Disability campaigners plan rush-hour protest at London Bridge station

Diane Taylor
A Southern train at London Bridge railway station. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Disability campaigners are planning to block the concourse at a busy London train station in the middle of the evening rush hour in protest at new arrangements they say could prevent disabled passengers from boarding some trains.

Dozens of wheelchair users who have experienced problems on the Southern rail network will congregate at London Bridge station at 6pm on Wednesday.

They are protesting because Southern, which is owned by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), said there was no “cast-iron guarantee” that assistance for disabled travellers would be available at all stations. Previously, there were 33 stations on the network where they could turn up without booking ahead and be guaranteed help to board trains.

It follows Southern’s decision to replace conductors with onboard supervisors (OBSs), a move that has led to a series of strikes in recent months.

Conductors are responsible for opening and closing train doors but OBSs are not. Under the old system the driver and conductor must be on board before the train can proceed; under the new system the train can proceed even if the OBS is absent. Talks are ongoing between unions and management about this issue.

Faryal Velmi, the director of Transport for All, which is organising the station protest, said: “We hear daily from disabled transport users stranded on freezing platforms, or forced to crawl on to trains when rail companies have failed to assist them. We’re demanding that Southern rail reverse their decision on OBSs.”

Southern insists the new OBSs will be able to assist disabled passengers. However, there is no guarantee they will always be on a train. A GTR spokesman said he was unable to confirm how many trains had travelled without an OBS since the new arrangements were rolled out at the end of last year. On trains with a driver only there is no member of staff to assist disabled travellers.

Though Southern says the role of OBSs is to assist passengers, the Guardian has learned that a key part of their job is to boost income for the company by identifying fare dodgers. Former conductors and revenue protection officers (ticket inspectors) have become OBSs along with almost 100 new OBSs. Southern has confirmed this is part of the new job.

A memo from the Department for Transport (DfT) to the rail company seen by the Guardian states that there needs to be more revenue protection inspectors. “Benchmarks have been agreed between the franchisee and the secretary of state in support of a reduction in ticketless travel. To encourage the franchisee to meet and improve upon these benchmarks, financial incentives have been put in place,” it reads.

When asked what kind of financial incentives were on offer a Southern spokesman said: “This is commercially sensitive information so we cannot provide it. However, there is an incentive regime in the franchise agreement, which has increasingly tightening benchmarks across the life of the franchise. Schedule 6.2, but the detail is redacted for commercial sensitivity reasons.”

Malcolm Chisholm, an OBS with Southern and an RMT union rep, said: “Disabled passengers are losing out. Before they had a guarantee to be able to board certain trains that has been taken away from them. As a result more disabled travellers are being driven away from the rail network.”

Southern has said it may have to book taxis for disabled travellers who cannot complete their journey because the only member of staff on the train is the driver.

In response to the comments about the 33 stations said to no longer be guaranteed a “turn up and go” service, a Southern spokesman said: “Passengers do not have to book assistance before travelling with us; we only recommend this to ensure we have staff prepared with ramps or that alternative travel is in place if a station is not accessible.

“We now have more staff assigned to work on our trains than we did before who can assist our passengers. Any trains that do run without an on-board supervisor do so only under exceptional circumstances, and previously that train would have had to be cancelled, inconveniencing not just the passenger in need of boarding assistance but hundreds of other passengers as well.

“Our priority is to have an on-board supervisor on services which previously had a conductor, and in the exceptional circumstances when this is not possible, we have a clear, robust process to ensure passengers with accessibility requirements are assisted to complete their journeys.”

A spokesman for GTR said: “It would be correct to say that there is no cast-iron guarantee that passengers with accessibility requirements can spontaneously board a train in the assumption there would be a second member of staff on board every train.”

He added that advice on when the next service with an OBS is due at the station and booking a free taxi for the passenger to continue their journey would be available.

The protest is being supported by the Association of British Commuters, which is seeking a judicial review on whether the DfT has failed to hold GTR to account for the long-term breakdown of Southern’s service, and whether the transport secretary has indirectly discriminated against disabled passengers.

The department said: “

We take the issue of accessibility on our railways extremely seriously and recently secured several commitments from industry to improve things for disabled passengers.

“It is vital that all passengers, including disabled passengers, are able to use public transport and can turn up and go, and we will continue to push train companies on this matter.
“Train companies have legal obligations to provide the same access to the disabled, and we take action to ensure they do.”