In a leaked document revealed today by the Association of British Commuters (ABC), Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) has admitted that it is in breach of equality law due to insufficient staffing levels across its network. GTR’s admission relates to its policy of operating driver-only operated (DOO) trains to unstaffed stations, which discriminates against disabled people by preventing unbooked ‘turn up and go’ travel on an equal basis with others.
The document is an ‘Integrated Communications and Marketing Plan’ for GTR’s Accessible Travel Policy (ATP), discussing how to promote a new set of accessibility obligations required by the rail regulator, Office for Rail and Road (ORR). One of GTR’s main accessibility commitments is to provide ‘mobile staffing’ services to 41 locations on the network that can’t currently offer boarding/alighting assistance at all times. According to the Plan, the requirement for GTR to promote this new service creates a major public relations risk, because it draws attention to the fact it is currently in breach of its legal requirements under the Equality Act 2010.
The revelation follows an in-depth case study of GTR’s staffing arrangements by the government’s statutory advisors on transport accessibility (DPTAC). Published in July 2022, DPTAC’s Rail Workforce Reform Report found that the “toxic combination of DOO and unstaffed stations” in an area of South London is excluding disabled people from train travel, and therefore from employment, leisure, healthcare, and general economic and social participation. There can be no doubt that this discriminatory rail staffing policy puts disabled people at a substantial disadvantage, and is, by GTR’s own admission, unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.
Disability rights activists and human rights experts believe that the leak will force an intervention from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into the government’s secret policies of railway destaffing; as urgently requested in an open letter published on 17th August. The EHRC has previously warned the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) that the denial of spontaneous, unbooked assistance puts the railway in breach of the Equality Act 2010, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, regarding disabled people’s ‘right to independent living.’
 The source of the information is a 20-page communications and marketing plan for GTR’s ‘accessible travel policy’, drafted by its Senior Media Relations Manager, and signed off by its Head of Media in February 2021. The document includes a schedule of media events from the launch of the ATP media strategy on March 30th 2021, until December 2022. The sign-off process for the marketing plan included the Accessibility Steering Group, and four ‘key delivery directors’. As of February 2021, the team implementing the strategy was being led by GTR’s Senior Media Relations Manager; and supported by at least ten other senior members of staff, including key accessibility team personnel, stakeholder, marketing, and social media leads.
GTR’s marketing plan discusses the ‘risks’ posed by ABC and disability rights activists
According to GTR’s accessibility marketing plan, the biggest public relations risks are presented by the campaigning activity of ABC and other disability rights activists; especially Sam Jennings (@flowergirl_lon), who successfully sued GTR for assistance failures in March 2021 after being left stranded on trains and stations more than 30 times.
GTR’s “Potential risks, key considerations and mitigations”
|Risk / consideration||Mitigation / comment|
|Risk of criticism/ridicule due to publicised failed assists (“How can they claim to be championing disabled people when they’ve let down Flowergirl 30 times?!”)||Tone of voice important. We need to be honest and focus on our desire to improve, not claim to be fabulous already – we’re on a journey. Make use of real people to tell our story (from AAP members to our Accessibility Ambassadors) Soft launch to build on, with key deliverables celebrated along the way|
|Campaign groups (such as ABC) and social conversations escalating above issue. Also opposition by campaigners to DOO – union and ABC agenda||Be confident in the steps we are taking to deliver a better experience. Remember the large audience who wants info on our progress v the small pool of campaigners|
|Resource and skills required to deliver some of the specifics of the stakeholder plan||New appointment (but will be a gap)|
|Promotion of the DCO trial is required for the trial to succeed and is a good thing for customers but highlights that GTR is / has been in breach of legal duties since 2010.||Open and honest promotion of improving support for customers at smaller community stations.|
|Leaflet/ATP mismatch over wheelchair space Twitter discussion – leaflet (says we will do everything we can to keep wheelchair spaces clear) commits more than the core ATP commitment (will give wheelchairs priority)||Updated customer info to ensure clarity of message|
|Flowergirl settlement figure news||Reactive statement emphasising the journey we are on and lessons learned as strive to make improvements. Comms input into the legal statement to ensure accuracy of Flowergirl’s announcement.|
|Negative commentary about vacancy of Head of/new role as ‘Lead’||Low-risk given public interest in specific personnel but line prepared and shared with social should we get specific questions from campaigners. Wider comms including Flowergirl settlement statement puts emphasis on business to deliver, not individuals.|
 The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s submission to the Office of Rail and Road’s Accessible Travel Policy consultation, March 2019, asserted that the denial of disabled people’s “fundamental right to spontaneous travel” is a breach of the Equality Act 2010, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
 GTR operates 150+ stations where station staff are either not available, or are only available for part of the day. The majority of these stations are served by DOO trains; meaning that where there is no staff, there is no means to provide boarding and alighting assistance. Even if GTR fulfils its plans to provide mobile staffing to the 41 stations, this will still leave a substantial number of stations where the assistance necessary to allow disabled people to travel is not available.
 The Rail Workforce Reform report was completed in February 2022, and published by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) on 26th July 2022. It was covered in Private Eye on 10th August 2022. The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), statutory advisors to the Department for Transport, have been warning against “toxic” and “illegal” rail staffing policies on GTR since 2016. None of the documents have been officially published and are only available on ABC’s website.
 On August 17th, disability rights activists dispatched a letter to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), demanding its intervention into “discriminatory” policies of railway destaffing and the “escalating human rights crisis” around alleged mass ticket office closures. The letter was co-signed by a former UK government advisor on transport accessibility, Ann Bates OBE; and former UN rapporteur on poverty, Prof. Philip Alston.
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