These past few weeks have brought bits of exciting news for accessible transport in the UK! The most impactful of these is the earth-shattering launch of the new Stadler Rail trains. Although limited to rural Norfolk for the time being, these will become an invaluable standard for future rail accessibility. Moving back to London, the Crossrail project keeps moving along, with gradual but significant progress along both the new and existing stations. On the Overground, new electric trains (with no level boarding) have completely taken over the Gospel Oak to Barking Line, and they are soon to take over the remainder of the Overground’s oldest rolling stock. As far as new step-free station openings, there has not been much progress. However, judging the advanced stage of some schemes, I would expect several openings by autumn.
Level Boarding Stadler Trains
The time has finally come for level boarding on the open National Rail network! Stadler Rail is a Swiss train manufacturer that makes high-quality level boarding trains all across Europe, from small trams to sleek high speed trains. Starting last week, we saw the very first of the Stadler class 755 trains enter passenger service on the Norwich-Great Yarmouth and Norwich-Lowestoft rural lines. With this simple change in rolling stock, all of a sudden, a dozen stations now have level boarding, thanks to the train’s low floor. Here is a video of the platform-train interface at quiet Reedham station.
In addition to the level boarding, these trains have spacious wheelchair bays, accessible toilets, and even buttons to alert the train staff. I have not yet had a chance to try them out (a trip to Great Yarmouth is a bit too far right now), but as the Stadlers are introduced to more and more routes (Liverpool Street to Norwich and Stansted), I will be there to promote and highlight the momentous occasion of a level boarding London terminal.
The introduction of these trains should be a watershed moment where the rail industry and the government can take a stand and demand a level boarding train standard. As users, we should continue pressing the importance of level boarding and holding those in charge to account. While the Stadlers are currently the newest trains in the country, we shouldn’t forget that every other train being introduced before and after it will NOT be level boarding.
Indeed, just two weeks ago East Midland Trains announced that its Intercity fleet would be replaced by non-level boarding Hitachi trains by 2022. These are the same trains now used by GWR and LNER, which feature comfortable wheelchair spaces and accessible toilets, but a prominent step up from the platform and a complicated ramp system. The fact that train bosses are still pursuing this solution as satisfactory is deeply disappointing.
Crossrail has received almost universal negative press since the announcement of its 2+ year delay and its ever-growing cost. However, the project continues to progress and Crossrail has been releasing a steady stream of videos and pictures showing the progress at the 10 new stations (Farringdon shown below).
These stations vary greatly in terms of completion, and you can definitely see that the project is badly delayed at some points. However, I think it is great that these videos are being made, as it shows that they want the public to be engaged with the project.
Looking at the existing station in the above-ground portions of the future Elizabeth Line service, there is also tangible progress with the step-free works. Here is the current state at Taplow, located between Slough and Maidenhead.
Although there won’t be level boarding at this station, just like the majority of the line, this station work will still have a major impact on the lives of disabled passengers. After all, there are currently no step-free stations between Paddington and Slough, despite there being 9 stations. Within a year, every single one will boast of step-free access to all platforms.
On the Overground, the new (non-level boarding) Aventras are now running on the Gospel Oak to Barking Line (GOBLIN). Although the diesel trains they replaced were not so old themselves, these new trains are twice as long and will lead to a substantial increase in capacity. The next stop for these trains are the Overground lines from Euston and Liverpool Street. There, they will be replacing much older trains and will hopefully have a positive affect on capacity and accessibility.
In yet another sign that the current rail franchising system is in its dying days, the bidding process for a new Southeastern franchise has been cancelled. While this is problematic in that the Southeastern network is in dire need of stable investment, it will likely strengthen the case for TfL to take over the suburban services out to Dartford and Sevenoaks. Although there are countless of arguments of why TfL should or should not expand at its services (including its finances), a key one in my opinion is TfL’s full-time staffing of its stations. Like I’ve said countless times, you can have all the lifts you want in a station, but if there’s no staff to get you on of off the train when you need it, that station is not accessible (assuming there is no level boarding).
New Step-Free Access Soon
Finally, we should be nearing the arrival of a mini step-free access explosion. With so many above-ground Crossrail-related works nearing completion, it should not be long before we see the fruits of all this labour. In total there are 14 of these stations. Additionally, we should be seeing Tottenham Hale, West Hampstead (Overground), White Hart Lane and Mill Hill East become accessible within the coming week/months.
Speaking of West Hampstead, the new entrance has actually opened already. Annoyingly, as we have seen in many other recent stations, such as Tottenham Hale and Gidea Park, all the new infrastructure has opened EXCEPT for the lifts. With the appalling record of recent lifts, maybe it is best for them to do more testing. However, it is embarrassing that wheelchair users are forced to wait months when other passengers are already taking advantage of the improved stations.
Nevertheless, the overall trend is moving towards a much more accessible railway. We have much to look forward to, but even more to continue fighting for a truly inclusive and accessible railway network!