Exclusive: New evidence suggests Department for Transport ignoring its Public Sector Equality Duty

New evidence suggests that the Department for Transport (DfT) is failing to co-operate with an intervention by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on railway destaffing; and ignoring its public sector equality duty in the formation of Great British Railways.

The new documents were obtained via freedom of information requests to the EHRC and the DfT’s statutory advisors on accessibility, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC). Both raise serious questions about whether the DfT is performing its duties under the Equality Act 2010, and suggest that it has not conducted any Equality Impact Assessments on staffing cuts in the last 18 months.

1. EHRC Correspondence – Download Here.

On 13th December 2022, the EHRC began an intervention into railway destaffing, reminding the DfT of their “legal duty to ensure that rail services are accessible to everyone”. The EHRC warned: “The public sector equality duty in the Equality Act requires active consideration of equality across your work, including in the development of your policies and the use of your powers. This means thinking about the equality implications of decisions, monitoring impact, and taking action if necessary.”

Following “widespread reports” of rail inaccessibility from the public, and concerning feedback from DPTAC, the EHRC requested a meeting with the DfT, and publication of “Equality Impact Assessments on all departmental policies to improve compliance and transparency.”

On 11th January 2023, the DfT responded, claiming “[We pay] due regard to equality issues when forming and delivering new policy, in line with the public sector equality duty.” However, they refused to publish Equality Impact Assessments because “there is no legal requirement” and “discussion on the scope of workforce reforms is ongoing”. Over four months later, the EHRC has informed us that the DfT has still not taken up its request for a meeting. (A day after this blog was posted, the EHRC informed us that the DfT has now agreed to a meeting in the second half of May).

2. DPTAC: Response to Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP) Call for Evidence – Download here.

In December 2021, DPTAC submitted a 4,000 word response to the WISP Call for Evidence, strongly criticising the “poverty of ambition” behind Great British Railway’s 30-year strategy. Containing extensive warnings on equality law and the DfT’s public sector equality duty, it appears to be the DPTAC advice referred to in the EHRC letter.

The document sets out in detail what DfT needs to do to fulfil its PSED, in particular to narrow the huge gap in rail usage and satisfaction – for example, disabled adults make 28% fewer trips and travel 40% fewer rail miles than non-disabled adults; and of these two thirds experience a problem on their journey. The “key intervention” would be to set specific targets to eliminate this gap, including the removal of all non-physical barriers to accessibility within 5-10 years, and full physical accessibility within 30 years.

However, the WISP Call for Evidence had already imposed a severe limitation on GBR’s long-term strategy – requiring respondents to suggest cost-cutting “trade-offs” that could be made; and warning them that it would not consider any requests for new investment.[1] In its response, DPTAC strongly objects to this limitation, arguing that they are not aware of “any properly holistic cross-governmental work” on the financial benefits of an accessible railway “despite this being at the core of the economic case for improving accessibility”.[2] GBR’s aim merely to ‘widen accessibility’ means that “even at the end of the 30 year period… the railway would still fall some considerable way short of being fully accessible”, and that “around a fifth of the UK’s population will potentially fail to benefit from the government’s plans to ‘level-up’ and improve connectivity”.

DPTAC warns: “The lack of ambition is particularly disappointing given the legislative background of the Equality Act (and associated Public Sector Equality Duty), the railways’ own regulatory framework, and the promised new ‘Accessibility Duty’ to be placed upon GBR”. It also emphasises that driver-only trains and unstaffed stations represent the main risk for the future, because “successful legal challenge…may hard-wire accessibility requirements into industry operational practices or require a major re-shaping.” In other words, the risk posed by unlawful destaffing policies would also threaten the financial structure behind the railway, requiring significant costs to revise contractual arrangements after a legal precedent is set.

Is the DfT ignoring its Public Sector Equality Duty?

Taken together, the documents strongly suggest that DfT has not conducted Equality Impact Assessments or other relevant studies on the social and economic impact of destaffing plans; nor the long-term accessibility strategy behind Great British Railways. If such studies have been conducted, then the DfT is refusing to share them with their own statutory advisors (DPTAC) and the UK’s regulator of equality law (EHRC).

The DfT is correct that EIAs “are not a legal requirement” in a specific sense; but case law on PSED shows that public bodies must pay “due regard” to equality issues both prior to and during relevant policy decisions. The key question becomes: when was a policy decision made for which the DfT could be held accountable? And has it completed relevant studies on social and economic impact that it took into account when making the decision?

The DfT has resisted transparency about staffing reform throughout last 18 month period of rail reform and the industrial dispute – with evidence that it has concealed its plans from even its own statutory advisors.[3] Yet, it is undisputed that the government is imposing up to £2 billion in cuts on the rail industry, including a mandate on train companies to target staffing. The method taken to impose these cuts will almost certainly consist of a combination of ticket office closures and the migration of a staff to a generic “multi-skilled” role; representing the biggest changes to staffing, accessibility and ticket retail in generations.

In this context, the DfT must immediately release any studies it has conducted showing the effect of budget cuts on equality, to prove that any new policies are consistent with PSED, and will therefore improve accessibility across the network. If this evidence does not exist, then a complete reassessment of the budget and government-given mandate for staffing cuts is urgently required.

The DfT refused to comment on any of these matters, nor say whether it has conducted EIAs on any of the workforce reform plans currently being proposed by the Rail Delivery Group to the RMT. It is now up to MPs, the Transport Select Committee, and the EHRC to demand the urgent release of these studies.


[1] The WISP Call for Evidence emphasised that valid responses would suggest “trade-offs” that could be made to cut costs, and that answers should “take into account that in all future scenarios, we expect affordability to be a significant constraint.” It warned respondents in advance that no new investments would be considered, unless evidence was provided of the costs savings they would create.

[2] DPTAC’s economic argument was expanded further in DPTAC’s Rail Workforce Reform report, submitted to the DfT in February 2022.

[3] In October 2022, a key DPTAC member resigned in protest at the DfT’s failure to provide transparency about its rail workforce reform plans. He was the second of three DPTAC members working under non-disclosure agreements with Great British Railways to have resigned over the last year; with its former Chair resigning immediately after his pledge to bring transparency to the committee in May 2022.

Victory for disability rights activists as EHRC intervenes in railway destaffing

After six months examining the evidence, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has begun an intervention into rail staffing discrimination. It is now seeking a meeting with the Department for Transport (DfT) and Office of Rail and Road (ORR), and has assured us that: “we will not hesitate to use our enforcement powers, if necessary, to ensure their compliance with the law.”

The information is included in the EHRC’s response to our letter of mid-August, which was released to us earlier this week. It is a clear victory for all who signed the original demand, including Disabled People Against Cuts, National Federation of the Blind of the UK, National Pensioners Convention, and leading disability rights activists such as Ann Bates OBE and Professor Philip Alston, former UN rapporteur on poverty.

The RMT union has also been lobbying the EHRC throughout, and has now published a response to the 39-cross party MPs who requested intervention last November. The release of both letters follows the launch of a major inquiry by the Transport Select Committee on “accessible transport and legal obligations.”

Finally, we are pleased to report that the EHRC has been closely examining the evidence we have presented on the railway’s systematic discrimination against disabled people. Vital documents include an admission by Govia Thameslink that it has “been in breach of its legal requirements since 2010” and a dataset to prove that the same policies are in use at a total of six franchises: c2c, Chiltern, Greater Anglia, Great Western, Govia Thameslink and Southeastern.

The EHRC must take action now

The Dft and ORR received the EHRC’s request for a meeting over a month ago, but have so far failed to set a date, despite the fact that consultations on ticket office closures are rumoured to be just around the corner. With the new Transport Committee inquiry asking if the EHRC is fit for purpose, the need for a more assertive action is long overdue.

We now need to see an urgent public statement directly from the EHRC, warning operators and the ORR of their duties under equality law; as it previously did in 2019. It should then open a public investigation into the six operators alleged to be in breach.

In addition to policy interventions, the EHRC should reopen its transport discrimination legal fund, which closed in 2020 after just one year and a £48,870 spend. This should be part of a permanent commitment to promoting the right to transport as a fundamental human right for disabled people and all protected groups. Ultimately, their goal must be to support legal actions to establish vital case law on transport accessibility.

Download our original letter to the EHRC here.

Download our response from the EHRC here.

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Six train operators “in breach of legal requirements” due to discriminatory staffing policies

Our new research reveals the six operators discriminating against disabled passengers through their rail staffing policies. Together, c2c, Chiltern, Greater Anglia, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Great Western Railway (GWR), and Southeastern are responsible for denying “turn up and go” travel at over 11% of Britain’s stations.[1]

The research forms our latest submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), demanding they intervene in all six operators for breaches of equality law. It builds on evidence we shared with the EHRC in September: a leaked GTR document where the operator admits it has been “in breach of its legal requirements since 2010” due to the combination of driver only operation (DOO) and unstaffed stations.[2]

We can now present the first ever overview of this combination across all six franchises, revealing the ‘no go areas’ for disabled people on Britain’s railway. Our data shows that if GTR is breaking equality law, so are the other five operators.


Our research – DOO and unstaffed stations

We’ve looked at all 786 stations run by the six operators, classifying each according to its staffing levels, and therefore, its capacity to provide turn up and go travel for disabled people requiring boarding assistance. Our data reveals that DOO has created ‘no go areas’ for accessible rail travel at a total of 292 stations across Greater London and the south-east of England, representing over 11% of Britain’s stations.

Summary data of all six train operators, indicating what percentage of their network is unable to provide turn up and go travel. Full data and all summaries are available on our spreadsheet

The ‘no go areas’ for disabled travellers cover a total of 23 London boroughs, with a particularly high rate in Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham. They also affect 20 local authority areas surrounding London, with notably bad examples in Buckinghamshire, Essex, Oxfordshire and Surrey. The full data on all locations is available to download here.

All of our information on staffing hours can be substantiated by National Rail Enquiries: the most authoritative source available because train companies have a regulatory requirement to keep it updated. Every train operator was given opportunities to feed back on the data, and – with the exception of GTR – none of them disputed our figures.

Summaries of train operators’ mitigations

We’ve also looked at the policies used by train operators to mitigate the lack of staff at DOO stations. Four alternatives to turn up and go assistance are in use: 1) staff sent from another station; 2) dedicated “mobile staff”; 3) taxi to destination or nearest staffed station; 4) “alternative journey plan” involving changes of arrival/departure/route. The train operators use all of these to varying degrees across their networks (with the exception of Chiltern, which does not have a mobile staffing team).

Apart from a limited mobile staffing trial on GTR, none of the TOCs provide a maximum wait time, or target response time, for these alternative measures. Most of the TOCs openly discourage turn up and go travel in their advice to passengers, and recommend pre-booking to avoid long wait times. 

The following summaries include comments directly from the operators, as well as extracts from their “Accessible Travel Policies” (ATPs).


Turn up and go travel is unavailable at 24 out of 25 stations either some or all of the time – a total 96%. c2c has permanent “mobile units” providing assistance at 14 of these stations, but there is no maximum wait time. c2c’s ATP says “we ask that you book assistance two hours prior to travelling to guarantee assistance”; for unbooked passengers, it will “do [its] best to arrange for a member of staff to assist… although this may take some time.”[3]


Turn up and go travel is unavailable at 25 out of 35 stations either some or all of the time – a total 71%. Chiltern is the only TOC of the six without a mobile staffing scheme, and its ATP often refers to taxis as the first choice of alternative, although staff may be sent from hub stations. On unbooked travel, Chiltern’s ATP warns: “this can take time to arrange because staff will have to travel to you…we do not recommend this system is used if your journey is time sensitive”.[4]

Chiltern said: “Our ATP and approach to DOO and Passenger Assistance have been accepted by the ORR and we are compliant in delivering our obligation.”

Greater Anglia:

Turn up and go travel is unavailable at 43 out of 133 stations some or all of the time – a total 32%. Information on Greater Anglia’s mobile staffing is inconsistent across its ATP and NRE, and the operator told us it has a further mobile staffing trial on its West Anglia route, though this has not been advertised. Many of Greater Anglia’s National Rail Enquiries entries on DOO stations advise passengers to travel from the nearest staffed station instead, suggesting that taxis are used as an alternative to staff at many locations.[5]

Greater Anglia said:  “We will do everything we can to help passengers with their onward journey, but it will take longer for assistance to be organised and arrive at an unstaffed station if this is not pre-booked.”

Great Western Railway (GWR):

Turn up and go travel is unavailable at 32 out of 194 stations some or all of the time – a total 16%. GWR told us that it has a permanent mobile assistance team covering all its DOO: stations; however, this focuses on the more accessible stations and does not operate full time, only 07:00 to 22:00 Monday to Saturday and 09:00 to 20:00 on Sundays. There is no maximum wait time for this assistance, which GWR says “would vary dependent on the station requiring assistance; location of the mobile assistance staff member/s; and the time of day/demand for other mobile assistance requests.”[6]

Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR):

Turn up and go travel is unavailable at 105 out of 235 stations some or all of the time – a total 45%. GTR currently has mobile staff covering 27 of these stations, with a suggested response time of 20 minutes. At stations without this service, staff would be sent from another station, or a taxi provided – with no maximum wait time. 

GTR disputes our data, claiming that the information on National Rail Enquiries is not up-to-date for some of their stations. However, it has not given us its alternative figures. [7]


Turn up and go travel is unavailable at 63 out of 164 stations some or all of the time – a total 38%. Southeastern has a permanent mobile assistance team based at key locations and has informed us that these staff can travel to any station on the network. However, there is no maximum wait time for this service and its ATP advises passengers to book in advance: “there will likely be a delay for unbooked assists as we need time to arrange staff to attend.”[8] 

Southeastern said: “We do not have a maximum wait time, but we will take this feedback on board and update our Accessible Travel Policy accordingly.”

Why the EHRC must intervene

Under section 20 of the Equality Act 2010, train operators are required to make “reasonable adjustments” for the equal provision of rail travel. This means they would be judged in court by whether a “provision, criterion or practice” puts disabled people at a “substantial disadvantage”. Other parts of the Equality Act relating to disability discrimination would also apply, but the “reasonable adjustments” duty is anticipatory, meaning it is judged on a systematic basis.

For this reason, our evidence provides a systematic approach to assessing these practices, showing exactly where the combination of DOO and unstaffed stations is in place across all six train operators. Our summary of the mitigations used shows that, years after warnings from accessibility experts, train operators and the rail regulator have failed to establish any consistent or lawful mitigations for these discriminatory staffing policies.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission now has no choice but to investigate, and apply its full legal weight to breaches of equality law by train operators.


[1] Our data shows that 292 out of Britain’s 2570 stations have the combination of DOO and unstaffed stations some or all of the time – a total 11.4%. The project design is based on 2020 research conducted by DPTAC, the government’s advisors on transport accessibility.

Scotrail is also using this combination in the Greater Glasgow area, where some trains run under an “exceptional circumstances” agreement, meaning that staff are rostered, but not guaranteed, to be on board. Our study is based on rostered staff only, so Scotrail was excluded for reasons of data consistency. Scotrail refused to give us the percentage of their trains running without staff, commenting: “All ScotRail trains are scheduled with a second member of staff on board in order to provide assistance and customer service, though this has been impacted by recent industrial action.” For more information on Scotrail’s DOO routes, click here. *Scotrail is also the only operator in Britain to require advance booking for users of mobility scooters.

[2]  In mid-August, we dispatched a letter to the EHRC demanding “urgent legal and policy interventions” in rail staffing discrimination. It has not yet responded.

  • September: we sent further evidence to the EHRC, proving that GTR “has been in breach of its legal requirements since 2010”. An RMT union letter  also demanded EHRC intervention.
  • October: a government advisor on transport accessibility resigned in protest at rail staffing discrimination, forwarding his complaint to the Chair of the EHRC.
  • November: A group of 39 cross-party MPs signed a letter calling for the EHRC to act.

[3] For c2c’s Accessible Travel Policy, click here. Please note, the information on staffing hours is out of date and inconsistent with National Rail Enquiries.

[4] For Chiltern’s Accessible Travel Policy, click here.

[5] For Greater Anglia’s Accessible Travel Policy, click here. See their DOO station entries on National Rail Enquiries for examples of the advice given to passengers, for example at Hatfield Peverel station: “Assistance at this station is provided by a staff member during ticket office opening hours. Outside of this time customers are advised to use Chelmsford station which is approximately 8 miles away. An appropriate accessible taxi will be supplied for journeys to intermediate unstaffed stations. Booking is recommended.”

[6] For GWR’s Accessible Travel Policy, click here.

[7] For GTR’s Accessible Travel Policy, click here. Other sources used to compile this information include: National Rail Enquiries station pages, ORR’s estimates of station usage, ORR’s ATP Guidance, Real Time Trains, and the operator’s own website and marketing materials. [All sources were accessed on 14th November, 2022.]

[8] For Southeastern’s Accessible Travel Policy, click here.

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EXCLUSIVE: Govia Thameslink Railway admits it is in breach of equality law due to insufficient rail staffing

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.[1] 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.[2]

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).[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

Mobile support teams at 41 additional stations - The introduction of a mobile support team at 41 Great Northern, Southern and Thameslink unstaffed /partially-staffed accessible stations to provide assistance on request (20-minute response time). This will launch as a trial once passenger numbers recover to 50% of pre-covid. o Note, by implication these 41 stations are currently not accessible – this change has been driven in part by the ORR rejecting the previous approach of providing alternative accessible transport; we have been in breach of our legal requirements since 2010.
From GTR’s accessibility marketing plan, Feb 2021 – Dec 2022

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.’[8]

Notes to editor

[1] 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 / considerationMitigation / 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 agendaBe 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 planNew 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 newsReactive 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Letter from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) approving GTR’s Accessible Travel Policy, December 2020.

[4] Mobile assistance at 10 of the planned 41 stations is in place so far.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s submission to the Office of Rail and Road’s Accessible Travel Policy consultation, March 2019.


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Disability rights activists demand EHRC intervention into “escalating human rights crisis on Britain’s railways”

In a letter dispatched today to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), disability rights activists and human rights experts have called for its “urgent legal and policy interventions” into the UK government’s secret plans for railway destaffing.[i] Their demand has been co-signed by Prof. Philip Alston, international human rights lawyer and former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights [ii], and Ann Bates OBE, access expert and former UK government advisor on transport accessibility.

All signatories to the letter are known for their bold opposition to railway destaffing, including: Andrew Hodgson, President of the National Federation of the Blind of the UK; Jan Shortt, General Secretary of the National Pensioners Convention; Paula Peters, on behalf of the Disabled People Against Cuts Steering Group; and Emily Yates, researcher and co-founder of the Association of British Commuters. They are joined by high-profile disability rights activists: Alan Benson MBE, Sarah Gayton, Anthony Jennings, Sam Jennings, Sarah Leadbetter and Doug Paulley.

Responding to widespread allegations of mass ticket office closures, and the government’s reported £2 billion yearly cuts to railway spending, the activists say: “this could be our last chance to prevent an escalating human rights crisis on Britain’s railways”. They have demanded “full transparency from the government about any new staffing models under consideration”; a robust staffing model to provide guaranteed ‘turn up and go’ assistance; and a public consultation on staffing and accessibility, insisting that “the upcoming Transport Bill should not go ahead until this consultation has been completed.” The activists want the EHRC to ask for support from the United Nations (UN), and establish a joint approach to protect the “fundamental right to spontaneous travel” of disabled people and other protected groups. [iii]

Notes to editor

[i] The letter resumes a campaign pioneered by Ann Bates OBE, access consultant and former Rail Chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) ; and Emily Yates, independent researcher and co-founder of the Association of British Commuters; who secured an EHRC intervention into railway destaffing in 2019. The EHRC set up a transport discrimination legal fund in September 2019, but closed it early due to a lack of applications during the lockdown. During its nine months of operation, it assisted with 26 matters at a total spend of £48,870.

[ii] Philip Alston is Professor of Law at NYU Law School and Faculty Director and Co-Chair of NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. He was formerly UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2014 – 2020). In July 2021, Philip Alston published ‘Public Transport, Private Profit’, concluding that the UK government could be in breach of three international human rights conventions in relation to cuts to bus services. He called for the public control of buses, the implementation of the socioeconomic duty of the Equality Act, and a statutory right to transport.

[iii] The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is running a call for input for his report to the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, closing on 14 Oct 2022. The theme is “the design and delivery of services that underpin the right of disabled people to live independently and be included in the community.”  

Download the full press release here.

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The Great British Rip-Off: Why the Williams-Shapps Plan will fail to deliver

Despite four years work on the Williams-Shapps Plan, the government has failed to come up with any credible answers for the complete market failure of the railway.

Its promise that Great British Railways (GBR) will be an integrated guiding mind “maximising social and economic value in the public interest” is fundamentally unachievable while privatisation remains in place.

Grant Shapps knows this. That’s why he’s deciding the future of essential passenger services such as fares, ticketing, staffing and station management in backroom talks with private train companies; exempting these areas from consultation. Meanwhile, the Williams-Shapps Plan offers a set of incoherent legislative proposals, which fail to clarify which essential services will be run by GBR; and which will remain in the hands of train companies.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation is clear about just one thing – the reasons for market failure. In the government’s own terms, this has been caused by: 1. Moral Hazard – where profit motivations conflict with the public interest, also known as “perverse incentives”; and 2. Information Failure – where inferior decisions are made due to fragmentation and lack of accountability.

However, both of these problems are certain to remain. Here’s why the Williams-Shapps Plan will fail to deliver:

1. Competition law prevents integration

While rail privatisation remains, the restrictions of competition law will permanently prevent the integration of cross-industry functions such as timetabling, ticketing and passenger data. Competition law also requires a ‘level playing field’, meaning that decisions must not cause an adverse financial impact to private train companies.

The Williams-Shapps plan has failed to find a solution for ‘track access’, the process by which train companies negotiate their use of the timetable. The government has suggested a slightly heavier weighting on public interest factors when timetabling, but this suggestion is likely to be impossible under competition law. Integration will be impossible, with timetabling dominated by private interests, thus minimising the influence of devolved and regional governments.

As the ORR has emphasised in its new consultation response, the government’s proposals actually unleash even more competition concerns, likely to conflict with multiple existing regulations. It even suggests that GBR might have to be split into two distinct parts – to avoid the possibility of breaching competition law by collaborating across retail and operations within itself.

2. Incoherent legislation will prevent reform

Given the undisputable fact that privatisation leads to market failure, the government wants to amend the Railways Act 1993 to make it easier for ‘direct awards’ to publicly-owned operators when private companies fail. However, it wants publicly-owned operators to remain banned from actually competing for contracts because the better value they provide is seen as an ‘unfair advantage’ over private train companies.

The government also wants to retain EU Regulation 1370/2007; making it easier to navigate issues around state aid. These changes are welcome and could greatly increase the ability of local and national governments to directly award contracts to publicly owned companies. However, this approach is logically in conflict with the Bus Services Act 2017, which bans municipal ownership and severely limits the powers of local authorities to regulate their buses. Unless these changes are taken together holistically, it will be impossible to achieve integrated, multi-modal travel across bus and rail.

Finally, the government wants to sign up to the Luxembourg Rail Protocol; a way of liberalising and globalising the Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs), making it easier for the big banks to get involved. However, the leasing of trains under the ROSCO system is already one of the most dysfunctional areas of the railway; as well as the biggest site of profit leakage.

3. Accessibility proposals will fail to deliver

According to the submission made by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), the government’s proposals will be “insufficient to achieve real cultural change.” The government had previously ignored DPTAC’s recommendation for a £6 billion investment for full station accessibility by 2060, offering just a ‘nationwide station audit’ instead.

Last week, we published a confidential DPTAC report that suggests investment in station accessibility is being jeopardised by the “perverse incentives” of train operators. It is important to note that publicly-owned operators such as LNER are directly subject to the public sector equality duty, whereas private operators are not.

One positive suggestion in the Williams-Shapps plan is to expand the role of DPTAC, which has proved itself to be a competent and independent advisor to the government; never failing to oppose “toxic” and “illegal” policies of railway destaffing. However, there is now an urgent need to ensure DPTAC is sufficiently resourced to guarantee its independence, and has clear guidelines around its publishing and transparency policies. This is the only way to avoid the potential for political interference – especially in relation to the controversy around railway destaffing.

4. Passenger representation – a new role for Transport Focus

The Williams-Shapps Plan suggests that all passenger representation should be conducted by Transport Focus, part of a planned expansion of the organisation. Though it is an excellent research organisation, Transport Focus does not have the independence or credibility required to perform the function of a “passenger champion”; especially as relates to its new role representing disabled passengers. The inflation of Transport Focus to perform all of these vital roles appears to be a quick and cheap way to tick the ‘passenger rights’ boxes without any real consideration of what it would take to gain passengers’ trust and actual representation within the railway.

We Own It and Bring Back British Rail have published an excellent guide to the consultation, which calls for a ‘passenger board’ including representatives from every region of the country, as well as rail workers. Such a model is common in Europe and would greatly increase passenger involvement and trust.

How to respond to the consultation

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation closes at midnight tonight, and we urgently need your help. The online response form is complicated, but the information in this blog, plus this excellent guide from We Own It, should help you to demand public ownership with just 15 minutes of your time.

Despite four years work on ‘reinventing the wheel’ of railway privatisation, the government has: 1. Failed to consider public ownership and 2. Failed to provide any proper economic analysis or predictions in support of its plans.

It’s vital to demand that legislative changes work holistically, creating the conditions necessary to “maximise social and economic value” – only possible under public ownership. However, legislative changes alone will not be enough. We’re also demanding a new ‘public sector value test’ to enshrine the benefits of: economic and social value, levelling-up, equality, decarbonisation and modal shift as determining factors in all government contracting decisions. These aims should never be compromised by competition law, especially the duty to avoid ‘financial impact’ on operators.

Any private train companies continuing to operate on the British railway must at minimum be treated as public sector bodies, and made subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the public sector equality duty – as the publicly-owned operators are already.

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Rail Workforce Reform Case Study’ proves economic value of railway staffing

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 recommendations:

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: contact@abcommuters.com

The Great British Cover-Up: What Grant Shapps is hiding about the future of the railways

While everyone’s talking about the Tory leadership contest and RMT industrial action, we’re about to lose our last chance to save Britain’s railway from its most dangerous privatisation project yet.

A government consultation on the new public body Great British Railways– including major changes to legislation – is about to be rushed through without any public awareness. It’s a key part of the government’s secret plan to cut billions in public spending, including a massive destaffing project allegedly involving the closure of every ticket office in England.

Today, we’ve demanded that Grant Shapps extends the 4th August deadline and starts publicly promoting the consultation – in a joint letter with campaign group Bring Back British Rail. The consultation is far too short for a holiday period and has been completely hidden from view by the “National Headquarters Competition for GBR”. If he refuses, the Williams-Shapps Plan will lose even more credibility with the public.

However, this is only the first of the weaknesses in the consultation. The private rail industry has been in backroom talks with the government for months; making vital decisions on all the most important areas affecting passengers.  Most of these areas – such as timetabling, fares, and accessibility – have been exempted from the consultation (2.14) and are being negotiated as part of a market engagement process with train companies. They are now set to be decided without any public input whatsoever.

Screenshot of a Sunday Times headline: Secret plan to close all railway ticket offices as strikes grip Britain
This Sunday Times article was deleted after it went viral. View the archived version here.

Great British Railways and the public-private power struggle:

Beginning in 2018, the purpose of the Williams-Shapps review was to fix the fragmentation that caused the nationwide timetable collapse of that year. The process has concluded that the railway experienced complete market failure; caused by the perverse incentives of private companies within the system.

Consequently, the main commitment of the 2021 Williams-Shapps White Paper was to bring all “critical cross-industry functions” under a new public body, Great British Railways, including: timetable planning, fares and ticketing, open data, and station management. This commitment requires the removal of the operational role of the Rail Delivery Group, which currently controls the National Rail Enquiries ticketing system and many other cross-industry functions – as well as acting as a powerful trade association for private companies.

In October 2021, a secret market engagement process began, to decide the details of the new style of GBR contract – Passenger Service Contracts (PSCs). The Rail Delivery Group simultaneously published their own report on behalf of the private train companies; demanding that GBR should be scaled down to set only “base level requirements” and that train operators should retain most of their critical cross-industry functions, including: “active or leading roles in all three phases of the timetable specification;” key roles in marketing and ticket retailing; maximum autonomy over fare pricing; and the commercial and operational management of stations.

Essential passenger services are now under greater threat than ever, and all the details of these policies have been hidden from public view.

  1. Fare Reform

There has been no proper consultation on rail fare reform for Great British Railways. A major ‘Pay As You Go’ smart-ticketing consultation was held in 2019, but this never reported to the public. Nor was there any consultation behind Great British Railway’s first policy rollout – ‘flexi-tickets’, launched in June 2021. The Department for Transport even ignored their own focus group research, which shows a strongly adverse reaction to the flexi policy they eventually chose – giving just a 5% discount on the price of a daily ticket.

A ‘formal one-year review’ of the flexi-ticket scheme is currently underway, but this is being hidden from the public due to train companies’ demands for commercial confidentiality. For the same reason, the Rail Delivery Group refuses to release any flexi-ticket sales data, despite the scheme being a government policy and fully funded by the taxpayer.

Most shockingly of all, the Rail Delivery Group has been put in charge of implementing a whole new smart ticketing system on behalf of Great British Railways.

2. Accessibility

Disabled people’s equal right to travel has been under threat for years, due to a compromised relationship between government and industry in which they have secretly developed long-term destaffing programs – previously revealed by whistleblowers on this website. The plan to close every ticket office in England is the latest example of this cover-up.

The Williams-Shapps Plan’s proposals for accessibility have never been consulted on, and essential advice from the government’s accessibility advisors has been ignored. The National Disability Strategy was recently declared unlawful by the high court for its failure to properly consult, and it seems that many of the same weaknesses are now being repeated in the Williams-Shapps consultation.

3. Workers’ rights

Currently, Grant Shapps refuses to step in on the strikes, and the blame for the industrial relations crisis has landed on the government. But this does not mean that the private rail industry is any more sympathetic. As reported in The Times, the industry is pushing for ‘minimum service levels’ legislation; which would virtually end the effectiveness of industrial action and trade union negotiating power.

In its lobbying on Passenger Services Contracts, the Rail Delivery Group has said that the industry wants more control over stations, and the development of automation technologies.  One of their central demands is for the new contracts to directly incentivise them to cut costs – which will ensure permanent conflict in industrial relations, with the government continuing to negotiate by proxy.

What happens next?

We are still only scratching the surface of the ‘Great British Cover-Up’ and the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation. The Department for Transport has refused to comment.

It’s vital that we get Grant Shapps to agree to an extension within the next few days, so that passengers, campaigners and trade unions can prepare their responses. Please join us by writing to him at shappsg@parliament.uk

The private rail industry’s ‘perverse incentives’ have stood in the way of passengers’ rights for much too long. We are now gathering evidence of the industry’s many conflicts of interest, to show that this is the true cause of the crisis in passenger trust – as well as the failure to modernise.

For more information, or to share your comments: contact@abcommuters.com

[This page was updated on 03/08/2022 to better reflect changes to the consultation principles in 2018]

EXCLUSIVE: Competition law prevents National Bus Strategy objectives

New documents reveal that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has warned councils about the legal risks of ‘Enhanced Partnerships’. With no guidance from the Department for Transport on how to proceed, all English local authorities are now at risk of legal action from bus companies if they get it wrong.

Following an FOI request to Reading Borough Council, we can exclusively reveal the details of the Competition and Markets Authority’s objections to Enhanced Partnership (EP) plans for bus services. Email correspondence from March – April 2022 includes the CMA’s general feedback, as well as their specific concerns about Reading’s EP.

The concerns were first raised publicly at a Transport Select Committee hearing in May 2022, when the Deputy Leader of Reading Borough Council, Councillor Tony Page, revealed that: “The CMA is already indicating that it does not like, and will not support, some of the ticketing and fares initiatives that are a fundamental part of the EP, and which the DFT supports…. It is a serious issue, and one that our officers are flagging up. It could be a curve-ball that has not been anticipated. The DFT should have anticipated it because it has been a long-standing concern.” He warned that Reading Borough Council would require further legal advice “that could be a delaying element and could be highly costly”, calling for the DfT to “get the CMA properly aligned and give us proper guidance.”

The CMA informed us that, as an enforcer of competition law, it is able to consult upon, but unable to approve EPs. All local authorities will therefore proceed at their own risk, and are advised to get independent legal advice. The CMA may still open an investigation into any EPs thought to be in breach, as is its duty under the Transport Act 2000 and Schedule 10 of the Competition Test.

The Department for Transport did not comment on whether it plans to issue guidance on the competition concerns, nor whether it still intends to enforce the requirement for all English local authorities to sign up to an EP.

The CMA’s competition concerns:

Fare simplification

In their EP Plan, Reading Borough Council originally intended to introduce simple ‘short hop’ fares, like those available in London. Following consultation with the CMA they dropped the idea from their bus services plan, stating that “It is clear that changing single fares is not allowed.” With the CMA expressing “caution over an intention to set a single price that operators must adhere to given the potential impacts on competition“, it appears that fare simplification and consistency will not be achievable under the EP model.

Multi-operator ticketing

In a list of overall feedback points about EPs, the CMA warned: “The removal of single operator tickets will have a potentially significant impact on the incentives of operators to compete against each other. We encourage careful consultation with operators, so that operators who are uncertain about the legal risks of offering multi-operator tickets are not excluded. We would recommend seeking legal advice to ensure that any scheme is compliant with competition law as the CMA as the UK’s lead competition enforcement agency cannot provide this.”

Governance and service standards

Under EPs, council plans for bus services can only be implemented with 80% of bus operator support; known as the ‘operator objection mechanism’. The CMA makes further recommendations about this governance arrangement, suggesting better representation for smaller operators, and for larger operators’ representation to be ‘defined by contestable criteria (eg total mileage) rather than fixed, named operators.’

Councils must also be careful not to impose too many new requirements at once. The CMA recommends the use of ‘appropriate transition periods’ and suggests that ‘non-prescriptive/outcome based objectives may give greater flexibility to operators to deliver…objectives.’

Passenger compensation schemes

If you have plans for introducing refund guarantees on certain routes, again we would encourage careful consultation with operators, so new schemes do not create the unintended consequence of providers not wanting to service routes or enter the market.”

Network identity

“Where an authority wishes to require buses to adopt a standard livery or branding scheme we would recommend that operator brands should be clearly visible, particularly where operators are competing on overlapping routes. Care should be given to the impact on operators of cross-border routes.”

Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT)

‘Some EPs include proposals for encouraging flexible business models, like Demand Responsive Transport, though the level of thinking and evidence base that has gone into those business models across the EP plans varies. We would encourage you to explore existing trials of these models and learn from best practice in other authorities, where it exists.’

Competition restrictions on Reading Buses

As one of the UK’s few municipally-owned bus companies, Reading Buses can bring back around £3 million, or 12-15% of its annual turnover, per year to be reinvested into the bus network. Because Reading Buses serves more than 80% of the market, Reading Borough Council’s EP plan could not be blocked by the ‘operator objection mechanism’ and went through relatively quickly compared to other local authorities.

However, private bus operators Arriva and Go-Ahead still objected to the plans. According to Reading Borough Council: “Concerns were expressed by Arriva and Go Ahead to aspects of the EP and whilst we did attempt to reassure then that there was and is an arms length relationship with Reading Buses, they did officially object to the EP formation.

The CMA advised: “We note the council owned operator, and considerable market share, of Reading Buses – any decisions taken by the council should be taken at appropriate distance from the operator and the council should adhere to the principle of competitive neutrality (public sector trading operations should not enjoy a commercial advantage solely because of their ownership by or association with government).”

The demand for ‘competitive neutrality’ means that the full potential and economic value of Reading Buses cannot be realised while the deregulated market environment remains in place.

The urgent need for public control and ownership

In September 2021, we predicted that competition issues would turn out to be one of the main reasons that Enhanced Partnerships would fail to deliver on National Bus Strategy objectives, and waste taxpayers’ money:

“The primary condition of funding is for councils to commit to ambitious public investments – especially an increase in bus priority – while bus companies are encouraged to form a ‘collective joint position’ and a ‘shopping list’ of demands from the earliest possible stage. Invitations for ‘reciprocal investment’ are to be ‘heavily weighted’ towards what local authorities can provide, to allow for the commercial uncertainty felt by bus operators as they emerge from the pandemic. Only minor improvements are expected from bus operators in return, as competition law prevents councils from imposing anything but ‘indispensable’ restrictions on the deregulated market. The ability for councils to cross-subsidise services, set prices or generally lower fares will also be banned by law.”

The new information from the CMA confirms our prediction, and highlights the urgent need for councils to gain more powers to implement public control and ownership. This can only be achieved by: 1) ending the requirement for councils to form EPs; and 2) amending the Bus Services Act 2017.

In the National Bus Strategy, the government recognised the “strongly performing examples” of public ownership and promised to review the ban on councils setting up their own municipal bus companies. However, they are currently requiring all local authorities to sign up to Enhanced Partnerships, which will entangle them in the deregulated market for years to come.

To support the campaign against the public ownership ban, please sign We Own It’s petition: ‘End the ban on public ownership now.’

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

New campaign demands transparency from Department for Transport’s accessibility advisors

Today, we reveal years of transparency failures at the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), statutory advisors on accessibility to the Department for Transport. Our evidence proves that many vital consultation responses remain unpublished; as well as formal letters warning about the illegality of unstaffed stations and driver-only operation.

In response, DPTAC has agreed that it needs to review its approach to transparency ‘as a matter of priority’ and is now working on its first ever ‘clear publishing policy.’ If they keep this promise, we can expect many controversial documents to shortly be released into the public domain. These are sure to become vital campaigning tools for disabled people and organisations across all forms of transport.

This report aims to ensure DPTAC’s publishing policy goes forward; and that their work is protected from political interference by the Department for Transport.

DPTAC reference frame: working towards a fully accessible railway

In April 2022, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the late publication of a vital DPTAC report in February prevented disabled people and campaigners being able to use it for major government consultations such as the National Disability Strategy. The ‘DPTAC reference frame’ report includes a damning critique of railway structure and culture, calling for a ‘whole system’ approach that makes accessibility a ‘fundamental’ part of the railway. It also proposes new regulations and more than £6 billion investment to set a timeline for full station accessibility by 2060.

We can now reveal that DPTAC gave inaccurate information about the origin of the ‘reference frame’ report, dating it November 2020 in both their response to DNS and the official publication on their website. The report is actually DPTAC’s May 2019 submission to the Williams Rail Review, meaning that its official publication comes almost three years late.

DPTAC’s submission to the Williams Rail Review, May 2019

The ‘DPTAC reference frame’ report was formally submitted to the Williams Review, the DfT and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in May 2019. It was first published on this website in July 2019 as part of a batch of documents received through an FOI request to DPTAC.  Following its public endorsement from the ORR, who recommended that DPTAC be put in charge of ‘developing criteria to support a whole-system approach to accessibility’, we published a dedicated blog post on the report in September 2019; explaining that it had just become ‘the most important document on accessibility in the entire Williams Review.’

The ‘reference frame’ report has since had a significant presence in the ‘Great British Railways’ project, with some of its lower-cost proposals already being taken forward. In March 2022, it was revealed in a Transport Select Committee hearing that DPTAC is now playing a key role in the new ‘National Rail Accessibility Strategy’ and a nationwide station audit – one of the report’s urgent recommendations.

Despite the obvious significance of the report’s origin, it has been published on the gov.uk website with the date of November 2020. This version of the ‘DPTAC reference frame report’ is exactly the same as their May 2019 Williams Review submission; edited for timeline purposes alone.

The Chair of DPTAC, Keith Richards, commented: “Whenever we have revisited the rail paper with the view to using it in subsequent meetings and discussions internally with DfT (often with new teams of officials) we have reviewed it and changed the date as necessary (whether there were any substantive changes to the text or not) simply to show that it reflected our current thinking (despite the passing of time since the original drafting in May 2019).”

In regard to the inaccurate claim that the report had been released to us under FOI in November 2020, Keith Richards said: “when corresponding with DNS and yourself recently I had forgotten that your earlier FOI had resulted in the release of the paper back in July 2019. That’s my mistake and was certainly not from any attempt to mislead anyone.

He did not respond on whether DPTAC would be changing the date of November 2020 on their official publication.

Railway staffing and driver-only operation

DPTAC’s transparency problem goes back much further, regarding one of the most controversial issues in the history of the railway: driver-only operation (DOO). Their May 2019 ‘reference frame report’ was dispatched to the DfT as an attachment to a formal warning letter about the illegality of DOO and unstaffed stations. Following the letter, DPTAC met with ministers to urge them to seek legal advice and adopt an ‘explicit policy’ on DOO; guaranteeing that a guard or member of station staff would be available at all times to provide unbooked assistance.

The letter to ministers followed years of warnings going back to April 2016, when DPTAC wrote to the DfT’s Peter Wilkinson, the DfT civil servant widely believed to be the architect of the industrial dispute over DOO. They warned: ‘The toxic combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations fails to deliver a service that meets the needs of many disabled passengers. As a result DPTAC is seeking a guarantee that such policies cannot undermine the fundamental principle of accessibility – which would in any event be illegal.’

The letter to Peter Wilkinson was first revealed on this website in July 2018, but, six years after writing, it has still not been officially published by DPTAC. We now host the only publicly-available archive of these documents.

The Chair of DPTAC, Keith Richards, responded: “…the need for DPTAC to have a new publishing policy is clear. There are a number of reasons why we do not and cannot publish everything we may draft for our own internal use and which we use as tools to inform early-stage policy thinking within the DfT,  but I suspect that we have sometimes taken an overly cautious approach and that may not be helpful to our external stakeholders who would value and potentially benefit from knowing what advice DPTAC is providing on key transport accessibility issues across all modes of transport and the built environment.  

So, you are absolutely right that we need to review our approach to publication and I have put that in place already and as a matter of priority I will be working on a clear policy with the members of DPTAC who chair our working groups. Going forward, DPTAC will live up to our responsibility to proactively ensure transparency. This will avoid placing an unfair burden on our stakeholders to seek information through the FOI process, which has regrettably been the case at times in recent years.”

Political pressure from the Department for Transport?

Though we welcome DPTAC’s commitment to creating a ‘clear publishing policy’, there may still be an obstacle in their path. Our evidence suggests that DPTAC has been subject to political pressure from the DfT, and that the DfT may have interfered in their publishing decisions.

In July 2019, we published a viral blog post about DPTAC’s letter to ministers, exposing the existence of ‘wholly inadequate‘ guidance on DOO, developed by the Rail Delivery Group. An email from the DfT to DPTAC in August 2019 suggests they ran significant crisis management on the story: ‘Activity around the Association of British Commuters FOI has unfortunately taken up the resource and time we had set aside to make progress on [getting legal advice on DOO] over the summer.’

Meeting minutes from September 2019 show that three members of DPTAC were then required to sign non-disclosure agreements in regard to their engagement with the Williams Review; restricting what they could share with the rest of the Committee from that point onward.

In an October 2019 discussion about whether to adopt a social media strategy, one member commented ‘DPTAC are monitored by DfT’s Press Office in terms of what can be communicated and when’, and another member suggested ‘DPTAC can work with DfT to plan the material and timing of publications.’ The Chair noted that ‘DPTAC’s social media presence is an early step to explore a soft approach to DPTAC’s outward facing profile, which aims to build trust in DfT’s Press Office.’  To date, DPTAC has not launched the social media strategy.

The Department for Transport commented: ‘A small secretariat in DfT provides administrative support to DPTAC and its members, all of whom work part-time. This includes administrative support in relation to publication of DPTAC documents which are hosted on gov.uk and ensuring documents for publication meet broader gov.uk accessibility standards. As an independent expert committee advising the Secretary of State for Transport, DPTAC are independent of Government and make their own decisions about which documents to publish.’

The Department for Transport did not comment on why it had required members of DPTAC to sign non-disclosure agreements for their work with the Williams Review, the rail reform program still underway under the banner of ‘Great British Railways’.

The urgent need for transparency at DPTAC

Our evidence suggests that DPTAC has failed to fulfil its obligations under Section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires public authorities to proactively publish documents and ensure the prompt availability of newly-created information. Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) requires DPTAC to adopt a ‘model publication scheme’, making their reports, policy positions and meeting minutes ‘routinely available’ to the public.

DPTAC must adopt the ICO’s guidance as part of a clear publishing policy that provides transparency to disabled people and the general public. It is vital that the new policy is protected from political interference and ensures DPTAC’s autonomy going forward – as required by their status as an independent statutory body under the 1985 Transport Act.

Upcoming DPTAC publications

We now anticipate the publication of multiple DPTAC consultation responses, including their submission to the Pay As You Go rail consultation (2019), the Future of transport regulatory review (2020), the Law Commission’s consultation on autonomous vehicles (2021) and the National Disability Strategy (2021). There may also be DPTAC research reports available on the Disabled Persons Railcard and the Passenger Assist app.

We have challenged DPTAC to ensure that accuracy is a key part of their new approach, by changing the publication date of their ‘reference frame’ report to May 2019, and including the context that it was in fact DPTAC’s formal submission to the Williams Rail Review. This will be a vital sign of their approach to transparency going forward, and intention to accurately represent the historical record.

Currently, our website hosts the only publicly available archive of DPTAC’s objections to driver-only operation. We demand the official publication of these documents as well as an up-to-date ‘DPTAC position statement’ explaining their concerns about DOO and railway staffing.

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

[This article was edited on 06.05.2022. to better characterise the fact that the Williams Review rail reform program now continues under the banner of ‘Great British Railways.’]