Wealden Railway Stations: Disability Access

– in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 7th July 2021.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden 7:12 pm, 7th July 2021

The whole country and this House seem to be distracted, Mr Speaker, but I hope you agree with me that there is nothing more important than this debate on the matter of disability access at Crowborough, Eridge, Uckfield, Frant and Wadhurst train stations in my constituency of Wealden. Train travel is a vital form of transport for Wealden residents, and securing improvements to rail services and the stations in Wealden remains one of my priorities.

Having served as a Transport Minister, I was once responsible for delivering the groundbreaking accessibility strategy called the inclusive transport strategy to ensure that public transport was more inclusive and better accessible for those with disabilities. It was actually the world’s first strategy to align itself with the United Nations accessibility goals, and it paved the way for equal access for disabled people on all transport networks. It promotes provisions such as step-free access, changing facilities at motorway service stations and the enhanced passenger assistance service.

While building this strategy, I worked with many disability groups, service providers and bodies that take care of the infrastructure to address the barriers on transport networks for those with visible and invisible disabilities. As I was then, so I am today grateful for their help in preparing this speech. I am grateful in particular to Leonard Cheshire and its paper entitled “Get on Board 2020: Making the economic case for ‘levelling up’ inclusive transport”. I hope the Minister can reference it in this remarks. I am also grateful, of course, to Transport for All and particularly Mr Alan Benson.

Today, however, I want to focus on the rail network and stations in my constituency of Wealden. Some 41% of rail stations in Britain are not step-free, and in the south-east this rises to 52%—and of course Wealden is nestled in East Sussex—but we have had some success, especially at Eridge and Crowborough stations, thanks to our Conservative Government. I am grateful for the funds that I have already secured for fantastic accessibility upgrades to our local stations. As a part of the Access for All fund, both Eridge and Crowborough stations are currently undergoing multi-million-pound refurbishments to ensure step-free access. The staircase and bridge at Eridge station were removed last year and are being replaced a new, modern footbridge. A new lift shaft is being constructed and automatic doors will also be installed. Similar construction is under way at Crowborough station.

I am proud to have been part of the upgrades for both Eridge and Crowborough. But there is a tiny issue with Eridge, which was brought to my attention by Tim Barkley, the chair of the Southeast Communities Rail Partnership community interest group. Apparently, GTR is making volunteers park at a distance from Eridge station because blue badge parking is not being issued there. That is an issue: we need to make sure that blue badge parking at the station is close to the lift and that volunteers can access the station as the refurb carries on.

I now want to touch on improvements at Wadhurst and Frant stations. I am pleased that, working with Guide Dogs UK, we have been able to secure safety improvements at Wadhurst and Frant station platforms for visually impaired commuters. The warning tactile and painted contrasting lines on station platforms will help orientation and safety. It is incredibly important that we focus on both visible and invisible disabilities when it comes to making stations accessible.

I am incredibly pleased with the Guide Dogs UK campaign, which has also focused on what Network Rail can do to support people with visual impairment. Mr Alan Benson from Transport for All has raised an issue with me. Apparently, tactile paving is missing or incomplete across most of the network; that was raised particularly following the unfortunate death at Eden Park station. I hope that the Minister can confirm that Network Rail will be encouraged to prioritise the installation of tactile pavements, so that those with visual impairments can feel safe too.

I would, of course, also like to see step-free access at Wadhurst and Frant; I am hoping that the Minister can make a nod in a positive direction so that when we put in an application for funding, we will also be successful there.

I now draw the Minister’s attention to the Uckfield line, which causes the most amount of tension for my constituents. It used to be called “the misery line” and for quite some time we have been trying to get it electrified and get a depot at Crowborough; at the moment the line is a real dinosaur. It would be fantastic if we could have an upgrade. As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Southern Rail, I have raised this matter repeatedly with the Department, the Minister and his predecessors. It would be fantastic if the Minister could make reference to that at the Dispatch Box or write to me to say if the campaign for an upgrade to the Uckfield line will be fruitful.

I turn quickly to the Passenger Assistance app, one of the most important parts of the inclusive transport strategy; we were very excited at its launch a few months ago. It is incredibly important for people setting off on their journeys to have an integrated service on their phones to make sure that any breakdown can be communicated effectively.

Any new app is going to have a few problems, but some particular ones were brought to my attention by Mr Alan Benson. Even though the app can offer some real potential, there is no way to process or co-ordinate buying a ticket, booking a wheelchair space and getting assistance in one place. It can take over an hour to get the app to function. Could that be resolved? The biggest issue is that operators need to adopt the app so that we can ensure that all journeys are integrated and all information is in one place. The lack of accurate information is always going to be a problem when people with disabilities try to use an app to get across the country using multiple forms of transport. It would be fantastic if the Minister explained whether there is a way to resolve the app so that it can become even more useful than it is at the moment.

Finally, three years on from the publication of the inclusive transport strategy, will the Minister confirm that it is meeting all the targets to ensure that the rail network in particular can be accessible for all? There are some concerns that the Access for All funding may fall short due to budget cuts or because of covid pressure. We would not want to see that at all. I also invite the Minister to visit my constituency of Wealden; he may want to go to Frant or Wadhurst stations, with their tactile paving, or to Eridge and Crowborough stations, with their step free access. Of course, I would love it if the Minister could write to me about the electrification of the Uckfield line.

Finally, I want to leave the Minister with one thought from Leonard Cheshire’s recent report. It is asking for the inclusive transport strategy to be legislated for, so that it becomes law and we do not lose track of the time- table we are setting ourselves. It is fantastic to know from its report, “Get On Board 2020”, that investing between 1% and 3% of the total transport capital between now and 2030 in a fully step-free rail network would potentially enable 51,000 disabled people into work, and could boost our economic output by £1.3 billion. Making our railway stations accessible not only helps disabled passengers and customers, but whole communities. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Department for Transport) 7:20 pm, 7th July 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Mr Speaker. Alas, my England top that we were debating on Twitter remains safely in my office for at least the next eight minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Ghani on having secured this debate on the important subject of accessibility to the rail network—possibly the second most important televisual event happening this evening.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend was, of course, responsible for accessibility in her time as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, and I thank her for her contributions and successes over that period. It is a subject that I take incredibly seriously; however, she will also be aware that I am a qualified and active football referee, just about to enter my 40th season in the middle, and an interesting and important game of association football commences shortly. I might just stick in the odd pun, because I am keen to kick off this debate, but I assure her that delivering a slightly light-hearted speech on this matter does not mean that I do not take it extremely seriously.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I was hoping that Jim Shannon would be here, so that he could Winks at me and then I could happily let him Calvert-Lewin.

I recognise how important it is for my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden’s constituents to have access to the railway. It is an important part of all of our lives, whether it is used to see family and friends, to go about our daily lives, or perhaps to head to Wembley to watch Sancho, Foden and Pickford. Heading out to work is an important journey, as indeed is coming home: “It’s coming home” is one of the most important journeys there is. Delivering a transport system that is accessible to all is a must, not just a Rice-to-have, and it is of great importance to me and my hon. Friend. I know that she is aware of, and fully committed to, the Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy, published in 2018, and that she recognises it as evidence of the Government’s commitment to taking action to safeguard and promote the rights of all disabled passengers.

By 2030, we want disabled people to have the same access to transport as anyone else, and if physical infrastructure remains a barrier—or a wall—then assistance must play a role in guarantee-Ings those rights. An accessible transport network is central to the Government’s wider ambition of building a society that works for all. Regardless of the nature of a person’s disability, they should have the same access to transport and the same opportunity to travel as everyone else. No one should have to sacrifice—or Saka-rifice—their ability to use our public transport system.

Unfortunately, though, many of our stations date from the Victorian era, and their infrastructure is not fit for purpose for too many people. Some stations have very little space for us to carry out improvements: one could say that the Victorians, in some ways, Henderson. Those 19th-century stations were not built with the needs of 21st-century passengers in mind, which has left us with the huge task of opening up a rail network to disabled passengers that is not fit for it. Although 75% of all journeys are through step-free stations, only about a fifth of the stations have proper step-free access, as my hon. Friend detailed in her speech, into the station and between each platform. So we are not in a Dier place but we must aim higher—much, much Maguire indeed.

Clearly, accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience, not only to people with reduced mobility but to those carrying heavy luggage or those with pushchairs, which is why we have continued the Access for All programme, and the inclusive transport strategy included a commitment to extend our Access for All programme across control period 6 between 2019 and 2024, with an additional £350 million Sterling of funding from the public purse. This new funding builds on the previous success of the programme, which was launched as a 10-year programme in 2006, and has so far included step-free routes at over 200 stations, and 1,500 stations have benefited from smaller-scale access improvements.

I am committed to ensuring that Network Rail speeds up the planning and delivery of tactile paving across the network. Tactile paving means that people with buggies and people with sight issues can feel by foot or by Kane when they are approaching the platform edge. The bumps underfoot almost feel like Stones and people can move around the platforms more confidently in a Shaw-footed fashion. We want to be in a place where every passenger can feel like a confident Walker at a station with there being no Trippier hazards. It is right that I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the role she played. What she did was a great Phillips for the accessibility cause and we are now reaping the benefits of her work.

I turn to the stations in Wealden. As my hon. Friend will know, Crowborough is more famous currently for being chanted by England fans in the song, “Sweet Crowborough Line”, but Crowborough and Eridge stations were both nominated for Access for All funding and will receive funding to create accessible step-free routes via the Southgate, with works due to be completed by 2024 at the latest.

We are also pressing the industry to comply with its various legal requirements, and the Office of Road and Rail recently consulted on accessible travel policy guidance. The revised guidance will include proposals that will strengthen provisions put in place that ensure that disabled people can use our rail network, and I have encouraged the ORR to take enforcement action against train and station operators who are found not to be meeting their accessibility options. Let us hope there is no need for penalties.

In May, we published our White Paper—the Williams-Shapps plan for rail—the biggest shake-up of the network seen in three decades. We will be bringing the railway together under a single national leadership of a new public body, Great British Railways, with one overwhelming aim to deliver for passengers. This reinforces the Government’s commitment on accessibility, too. Indeed, accessibility is threaded through the White Paper, like a pass from Jack Grealish weaving through the Danish defence to Marcus Rashford. Great British Railways will also own and be responsible for the entire passenger offer and will put accessibility at the core of its decision making. Our vision is that accessibility will become an integral part of the passenger offer for all.

I hope that I have, in the short time I have had available, demonstrated that this Government are committed to improving access at stations for disabled passengers, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Like her, we think that these problems have been allowed to Mount up for too long. Through specific projects such as Access for All and improvements delivered as part of our wider commitment to improving the rail network, we are doing our bit gradually, and I would like to speed up. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that, in the spending review, I will be putting in a healthy bid for the continuation of the Access for All programme.

I guess that I shall finish because I do not want to test the patience of the House staff, whom I thank for being here tonight. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and I wish good luck to England. I thank my hon. Friend for the contribution that she has made and I very much do look forward to visiting her constituency.