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04/06/2018

Anger as wheelchair users left unable to ride trains on major route

Wheelchair users will not be allowed to travel on a third of trains on a major route in northern England this summer following the temporary reintroduction of 45-year-old carriages.

The main rail workers’ union accused TransPennine Express (TPE) of flouting disability discrimination legislation and in effect operating a heritage railway by bringing back into service Mark 3 trains that were built in the 1970s for British Rail.

Documents leaked to the Disability News Service show that wheelchairs will not be able to travel on 12 of the 34 hourly services to and from Liverpool and Scarborough via Manchester Victoria, Huddersfield, Leeds and York.

The documents say there will be “no space on the train for wheelchairs” and that “the trains will run without wheelchair or cycle provision”.

If a wheelchair user wants to board a service that is using the Mark 3 coaches, they will be told to catch the next available accessible train instead. If two consecutive trains are inaccessible, TPE will pay for a taxi to their destination.

A leading disability rights campaign group said it hoped a wheelchair user would take TPE to court. The rail company admitted to Disability News Service that the arrangement was “not ideal”.

It said it had to reintroduce the carriages because using the Mark 3 coaches was part of its franchise agreement with the Department for Transport (DfT) and Rail North, which represents transport authorities across northern England.

A TPE spokeswoman said it was “part of our franchise agreement to introduce these extra coaches into operation to provide additional capacity on the network ahead of the introduction of new trains”.

By 2020 Mark 3s will be banned because their slam-doors, small toilets, low-back seats and grab rails all fail to meet the specifications of disability access regulations.

Mick Cash, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), said: “British private train companies are ripping up disability discrimination legislation as they go along.” He accused TPE of “turning the clock back on progress that has been made”.

Philip Connolly, the policy director of Disability Rights UK, said: “It’s an unacceptably shoddy offer. Disabled people should have the same access to transport as anyone else. You expect things to get better, not worse. We would hope that a disabled person would take TPE to court and challenge this move, however temporary it may be. Temporary measures should still meet the needs of disabled people.”

Wheelchair users are already very poorly served by trains in northern England and unable to easily board any of the dozens of the Pacer trains in operation across the region. Pacers, which are were converted from bus chassis, are due to be replaced with 98 new trains at the end of the year.

An RMT spokesman said: “These train companies are effectively operating a heritage railway, using old rolling stock that went out of fashion when Slade were in the charts.”

The news came as rail users across northern England braced themselves for yet more train misery as Northern Rail, TPE’s rival operator, decided to cancel 165 daily services until the end of July from Monday. For the next two weeks there will be no trains on the Lakes line to and from Preston, Lancaster and Oxenholme. A replacement bus service will be in operation.

There are further cancellations to and from Blackpool, Blackburn, Southport and other northern towns. A two-month closure of Liverpool Lime Street will compound the disruption.

Northern Rail said the interim timetable would enable it to start to stabilise service levels over the next few weeks and begin to reduce the number of last-minute cancellations.

James Taylor, the head of policy and campaigns at the disability charity Scope, said: “This is extremely disappointing. Public transport is vital for disabled people to get to work, see family and engage in their local community.

“Disabled people already face too many unnecessary barriers to travel and shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens. Life costs more if you are disabled, and the prospect of being forced to use taxis is totally unfair and unnecessary.”