "universal access" to the railway system as a whole (including the Channel Tunnel) on an equal footing with the provision of track signalling bridges, stations, tunnels and communications.

  It is now widely recognised that there is an urgent need for more co-ordinated liaison between all special user groups. Wheelchair users, cyclists, skiers.

  In the past there seems to have been a determination that such people travelling in groups were unrepresentative, that the bicycle group had nothing to teach the wheelchair experts. The very notion that large family groups of wheelchair users might wish sometimes to travel together was regarded as a sort of medieval anachronism.

  Such attitudes did nothing to ensure a fair debate in DETR or Diptac let alone among the decision makers in Eurostar, the British Railway's Board or the Health and Safety Executive. How can the Strategic Rail Authority help to show that catering for groups ensures the single traveller too can travel without fuss?

Criteria for Opportunity

Example 4:  The paramount need is for investment in rail infrastructure that will safeguard future growth in franchise opportunities and special service provision whether freight or passenger, particularly "Inter Regional Transport."

  It is hoped that the Strategic Rail Authority will be encouraged, in awarding franchises to make allowance and provision for the development of services from all parts of the UK to the mainland of Europe. This includes investment in secure "parc ferme" sidings, passenger and baggage security equipment and efficient ticketing systems that make services through the Channel Tunnel more accessible for all regions of the UK and easier to obtain.

Criteria for Opportunity

Example 5:  "Inter regional Transport"

  An informal association of railway professionals funding sources and others are currently working on an innovative and well advanced £30 million pilot project. Still in its early stages, it will develop the rail links between the regions of the United Kingdom and the regions of Europe using safe railway carriages which are universally accessible to any reasonable number of wheelchair users and which must meet the expressed requirements of the Health and Safety Executive and the Railway Inspectorates of France and Belgium.

  At the same time, and as a complementary not alternative service, elements within SNCF and Eurostar are examining the possibility of charter or scheduled Eurostar Services running direct as far as Pau in the Pyrenees, and other destinations in the South of France.

  Following on as part of this work widespread consultation with all main United Kingdom Pilgrimage organisers suggests that a Eurostar Service direct to Lourdes in a day is a realistic hope for travellers from the South East region and remains a distinct possibility.

  For the remainder of the United Kingdom including places like Liverpool, Newcastle and areas to the North including Glasgow and Edinburgh, or even Oban, Eurostar would not fit this bill.

  For these, and the other regions away from the London centred system, the proposed Grampian—Pennine—Pyrenees Express running overnight would be a more flexible accessible and less expensive alternative, based on adapting the mothballed night-star carriages specially designed for such Channel tunnel use.

Criteria for Opportunity

Example 6:  "Current Design Technology"

  Current Train design techniques (such as on Eurostar) demonstrate that very comfortable "Armchairs" can be made to fold down to make use of any space not occupied by a wheelchair user. In this way there is no need for a non-disabled passenger to have to stand for lack of a seat (hitherto this was one major objection to greater provision for wheelchair spaces throughout trains).


  The Disability Rights Commission and the Disability Rights Task Force still have difficulty making the case for groups of wheelchair users to travel together in groups when and if they want to. This is surprising, because to have done so seems to be as good a way as any of ensuring that there is enough flexible capacity on all trains and in all carriages to cater for almost all degrees of usage.

  It is inevitable that some people may not be in sympathy with the idea that people with all different abilities including users of wheelchairs may like to go, for example to Lourdes, in family or larger groups and parties.

  It must be recognised however that not to examine and improve travel options for such people is to risk losing sight of ways that benefit many other groups, including skiers, cyclists and other wheelchair users who while not on pilgrimage may be involved increasingly in all year round outward bound type activity or sport either as holiday makers, spectators competitors or business conference delegates.

  The Strategic Railway Authority has a crucial role in making certain that the Franchise Process must include by design, not exclude by omission. It must not permit suffocation because of planning which is not integrated. It must foster innovation and a high level of service through the Franchise Process.

Mark Blathwayt

October 2000

Appendix A

  Example of Discrimination the Strategic Rail Authority can ensure is not repeated. In December 1998 Travel Agents were informed by Eurostar Management.

    (1)  Eurostar trains are not available for private Charter.

    (2)  Eurostar cannot accept large parties of people who may have difficulty in leaving the train in the event of a mass evacuation of the train in the tunnel.

    (3)  As a result of point 1 & 2 they are unable even to prepare a quotation.

    (4)  "If they were able to offer 1, 2 3 above a strict check would be made before boarding the train to ensure that the guidelines concerning slow walkers wheelchairs etc, were followed and that we obeyed the regulations to the letter. Any excess disabled/handicapped would be refused, which would not be too big a problem on a schedule to Paris but would of course on a charter to Lourdes."

Appendix B

  Recent events and the 10 year plan

    (1)  On 16 September 2000 in a pioneering move Hertfordshire Rail Tours chartered a Eurostar which ran direct from Waterloo to La Rochelle and return.

    (2)  On 12 October 2000 SNCF and Eurostar in Paris released details of a scheduled service from Waterloo to Bordeaux direct.

    (3)  Later on 13 October SNCF insisted that although more hotels than in any other town in France were to be found there SNCF would not be seeking to run trains direct from anywhere in the United Kingdom to Lourdes. This despite latest indications that 80 per cent of the major pilgrimages would anticipate using such a service, making it profitable provided numbers of wheelchair users could travel in parties concerned.

Appendix C

  It is a paradox that some examples of local suburban train units, which were never designed to be wheelchair accessible and are not, none the less have been built with sections which have pairs of seats either side of a central aisle wide enough for a wheelchair. Elsewhere in the carriages the layout is three seats on one side of the train, a pair of seats on the other side of an aisle that is too narrow for a wheelchair. There can always be innovation and flexibility in design.

  What this illustrates is that there is never one way of designing interior train layouts. However, there is always one question that bears repetition. Is universal access seen as an integral part of good design or simply as a bolt on or extra?

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 April 2001