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‘Deeply frustrated’ minister issues slap on wrist to rail operators

RAIL minister Chris Heaton-Harris has told Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer that it is ‘extremely disappointing that the rail industry and train operators will fail to meet the deadline to provide accessible trains for every passenger and every journey by the end of the year’.

A number of non-compliant Pacer units are among the trains which will be staying in service from 1 January, in spite of new accessibility regulations, because new trains to replace them have been late arriving.

In his letter to Mr Plummer, Mr Heaton-Harris continues: ‘Owners and operators have had 10 years to prepare for the 31 December 2019 deadline. It is deeply frustrating that disabled passengers will still be waiting into 2020 to see accessibility improvements to some services.’

He has also warned train operators that the dispensation notices which cover around 1,200 vehicles, including some unconverted HSTs, are ‘strictly time-limited’, and have not been issued ‘lightly’, although he acknowledges ‘the efforts the industry has made so far to achieve compliance, for example through investment in new trains and carriages.’ He adds: ‘I also acknowledge that delays in the delivery of some new trains by manufacturers has affected the industry’s ability to meet the deadline.’

He has also made two conditions. One is that ‘operators are required to provide evidence that the introduction of new or refurbished vehicles remains on track’, while the second is that operators must understand ‘they are also legally bound to deliver the commitments they made to providing information, journey planning assistance, mobility assistance and operational mitigations such as coupling non-compliant vehicles to compliant ones, where possible’.

Paul Plummer responded: ‘The rail industry is committed to making the railway more accessible so that everyone benefits from being able to travel by train. We are replacing half of the nation’s train fleet new for old and upgrading hundreds of existing carriages to make journeys more accessible. We are very sorry that problems with the manufacturers of new and upgraded carriages mean some have been delayed.

‘Legal advice on the legislation covering the accessibility of rail replacement buses recently changed. Train companies have always done everything they can to get disabled people to their destination safely, no matter what their needs, in comfort and with dignity, including putting on accessible taxis where needed. We will continue to work with bus, coach and taxi operators to ensure that people with accessibility needs can continue their journey in a vehicle that complies with the latest regulations.’

Sim Harris

Behind the scenes, the industry is not pleased about this.

An insider told Railnews: ‘A delay in new train delivery has a knock-on effect as new trains always need to be tested and drivers need to be trained before we can safely and reliably introduce new rolling stock. Some franchises have taken longer to be awarded than expected, either giving their new operators limited time to make progress or giving their existing operators late notice compliance requirements. In some cases, it’s a choice between running the trains and extra services that the new timetable demands or ensuring every single one is compliant but reducing capacity and increasing crowding.’

The same insider also claims that the position has been made still more complex because the regulator changed its legal advice about accessibility regulations three months ago.

These were originally passed 15 years back and finally come into effect on 1 January.

The new ‘provisional’ legal advice means there are not enough compliant road vehicles available for train operators to hire. Previously, it was understood that operators had to make ‘reasonable endeavours’ to secure accessible rail replacement services and provide accessible taxis where they could not. The new guidance requires them to ensure that all rail replacement coach services travelling over 15 miles (24km) and carrying more than 22 passengers are accessible. However, only 5 per cent of accessible coaches are available for train operators to hire.

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