A groundbreaking new report on ‘Rail Workforce Reform’ has concluded that inadequate railway staffing is undermining the value of billions of public investments. It also finds that destaffing policies are creating “perverse incentives” for train operators; jeopardising further investment in station accessibility and step-free access.
The confidential report was drafted in February 2022 by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC): statutory advisors on accessibility to the Department for Transport (DfT). DPTAC has been warning the government about the “toxic combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations” since 2016; insisting that railway destaffing breaches multiple areas of equality law.
DPTAC’s new report uses the ‘Sutton loop’ in South London as a case study to “provide real-world examples of the consequences of policy options” as well as analysing the “current and future impact of staff roles and availability”. Its groundbreaking conclusions on financial impact represent a whole new economic argument for the full staffing of Britain’s railways.
“The toxic combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations”
The “Rail Workforce Reform Case Study – Sutton Loop” assessed 20 stations served by the Thameslink (GTR) service from London Blackfriars to Sutton. 11 of these stations also have regular services on other routes, provided by Southern (GTR), South Western and Southeastern. Except for South Western, all services are driver-only operated, so boarding assistance is entirely dependent on station-based staff. The report concludes that:
“Assistance and/or auxiliary aids cannot routinely be provided at all times trains are running, at 14 of 20 stations on the Study Route, even if requested in advance – and certainly not on a ‘turn up and go’ basis…. It is clear that the current staffing levels on this route are completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway, and to ensure disabled people can use train services on the same terms as other passengers….As things stand, the toxic combination of Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains and unstaffed stations means many disabled people are excluded from using the route to access employment, services, leisure and health facilities.”
Of the 20 stations on the Study Route, 10 have no step-free access from street to platform; and only 5 have step-free access to modern standards (consistent with the national situation.) Only London Blackfriars has level access between the train and platform, so wheelchair users rely on a staff member for boarding assistance at every other station on the route. DPTAC concludes that:
“The ability of staff to provide assistance is the only effective way of mitigating the continued partial physical inaccessibility of many of the stations on the loop, which will take many years to address fully. However, the toxic combination of inadequate station staffing and Driver Only Operated trains in particular, undermines the ability of staff to mitigate physical inaccessibility on a reliable basis, and leads directly to the exclusion of disabled people from the Study Route.”
Railway destaffing undermines the value of investments
The Sutton Loop is part of the Thameslink network, which has received over £6 billion in public investment since 2009, as part of the ‘Thameslink Programme.’ This includes a fleet of modern, accessible Class 700 trains; and platform-train level access at London Blackfriars and St. Pancras. DPTAC argues that railway destaffing has devalued these accessibility investments: as well as over a hundred million invested in 30 other stations directly served by the Study Route stations; and indirect implications for multi-billion investments on the wider network.
“A current lack of adequate staffing renders much of the Study Route inaccessible to many disabled people for much of the time, significantly undermining the investment in accessibility already made, depriving rail of an important market, and perpetuating the exclusion of many disabled people from a vital public service to the detriment of both their lives and the wider economy.
“It is impossible to divorce consideration of operating costs from the return on investment in station infrastructure…any reduction in staffing then has the potential to undermine the business case for future investment in accessible facilities, where these are dependent on staff presence – as by definition their benefit reduces as staffing reduces. It may also undermine the willingness of rail management to seek accessibility improvements.”
DPTAC suggests that further investment in station accessibilty is already being jeopardised due to this conflict of interest; recommending that the short to medium term priority is to ensure there are no “perverse incentives” for train operators that would discourage the development of step-free access schemes.
DPTAC’s “Rail Workforce Reform Case Study” concludes that:
“The benefits of staff presence are widespread and include not only the provision of assistance, but e.g.: personal security reassurance; ensuring toilets and waiting rooms are available; provision of information; and management of disruption etc. Poor staffing levels are likely to suppress demand at a time when the success of the rail nework depends on attracting more customers.
“Any reductions in current staffing levels will result in the Study Route becoming even less accessible with both direct (e.g. the provision of assistance) and indirect (e.g. the opening times of waiting rooms) impacts on accessibility.
“Such reductions in accessibilty will undermine (and in some cases virtually eliminate) the benefit of both previous and potential future investment in the physical accessibility of stations and rail vehicles, and of connecting accessible transport modes…Until radical improvements in physical accessibility can be implemented, staff will remain the key way of ensuring that accessibility is maximised.”
The Rail Workforce Reform Case Study was released to us via a Freedom of Information request. For more information: email@example.com