Voices: Why are disabled people being kicked off trains?
“This is public transport, we’re still members of the public – we just want to get on and mind our own business!”
So said Dennis Queen, speaking to ITV News as 150 disabled people’s organisations handed in a series of petitions calling on the government to ensure Britain’s rail services meet accessibility needs, keep ticket offices open and retain guards on trains.
Wheelchair users clearly require assistance getting on and off. I know, I’ve been there. Even before the reorganisation that worries the campaigners, people were regularly being left stranded if they could even board the train in the first place.
This isn’t just an issue for the mobility impaired either. Visually impaired people also often need assistance getting on and off. And how do you purchase a ticket on one of the irksome touchscreen devices if you can’t see it?
I could go on – and I will. Those screens: they just don’t work for everyone. People with a wide range of different disabilities find them incredibly difficult to navigate and require assistance. Their needs are being forgotten too. What of the Equalities Act? Where is the “reasonable adjustment”?
Railways workers recognise this. It isn’t just pay that exercises rail unions, whose members have repeatedly withdrawn their labour. It’s jobs. The preservation of them is vital for the people who need assistance because it is the workers who are under threat that provide it. Without them, disabled passengers can’t travel. A government that still risibly boasts about Britain being a “world leader in disability rights” is kicking disabled travellers off the trains.
The RMT recognises this. On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it said that 98 per cent of ticket office staff who took part in its survey feared that government plans for ticket office closures would mean accessing the network would be harder for the elderly and disabled. Rightly so.
Refusal to see the railways as a public service rather than businesses designed to generate profit is at the core of this.
Decades of under-investment, policy failure and perhaps the worst Tory privatisation of the Eighties and Nineties – although the selloff of the water industry could make a fair case, with energy coming up on the rails – have cut into the quality of rail travel in Britain.
The rail selloff led to the bizarre situation in which state-owned French and German rail operators were making money from running a shabby, underfunded UK system which went to subsidise their own (far better) services.
The result was a confusing and expensive mess (and a series of financial disasters). Reforms have since followed, but only someone wearing rose-tinted glasses with the pink contrast turned up to the max could see the system in a positive light. The contrast with continental equivalents couldn’t be starker.
European countries recognise the benefits of having cheap, efficient rail as part of their transport infrastructure, even if that does mean subsidising it.
Rail transport provides a clean, green means of getting from A to B that keeps cars off the road and planes on the ground. It is thus of public benefit.
If you take that as the starting point, the decision-making process alters when it comes to modernisation. The question moves from “how can we can costs?” to “how can we better serve?”
If that becomes the basis for a reform programme, redundancies have to be reassessed if the result of them will be no service to disabled travellers and considerable difficulties for others, such as elderly people and parents with buggies.
Keir Starmer has promised to fully nationalise the service under a Labour government (though the party’s position on this has been inconsistent at best).
How the railways will be run after that remains to be seen. I like the idea of setting up public interest operating companies jointly owned by the staff and the state, with the latter holding a golden share. Their operation would be somewhat similar to John Lewis, with bosses’ pay limited to a multiple of the lowest paid member of staff and bonuses paid to all when the service does well (not just financially but for passengers too).
That’s just my suggestion, but the result might just be a modernisation programme we could all get behind.
The current one is misnamed. It’s a step backwards into a set of circumstances in which wheelchair users, visually impaired travellers, elderly travellers, and parents struggling with buggies are left stranded.
What a mess. What a shabby way to treat a travelling public looking across the Channel with envious eyes. They deserve better.