In a major victory for our campaign, the government has just been forced to release the controversial Steer report on driver only operation (DOO) and disabled access. We had been pursuing this report through freedom of information requests to the Department for Transport since the summer, but without success. However, a copy was sent to Lilian Greenwood last month and – in one of her final acts as Chair of the Transport Select Committee – she has now published it on the Committee’s website.
With this decisive action, Lilian has ensured that the Steer report has been revealed before the general election ‘purdah’ period kicks in, which is a victory for campaigners – and an unexpected embarrassment for both the government and the rail industry.
A ‘wholly inadequate’ report – approach with ‘extreme caution’
We knew that the content of the Steer report would be controversial because of this damning letter from the Disabled Person’s Transport Committee (DPTAC), the DfT’s statutory advisors on accessibility. The letter urges ministers to approach the report with ‘extreme caution’, warning that it is ‘wholly inadequate’ in providing mitigations for the ‘toxic combination’ of driver only trains and unstaffed stations. Both the DPTAC letter and an accompanying email question whether the DfT and train operating companies are meeting their legal duties under the Equality Act.
As documents from DPTAC demonstrate, there is an ‘urgent and unmet need for research’ relating to disabled access, staffing levels and modes of operation. And it’s been three years since the Transport Select Committee first requested an equality impact assessment on the issue. The unacceptable delay to research in this area is in our view due to two reasons: 1) the absence of staff cannot be mitigated by any other means except staff – therefore it is logically impossible to create a report showing that DOO can be introduced without regressing disabled access by normalising pre-booking instead of asserting the right to spontaneous travel. 2) The fragmented industry structure and constrained contractual relationships create a toxic mix where research and policy is developed not in the public interest, but dominated by train operating companies (via the Rail Delivery Group) in the interests of profit.
The Steer report is supposed to give clear guidance on the mitigations required to assist and protect disabled passengers when there are no staff on the train or station. However, it drastically fails to meet that objective, and in fact demonstrates that no mitigation is possible – and therefore that a full staffing model is the only solution. The report reads precisely as if it was strung together from a desired conclusion, and its release is undoubtedly highly embarrassing for its authors, the government and the rail industry.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is now treating access to transport as a priority issue and has established a fund to support legal challenges. Equality law firm Fry Law has even been sending out cameras to assist disabled passengers in capturing evidence for the inevitable legal cases to come. In a situation where unstaffed trains are calling at unstaffed stations about 10% of the time (according to DPTAC’s estimate), it can only be a matter of time before we see new legal precedents set in this area.