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Over the past seven days, striking railway workers have plunged much of Britain’s rail network into chaos causing misery for passengers in a dispute over pay and guarantees around future redundancies.
Following walkouts undertaken by members of the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) on June 21 and 23, which paralyzed much of the country’s rail infrastructure, yesterday saw the third day of strikes in a week — with more expected to arrive over the course of the summer.
The recent spate of railway strikes has been described as the largest of its kind in three decades.
One of the arguments against staff cutbacks routinely trotted out by the likes of General Secretary of the RMT Mick Lynch is that any move towards driver-only trains with no guard on board will have a deleterious impact on disabled passengers as there will be nobody available to provide assistance.
While there is undoubtedly a degree of validity to this, the argument remains problematic and not as clear-cut as it should be, particularly for those with lived experience of being a rail passenger with a disability in modern-day Britain.
The complexity lies in the fact that passengers with disabilities already fail to enjoy an equitable, accessible and stress-free experience on Britain’s railway system.
This is backed by research.
Disability charity Leonard Cheshire’s report published two years ago entitled “Get On Board 2020: making up the economic case for levelling up inclusive transport” painted a stark picture of the dwindling faith Britons with disabilities have in their ability to use the railway safely and efficiently.
Pre-Covid research carried out by pan-disability charity Scope in 2019 also found that 80% of disabled survey respondents reported anxiety when using public transport, with a disappointingly high 56% stating that they felt “scared” to travel.
The recent spate of industrial action has sparked a number of accounts from commentators with disabilities relating to their experiences on the rail network.
These have included Chris Nicholson, a former rugby player and social media influencer talking about having to drag himself up a flight of stairs due to a broken lift at Milton Keynes railway station whilst a member of the public carried his wheelchair after platform staff refused to help him on the grounds of health and safety.
James Moore, a columnist for The Independent and himself a wheelchair user relayed the story of a visually impaired friend who had to remove a glass eye because railway staff didn’t believe he was entitled to a Disabled Person’s Railcard.
In the same article, Moore wrote, “Every day disabled travelers venture out on public transport is a strike day. Every day involves navigating an obstacle course. Every day we run the risk of getting upended.”
It’s important to differentiate between instances where the blame for these poor experiences can be attributed to the actions of railway staff and situations where they cannot.
For example, it is clearly not the fault of unionized railway staff that 41% of Britain’s railway stations lack step-free access.
This is, instead, down to chronic underinvestment in infrastructure by the U.K. Government and Network Rail.
However, it is impossible to hide from the fact that railway and assistance staff on the ground can and should be held to account for routinely failing to demonstrate a basic level of common sense and attentiveness when dealing with passengers with disabilities.
Take the classic example of wheelchair users being left behind — stranded on platforms or who have missed their stop on the train because assistance staff have failed to turn up with a ramp despite the passenger pre-booking assistance 24 hours in advance.
Such accounts are repeated time and time again by passengers with disabilities and are also included within the reports listed above.
At many of Britain’s smaller stations, this type of assistance is usually provided by the guard on board the train who is tasked with approaching the passenger and providing a ramp for boarding and alighting.
Consider the steps required for this process to go wrong.
At each station, the guard surveys the platform to check whether it is safe for the doors to close and the train to move off. If it is safe and clear, the guard indicates this with a blow of their whistle.
If there is a wheelchair user on the platform or an individual with reduced mobility, perhaps someone using a walking frame, train guards will almost always have spotted them as a scan of the platform is part of the safety protocol and such individuals certainly stand out.
Mystifyingly, the guard appears to have made a conscious choice not to approach the disabled passenger and ask them if they require boarding assistance.
Even more astonishing are stories of wheelchair users being left on trains and missing their stop.
In these instances, the guard knows that the wheelchair user is on the train because they have seen them getting on. They may have been the person providing ramp assistance at the start of the journey and have presumably asked them what their destination stop is.
To then, not return to the carriage at the destination stop to check whether the passenger has been able to successfully alight, is frankly lazy at best and broadly negligent.
It would, of course, be unfair to tar all railway assistance staff with the same brush and some, undoubtedly, perform sterling work in tough conditions.
Yet, to deny that there is a widespread problem on Britain’s railways with servicing disabled passengers, or to make out that such issues are purely systematic is simply unrealistic and myopic.
Lost in the noise
Unfortunately, public transit is a perfect sphere for, whether one calls it oversight or ableism, to thrive. Environments are crowded, everyone is in a rush and things are happening at breakneck speed.
The last thing disabled passengers want to be seen as is the person holding everything up by making a big song and dance about their requirements. Regardless, in many instances, they are powerless to do so even if they wanted to.
RMT chief Mick Lynch said back in May, “The public does not want a de-humanised, AI-controlled, dystopian network, that severely disadvantages disabled people, the elderly and women travelling alone at night.”
He might be right about that.
However, if, with some organizational restructuring, AI combined with technology and infrastructure updates could help bring about greater accountability and empower new ways of independent travel that are less reliant on chance and subjective human error – then there might be more disabled passengers on board with such plans than Mr. Lynch might imagine.