Posted 20th December 2019 | 7 Comments

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

Updated 20 Dec., 07.30

RAIL minister Chris Heaton-Harris has told Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer that the industry’s failure to comply fully with new accessibility regulations from 1 January is ‘extremely disappointing’.

A number of non-compliant Pacer units are among the trains which will be staying in service from 1 January, in spite of the new regulations, often because new trains which would allow them to be wihdrawn have been delivered late by manufacturers.

In a 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 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’.

The rules about accessibility on rail replacement services are also being tightened, and in this case the minister has given the industry just one extra month, to 31 January, to conform.

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.’

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘It is almost 2020 – no one should struggle to get on a train or find an accessible toilet. Passengers will be astounded to learn that the rail industry has not met this deadline when it has had a decade to prepare for these changes.

‘This exemption for Pacers must be time-limited pending the introduction of new trains and subject to train companies demonstrating how they will mitigate some of the impacts on passengers.

‘It’s imperative that operators also use this one-month extension on replacement bus services and the breathing space it provides to come up with a clear plan of action that offers longer-term certainty and security to all passengers.’

Another pressure group which seeks to make travel easier for people with disabilities is also protesting.

James Taylor, who is head of policy and campaigns at disability equality charity Scope, said: ‘It’s scandalous that disabled people have been waiting so long for our transport network to become accessible.

‘This should have been more than enough time to meet these regulations. Scope would welcome the opportunity to work together with the Rail Delivery Group and government to move forward.

‘Accessibility is not just about physical access to vehicles. We need reliable and easy-to-find information, better staff training, and accessible facilities.

‘A Passenger Charter clarifying disabled people’s rights would be a simple and logical step. Existing regulations must also be properly enforced.’


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 at least a decade ago and finally come into effect on 1 January.

The new ‘provisional’ legal advice also 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.

But in this case the rail minister has given the industry just one month of grace in which to get it right.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • andy ganley, sutton

    The whole railway is a shambles,just look at LNER 800/802s collapsing on a daily basis yet withdrawn 91 coaching stock is scrapped,HST's withdrawn in December yet they cancelled trains due to stock shortages,couldn't make it up!

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    At my Station, Tilehurst, in the prosperous South East, disabled people can only reach Platform 1 - where no trains stop unless there is engineering work. There is no disabled friendly Footbridge. Next Station towards Didcot is Pangbourne. Here the Disabled can get to the Platform to Reading and London but not to the return Platform. At Cholsey disabled people can't reach any Platform. It doesn't matter about the Trains, - the Stations need updating first.

  • Paul, Torquay

    As per usual the DFT have no idea how to run the railway, and then blame everyone else apart from themselves as they were given plenty of warnings about the situation looming and wouldn't make a decision earlier when pressed. They seem to just bury there heads in the sand and then come out and blame everyone else instead of working together with all parties concerned.

  • BillD, Millom

    The minister appears a little disingenuous in his condemnation of the rail operators bearing in mind the short terms of franchises and the services being specified by contracts drawn up by the DfT. Had the minister been aware of the implications of the aforementioned, he could have influenced his predecessor and put the requirements in the contracts of previous franchises so that measures could have been set in motion to have full accessibility before the deadline allowing for some contingency for the problems that we see now regarding commissioning of new trains and conversion of old ones. It all smacks of a government that thinks only in the short term and lacks a strategic view.

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    The DfT and incessant government delays (yes, that includes nationalised Network Rail) and inability to make a decision and stick with it are responsible for a significant portion of this delay. Heaton-Harris should maybe have kept quiet until he was fully informed on the reasons for delay before opening his mouth and blaming others. If he want to criticize someone now either look in the mirror of head down to the DfT HQ. I would suggest H-H is "not fit for purpose".

  • Robert Talbot, Kendal

    Rail Minister Heaton-Harris, MP for Daventry, is clearly out of touch with us here in the north. In addition to delay both of awarding franchises and delivering new rolling stock, the DfT's own decisions to cancel a number of small, yet significant, electrification projects has resulted in delay of cascading units earmarked to replace Pacers.
    We are in desperate need for either Andrew Jones (Harrogate) or Paul Maynard (Blackpool) to hold the Rail Minister post. Grayling, Jo Johnson and H-H have been no help to us whatsoever. Robert Talbot (Kendal)

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    Nice to see the minister covering his own rear end. Let it be remembered that the delayed specification & award of franchises such as MML have had a knock on effect for operators, ROSCO's & manufacturers to be in a position to arrange for compliant trains to be available.