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Urgent request for EHRC intervention: Rail network staffing

The NPC has written a joint letter to the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission about railway destaffing.

Download the letter to the EHRC or read it below

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Dear Lady Falkner,

Urgent request for EHRC intervention: Rail network staffing

Rail accessibility is in a state of national emergency and we call for your urgent intervention. With widespread allegations of mass ticket office closures and nationwide industrial action over railway destaffing, this could be our last chance to prevent an escalating human rights crisis on Britain’s railways.

It’s been three years since the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last came to the aid of disabled passengers; giving an official warning to train operators about railway destaffing, and establishing, in September 2019, a legal fund for transport discrimination.[1] The EHRC has also made one of the strongest legal arguments so far for the “fundamental right to spontaneous travel”; asserting that train operator reliance on the pre-booking of travel is likely to be in breach of the Equality Act 2010 as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[2]

However, the government has ignored the EHRC’s warnings, with evidence that station staffing reductions both prior to and since Covid have reduced the availability of assistance, and prevented access to essential station facilities; undermining the value of billions in public investments and even jeopardising future investment in step-free station access schemes.[3] The Government also continues to let rail contracts that result in unstaffed trains running to unstaffed stations, with no means to provide boarding and alighting assistance or a platform-train ramp. A recent “Rail Workforce Reform Case Study” released via freedom of information request by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) shows that disabled people are still being systematically excluded from parts of our national Rail Network, and by extension from access to public services and participation in society. This DPTAC report is only one of many released under FOI which demonstrates the serious concerns of the Government’s own statutory advisors on disability and transport, regarding the lack of an inclusive staffing model, and the “toxic combination of driver-only trains and unstaffed stations.”[4]

The urgent need for EHRC intervention

Disabled people’s right to independent living is now under greater threat than ever, due to planned government cuts to railway staffing, a key driver of the industrial dispute ongoing across the country. At the beginning of COVID, the government took over almost all cost and revenue risk for the railway; leading to train operators’ reclassification as ‘public non-financial corporations’ by the Office for National Statistics.[5] The majority are now under National Rail Contracts, which spell out in detail the staffing resources available to train operators and how they should be allocated.[6]

There can be no doubt whatsoever that railway staffing is a matter of government policy, and not delegated to train operators. Yet, there has been no visibility of the decisions behind the apparent instructions to reduce staffing that the Secretary of State has given to train operators. A new Transport Bill is imminent, but all essential passenger services were exempted from the recent Williams-Shapps consultation on the legislative changes required to create Great British Railways.[7] ‘Critical cross-industry functions’ such as timetabling, ticket retail, fares, and the commercial and operational management of stations are instead being decided as part of a ‘market engagement’ exercise with private train-operating companies, ongoing since October 2021.[8] These fundamentals of the rail network are intrinsically linked to staffing policy, and of critical importance to accessibility.

Concerns among disabled travellers are greater than ever, and we urgently require the EHRC’s legal and policy interventions. Last month, it was alleged in the Sunday Times that 980 ticket offices in England would be closed or ‘repurposed’ as part of the government’s reported £2 billion yearly cuts to railway spending.[ix] In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the further destaffing of trains and stations is sure to follow; increasing the impact of the existing discriminatory staffing policies on Britain’s railway.

Our requests for EHRC action:

• The EHRC must demand that the government provides full transparency about any new staffing models under consideration, including equality impact assessments for all alternatives. They must then ensure that the government decides on a robust staffing model, guaranteeing ‘turn up and go’ unbooked assistance for all disabled people at all locations on the network.[10]

• The EHRC must demand that the government undertakes a full public consultation on ‘critical cross-industry functions’ such as timetabling, ticket retail, fares, and the commercial and operational management of stations, including how an inclusive staffing model will support these functions. The upcoming Transport Bill should not go ahead until this consultation has been completed.

• The EHRC should urgently consult on: “the design and delivery of services that underpin the right of disabled people to live independently and be included in the community.” The UN is running a call for input on this topic until 14 October 2022, offering the perfect opportunity for EHRC to feed in directly.[11]

• The EHRC should work proactively with the UN to encourage a permanent, joint approach to disabled people’s fundamental right to public transport; as the vital means to all other services, and to support the full economic and social participation of all protected groups. This must urgently attend to the national crisis in rail accessibility caused by the lack of an inclusive rail staffing model.

Without an adequate staffing model focussed on supporting independent access to jobs, leisure, health and general economic participation, disabled people will be excluded from our national post-Covid recovery.

We look forward to your urgent legal and policy interventions,

Professor Philip Alston, human rights lawyer and former UN Rapporteur for poverty

Ann Bates OBE, transport access consultant and former UK government advisor on

transport accessibility

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

Emily Yates, researcher and co-founder of the Association of British Commuters

Disability rights activists: Alan Benson MBE, Sarah Gayton, Anthony Jennings, Sam

Jennings, Sarah Leadbetter, Doug Paulley

[1] EHRC’s transport discrimination legal fund launched in September 2019. It closed in May 2020 due to a lack of new applications during lockdown. During its nine months of operation, it assisted with 26 matters at a total spend of £48,870.

[2] EHRC’s response to the ORR’s Assisted Travel Consultation, March 2019

[3] Research by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) in Spring 2020 showed that the number of unstaffed trains running through unstaffed stations increased from 12 – 16% of stations, some or all of the time, as a result of the lockdown – also preventing access to station facilities. 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.

[4] The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) is the Department for Transport’s statutory advisor on accessibility. They have been warning the government about “toxic” and “illegal” destaffing policies since 2016. Received through freedom of information requests, these documents have never been officially published. The archive is only available on the ABC’s website.

[5] Train companies were reclassified by the Office for National Statistics as ‘public non-financial corporations in April 2020.

[6] For example, Greater Anglia’s National Rail Contract spells out in detail how train operators must fulfil mandated staff cuts with complete government oversight (p.40, 2.2)

[7] The Williams-Shapps consultation on the legislative changes required to create new public body, Great British Railways (GBR) was held for just eight weeks over the summer, closing on 4th August 2022. However, essential passenger services were exempted from the consultation (p. 28, 2.14). A new Transport Bill is expected as soon as this autumn.

[8] The Rail Delivery Group’s Passenger Services Contracts report was published in November 2021 in response to an ongoing DfT ‘market engagement exercise.’ It called for private train operators to retain most of their critical cross-industry functions, including: “active or leading roles in all three phases of the timetable specification;” ticket retailing; and the commercial and operational management of stations.

[9] This information was first released by the RMT union in May 2022. A Sunday Times article on the topic was deleted soon after it went viral on social media in June 2022. According to the Financial Times, there is a “£2 billion funding gap behind Britain’s rail strike.”

[10] The EHRC’s response to the Office of Rail and Road’s 2019 accessible travel consultation suggested the mandating of staffing numbers to provide guaranteed ‘turn up and go’ assistance as currently offered by Transport for London.

[11] 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.



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