Disabled access and driver only trains

Our investigation into driver only operation (DOO) dates back to April 2016, when RMT industrial action began on Southern Rail. Since that time, we have uncovered multiple documents showing DOO to be a ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’ policy, and have also worked with accessibility expert Ann Bates OBE to successfully lobby the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC has now publicly stated its objections to station destaffing and driver only operation and has even established a fund to support legal challenges.

A ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’ policy that threatens the right to equal access

The guards dispute is a dispute-by-proxy, driven by a government which has shown a wilful disregard for equal access and duty of care on the railways. In 2018, we proved this claim once and for all with our exposé of a major disabled access cover-up inside the Department for Transport. The documents we published showed that showed the DfT’s own statutory advisers (DPTAC) had been protesting DOO for several years, calling the policy ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’. They warned that the combination of unstaffed trains and unstaffed stations would be a breach of the Equality Act, and made clear that the Department for Transport was responsible for this, due to writing the requirement for DOO into franchise contracts.

In 2019, we published a further set of documents from DPTAC, which showed that the research and policy-making behind driver only operation has been conducted by a toxic mix of private train companies and civil servants all along. By May 2019, the situation inside the Department for Transport had reached breaking point, and the government’s statutory advisors were rebelling more strongly than ever before against plans for DOO. Their outrage concerned the ‘Steer report’: a piece of 2019 guidance to train companies that DPTAC called ‘wholly inadequate’ and warned ministers to approach with ‘extreme caution’. The Steer report had been signed off by train companies every step of the way, and was written by the same consultants reponsible for the original business case for DOO of 2013 (a document that is buried by the Rail Delivery Group to this day).

The Steer report on DOO and disabled access (2019)

The Steer report on DOO and disabled access is now available to view online, and clearly demonstrates that there are no possible solutions to provide equal access in the case of driver only operation and unstaffed stations. It is a major embarrassment for its authors, the government, and the rail industry, and we believe it settles the argument once and for all. When 89% of railway stations are unstaffed some or all of the time, it is clear that driver only operation will turn back the clock on disabled access rights by normalising the need for pre-booking instead of the right to spontaneous travel.

Our investigation into DOO and disabled access: 2016 – 2019

The following list is in reverse chronological order, and sets out the main publications from our three year investigation into DOO and disabled access.

1. Government forced to release Steer report on DOO and disabled access

Thanks to the decisive action of Lilian Greenwood, a copy of the 2019 Steer report ‘the effects of modes of train operation on passengers with disabilities’ was published on the Transport Select Committee’s website just before the Committee was dissolved for the general election (November 2019).

2. The fundamental right to travel: DPTAC gives us the ONLY advice we can trust on accessibility

In May 2019, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) made a powerful submission to the Williams Rail Review, condemning rail industry culture and structure for failing to treat accessibility as a fundamental right. DPTAC also proposed a plan for regulation and investment that could see the entire rail network become fully accessible by 2060.

3. Exposed AGAIN! Disabled Access cover up at the Department for Transport

In July 2019, our FOI request to DPTAC revealed a year of controversy about the Steer report on driver only operation and disabled access. The DfT’s statutory advisors put their objections on the record in the strongest possible terms, calling the report ‘wholly inadequate’ and warning ministers that they should approach its recommendations with ‘extreme caution’.

4. Exposed: Disabled Access Cover-up at the Department for Transport

In July 2018, our FOI request to DPTAC exposed years of controversy within the Department for Transport. We published dozens of documents showing that the DfT’s own statutory advisers has been protesting the roll out of driver only operation since April 2016, calling it ‘toxic’ and ‘illegal’. They advised the DfT to ‘urgently research’ this area, citing their concerns about driver only operation as well as station staffing levels.

5. The buried Rail Delivery Group report: On Track for 2020

In June 2017, we published a buried report commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group and completed two years earlier. The report includes pages of reflection on the threat posed to disabled access by the 2011 McNulty Report, argues for the need to keep conductors on trains, and anticipates that unstaffed trains running through unstaffed stations will breach the Equality Act. It has since been published on the Rail Delivery Group’s own website and the entire episode is written up in the House of Commons library (pg 19-22).

6. RSSB 2014 email correspondence reveals intention to remove guards from trains

In August 2017, we published an email from Michael Woods, Head of Operations and Management Research at the RSSB, and responsible for the 2015 report on DOO. Upon challenge from rail accessibility experts from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, he explained that “mobile teams” of revenue staff and “not one-per-train” is “the way forward.” Peter Rayner, who represented CILT’s side of the argument in these emails, went public with his objections in 2017.

7. The 2015 RSSB report: Evaluating technological solutions to support DOO

The original RSSB report that made the safety case for DOO was leaked to Private Eye in 2016 and we posted a copy on our webite shortly afterwards. Its primary finding on safety was that DOO “may increase the likelihood of an event occurring or increase the severity of its consequence”. It also admitted the likelihood of adverse effects on disabled access in terms of destaffing, creating a greater need to book ahead.

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