Railfuture champions rail passengers and campaigns for a bigger and better railway that is fit for purpose and provides a good passenger experience. A railway that is accessible to everyone is vital but British railway industry standards can be over the top adding millions to the cost of opening or enhancing stations as the ramps at Honeybourne (photo above) show, yet still fail to provide truly accessible travel. This article also looks at how accessibiilty is supported in other countries.
As a source of expert knowledge about the railway Railfuture often gets asked questions by politicians. Ian Brown, Direct of Policy, recently responded to a London councillor whose constituents, including a young mum and an older person, have complained about the large gap between train and platform (both height and width) and asked why relatively cheap solutions such as Harrington Humps have not had a mass rollout to make all our train and platforms much more accessible.
With knowledge of international rail best practice Railfuture aims to promote appropriate cost-effective solutions to improve the passenger experience across Britain’s railways. In this article he mentions the thinking behind providing an accessible railway and the current barriers that prevent it.
Rail standards - improvement is not an option – full compliance is mandatory
In terms of safe physical access there are several components necessary to provide for the many people who have restricted mobility (PRM), including people who use wheelchairs, parents and children, with or without buggies or prams and older people. Full accessibility also requires provision for poor or no sight and similarly for hearing.
The rail industry in Britain has libraries of standards which potentially add significantly to the cost of a new rail project or the provision of a new station. The more difficult area is that station upgrades require full adherence with the result that promoters of such schemes are reluctant to take them on. In this respect the rules work against the community who might benefit from them. A further structural issue is that stations, although owned by Network Rail, are generally on short leases to the train operating company with no long-term incentive to invest. The government jealously retain control of these costly upgrades through the ‘Access for All Scheme’ whereby promoters bid against each other for funds against criteria of footfall and geographic spread so that all investment is not focused solely on the south east and major cities. It could be argued that clusters of accessible stations is more relevant to people's needs is more appropriate than providing a few across a larger area.
Unachievable 2020 deadline
Trains are subject to the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR) and all trains must comply by the 1st January 2020. This means that about a third of the current train fleet must be adapted or thrown away in four years’ time. The losers here are social or rural services but even in the London area, for example, most of the suburban fleet used by South Eastern and much of that used by Southern must comply. This is a phoney war of nerves and in true EU style there will be derogations as we approach the deadline because it is not possible to build, test and commission a huge number of number of vehicles across Europe in such a short time. However, having costly accessible trains is not particularly optimum unless people can get onto them hence the importance of a more pragmatic solution for train access.
The ideal is a perfectly-level transfer between train and platform with no gap at all. Even this is pointless if there is no level access to the station or to the platform at the other side on a two-track railway. The US has more aggressive but more pragmatic regulations under the ‘Americans with Disabilities’ legislation and most non-metro railways have low platforms. The solution there is a very a short raised platform but as the difference in height is very large a small lift is required as a ramp would be too steep and dangerous. There are variations on this including portable devices and different door heights in carriages with lifts inside used on many long distance services.
The most prevalent solution where low-height platforms exist, including in much of Europe, is the low-floor train. The vehicles are more expensive but this approach is becoming the norm.
Britain has high-floor platforms of varying height so this solution is difficult here. The height difference is less but the gap also has to be tackled as well. The standard requirement for new construction is a maximum of 75mm which means that curved platforms cannot comply. The work around for this is train-to-platform bridges which require staff to use them and advance reservation so that a passenger has a chance of being able to alight at the destination.
Innovation has not been a feature of all this and the structure and rules do not encourage it, particularly on account of those setting the rules having no financial accountability. There are two exceptions, the Irish Footbridge, a cheap integrated lift/footbridge using the lift tower as the bridge tower and the Harrington hump.
The Harrington hump (i.e. a low gradient hump to provide level access (where the gap is not too wide) was initially a specific solution for Harrington on the Cumbrian Coastal Railway between Workington and Whitehaven. The village is on the seafront below large cliffs, as is the railway but the road is behind requiring a steep climb causing a serious severance problem for local people. A pragmatic approach gave access to the railway in that location and despite all the Health and Safety concerns proved both popular and safe. There have been other applications but you may well question why more general application has not been adopted. It was never seen as a high-volume application.
Transport for London is a far more politically accountable organisation than the rail industry and the pressure to make the London Underground (LU) accessible was intense resulting in a projected unaffordable programme of upgrades. LU tried Harrington Humps on one of the busiest railways in the world, the Victoria line, now on other routes too, given that platform-to-street access was being tackled but largely pointless without train-to-platform access. Ramps on a service with 32 trains per hour are not a good idea!
So, provided such a requirement were built into franchise specifications (not Network Rail), Harrington humps could see a much more general application on the national network. There are supervision issues particularly with Driver Only Operation (DOO) trains – where there is only the driver present - but the main inhibitor is the gap.
More innovative solutions are appearing to the gap issue (the gap issue has got worse as rail vehicles have got longer and doors spaced along the vehicle rather than the ends). There has to be a gap and a tolerance is needed for variations due to varying weight within the vehicle. Increasingly this is being addressed by the use of sacrificial strips to reduce the gap. The latest development on this is inflatable or movable gap fillers which work when the train is stopped.
Most of the reasons cited here are to do with the structure and incentivisation of the rail industry together with counter-productive 'all or nothing' rules, which tend to result in a bias toward nothing.
Most access improvement schemes evolve from local pressure, they do not seem to happen naturally except where a major rebuild in in prospect. Even with Crossrail, Europe's largest rail project, the original intension was access at the new stations but not on the extremities (i.e. the national network sections), rendering the project useless for a large section of potential users. The pressure was political and significant, in this case from the now-defunct Greater London Authority, with the solution emerging out of all sorts of mixing and matching of funding streams, station by station. The result was, however, success. The benefits are of course, faster, safer boarding for many people resulting in a higher capacity, more resilient railway, an increasingly important issue right across the rail network.
A series of photos by Jerry Alderson showing the rail accessibility in Britain and other European countries
The Belgian Coast Tram has an equivalent of the Harrington-Hump at its low-level platform at the De Haan aan Zee stop, which is used at the centre part of the tram.
Like all modern trams those on the Nottingham system have a wheelchair area (with pull-down seats) and plenty of priority seats near to the doors
These modern trains in Vienna have seating at two levels. The low-level area near to the doors is at platform height and is designed for wheelchairs (with pull-down seats). Older trains dating from the 1980s require a step up and are not compliant
In Britain there is rarely redundancy to cope with failures or maintenance. Anyone unable to use the stairs has a long walk to the other end of Peterborough station in order to use the ramps to the other platforms
In Vienna the U-Bahn is built to cater for capacity and resilience with exits at both ends of stations (with lifts and escalators) and often pairs of lifts are installed, which can also reduce waiting times
Many Brussels Metro stations are completely unstaffed despite the entire system having barriers for revenue protection. Special sliding barriers with double-doors are provided for wheelchair users and their carer (or for a parent with a child in a pram)
The retractable low-level step on this Railjet train helps when carrying luggage but is no use for wheelchair users. It’s a dreadful omission given that Railjet offer a fantastic on-board experience way beyond anything currently operating in Britain.
New curved platforms are rarely allowed because of the inevitable gap (as train carriages are not curved) but on historical stations such as Hietzing, which was part of the 19th century Vienna Stadtbahn and converted into the U4 U-Bahn line in 1981, the risk to passengers can be avoided with ‘gap fillers’ that open and close with the doors. Not all trains have this feature yet.
At the large Vienna Meidling station there are more than a dozen ticket machines (inevitable given the lack of a smartcard system). One of this bank of four machines is much lower to be usable by wheelchair users. Whether it makes sense to put litter bin right next to it, making manoeuvrability less easy, is another matter.
At the minor Penzing station on the west of Vienna a ground-level narrow platform (number 2) is being abolished so that all passenger trains will stop at four accessible platforms, which are being renumbered from 1,3,4 and 5 to 1,2,3 and 4 – something that is apparently extremely difficult (and therefore expensive) to do in Britain. The modernisation is also introducing lifts on the island platform.
Accessibility isn't just about wheelchairs. People with limited or non-existent vision need help too. At Vienna Hauptbahnhof tactile strips on all corridors guide the way to platforms, lifts, exits and information screens (which also have tactile buttons).